Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Horror Remakes and a Tale of Two Fogs

I just sat down and re-watched the 2005 remake of John Carpenter's 1980 classic The Fog. I had seen it when it was new, which I guess makes sense, since I was in my mid-twenties back in 2005 and pretty much the entire cast was also of a similar age at the time. You could even argue that the movie was tailor made for me: it stars Tom Welling, whom I really enjoyed on Smallville, Maggie Grace, who I watched on Lost, and Selma Blair, who was--and still is--reason enough to watch any movie. So by starring actors I was interested in and who were also close to my own age, The Fog felt current. And yet that movie failed to make much of an impression on me in 2005, so much so that my memory of it since then has been that's it's okay, but really just "meh."

But in the years since I saw the remake, I did see (and subsequently fell in love with) John Carpenter's original. Furthermore, John Carpenter has gone from a director whose films I knew and thought I appreciated to a filmmaker that I now consider to be a modern master. Yes, his filmography has missteps, I know. Still, you add up his hits and you'll see that his track record speaks for itself. Anyway, this isn't about John Carpenter, this is about the remake of The Fog and the undying trend by Hollywood of remaking movies, almost always badly.

 I consider Carpenter's original The Fog to be one of his three best movies...or at least in my top three favorites. As it stands right now as I write this, 1978's Halloween sits at the top of the list as the movie that birthed the slasher genre that I love so much (it's my favorite sub-genre of horror). Behind that I would probably put The Fog and then 1982's The Thing. See, I think The Thing is a much better, scarier horror movie than The Fog is, but The Fog has this seaside gothic thing going on that I could just watch forever. I could live in Antonio Bay (minus the vengeful spirits) and be perfectly happy until the end of my days. Sweet ocean breeze, beautiful scenery, and a killer indie radio station on the edge of town; what more could you want? I think The Fog has atmosphere and style to spare, and it's a tight little movie with almost nothing wasted (though the same could be said about many Carpenter movies). The story is populated by a bunch of adults who are all in various stages of going nowhere, living out their boring little existences in this sleepy little fishing village. Carpenter contributes a memorable musical score, as he does with some of his best films, and uses special effects sparingly so that we're never taken too far outside of reality and don't have to suspend our  disbelief too much. 
Rewatching the 2005 remake, I'm struck that the newer version does absolutely none of these things. There are pretty much no adults in sight. The oldest main character is Father Malone, played by Adrian Hough, an actor who may have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 when he made this movie, but is undeniably rugged and sexy. I guess this is the Scream effect: after the success of Scream in 1996, Hollywood spent at least a decade trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle of that movie by making and remaking a bunch of movies that featured young actors almost exclusively. I guess the reason behind this thinking is that young audiences (the ones buying most of the tickets) are going to be more inclined to go see something populated by people closer to their own age than a movie with a dumb old middle aged cast. Forget that Indiana Jones and all the individual Ghostbusters and most of the people running from dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are all grown ups and not hot college kids and that those movies made loads of cash. All the characters here are from Carpenter's original, and even have the same names and similar--if not outright identical--jobs. But they're all just much, much younger. And they wear less clothes.

Carpenter's The Fog is tight and gets things moving immediately with a killer campfire story. The remake gets things going with a song from Fall Out Boy. Any subtlety or faith in the audience from the original is replaced with the obvious, smothered in slow-motion visuals of people running around on fire. The director of the remake, Rupert Wainwright, was the guy behind Blank Check, Stigmata, and more than one video from M.C. Hammer, but he apparently killed his career with this movie, because he hasn't directed a feature film since. Maybe that's because everything he does here is...I guess the word I'm looking for would be gauche. This movie is completely hamfisted, overt, and riddled with cliches. We get a character with recurring nightmares of events that happened long before she was born. We get computers acting up and revealing secret messages before they go "bzzzzztttt!" and blow up. We even get multiple hands slapping windows and then slowly disappearing from view. They even steal the ending from The Shining, which is completely out of place here. This is a movie crafted together from the pieces of other, more successful movies.
It's all so unnecessary. It's not enough to have a group of evil spirits seeking revenge. We have to see every lame CGI trick in the book. In the original, a character is killed with a sword in one blow. In the remake, the same character is killed with hundreds of pieces of glass that circle around his body and impale him over and over again. It feels like someone is showing off their new CGI software. Dude, you're gettin' a DELL! This was all perfectly acceptable in 2005, but now it's just ostentatious and pointless. Also, to hammer my point home, the remake just doesn't actually make any sense. It takes the plot from the original, which works through its simplicity, and tries to outsmart it to tedious results. I'm not offended that a movie has been made that isn't original, because that happens all the time. I'm offended that this unoriginal, cliche-ridden thing is a remake of something that's really great and WAS original. WHY BOTHER? I can't even be mad at Rupert Wainwright, because he was most likely just doing what he had to do to get ahead in the system.

