Let's make some rules on movie remakes

Normally I don't complain about the proliferation of movie remakes any more than I complain about movie sequels and communal tables in restaurants — what's the point?

But recently a remake delivered a shiver. Its arrival felt like a cold harbinger of a bleak future. I felt pushed, motivated to revolution — in a fuming-at-my-desk kind of way. Since remakes are not going away anytime soon — indeed, since they appear to be venturing into ugly territory — it's time to compose a Movie Audience's Hollywood Remake Bill of Rights.

But first I should explain: Here's how I was radicalized.

“The Evil Dead,” the first of the “Evil Dead” movies and the first feature film directed by Sam Raimi, was shot in the backwoods of Tennessee in 1979 and early 1980. It was released nationally three years later and made $108,000 its opening weekend. (Yes, $108,000.) It told the story of five friends from Michigan State University who drive into the backwoods of Tennessee and get killed. They stay in a cabin, party and do the things that thoughtless college students in 1980s horror movies did. They find what the film refers to as an evil Sumerian Book of the Dead; they also find a tape recorder with a tape of someone reading incantations from the book. One of the students presses “play” on the recorder, which releases ancient demons. Next thing, eyes are gouged, torsos impaled, ankles stabbed, bodies dismantled — a woman is raped by a tree.

Obscene as this sounds, the film is distinctive, weird, kinetic, melodramatic, funny (though not as funny as “The Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn,” which brought back Ash, the last man standing, for further punishment, despite his being killed in the original).

Whatever quirks Raimi inserted decades later into his Spider-Man movies and the recent “Oz the Great and Powerful,” you can see clearly here the fingerprints of a style coming into focus. Last week, when I asked Bruce Campbell, who played Ash, if the first “Evil Dead” was intended to be that funny, he laughed: “Of course not! We were amateurs, delivering amateur dialogue!”

In fact, though “The Evil Dead” has become a horror classic, you could say it isn't really about anything.

But there is a moral:

Don't mess with sacred text.

Like, for instance, “The Evil Dead.”

Oh, go ahead and play around with the Bible (as Mark Burnett and the History channel recently did with their blockbuster miniseries); feel free to completely retool Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Phantom of the Opera” (a “newly reimagined” revival tours America starting in November); by all means check out the Court Theatre's revelatory rejiggering of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof” (despite two well-received revivals and a movie having already come through Chicago, all within the past dozen years); and definitely patronize Tributosaurus, Chicago's most accomplished cover band (re-creating the music of Cheap Trick at Martyrs' on April 17).

In fact, I would bet you that, in my lifetime, someone will remake “Star Wars” — and I'd go see that.

Great art tends to be malleable, the raw material for decades of interpretations.

But “The Evil Dead” …

It's not great art. It's just great.

“Oh, I definitely heard reasons why we should not have remade it,” said Campbell, one of the producers (along with Raimi) of the “Evil Dead” remake that opened Friday. “‘If Ash isn't in it, it isn't “Evil Dead,” If Sam Raimi is not directing it, it isn't “Evil Dead.”' Look, flat out, I am not a fan of sequels or remakes, but in the world of reality, in the entertainment world, remakes are inescapable now. ‘The Great Train Robbery,' from 1903, one of the first movies, was remade a few years later! This is the collision of art and commerce! And it is all driven by a fiscal reality. My beef with remakes is when they are naked — naked commerce.”

This was your idea, I said.

“No,” he said, “Fede Alvarez, the guy who directed (the new ‘Evil Dead'), he's from Paraguay and owns a special effects company. He made this cheap, great short film about robots attacking cities that landed him meetings with, like, every major studio executive and director in a two-week span. He met with Sam and he made a convincing argument that you could do an ‘Evil Dead' movie without an Ash, and since we get asked to do a sequel all the time, and it never feels right, Sam and I, we thought, ‘Well, in the meantime, what the heck: What would happen if we redid this monster movie with an actual budget this time? What if we could hit people with scarier, louder sounds, rattling in surround sound? The special effects were seamless, so you can't see how we did it? With good actors with actual experience? And a script that tells an actual story?'”

An actual story — “Evil Dead”? A professionally made “Evil Dead”?

That sounds like every other horror movie now.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing — say it ain't so, Ash.

