The Hitcher (1986) vs The Hitcher (2007)

The HitcherHorror movies are a great way to explore the feelings of anxiety and fear that are inescapable by-products of living in the insane fucking reality we all inhabit. Sometimes the fear represented is an intangible part of our subconscious and other times it is based upon violent and terrifying experiences from the real world. In the case of The Hitcher films, the fear is based upon the anxiety derived from bringing a total stranger into your car, or getting into theirs. In reality, numerous people on both sides of this interaction have met with deadly ends, so the effectiveness of these films is reliant in large part on how authentically they can represent that legitimate danger. A lot has changed in the twenty-one years between these movies but some dangers never lose their relevance, regardless of how many technical advances we make.

The original follows Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) who is driving through the American southwest to deliver a car to a client in California. When he sees a man (John Ryder, played by the exquisitely creepy Rutger Hauer) broken down in the rain, he is kind enough to offer him a ride, but almost instantly regrets his decision when it becomes clear that Ryder is a murderous psychopath. After literally kicking Ryder out of the car, Jim soon finds himself embroiled in a fight for survival with the crazed man on the sparely populated desert highway.

The remake features the same basic conceit, with the primary difference being that college-age couple, Jim and Grace (Zachary Knighton and Sophia Bush), are instead driving through New Mexico on their way to spring break in California. Their relationship also effectively functions as a replacement for Jim’s (sort of) love interest from the first film, Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

The first question when comparing an original to the remake is, naturally, “how well does the original itself work as a film?” In this case, the concept it’s working with is unusual and interesting, as well as being grounded in a legitimate real world fear. The acting is overall very solid and Hauer really shines in this chilling portrayal of a subtly crazed sociopath. The film also does a good job of holding the audiences attention with a series of plot points that keep the tension up. So, overall a solid film, but in this case, it was also one that left significant room for improvement in certain areas.

The primary one would have to be the fact that many of the major plot points rely on very coincidental events that are taken for granted and never really explained, especially towards the end. In addition, the movie is grounded in a reality-based world, yet Ryder seems to possess near supernatural ability when it comes to always being exactly where he needs to be or, say, shooting down a helicopter with a hand gun from a moving car (!). Some minor spoilers going forward here, but I also have to say that the movie goes to great lengths to tease a larger connection and sense of purpose between the characters but ultimately fails to pay it off in a satisfying way.

The quality of the film is also chipped away by a series of unanswered questions that pile up throughout. How exactly did that finger get in his fries and why didn’t he tell the cops about it? If Jim’s the one that called the police from the diner why would they immediately assume he’s the killer? If you’re on the run and ditch a stolen cop car, wouldn’t the first thing the police do be to check the nearby motels? And so on and so forth.

Now, even though I do my best to watch movies with an open mind, I think I can speak for most horror fans when I say I have a bit of inherent bias when watching a remake, that it will simply be a lazily written cash-grab that pales in comparison to the original. Indeed, when the remake started with an attractive young couple that looked straight out of central casting, road-tripping their way to spring break while the shittiest possible song played in the background, I thought I had this film’s number. But as soon as that unpleasantness was over, the remake began to do what remakes so rarely do and present a more compelling, realistic version of the original story that actually polished up the mistakes. While it’s certainly true that over-explaining is a sign of poor filmmaking, the remake actually strikes the right balance by going into more detail with scenes that needed it and incorporating more realistic and logical solutions to various problems the characters face. I also like that the characters initially make the sensible choice to not pick him up but through a series of reasonable events end up in a situation where it actually makes sense to offer him a ride.

I also want to be clear that the original is sorely lacking in blood and, overall, fits much more comfortably in the thriller category rather than horror. The remake rectifies that issue and also adopts a tone that pushes it away from the action-thriller feeling of the original firmly into the category of horror-thriller. This is especially true of a key scene towards the end that was begging for gore in the original which the remake fully delivered on.

In a way, I feel like it was a missed opportunity to not have C. Thomas Howell take up the role of Ryder in the remake.  It would have set the film up as more of a sequel with very dark implications and we could all just pretend that the straight-to-video The Hitcher 2 never existed.  However, Sean Bean is just so fucking good in the role that I couldn’t possibly advocate for it going to anyone else. In fact, as good as Hauer was, I feel that Bean was able to really convey a clearer sense of motivation and understanding of the character that greatly benefited the overall product.

Ultimately, this is what a remake should be, a film that stays true to the concept of the original while polishing up the rougher edges. It’s also a good reminder that you can’t really judge a film until you see it and preconceived notions are often wrong.