And that brings me to my real point here. Hollywood has been remaking movies for as long as they've existed, but I believe that we live in a day and age where remakes have become a problem. Did anybody out there go to see the new version of Flatliners? No, me neither. Don't even get me started on the not-a-sequel-not-a-remake version of Ghostbusters and how smug the direction and tone is. My point is that it's nothing new, but it rarely brings around the desired result. I get that we need remakes. There are many movies that could benefit from a bigger budget, a tighter creative direction, or just another attempt at getting it right. But how often does that actually work?

Horror seems to be the genre that most abuses remakes. I suspect that this is because horror is the least-respected of all of movies, and it probably also owes to the fact that horror movies are often low-budget affairs with no pretense of being art (though we all know that's not always true). The Nightmare on Elm Street series was super popular, so let's remake that, but let's make it EDGY. Fail. Everyone loves Jason Voorhees and Friday the 13th, so let's remake that, and throw in all the different Jasons while we're at it. We can do sack-head Jason, we can do hockey mask Jason, and it'll be great! Fail. Think of all the horror remakes that we've gotten over the last 15 years or so: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, When A Stranger Calls, Prom Night, Dawn of the Dead, House of Wax, Fright Night, Carrie, Poltergeist, My Bloody Valentine, The Wolfman,April Fool's Day, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, and The Hills Have Eyes. I'm not going to point out the ones that do and don't work for me, but you can look at that list and decide for yourself. Some of these remakes are alright. Some are even good. One or two of them actually manages to do some things that the original movie didn't quite succeed in accomplishing. But I think we'd all agree that most of them fail.
There used to be a joke in comics. No one is ever really dead except for Bucky, ,Uncle Ben, and Jason Todd. Bucky, from the pages of Captain America, paid the ultimate sacrifice and was far more important in death than he ever was in life. Similarly, the death of Uncle Ben from The Amazing Spider-Man (okay, Amazing Fantasy #15) was actually the impetus that created Peter Parker into something more, a constant reminder that "with great power comes great responsibility." Jason Todd was the second kid to pick up the mantle of Robin, Batman's crime-fighting sidekick. The troubled youth met his death at the hands of the Joker during the 1988s and was dead forever. Or so we thought, until he was brought back in 2005. Bucky's been back for about as long, and I'm expecting Uncle Ben to make his return any day now, fresh from the witness protection program.

The point of this is to say that there are actually no absolutes in our entertainment anymore, and what used to be dictated by good taste is no longer a given. I await news any day of a Jaws reboot or a remake of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly starring Dwayne Johnson, Jonah Hill, and Michael Pena. It will be a Happy Madison production. Disney has already decided to remake every classic cartoon that they ever had as a live-action movie, and I'm still not sure why. Because when kids reach the age of 12, they decide cartoons are stupid? I can think of no other reason they would do this other than that this movies make a ton of money. Because young people.

That's what it really comes down to, isn't it? They remake things hoping it will make lots and lots of money from the small audience that still buys movie tickets. Hollywood is nothing if not short-sighted. They remade A Nightmare on Elm Street because they thought that horror fans would come out to support it regardless of if it was any good or not. Same goes for the remake of Friday the 13th. Same goes for just about all of these. Hollywood is not rebooting and remaking movies because they see an opportunity to improve upon a story and craft something that will resonate with audiences now and forever. An exception to this might be 2017's It, made for very little money and with emphasis on character and creeps, though that movie isn't really a remake. Plus, I predict a backlash when the sequel replaces the kids with adults and audiences see how this story ends in 2019. As with most Stephen King, great setup, sour conclusion. My point is that Hollywood keeps remaking these things, apparently, only for a quick profit, not to create new art that's going to wow audiences for the next 30, 40, or 50 years.
That short-sightedness is a real problem. When John Carpenter made The Fog in 1980, I doubt he said to himself "this isn't going to be great, but it will make a quick buck or two." When Wes Craven thought up the idea of Freddy Krueger and the horrors that take place on Elm Street, I seriously don't think he was looking for an overnight success. He was trying to tap into the horrors of our subconscious, and that's timeless. Good movies are good movies FOREVER. The Fog from 1980 is just as powerful as it was when it came out because it's A STORY, not a series of pop culture references that are rooted in a particular time. Hollywood needs to stop worrying about what's popular right now and start making things that are really good.