I told Campbell I sympathized with people who questioned the idea for this film. I told him I saw it, I didn't have a bad time (it was surprisingly thoughtful and well-made; the opening shot of a woman stumbling through a ravaged forest soaked in unearthly light looks more expensive than the original “Evil Dead” itself).

I also recognized that remakes are a cultural reality. But remaking “Evil Dead” seemed distinctly troubling to me, a disturbing new front in movie audiences' battle with remake fatigue.

I said it was one of the first remakes lately where the original had a voice so unique to its maker any remake would be a bad imitation, and fundamentally miss the point of what made the original unique. (For instance, imagine the remake of a film by Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino — any director whose work is so specifically them. You can't, just as your voice coming through a different body would not sound natural.)

He said, “Yeah, but I would say that's the charm of the original you're talking about.”

I said, yes, exactly.

He said, “There's nothing that says we can't just focus on the story this time.”

Which reminded me: In the new “Evil Dead” remake, a woman rips out her own tongue and loses her voice.

Ahem. And so:

A Movie Audience's Hollywood Remake Bill of Rights

Article I: A remake must account for its distance from, and the distinction of, the original.

There shall be no remakes of movies less than 30 years old. Moreover, there shall be no remakes of endearing classics. (When producer Dino de Laurentiis remade “King Kong” in 1976, the film's tag line was just playing with fire: “There is only one King Kong!”). Also, distinction matters: A genre flick like “Cape Fear” (1962) is acceptable material for “Cape Fear” (1991), as “Ocean's Eleven” (1960) was sufficiently forgotten enough to become “Ocean's Eleven” (2001). (Exception: Foreign films made less than 30 years ago may be remade if it's in the right spirit. Example: “The Magnificent Seven,” a remake of “Seven Samurai.” Also see: Article III.)

Article II: A remake must consider a filmmaker's voice.

There shall be no remakes of movies in which the filmmaker's (obvious) influence was intrinsic to its success. Traditionally innocuous, weak-voiced material (“Footloose,” “Total Recall”) is acceptable, but traditionally auteur-driven, strong-voiced material (the upcoming remakes of “Carrie,” “Robocop”) is not. The upcoming remake of “About Last Night …,” however beloved by some, is acceptable because the original, despite being an adaptation of David Mamet, was so weak-voiced. Remakes of comedies, typically the most voice-driven movie genre, should be avoided. (Note: “His Girl Friday,” a remake of “The Front Page,” should be treated as an anomaly. Instead, see: Steve Martin's “Pink Panther,” a remake of Peter Sellers' Pink P.)

Article III: Remakes must deliver something new.

A remake, should it be necessary, must find something fresh to say about the material. It must resonate with a contemporary audience, not simply revisit the past. (See: David Cronenberg's “The Fly,” an AIDS-era update of an original obsessed with modern science.) The remake filmmaker must recognize that he or she is remaking said film because said film likely distinguished itself, broke rules or went out on a limb. Said remake should similarly go out on a limb. Superhero movies, which are all about the mythology, are exempt.

Article IV: Older, specific elements should be gently included in a remake.

Any element that immediately calls to mind the original should be discouraged, including aging actors, a similar visual scheme or a signature line of dialogue. Good: John Carpenter's 1982 remake of “The Thing From Another World” (1951), which borrowed the frozen wasteland and premise, and that's it. Bad: “The Thing,” the 2011 remake that borrowed Carpenter's blue-black color scheme and only reminded one of Carpenter's film. Also, please, no unnecessary “fleshing out” of previously vague material. (See Rob Zombie's “Halloween.”)

Article V: Please leave filmmakers alone.

We're not helping.

Studios are going to trample on our rights regardless of what we say. Your favorite movie will be remade, so stop making filmmakers so gun-shy about taking chances when they do trample on our rights and sign on for a remake. Therein lies something fresh.

Instead, consider the words of Chicago musician Chris Connelly, who leads the David Bowie cover band Sons of the Silent Age: “To remake something is a moral question. We remake music from David Bowie, but it could be anyone, anything. We do it because we love the material, nothing more.”

That's so nice.

“Yeah,” he said, “but if you gave me $10 million to make something, it wouldn't be Bowie covers. It'd be something original.” | Twitter @borrelli

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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