Three powerful and rather nasty films. More importantly, they are also very much the individual, personal works of film auteurs with a distinct vision. Suspiria even has a family history aspect, since it was inspired by experiences of co-writer Dario Nicolodi’s mother. The other element these three films have in common is that they all have remakes coming down the pike.
Yeah, there he goes again, you’re thinking, another rant about remakes. Well, I guess so. But the specific angle I want to address today is what happens when the director of either the original or the remake is not just an anonymous toiler.
In the first place, one might well point out that remaking a film whose every frame bears the fingerprints of its creator is an endeavour of such foolishness that it makes a winter invasion of Russia seem positively inspired by comparison. Why not remake Persona or Citizen Kane while we’re at it? (Here’s hoping I didn’t just give someone any ideas.) The really successful remakes, such as The Fly, have been cases where the original, fine as it was, was not the work of an auteur in the first place (Kurt Neumann, who worked on a wide variety of quickies, only a few of which were something more than anonymous), while the remake was (David Cronenberg).
I can hear someone shouting the name of a possible exception, so let’s deal with The Thing. Is it the exception that proves the rule? Both versions were the works of powerful creators: Howard Hawks and John Carpenter. However, I would not count Hawks’ 1951 film as the same kind of extremely personal work as Videodrome or Suspiria. Yes, even though the direction is officially credited to Christian Nyby, its setting, characters and overlapping dialogue style mark it as a film by Hawks. However, the mere fact that Hawks was happy to let someone else get the credit shows that this was hardly a some kind of obsession that he was finally bringing to the screen. Carpenter, I think fair to say, was more emotionally invested in his film.
So the point still holds: the director of personal vision taking on a more anonymous work (which does not mean that it is bad by any means) can give us something great. But going the other way around is an invitation to disaster.
The case of Oldboy is a little different. First, some clarification should be in order. It appears that the proposed Steven Spielberg/Will Smith project will not be an actual remake of the film, but rather another adaption of the source manga, which does differ, its seems, at least to some degree, from the first film. So maybe some benefit of the doubt should be given here. But unless the manga and the Korean film are radically dissimilar, it’s hard to see how this storyline would in any way mesh with the creative and sentimental sensibilities of Spielberg and Smith. So what we have here is, I think, very likely to be one of those unusual cases where an auteur takes on a project that is completely unsuited to his/her voice. For instance, Quentin Tarantino has, on more than one occasion, agitated to direct a James Bond film. Now, when he’s good, Tarantino is terrific, but the idea of him doing Bond is one of those ideas so terrible that it ought to be done at least once, just so we can see why it should never be done again (the Bond franchise is one where, one could argue, the director should be fairly anonymous).
In fact, there is a recent example of an auteur taking on the completely wrong project: The Wicker Man. Neil LaBute brought all of his usual obsessions to the project, and they were tragically and hysterically out of place. The results were just as awful as if Dario Argento decided to redo In the Company of Men (though, to be honest, I’d still pay serious money to see that).
It all boils down to this: Suspiria, Oldboy, Videodrome – LEAVE THEM ALONE!