The James Clayton Column: Rethinking remakes as original premakes

What if time were running backwards, and the remake of The Evil Dead actually came first? We'll let James explain this one...

Evil Dead is, according to one of its advertising posters, “The most terrifying film you will ever experience”. That may be true, but perhaps not because it has brutal psychological and physical horror in a cabin in the dark woods and various other types of harrowing trauma. What might make it the most terrifying film experience is the actual experience of watching a remake of The Evil Dead – not the content we’re swallowing, but the concept itself.

The poster also features the words, “A new vision from the producers of the original classic” and there are a couple of key points in that sentence if you break it down. The credibility of the ‘new vision’ claim can be contested, but I can’t weigh in until I’ve seen the Evil Dead 2013 (at the time of writing, I haven’t). It’s the “original classic” bit that resonates here, and is the reason behind my worry that this may indeed be “the most terrifying film” I’ll ever sit through.

In brief, The Evil Dead – Sam Raimi’s first full-length feature film from 1981 – is a classic horror movie. Regardless of its influence and significance in spawning several groovy sequels and launching the careers of Raimi and Bruce Campbell, it remains an absolute blast that still holds up today.

Nevertheless, certain people of power, influence, resources and creative impetus have decided that this flick is ripe for a remake. They’ve reasoned it through, worked it out and got the original artistes’ backing so that The Evil Dead can be rebooted afresh for the 21st century. There’s apparently a need for this project, whether that be a commercial need, a creative need or the needs of an audience baying for blood and shock-and-gore-heavy cinema trips.

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I’d thought that The Cabin In The Woods was the final word (scream) and nail in the coffin of the ‘Cabin in the Woods’ sub-genre, but it appears I was misguided in my belief. Whatever the driving motive, the new version of The Evil Dead has manifested itself and the iconic cabin in the woods fable is back. Hail to the king, baby, or at least hail to the king’s baby or nephew or whatever relation Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead is.

This state of affairs isn’t surprising when you note the trends in horror movie production that have characterised the genre over the past decade or so. Run through the classic nasties and seminal slashers of the 70s and early 80s – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday The 13th, and so on – and you soon realise that all of them have been rebooted to suit the cultural standards and tones of contemporary times.

The Evil Dead is another macabre monolith, so naturally it’s been seized upon as a potent brand name to respawn for a fresh franchise era. This is how it works regardless of genre – pick a powerful name and rework it again, pumped up for the present day with modern trends and tastes in mind. You can also take advantage of updated filmmaking techniques and viral marketing as well – all things the gore-teurs of old didn’t have access to.

Devout fans are, of course, furious when they see sacred names taken in vain and bear witness to the widespread promotion of ‘false gods’. Regardless, defying all the highly vocal opposition and critical derision, the remake cycle continues to roll on unabated.

Waiting in the shadow of the Evil Dead do-over, a fresh Carrie remake is thirsting for the chance to upset younger audiences and out-grue its namesake. Beyond horror there are also eclectic beasts like the RoboCop reboot, Spike Lee’s Oldboy and Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla in production, and they are all colossal cult titles that carry a legacy. Because of – or possibly in spite of – that legacy, they’re all being raised again – or perhaps reappropriated is a more accurate word – for a fresh new existence.

The standard response to this is, as already acknowledged, one of antagonism. Passionate cinema aficionados have a tendency to start lashing out in wrath like the deranged possessed tree in The Evil Dead when they learn that another timeless movie is set to be remade. Message boards burn with exclamation marks, invective and insults like “Philistines!” “hacks!” and “Murder! Murder! Killing me won’t bring back your goddamn honey!” (That last one came from someone stung by the Wicker Man remake.)

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Sometimes these reactions are valid, but other times – probably actually most of the time – the melodramatic wrath is out of hand and way over-the-top. The titans of industry are indifferent to your aversion to a RoboCop reboot and you’re probably best off embracing the beloved original with more affection while casually ignoring the shallow upstart impersonator.

It’s also true that remakes and reboots aren’t always awful or inferior. History is seething with superb adaptations of old films – The Thing, The Fly, A Fistful Of Dollars as a westernised Yojimbo and The Departed, which is Martin Scorsese’s version of Infernal Affairs, to name a handful.

More recently I found Franck Khalfoun’s fresh take on Maniac – a respin of William Lustig’s 1980 original – to be one of the most horrifying and compelling movie experiences of recent years. It is, in my humble opinion, an instant essential feature for horror fans that cuts a dash as a brutal example of how remakes can be worthy, high calibre works of creative invention.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to challenge our autopilot responses. Instant opposition to remakes is one such kneejerk reaction that I reckon could do with reappraisal. All we need to do is adjust our mindset a little, and that applies to both movies and wider ‘real life’ beyond.

Disdain for remakes ultimately boils down to the fact that new films are unoriginally repeating what’s been done before, but that’s only true if you’re following the conventional earthly understanding of time. What if our comprehension of time is erroneous though? What if the original movie – I’ll continue to use The Evil Dead as the exemplary case study – has always existed simultaneously with the remake and our perception of chronology is, actually, faulty? If past, present and future are delusions and everything just is and always was and always will be in a single moment, then nothing came first or came after. There is, therefore, no issue or reason for disgruntlement.

Alternately, the passage of time might actually be a real, genuine thing, but what if we’re experiencing it backwards? What if 2013 actually came before 1981 and we’re reading the unfolding fabric of time in reverse? If so, Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead preceded Raimi’s The Evil Dead. The 2013 feature a remake? Not so – it’s an original premake.

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The unravelling of film history looks extremely interesting when you observe it through this paradigm. Note, for instance, how Paul Verhoeven took Total Recall up several levels by getting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ass to Mars. Likewise, see how in adapting Brian De Palma’s gloriously excessive Scarface, Howard Hawks opted for gritty urban realism and filmed in black and white instead.

The same happened with the monochrome Universal Monster movement as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man were enhanced by gothic shadows as opposed to the lurid Technicolor stylings of their various forerunners. Furthermore, how about Kurt Neumann reining in the visceral gore of David Cronenberg’s The Fly to produce an easier-to-watch B-movie with bonus Vincent Price?

Most astounding of all is probably producer Charles K Feldman’s non-canon retake of Casino Royale. Running amok and blowing raspberries at the highly serious Daniel Craig 007 entry, it’s a monstrous avant-garde spoof and highly-diverting irreverent assault on a long-lasting movie franchise.

Looked at from this angle, Raimi’s The Evil Dead impresses itself as an enthusiastic schlocky antidote to the troubling torture porn tendencies of an earlier age. I can’t wait for the gritty, ultra-harrowing premake of Army Of Darkness to come around so I can truly appreciate the glorious brilliance of the Raimi’s remake afresh. Bring on Bruce Campbell’s Ash and the Medieval knights of the far, far future to come! Hail to the king, baby!

James Clayton is going to swallow your soul (just like he did in the original film). You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.

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