Winner The Hitcher 2007

I Spit on Your Grave (1978) vs I Spit on Your Grave (2010)

I Spit on Your Grave

What separates the I Spit on Your Grave films from most other movies in the genre is that the primary source of horror is derived from rape rather than other forms of violence. While the rape/revenge subgenre certainly does exist within the genre as a whole, it is not utilized nearly as often as others, most likely due to the fact that it is so difficult to strike the proper balance when presenting the subject matter. The ideal depiction of a rape scene on film is one that acknowledges the horrific nature of the act without overly sexualizing it or downplaying the severity of it’s impact on the character. I Spit on Your Grave is generally cited as the quintessential rape/revenge horror film, but which version is able to more effectively explore what is easily one of the most taboo subjects in film? For that matter, does either version depict the central act properly? Well, let’s discuss.

Before I start, I do want to mention there are some spoilers regarding the plot so if you have not seen these films, I would recommend doing so prior to reading this. Okay, all set now? Let’s continue then. Both films follow the same basic plot structure in which novelist Jennifer Hills rents an isolated cabin in a rural town to focus on writing her book. Before long she is brutally raped and beaten by a group of men and left for dead. Once she physically recovers she seeks her gruesome revenge.

Considering the fact that the remake sticks very closely to the story of the original, it is almost baffling how different the final results are. Although, once you start examining the details, it becomes very apparent why the original is able to be a harrowing portrayal of sexual violence that is still genuinely disturbing nearly forty years later and why the modern version is the kind of trite piece of shit that makes people hate remakes in general.

Let’s start with the most important part of the story in both films: the rape scene. In the original the event unfolds in real time, only using time-lapse cuts when characters are traveling between locations. In this version, writer/director Meir Zarchi forces the viewer to bear witness to every horrific moment of the progressively brutal violation without reprieve. There is also a palpable sense of dread, not only before but during the act as Jennifer is clearly hoping the ordeal will be over after each assault, only to have it begin again. In this way Zarchi doesn’t let the viewer off the hook but forces them to confront every moment of the horror she has to experience.

Far from being an exploitative tool to titillate the viewer, this realistic, unflinching depiction shows rape for the vile act it truly is. I’ve always said “horror should be horrifying” and when disturbing subject matter like rape is explored, it should be done so in a way that actually disturbs the viewer, not simply presented like a sex scene that’s designed to excite. This is why there is far more cultural value in the realistic way the original, and films like Irreversible, depict sexual violence than films that sanitize it. It is an important reminder that rape in the real world is a horrible thing and one that should be taken seriously.

The remake on the other hand delivers the standard version of what Hollywood thinks passes for edgy and realistic but is, in reality, playing well within the established safe space of the average viewer’s comfort zone. It is still disturbing but comes nowhere near the unrelenting brutality of the extended, punishing realism of the original. It also self-sabotages by only showing two of the men actually committing the rape and merely implying the involvement of the others. I can’t think of any reason for this other than a misguided attempt to spare the delicate sensibilities of the viewer, despite the fact that all of them being involved is a key part of the story.

Speaking of misguided, the choice in the remake to have Jennifer disappear into the river after the rape and then start stalking the men with borderline supernatural abilities, like she’s fucking Jason Voorhees, was an utterly terrible decision. It took the film from the gritty realism of its source material and plunged it deep into mediocre Slasher territory. By doing so, it also cuts out what is perhaps the most poignant and devastating part of the original which is Jennifer dealing with the aftermath of the crime. This, along with the lingering shots of her in between assaults, is important because it further humanizes her and reinforces the traumatic fallout this event is causing her life.

Another aspect of the original that is a key part of delivering the emotional impact is the excellent performances. Camille Keaton’s fearless and emotionally raw portrayal of Jennifer is an essential component of the original’s success.

That point is reinforced in the remake, as it is very clear that Sarah Butler is not up to the task and her stilted performance never lets you forget that you are watching someone trying to act. Although that can really be said for pretty much the entire cast of the remake, who all feel like poorly sketched stereotypes straight out of central casting. Even the initially goofy depiction of the simple-minded Matthew in the original is made all the more chilling when he proves that, despite his initial reluctance to participate, he is just as willing to indulge in his darkest base desires as the rest of the men.

There are also so many brilliant, subtle points in the original that are completely lost in the remake, seemingly because director Steven R. Monroe couldn’t grasp their significance. For instance, the fact that the men in the original mock and destroy her writing towards the end of the ordeal, as though they are trying to make their domination and destruction of her complete by also emotionally violating and destroying her. In the remake it is thrown in as a relatively inconsequential afterthought before the rape begins.

Another important point in the original is that her sexuality, the very reason they targeted her in the first place, is a key tool in her revenge, a fact that is almost completely excised from the remake. In the original, it is also made clear that the men are not just mad at her but actually blame her for the fact that they felt compelled to violate her. This is a subtle but very important commentary on the kind of mindset that perpetuates rape culture in our society and one that is totally glossed over in the remake.

