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A Retrospective of Retro Spectres and Their Modern Counterparts

By now we are no strangers to Hollywood pulling from the past to make new movies. The summer of 2015 has a whopping 17 reboots, remakes and sequels lined up including an updated version of the classic horror film "Poltergeist." Over the past decade, the popularity of horror movie remakes has soared despite many fans sticking by the originals; myself included. I'm a huge fan of 1982's "Poltergeist" and this remake looks like it has captured the fun and fright of the original film. Despite the onslaught of horror remakes that don't work on their own, let alone do the source material justice, there are plenty that live up to expectations. Here's a list of my top four:


The Fly (1958 / 1986)
Both versions of The Fly revolve around a scientist testing teleportation devices who has his genes splices with a rogue fly who wanders in to the machine. In the 1958 version, Vincent Price's head is put on to a fly's body. Meanwhile the fly's head is transplanted on to Price's body as one of the best '50s movie creatures ever designed. The movie is fun, it's campy and chock full of dialogue that fulfills b-movie stereotypes of that era. It's just not very scary and is mostly entertaining for all the wrong reasons.

The 1986 remake directed by David Cronenberg stars Jeff Goldblum has become a staple in must-see horror movie lists. Where the original relied on '50s shock value, Cronenberg created striking visuals that continue to lurk in the recesses of the mind long after viewing it: The pod door slowly opening as fog rolls along the floor. Goldblum's amazing transformation in to a grotesque creature. The super gross puppet that eventually gets blown to bits. Beyond just the visuals, though, lies a story that deals with the protagonist's psychology as he slowly devolves before our eyes. It's almost incomparable to the original, but if we must, the remake easily surpasses it.

 

Frankenstein (1931 / 1994)
James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein is many things; innovative, iconic, entertaining. However, "accurate" isn't one of them. Boris Karloff's performance is so timeless that it's what we think of when we hear the name Frankenstein, despite it neither being his name (that would be his creator played by Colin Clive) nor the creature's demeanor in the novel by Mary Shelly. Karloff's monster has very limited communication and intelligence (unlike the source material), but still manages to escape his master. The townspeople fear the unknown and chase him up a windmill in an archetypical scene with torches and pitchforks. Then "The End" appears over a shot of it burning to the ground, the monster presumably dying in the fire. This is a rare horror film that is widely, and rightfully, considered a cinematic classic.

1994's Frankenstein may not be as well known as 1931's, but it is definitely the most faithful to Shelly's novel and is debatably the most chilling adaptation. This story revolves around Dr. Victor Frankenstein obsessing over finding his creation after it gets loose. Robert De Niro brings a new life to the monster never before seen on screen, portraying a much deeper character more on par with Shelly's creature who reads Paradise Lost and communicates more eloquently than Karloff's signature role. The creature retreats to the Arctic Circle and is pursued by his rage-filled master. In a very different ending than in 1931, Dr. Frankenstein dies and his mourning creation sets them both ablaze.

It's worth noting that these are hardly the only two cinematic versions of Frankenstein. The story was first adapted in 1910 by Edison Studios and has been retold over 50 times in film since.

 

House of Wax (1933 / 1953)
Woah, woah, woah. Hang on there. Before you leave a nasty comment about how a Paris Hilton movie shouldn't be on here, check out those dates. Now take a deep breath and keep the nerd rage at bay.

1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum was considered a lost film for decades until a 35mm nitrate print was uncovered in 1970 while searching the personal vault of Jack Warner (one of the four Warner brothers). A reporter played by Glenda Farrell is sent to report on a model's suicide, which turns in to an investigation when the body is stolen. Her roommate, played by King Kong's Fay Wray, visits the wax museum her fiancé works at and gets taken hostage by the monster there who turns people in to exhibits, including the missing model. Wray beats at her captor's face to reveal it is a wax mask hiding terribly disfigured features. She's strapped to an elaborate system and is rescued at the last minute right before a vat of wax is poured on her. The reporter gets the story and, upon her return to the paper, is proposed to by her boss. Ahhh, the true romance of the '30s.

1953's House of Wax was the first time many American audiences saw a film with stereophonic sound and was Vincent Price's first 3-D movie (he went on to star in more 3-D films than anyone else). Price plays a wax sculptor whom, after suffering major injuries in a fire, builds a museum with the help of an aide played by Charles "Death Wish" Bronson. A visitor to the museum sees that the Joan of Arc sculpture looks like her recently deceased friend. Price takes her hostage proclaiming she will be his newest wax creation. Again, she beats him until his wax mask breaks, revealing a disfigured face. The police show up to rescue her, knocking Price in to a vat of wax. The script, filming techniques and darker tone are so much more advanced than its predecessor. Mystery of the Wax Museum's value mostly becomes historical after seeing House of Wax. Now. Let's forget about that 2005 remake.

 

The Thing (1951 / 1982)
1981's The Thing directed by John Carpenter, also known as John Carpenter's The Thing, is a remake of 1951's The Thing From Another World that was loosely based on a 1938 science-fiction novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr, which inspired the 1972 film Horror Express. These should not be confused with the 2011 film The Thing, which serves as a prequel to The Thing from 1981. Got that?

The Thing From Another World follows a group at the North Pole hunting a crashed flying saucer. They discover a body in ice, inadvertently thaw it out and it escapes. A string of attacks by the thing follow before it meets its demise by being electrocuted to the point of becoming ash. The film concludes by the leader of the group announcing on the radio to "Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies."

In John Carpenter's classic horror film Halloween, the kids Laurie babysits are watching the 1951 film. Carpenter then remade it four years later in an effort that easily overshadows the original. The story still follows a group of scientist explorers, this time in the Antarctic, when a dog enters their base. The dog then transforms in to its alien form and is killed, but the crew doesn't know what else or who else the alien has assimilated in to. This results in a claustrophobic paranoia that overtakes everyone, turning comrade against comrade. The film concludes with a chilling conclusion of two characters sitting outside their burning base, still not trusting the other is human, but are too cold and tired to do anything about it.


So, what does examining these films tell us? A successful remake needs to pay respect to the source material while providing its own take on the story. From what we've seen so far of Poltergeist, the story has taken a life of its own, expanding on the original commentary of screens infiltrating the American home. As with any movie, the best way to see it is on a screen bigger than what's in your suburban home. Besides, you never know what's lurking there...

Comments

Private comment posted on June 23, 2015 at 8:22:43 pm

Debbie

May 25, 2015
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (J. Biel) was pretty decent.

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