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Op-Ed: Remake John Carpenter at Your Own Risk

Op-Ed: Remake John Carpenter at Your Own Risk

By now you’ve probably heard the rumor that Dwayne Johnson is in talks to star as Jack Burton (probably) in the remake of John Carpenter‘s 1986 silly-action-fantasy masterpiece, Big Trouble in Little China. The script has been written by Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller, who wrote the first Thor and X-Men: First Class. Now, all three of those people are good at what they do, and I don’t think, inherently, any particular movie is too sacred to be remade if it can be done properly. But here’s a word of warning to people who want to remake a John Carpenter movie: nobody as of yet has done one of these remakes properly. Not-a-one. So what makes anyone think this one will be any better?

Carpenter basically ruled the ’80s and his films, while not all massive hits at the time, have proven staying power, which makes them low-hanging fruit for the Hollywood remake machine. He may not have made as many films as some people, but he made the bulk of them count. Of the 18 feature films he’s directed, I’d say at least ten of them are legitimate genre classics which still have what Hollywood covets today, which are public appeal/fan base and name recognition. Of those ten, four have already been remade, each ranging from “Ugh, why?!” to “Eh, it was fine I guess.” And that’s being generous.

So why exactly didn’t these remakes work? Well, the short answer is because nobody can really do Carpenter like Carpenter. His premises were always so closely tied to his own somewhat nihilistic outlook and mistrust of authority that a remake already feels disingenuous from the outset. He also comes from the tradition of Howard Hawks and sparse but artful frame composition which made his movies distinctive. The Hollywood machine doesn’t work like that anymore and everything just looks sort of generically glossy. Unlike a lot of ’80s horror that’s been remade, Carpenter’s stamp is on just about every frame of his own films, and thus the magic of them is much harder to replicate even if the storyline and plot are pretty universal.

Let’s take a look at each of the films that have already been remade and try to pinpoint what didn’t really work.

The first of these came in 2005, remaking Carpenter’s first mature film (following the extended student film that was Dark Star), 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13. Watching his movie, you’d never guess it was a person who was new to filmmaking. There’s a surety and confidence to the way the movie is shot, especially at night. It feels like a modern, urban western, which is fitting because it was meant to be like Hawks’ Rio Bravo, a favorite film of Carpenter’s.

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The remake was directed by Frenchman Jean-François Richet (Who?) and took place, instead of in Los Angeles on a hot evening, in Detroit on New Year’s Eve, hence incredibly cold and snowy. While that offers a bit of coolness with the oppressive nature of the cold and seeing bad guys with infrared goggles through the whiteness. This one really felt like it changed things just for the sake of changing things. Instead of tiny group of cops and criminals having to join together to battle a street gang attacking to get revenge on one unrelated man, the remake had a small group of cops and criminals fighting against other cops who are corrupt (and faceless in their tactical gear) because of a twisty plot involving turncoats and shady deals. It was functional enough, but it lost the original’s sense of doom and that this could happen anywhere at any time in LA because it’s become that big a haven of crime. And in 1976, that was the case.

This was followed up later that year with a remake of Carpenter’s 1980 film The Fog, which was the director’s fourth film and was his first foray into the supernatural. It’s about a sleepy Northern California seaside community being slowly taken by a creeping green fog full of ghosts. It’s a glorious example of a disaster movie setup (groups of disparate people who don’t ever really connect in the story all dealing with a large problem) but couched inside a very traditional horror movie casing, complete with excellent practical effects by makeup man Rob Bottin.

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The 2005 remake, on the other hand, was just another in a long string of CGI-laden, PG-13 horror movies made starring pretty people from television. This was directed by Rupert Wainwright (the director of Stigmata and Blank Check) and starred Tom Welling, Maggie Grace, and Selma Blair. Yep. As you can imagine, this version lacked any and all of the spooky subtlety of Carpenter’s film and once again over-complicated the plot, for really nobody’s benefit. It’s like they don’t think audiences will be okay with simple storytelling. This represents the absolute nadir of Carpenter remakes.

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In 2007, Rob Zombie, a filmmaker who actually DOES have his own visual style and sensibility, directed a remake of perhaps Carpenter’s most popular and successful film, 1978’s Halloween, which of course spawned a very successful and hugely hit-and-miss series of sequels. Zombie’s film represents the ninth such film and for it, he decided to go back to basics. If this film suffers, it’s actually in being TOO reverential to Carpenter without having the same ability to scare. What works is the prequel part, which elongates the original’s prologue to show a grungy, trashy version of the Myers family and we see a picked-on and constantly ridiculed Michael take out his mom’s gross boyfriend, his sister, and his sister’s gross boyfriend before being put in a mental ward. However, once the movie picks up with Laurie Strode and her friends, it’s just a very swift retelling of the movie without any of the opacity of “The Shape” which made him so ubiquitous and frightening. A solid effort, but still a bit lacking.

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And finally, we have another film that tried too hard to pay homage and thus became just a pale imitation using CGI — 2011’s The Thing. Now, Carpenter’s original 1982 film is actually a remake itself, of the Hawks-produced 1953 sci-fi film, in which the eponymous alien was a guy in a suit and was apparently made of plants. Carpenter’s version, which was from a script by Bill Lancaster from the original story “Who Goes There?,” is about as different as a movie could be, becoming an apocalyptic tour de force and showcased Rob Bottin’s unbelievable creature designs. The prequel-cum-remake is basically just the same story but apparently taking place at the Norwegian camp the week or so before the first movie. Trouble is, of course, all of the scares from the original are there, mostly in CGI, and all the mystery is gone because we know what happens already. It’s the worst of both worlds.

For years they’ve been trying to get an Escape from New York remake off the ground, at once point with Gerard Butler set to play Snake Plissken, but that, thankfully, has yet to materialize. If Big Trouble in Little China does get remade, it’ll represent the weirdest Carpenter story ever to try to get redone. I mean, if they did They Live, I feel like it could be a bit more universal, but Big Trouble is a tongue-in-cheek ode to kung fu movies with Kurt Russell literally doing a John Wayne impression the whole time and actually being the sidekick. It’ll need a director with vision and a love of not just the source material but the films upon which Carpenter drew.

Carpenter has said many times in interviews that he doesn’t mind remakes of his work, because he never sees them and the best ones (meaning the ones he owns the rights to) involve him opening his hand and having a check appear in it. But he also might secretly know that nobody’s going to be able to do the kind of thing he was doing in one of the most prolific filmmaking tares anyone’s had, certainly since the 1970s. It’s the confluence of all sorts of factors being filtered through the very gifted and talented eye of John Carpenter that made those movies what they are; it doesn’t seem to be as easy to trap Lightning (or Rain or Thunder) in a bottle again.

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