The original also adds a layer of complexity by efficiently establishing the fact that, despite being capable of horrific crimes without regret, the lead rapist Johnny is also a loving and attentive father. This doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does serve as reminder that other innocents will suffer the fallout if he is served with his well-earned comeuppance. There is an attempt in the remake to invoke a similar familial tie with the character of the sheriff (who was invented for the remake) but it is belabored to the point of rendering it ineffective.

To be fair, the gore itself in the original, while creative, does look quite dated by today’s standards. Even though the effects are updated in the remake, and overall do look good, they are simply the same run-of-the-mill post-Saw set pieces we have seen in pretty much every horror film since the beginning of the millennium. In the end, this is one of the most clear cut examples of how no amount of slick production values can justify the existence of a remake that doesn’t preserve the aspects that made the original great in the first place.

Winner I Spit on Your Grave 1978

My Bloody Valentine (1981) vs My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009)

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What better way to celebrate Hallmark’s manufactured love holiday than with the heart-ripping fun of the My Bloody Valentine films! In the same way that films like Black Christmas, Halloween (and yes even Uncle Sam) fully embraced their respective holidays, the MBV films truly own February 14th and integrate it as a central part of the story. The original is undoubtedly a significant early slasher but does it still hold up after thirty-six years? Conversely, the remake has the advantage of treading down a well-worn path with a story already laid out, but is it a worthy update? Well, let’s discuss.

The original takes place twenty years after Harry Warden, the lone survivor of a mining accident, takes his bloody vengeance on those he deemed responsible for causing it. He also blames the Valentines Day dance the men were hurrying to get to and demands that it never be held again. However, after two decades the incident has been relegated to the status of an urban legend and the townspeople no longer heed the warning as they prepare to resurrect the dance once again. As you can imagine, bloody mayhem ensues.

The remake follows the plot of the original pretty faithfully in some ways but also makes some significant changes in others. In this version we see Harry wake from a year-long coma following the accident to go on a bloody rampage that culminates with an attack on a large group of teens partying in the opening of the mine. After he is shot and believed to be dead the film then jumps to ten years later and focuses primarily on the survivors of the attack as the killings begin once again.

The original was not only known for being a landmark film in what many consider the golden age of slashers but also an infamous casualty of the censorship from the morality police known as the MPAA. After being severely cut for content an “extended” version was released in 2009 to coincide with the remake but bafflingly only has three of the nine excised minutes restored. Still, what was put back in was good and we are treated to a much gorier version than the previous R release. Being that the remake was released almost thirty years later, it naturally has slicker visuals and more graphic violence. However, the filmmakers also opted to present the remake in 3D which may have been an interesting novelty if watched in theaters or on a 3D TV but on a standard screen simply draws more attention to some unrealistic CGI effects. Those shots aside though, the remake does deliver copious amounts of blood and a lot of nice, gory kills.

Now, blood and gore is all well and good but when it comes to determining the quality of a film it really comes down to the story, the characters and the acting. Both films features characters returning to the town after a long absence, TJ (Paul Kelman) in the original because he couldn’t hack it in the “real world” and Tom (Jensen Ackles) in the remake, a survivor of the attack that inherited the mine from his recently deceased father. In both cases, their return is the source of significant tension for the characters as they reconnect with their ex-girlfriend (named Sarah, in both versions) who is now in another relationship. However, it is also a source of a melodramatic low point for both films as the men take a lengthy scene to have a heart-to-heart with Sarah and not the kind that involves it being torn from someone’s chest and put in a candy box like it does in so many other scenes. Overall though, the acting in both films falls into the realm of serviceable for the story but nothing particularly spectacular.

One difference between the versions is that the original features a few more scenes of grating comic relief which, thankfully, were absent from the remake. More significantly, the fact that while the original does present a solid, straightforward slasher, the remake is actually able to keep the plot more tense and engaging. This goes beyond gore and production value and really comes down to twists, red herrings and questions about who is really behind the killing that keep you wondering until the climax.

Being a Hollywood remake coming out decades after the original (and presented in 3D no less) everything about this screamed “cheap cash-in” to me at first. But in this case, director Patrick Lussier actually took the time to make sure the remake was done effectively, and it shows. So, if you are going by historical significance (as well as the nostalgia factor) then of course the original would take it, but in reality, that is always the case when comparing remakes and originals. Remakes tend to have the advantage visually with modern techniques and sleeker production values but usually fuck up the story and end up being worse overall. That didn’t happen in this case and if it comes down to a question of which delivers a better experience when you put it on today, I would have to go with the remake, and yes I’m as surprised as you.

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Halloween 2 (1981) vs Halloween 2 (2009)

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When Rob Zombie remade Halloween, his version was clearly outclassed by the original, but to be fair, he wasn’t that far off the mark and there were certainly things to be appreciated about his adaptation. This time he doubles down and tries his hand at reinterpreting Halloween II because, apparently, he just wasn’t ready to leave Haddonfield yet. So, does this version beat out the original sequel or is he once again outmatched by a classic? Well, let’s discuss.