I recently read a leaked memo that went out among Disney shareholders discussing the future of Star Wars as a license and intellectual property. The memo said that it was very important for there to be new Star Wars content on a regular basis to keep the brand awareness at an all time high. That meant shows on television and at least one theatrical movie every single year. It was important, the memo went on to say, that there be plenty of merchandise for people to buy and for Star Wars to be in the homes of consumers themselves so that people would continue to have a familiarity with Star Wars as a brand, thus building a sense of ownership and comfort with the entire franchise. Total Saturation was not only desired, but necessary. You know what this memo didn't mention a single time? That the content that was being created should be timeless and memorable. You don't make a billion dollars off of brand recognition. You make it off of great content that people want to watch over and over. Start with making the best movie that you can and sit back and watch how much people love it.

To bring this all full circle, all this is because I watched the 2005 remake of The Fog. It's not an awful movie. The problem is that it's uninspired, clearly made as pop entertainment without any soul or aspirations at being, you know...GOOD. Maybe that's okay for someone who spends 10,000 dollars to make an indie in his free time, but I'd argue that even that has more human fingerprints than this. No, this is made all the more offensive by the lack of fingerprints. To add insult to injury, the original movie on which this was based is exactly the opposite. John Carpenter's film is all about people and the consequences that come from the choices they've made. There is no CGI because CGI didn't exist. Even if it did, I suspect there would be next to none of it. The Fog remake is a reminder that Hollywood hasn't learned from their successes and failures, and that no genre has felt this lack of awareness more than horror. Because I LOVE horror, this really bums me out. I want to see things change.  If, by chance, you're reading this and you've never seen the original, 1980 version of The Fog by John Carpenter, please do yourself a favor and check it out. And then you can listen to me podcast about it with Patrick Bromley. 
There is good modern horror out there, but it almost never comes from the studio system. We used to get good stuff from the indies AND the studios (granted, with lots of bad stuff, too), but the studios stopped taking chances. When you stand to risk 100 million or more on every movie you make, OF COURSE you aren't going to take risks. This needs to change. The movie industry is standing at a crossroads. 2016 was one of the worst financial years for movies in a century, and the summer of 2017 saw the lowest ticket sales in 25 years. We can't lay this all at the feet of piracy and the rise of streaming. No, I think Hollywood has to own up to their lack of creativity, lack of originality, and their soulless chasing of dollar bills with minimal effort at creating something lasting.

I suspect I'm preaching to the choir about this. After all, if you're coming to this site, you're probably just as much of a pop culture fan as I am, and you've seen the same things yourself. Maybe if we shout loud enough, and if the ticket sales get lean enough, the sleeping giant that is Hollywood will soon wake up and start greenlighting small-budget and mid-budget stories from young, hungry directors eager to make their voices heard. Take chances. Instead of 8-12 huge movies a year, how about 15 small movies, 10 medium movies, and 5 really massive summer blockbusters? Once upon a time, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, Paul Thomas Anderson, and even Edgar Wright were young aspiring filmmakers trying to catch a big break, and they were cutting their teeth on small, cheap movies that weren't as much of a risk as a studio tentpole film. Where will the next generation of great filmmakers come from when all we have is tentpole films?  The indies are a great proving ground for new talent, but those young directors rarely get called up, and the ones that do aren't able to continue making the kinds of movies that play to their strengths, and almost immediately lose their originality. Even John Carpenter himself recently said publicly that he would have been rejected if he were just getting started today.

The movie industry has a big problem, and something's gotta give. For several generations of movie fans and the new, young fans that are being created with shows like Stranger Things, let's all hope that Hollywood figures it out sooner, rather than later.

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