We have movies based on novels, on plays, on musicals, on musicals based on movies (Hairspray), on comic books, on video games, on glorified self-help books (He’s Just Not That Into You), and yet somehow we reserve special suspicion for movies based on other movies. Maybe that’s because even the most craven exploitation filmmaker will balk at certain material. Remake The Godfather? Nothing doing. Remake the just as irreducibly classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? When do we start filming? Not to mention, did you see the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
Indeed, genre films are popular remake pickings. Perhaps their thematic underpinnings warrant updating and reintroducing every now and then. Perhaps filmmakers see a chance to do justice to the original vision with better technology. Perhaps it’s simply been proven time and again that genre fans will go see anything, even potentially awful remakes of fondly remembered films, even—and maybe especially—if the originals are kind of awful themselves. And as unlooked for remakes of cult faves The Crazies and Clash of the Titans roll out in theaters this spring, so new editions of the originals roll out to the home-video market to capitalize on the hoopla.
Five years after unveiling the out-of-nowhere instant horror classic The Night of the Living Dead, director George A. Romero finally followed it up with something worth mentioning in the same breath, albeit barely. His 1973 The Crazies (Blue Underground DVD and Blu-ray) sticks with what would become familiar Romero chapter-and-verse: a small Pennsylvania town beset by a mysterious and deadly attack from within, an isolated group on the run, copious gore, the real enemy not necessarily what it seems, authority run amok, etc. In this case, a mysterious virus makes the locals violently insane and a cadre of army troops surrounds the sleepy burg in an attempt to contain its spread as a roomful of government higher-ups contemplates cauterizing the outbreak by bombing Western Pennsylvania back to the stone age.
Romero gets in some good coarse shocks here, most especially a granny getting crazy with her knitting needles and a priest who sets himself ablaze. (There’s also some virus-inspired incest, though the less said about that the better.) But the title psychotics get surprisingly little screen time here next to Romero’s real villains: the swarming hazmat-suited, gas-masked Army troops, as inhuman as any zombies, and their remote handlers, who coolly debate the fate of the hapless civilians on the ground. It’s not hard to spot Romero’s attempted end-of-the-’60s resonances, just as it’s not hard to see why the premise might make sense updated for an era of random mass shootings and widespread terror attacks. But this is far from Romero’s best work, even by grimy grindhouse standards, in part due to the inert plotting and in part due to the generally awful pro-am cast. The Cro-Magnon-esque Will McMillan does okay as the reluctant protagonist, but special anti-kudos go to the Neanderthalish Harold Wayne Jones as the aptly named sidekick Clank and to Richard France as a scientist looking for a cure and leaving no scenery ungnawed.
The 1981 film Clash of the Titans (Warner Home Video DVD and Blu-ray) is an altogether classier affair. Laurence Olivier plays Zeus, after all, and Maggie Smith plays the goddess Thetis. But this is no sober take on the classics, or even an I, Claudius-style serious dramatization. The film was designed, essentially, as a showcase for the then-state-of-the-art stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen, who had created the jerky unearthly creatures for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and other drive-in classics. And when your hero is the vacant pretty boy Harry Hamlin, you’d better have some killer effects.
The story follows the outline, if not the letter, of the Greek myths, with demigod Perseus (Hamlin) braving various toils and battling various mythological beasties in pursuit of the hand of the princess Andromeda (the vapid Judi Bowker). As the Olympian gods (an actorly deck further stacked with the likes of Claire Bloom and Ursula Andress) feud among themselves and literally manipulate mortals like pawns (as represented by clay figures—a nice touch), Perseus captures the winged steed Pegasus, earns the enmity of the monstrous Calibos, and then sets out on a quest to save his bride-to-be and her city from the wrath of Thetis as administered by a sea monster called the Kraken.
Smith radiates authority as a vengeful goddess and Olivier has fun with his sly old boots of a deity, but Hamlin’s pouting Perseus makes for a strangely passive hero. It sometimes seems that if it weren’t for the machinations of the gods—and/or Harryhausen—he’d be happy to lounge around stretching and primping. But every now and then he has to share awkward superimposition with a stop-motion marvel. Most of them are ludicrous-looking things by today’s standards, but the sequence featuring Harryhausen’s Medusa—a scaly female horror dragging a snake-like bottom half around a torchlit temple—can still raise a short hair or two. It’s easy to imagine Avatar’s Sam Worthington kicking more ass as Perseus in the forthcoming remake, and the 21st-century CG effects are sure to run rings around what was, at the time, the culmination of decades of painstaking work for Harryhausen. Will the 2010 Clash of the Titans be “better” than the 1981 version? Perhaps the better question is, will there not be another remake in another 30 years if it is?