The plot of the ’81 version is very straight forward and picks up exactly where the original left off, continuing the events of that fateful Halloween night. Michael Myers continues his bloody quest through Haddonfield to find and kill Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and eventually tracks her to the hospital she was taken to. As Dr. Loomis and the police search frantically all over town for him, Michael begins brutally dispatching staff in the sparsely populated hospital as Laurie tries desperately to evade him.

Over the years I had heard a lot of negative criticism of Zombie’s version of the sequel and when I finally sat down to watch it, I was surprised and frankly wondered what everyone’s fucking problem was. It seemed to be a pretty faithful adaptation that followed Michael on his bloody quest to finish off Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) in the hospital. The fact that it was true to the source material but featured top-notch, contemporary gore effects and a great visual style meant it was shaping up to be very stiff competition for the ’81 version. But of course Zombie just couldn’t leave well enough alone and about thirty minutes in…..everything changed.

Alright, spoiler warning here but just as the action in the hospital is really building in intensity, Zombie decides it’s time to pull out the most cliched device in filmmaking……it was all a dream. Yep, the film cuts to Laurie waking up two years later and it turns out she went to the hospital without incident and everything in the Halloween II remake we had watched so far was just her dream. What….the…FUCK! So, now we throw out everything we’ve seen so far to start an entirely different movie, one where Michael’s body is still unaccounted for, Laurie has PTSD but there is no immediate danger.

Currently, Laurie is living with her surviving friend Annie Bracket (Danielle Harris) and her father Sheriff Lee Bracket (Brad Dourif). The bulk of the remaining film that follows seems to be designed as an endurance test for the audience’s patience as we watch Laurie go to therapy, go to work, have emotional breakdowns….eat pizza, you get the idea. This is of course when we aren’t following around Dr. Loomis on his book promotion tour, a subplot so inconsequential to the storyline that it could have been cut out completely without anyone noticing. Zombie has also seen fit to transform his character from selfless vigilante to self-centered asshole who’s outlandish, rude behavior is supposed to supply some sort of comic relief.

Of course, Michael Myers does start to make an appearance here and there, popping up for some kills that are not at all relevant to the plot but at least provide some gory entertainment amidst the dull melodrama of Laurie’s story. “Where has he been the last two years” you ask? Apparently, just homeless, living in the wilderness and inexplicably killing time instead of people while he waits for his giant beard and Rob Zombie hair to grow out. He is also visited by visions of his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) who eggs him on to kill although this seems like little more than a ham-fisted way for Rob Zombie to get his wife into more of the movie.

While the remake may be bloated with extraneous plot-lines and melodramatic characters, the ’81 version is the antithesis and presents a tightly paced, tense, engaging slasher that is arguably the best of the entire franchise. Considering how well that film still holds up today, there is really no reason to drastically alter the story and the only logical direction to take with a remake is to maintain the central plot and beef up the production value with slick visuals and modern gore effects. While the remake may have still felt unnecessary, it could have been more successful because gorgeous brutality is where Rob Zombie truly excels.

For all the issues with the story in his version I do have to give him credit for creating a film that is visually stunning, with amazing cinematography and vicious, realistic kills. Honestly, for the amount of sweeping changes he made, it’s confounding that he didn’t just make a completely different movie rather than another Halloween remake. Hopefully, in the future he will stick to creating his own beautifully deranged films and leave the classics alone.

 

winner-halloween-2-1981

Halloween (1978) vs Halloween (2007)

halloween

I remember back when I first heard that Rob Zombie was doing a remake of Halloween and my initial thought was “How the fuck could anyone remake that?! That movie’s perfect!” However, nostalgia has a way of clouding memory so I was curious to watch them back to back with an open mind and see if the original was in fact as perfect as I remembered it being.

Both films follow the same basic plot in which a young Michael Myers murders his older sister and is subsequently locked away in an insane asylum that he escapes from years later. He is relentlessly pursued by Dr. Loomis, his childhood psychologist, who knows that Michael is returning to Haddonfield to find his other sister and kill anyone who gets in his way. Aside from some scenes in the remake that pay homage to the original that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Some changes in the remake were relatively small like the fact that Michael is ten rather than six and that in the remake he also kills his sister’s boyfriend as well as his stepfather. Other changes however are so large that they fundamentally alter who he is as a character as well as his storyline as a whole. The biggest of these would certainly have to be the choice to spend multiple scenes establishing Michael’s home life as well as his progression into darkness and his time working with Dr Loomis in the institution. On one hand I respect that Zombie didn’t want to simply do a shot-for-shot remake and was trying to put his own spin on the mythology. On the other hand there were some significant problems with his approach, primarily centering on his interpretation of Myers as a character.

