Much ink has been spilled over the years about the recent surge in film remakes, and the horror genre is not immune to this trend. On the contrary, horror films trade in recycled products, revamping old franchises (Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street), as well as producing unnecessary sequels and prequels (Exorcist: The Beginning). Obviously, there are crude business reasons for utilizing old materials for new products: name recognition, easy access to screen rights, and speedy replication of previous written material all make such productions a no-brainer investment. But such motives for film production often generate a comprimised product, lacking in originality or creativity.
Which brings me to the prime example of problem remakes by production company Screen Gems. This subsidiary of Sony remade two of the worst horror films I have seen in the past year, When a Stranger Calls and Prom Night, and is poised to release The Stepfather, which looks to be an abomination as well. Here’s the trailer for the latter:
Like its Screen Gems predecessors, The Stepfather remakes a cult slasher film of the same name. The original The Stepfather may be one of the most radically feminist, anti-conservative slasher films of the 1980s, and academics Isabel Cristina Pinedo and Patricia Brett Erens have said as much. The original stars Jill Schoelen as Stephanie, the teenage daughter of a widowed mother recently remarried to Jerry Blake (played perfectly by Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn). The somewhat rebellious Stephanie resists Jerry’s efforts to get closer to her, in spite of his projected image as the perfect family man. From the start, though, the audience is in on Jerry’s secret, as this opening sequence below demonstrates:
While such carnage may give away Jerry’s identity as psychopathic dad, it allows the audience to empathize with heroine Stephanie, who faces Jerry’s rage most acutely when he discovers her kissing a boy. From the trailer above, it appears that the new film’s protagonist, now a male named David, faces a similar rebuke; however, the nature of this parental criticism changes because of David’s sex. Instead of David facing criticism, his scantily clad girlfriend becomes the problem. In essence, it seems that the remake’s stepfather finds fault with the relationship based on the girlfriend’s sexuality, rather than the son’s.
Another interesting change: the new mother (played by Sela Ward) is not widowed but divorced, bringing David’s father into the equation. Thus, while the original film challenges the idea that a manly presence is necessary for a stable home, the new version seems instead to be a struggle between various males for domination within the family. These changes do not bode well for the film ideologically, and if the previous Screen Gems remakes are any indication, the stylistic “upgrades” will not likely make up for these alterations.
When I speak of aesthetic changes, I refer to the slick packaging of these films by comparison to their originals. Take the remake of Prom Night, for instance. The original who-dunnit set at a 70s-disco prom remains a classic for its camp value. Check out this rad dance sequence:
Who knew Jamie Lee Curtis had such killer dance moves? Now, check out the trailer for the remake:
Notice the attention to mise-en-scene, with emphasis on stylish dresses, extravagent sets, and smooth camera movement. It’s as if the filmmakers translated MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 into a slasher, and not a very good one at that. With a PG-13 rating limiting the gore to implication rather than depiction, Prom Night‘s kills lack impact. Worse yet, filmmakers could work around these limitations by generating suspense in the manner of Drag Me to Hell (also PG-13), but produce a predictable series of cat-and-mouse games with a bland as white bread killer. Hence, the remake of Prom Night sucks the life (i.e., camp, suspense, gore) out of the original.
Screen Gems’ When a Stranger Calls suffers from the same afflictions. Of these three remakes, When a Stranger Calls is probably my least favorite in terms of source material, but the first ten minutes of the film in which babysitter Jill (played by Carol Kane) fields calls from a creepy killer who, it turns out, is actually inside the house, generates tension as does the closing scene in which Jill encounters the killer once again as an adult.
By contrast, the new film’s attempts at suspense fail in much the same way that Prom Night does. The expansion of the first ten minutes of the original film into the bulk of the remake’s running time feels stretched at best and monotonous at worst. As in Prom Night, the mise-en-scene becomes the focus while characters and suspense fall by the wayside, leading one to wonder why on earth Screen Gems filmed a single reel.
Of course, the reason is very simple: moolah! Both films debuted on top of the box office during their opening weekends quickly making back expenses and then some. Critics hated these films, but neither held advance screenings to mitigate the backlash. But while their originals will continue to have fan followings for years to come, I expect that many of these Screen Gems remakes will fall into obscurity.