What makes Michael Myers so chilling in the original is that he is a representation of inherent evil, a seemingly ordinary boy that commits a murder for unknown reasons and then never speaks again. Having him be only six at the time makes it that much creepier as well. Zombie tries to establish him as more of a troubled, angry kid who is bullied (both at school and at home) and starts killing animals on his way to becoming a full fledged murder. We don’t know much about Michael’s childhood in the original but the fact that it seems to be a very ordinary, middle-class upbringing without any indication of abuse or trauma makes his sudden murderous turn and subsequent psychosis far more frightening and mysterious.

Furthermore, if Zombie is trying to sell Michael’s traumatic childhood as the reason for his psychotic behavior (a perfect storm as Loomis puts it) then we should have seen a far worse childhood than we did. Sure, his stepfather’s a dick but more of just an angry bully than anything else and nothing we see indicates he is actually physically or sexually abused. He also isn’t completely neglected since he has a mother that cares deeply for him. Truly there are people with far worse childhoods who don’t become murders and if you are going to approach it from that angle you really need to commit to it, not take a half-measure.

Now, I am no expert on mental health and I haven’t sat down and read the DSM from cover to cover but I do know enough to know that the remake presents a grossly inaccurate portrayal of what a true sociopath is. If he was an actual sociopath, he would be completely devoid of empathy and compassion at all times not just when it was convenient for the plot. In other words, the way he was presented in the original.

Speaking of the original I did happen to notice a few chinks in the armor this time around. It is of course an undisputed classic and a very important, influential horror film but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some areas where there is room for improvement. For instance, in the original Michael jumps into a car and is able to immediately drive it. He was six when he was put away and the throw-away line Loomis gives about someone at the institution probably teaching him doesn’t even come close to justifying his ability to do that or make any sense whatsoever. Neither does the fact that Loomis doesn’t think to report the highly recognizable car that Michael is driving as stolen even though he knows exactly where he is going with it. I would also knock the original for having Michael walking around in broad daylight in his super creepy mask without arousing suspicion but the same thing happens in the remake so I guess that aspect is a wash.

All in all I can’t say that the original is exactly perfect, but it gets the important things right in crafting a creepy, suspenseful slasher that is well acted overall and still holds up nearly four decades later. That’s not to say that there aren’t things to like in Zombie’s adaptation. He is, after all, an amazing showman and his version has enough blood, boobs and slick set-pieces to keep you entertained throughout (even if the scenes between Loomis and Michael as a boy do drag on way too long). So in and of itself the remake is fine for what it is but it’s over-the-top characters and excessive backstory make for a film that is easily outclassed by the haunting menace of the original.

winner-halloween-1978

Pulse (2001) vs Pulse (2006)

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When it comes to Hollywood mining the world for original films to reappropriate it seems no sub-genre is as over-plundered as the supernatural films of Asia, especially those from Japan and South Korea. In a way, this is somewhat of a curious practice since the remakes tend to fundamentally alter the style and tone of the originals to the point where they bare only the vaguest resemblance to their source material. Now, it’s been about a decade since I’d last seen the Pulse films but, in my recollection, the remake was handled better than most. I figured it was time to revisit these haunting films to see if that impression would still hold up under deeper scrutiny or if the remake would be yet another example of an Asian delicacy watered down for mass consumption.

Right away, there are certainly some areas where the films diverge, starting with the plot itself. The original follows two separate storylines that eventually converge involving a young woman working in a plant shop, Michi Kudo (Kumiko Aso) and college student Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato). After Michi’s friend hangs himself she finds strange, unsettling images on the computer disc he was working on and Ryosuke also sees similar disturbing images on his computer after performing an update. From there, both characters begin to have strange supernatural encounters as more and more people around them die or disappear.

Naturally, the plot of the remake is similar but instead follows college student Mattie Webber (Kristin Bell) in a single storyline. This time it is her boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker) who commits suicide and the disturbing images are found by the tech-savvy loner, Dexter (Ian Somerhalder) who buys Josh’s computer following his death. As with the original, people start dying and disappearing mysteriously and it’s up to Mattie and Dexter to figure out why and to try to stop it if they can.

Despite the fact that these films are similar in terms of story, in other ways they couldn’t be more different and show a pretty clear example of what happens when you Americanize an Asian film. Instead of relying on CGI and jump-scares, the plot of the original unfolds slowing and deliberately, building tension and dread in an incredibly realistic and utterly chilling story. As someone who has seen a lot of horror I can safely say that this is one of the most unnerving and genuinely frightening films I have ever seen, with imagery that will fuck with your head long after the credits roll.

What makes it so effective is the way writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa presents the ghosts themselves. Instead of using an overabundance of CGI to try and make them look scary, Kurosawa primarily presents them as regular looking people but with somewhat altered movements, obscures them as shadowy silhouettes, or simply has them be in a place that people should not be. These scenes are also accompanied by haunting, otherworldly sound design that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

By contrast, the remake presents the standard issue horror film ghosts popping out for predictable jump-scares and literally sucking out people’s souls like Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat. Rather than allowing tension to build slowly like the original, the remake also follows the standard cliched formula of darkly lit “scary” scenes that alternate with brightly lit safe ones that make the scares feel more like a series of set-ups and payoffs rather than something woven naturally into the story. What’s perhaps the most irritating (but not at all surprising) aspect of the remake is the excessive amount of exposition from conveniently placed characters and the need to over-explain every aspect of the plot and the ghosts themselves. The original’s more ambiguous story was far more effective at giving the ghosts a more powerful, ominous presence.

So all in all, the remake wasn’t the exception to the rule that I had remembered it being and was just yet another example of a dumbed-down version with less interesting characters and less effective scares. Any positive aspects of the remake (like the famous water tower suicide) were simply scenes that were done better in the original and despite good lighting and sleek camera work there is just nothing about the remake to recommend it once you’ve seen the original. So if you haven’t done so, track down the original and experience it for yourself because anyone who lets subtitles be a deal-breaker for watching a film is missing out on some of the best and most interesting horror the world has to offer.

winner-pulse-2001

The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984) vs The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007)

The Hills Have Eyes 2

For this review I go back into the desert to compare the 1984 sequel for The Hills Have Eyes to the modern remake of the same name. Unlike the original and it’s remake however, the storylines in the sequels are vastly different from each other but do both tie back in to the originals that they follow. Was it worth taking the trip into the bloody, radioactive sand again or should the sequels be avoided like a sketchy, unmarked dirt-road in the desert? Well, let’s discuss.

The 1984 version, The Hills Have Eyes Part 2, starts with one of the survivors from the original, Bobby (Robert Houston), talking to a psychiatrist about his experience. When a group of his friends want him to join them at a race in the desert so they can pass out samples of a new dirt-bike fuel he invented (!) he declines and warns them not to go either. Of course they go anyway bringing along his dog Beast and the now civilized Ruby, who is also part of the crew but lives under a new identity. After an ill-advised shortcut and a predictable break-down, the gang finds themselves on the receiving end of the same kind of desert hospitality that Bobby and his family got in the first film.

By contrast, the 2007 version, The Hills Have Eyes 2, takes place after the events of the 2006 Hills film but does not connect directly to it with any of the characters. Instead, it centers around a group of young National Guard recruits that are halfway through training. On their way to another training location, they are tasked with dropping off equipment to a group of military scientists that are working on a mysterious project in the desert. Once there, they find the camp is deserted……or so they thought!

Ok, so as you can imagine, neither one of these sequels has been particularly well received by critics or fans. This isn’t especially surprising considering that both the original 1977 film as well as it’s 2006 remake were such good films that they made for tough acts to follow. Additionally, neither sequel exactly brought it’s A-game and both cases feel like a cash-in rather than a thought out expansion on the story. Even so, there were still some striking differences between the two versions.

Perhaps the most glaring of these is the fact that the 1984 version shamelessly recycles footage from the first film. It does so under the guise of “flashbacks” but what you really have is a highlight reel of scenes from the first film that simply play again, in their entirety, in the sequel. Honestly, I can’t think of any other sequel that so blatantly uses a device as cheap as cut ‘n paste to this extent simply to make their lackluster film more interesting.

If this was the only issue with this version it may have been forgivable (maybe) but the fact is this one is rancid all the way through. Right from the group of annoying twenty-something protagonists who you instantly want to die, to the repetitive fake-out scares, to the shoddy (and sparse) gore, there really is nothing to recommend about this film. It utilizes the most cliched and over-used plot in the Horror genre (group of young people in middle of nowhere picked off by villain) and even when Craven wasn’t recycling actual footage from the first film, he still recycled ideas for plot points and kills. Even the character of The Reaper (one of only two hill-people in this one) makes no sense because if you paid attention to the plot in the first film you’ realize there’s no fucking way that Jupiter could have possibly had a brother that was simply absent during that film.

The most baffling part of this is the fact that these are the kinds of things you would expect to find in a sequel that’s made by a different director and rushed out the next year but in this case the sequel was written and directed by Wes Craven himself seven fucking years later! In other words, plenty of time for the original creator to craft a brilliant follow-up to his own film.

The 2007 version on the other hand was made by a different director and rushed out the next year but against all logic it’s actually, well, good. Now, to be fair it’s nothing earth-shattering and the 2006 version definitely leaves it in the dust but in this case director Martin Weisz does deliver a solid, gory film that is very watchable and will keep your attention to the end. This may have to do with the fact that the 2007 sequel was written by….wait for it….Wes Craven!

That’s right, after wisely stepping into the Producer’s chair for the 2006 remake so writer/director Alexandre Aja could flex his creative muscle, Craven got back into the game for the 2007 sequel and wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonathan Craven. I feel like this must have at least partially motivated by a desire to make amends for the immensely disappointing 1984 sequel and show that he could deliver fans a proper, if long overdue, sequel to one of his most iconic films. After taking the bloody, entertaining ride myself I can certainly say I’m glad he did.

Winner The Hills Have Eyes 2007

The Hills Have Eyes (1977) vs The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

The Hills Have Eyes

Doing a comparison of The Hills Have Eyes original vs remake was challenging in the same way that the Black Christmas comparison was, although for the opposite reason. In this case both films were so well done that an obvious winner wasn’t instantly apparent as it is in some cases (ahem Dark Water).

Both films follow the same basic storyline pretty closely (not a given for all remakes) which involves a family crossing the desert on their way to California. Soon after stopping at a remote gas station, they crash their vehicle and become stranded. It’s not long before a family of cannibals descends upon them and shit gets real.

The main thing that makes both the original and the remake so effective, is that the characters are realistic and well-defined. I’m glad that the filmmakers in both cases understood that you don’t need long drawn-out scenes of exposition and character-development to make the viewer attached to the protagonists. Both directors wisely opt to efficiently establish everything you need to know about the characters with minimal, but telling, interactions. In both films you really feel for these people who are trapped in a horrible situation and feel that they are doing the best they can to figure a way out of it.

Both films are also brutal, mean-spirited stories without any levity once the action gets under way, which is what I love about them. It’s great to see serious, visceral horror with characters you actually care about. Movies like this also aren’t shy about killing them off so the stakes are actually high because any of them could die at any time. I find this to be a much more satisfying experience than waiting for a cast of cheap stereotypes to get butchered.

While the story and characters of the original are great, there are certainly some areas that could have been tightened up a bit. First on my list would be the outfits worn by the cannibal family, some of which have a bit of a “Flintstones-Halloween-costume” vibe to them. In addition to munching on human flesh, said family also had a bit of a habit of chewing the scenery and some of the performances would have been more effectively menacing had they been tempered a bit. Another issue is the gore which, while certainly good for the era, at times looks a bit dated and fake by today’s standards.

To be fair, the remake has the advantage not only of modern special effects, which look fucking great by the way, but also a solid story that is already laid out for filmmakers. Still, there were some interesting alterations that director Alexandre Aja made to Wes Craven’s original film. Perhaps the most noticeable of these is that the cannibals are significantly more deformed in the remake which is a result of nuclear radiation from tests performed in the area over the years. This makes them more monstrous than the cannibals in the original whose minor abnormalities stem back to a patriarch born with a mysterious genetic condition. Right from the brilliant opening title sequence that features chilling footage of real nuclear bomb detonation, Aja establishes nuclear proliferation as an underlying theme throughout the film and in effect the true genesis of the monsters themselves. To this point the monsters could in fact be perceived as representing the merciless destruction caused by nuclear weapons when used against average civilians.

In conclusion, the 2006 version is a rare example of exactly what a remake should be. You take a film from decades before that has a solid, worthwhile story and update it with sleeker production values and more visceral gore for today’s desensitized audiences. The most important thing however, is to keep the elements that made the original film work in the first place, which Aja has done while infusing it with his own style of gorgeous brutality. If more remakes followed his example the concept of remakes in general wouldn’t carry the well-earned stigma of simply being a way for Hollywood to make a quick buck with minimum effort.

Winner The Hills Have Eyes 2006

The Blob (1958) vs The Blob (1988)

Blob Comparison

It’s hard to imagine a film that embraces the notion of a campy Creature Feature more than The Blob. Just by the title alone you know exactly what you’re in for. Despite being incredibly well known films, there actually is not a contemporary remake of this story, although there is rumored to be one in development that would star Samuel L Jackson (!). So, as of this time we have the 1958 and 1988 versions, each very emblematic of the time period in which it they were made.

The story in both centers around a meteor that crashes in the woods outside of a town and releases a gelatinous creature that absorbs and devours the residents. Both films also feature an old man as patient zero and center around teen protagonists who discover and bring him to the doctor, which is where the mayhem really begins. However, at that point the similarities pretty much end.

Now, I know the original was made in the era of campy drive-in horror and special effects knowledge was very limited at that time. That being said, there are still quite a few aspects that could have been greatly improved upon. For one thing, all of the “teens” in this film look like they’re about 35. This actually makes sense because in reality stars Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut were 28 and 25 respectively when the movie was filmed…..and it shows. There’s nothing that shatters even the vaguest illusion of realism like “man-child” McQueen blubbering to the cops to not tell his daddy that he was out hot-rodding. When you couple this with the painfully stagy ’50’s acting, you end up with characters that are distractingly unrealistic and completely unrelatable.

The remake on the other hand establishes characters that not only look age appropriate but are surprisingly well-developed with minimal exposition. There is a general feeling of ’80’s cheesiness of course but for the most part the characters are played straight and realistic enough to make you feel emotionally invested in the story. The remake also does a far better job at having a logical justification for why most people are initially skeptical and reluctant to accept what’s happening. This is in stark contrast to the irrational insistence by the cops in the original that those crazy “kids” are pulling one heck of an elaborate prank on old Johnny Law.

Since this is a Creature Feature the quality of the creature itself naturally plays a pivotal roll in selling the scares in the film. This is another area in which the remake out-classes the original with an amorphous creature that presents as a truly threatening monster rather than something that alternately looks like a giant piece of half-chewed candy and a sad bag of jello. The remake also makes great use of practical effects, delivering some truly amazing gooey, gory kills in all their wonderful ’80’s glory.

The original also could have tightened up some of the writing which was confounding even for the era. One of the best example of this is when the fire chief notices the diner that people are trapped in the basement of is on fire and casually asks the sheriff if he has any ideas on how to put it out. (!) He then follows that up with pretty much “Ah, that fire will probably burn out in 10 minutes or so”. (Never mind that the people will most likely burn to death by then. How did he get this fucking job!?)

I mean, the bad writing is good for a few unintentional laughs of course. For instance, the scene when the nurse throws a bottle of acid on the blob, that of course does nothing, and then declares “Dr, nothing will stop it!” (you’ve tried exactly one thing, one.) Obviously he then he tells her to stay in the room she could easily escape (!) while he gets his gun and we’re then treated to one of the lamest deaths in film history.

All these kinds of issues could be overlooked however if the original provided an overall film that was an enjoyably campy, fun ride. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t. There simply isn’t enough to make it fun and the slow pace, shoddy ADR, poorly staged action, bad dialogue and lack of anything even remotely close to frightening make this a wholly unsatisfying experience. On the other hand the remake gives you exactly what you’d expect and want from a film like this which is a fun, gory monster flick that holds up surprisingly well after almost thirty years.

Winner The Blob 1988

Black Christmas (1974) vs Black X-Mas (2006)

Black Xmas vs Black Xmas

Sometimes comparing an original to a remake is very simple. When the original is a masterpiece with a brilliant story that is simply watered down and cheapened by the remake then it’s a no-brainer. However, when neither film is exactly outstanding it actually makes the comparison trickier. Such is the case with Black Christmas but to it’s credit at least they waited a few decades before trotting this middling slasher out for a new coat of paint.

Both films center around a sorority house on Christmas that begins receiving disturbing phone calls from an unidentified creep. After that it’s not long before the residents of the house, in true slasher fashion, start getting gruesomely knocked off one by one by an unseen killer.

The set-up for each is basically the same but for some reason, perhaps to add more of a sense of menace, the writers of the remake decided to add an additional storyline involving the villain Billy escaping from a mental hospital for the criminally insane. This actually had the opposite effect pushing the film deeply into campy territory and taking all the power away from the scene where the first mysterious obscene phone call is made, which is a truly unsettling moment in the original film. This is also true of the copious amounts of flashback scenes, and the addition of the character of Billy’s sister, the remake included seeking to flesh out Billy’s backstory. In reality this only ends up slowing down the story and making the villain far less frightening than the mysterious killer from the original who lurked in the shadows and seemed to strike out of nowhere.

That being said though, the original does suffer from issues of it’s own. The film is punctuated by a few good kills and some effective scenes of tension, the creepy phone calls really are masterfully done, but it does spend most of the time between them with a story that severely drags. This is not helped by some comic relief scenes that further drag down the story (although that line about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a rare moment of comic brilliance).  However, I do want to acknowledge that in the context of Horror history the original does play a significant role as an early precursor to the Slasher subgenre.  It’s contribution to the genre in general has been an important one but many aspects of this film just have not aged well.

As underwhelming as the cast of the original is, they look like master thespians when compared with the utterly unbearable cast of pretty “actresses” they assembled for the remake. I swear I have never wanted a cast to die more badly in my life, so at least there was some satisfaction to be had when that began occurring in brutal ways (btw what’s with all the eyeball ripping in the remake? They’re obsessed!)

I will give credit where credit is due and say that the last half-hour or so of the remake does become more engaging as it builds towards the typical Final Girl climax. The fundamental problem with the remake though is the fact that the entire film itself has such a cheesy “campfire ghost story” kind of feeling to it. I’m surprised characters aren’t putting flashlights under their chins every time they talk about Billy’s unrealistically bad childhood. Every single shot is exaggerated, stylized and devoid of any substance or realism so you never forget you are watching a Hollywood movie.

So, despite some pacing and character development issues I am gonna give the win to the original in this case because at least I never felt like I wanted to stab my eyes out with an icicle rather than watch another minute of the witless banter between a group of actresses that prove the casting couch is alive and well.

Winner Black Christmas 1974