Ghostbusters is sure to start yet another discussion about remakes and how they are ruining the cinematic landscape. The individuals making those claims would do well to remember that remakes have been occurring since movies have existed. And guess what? There have been plenty of good remakes. Sometimes, the new version even outshines the old. It’s with this mindset that I’d like to rattle off fifteen of my favorite remakes. Not all of these are superior to the original but they are more than worth a watch.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
I only went with one Western remake of a samurai film — the other notable one is The Magnificent Seven, which happens to be getting its own remake this year — and it’s for one simple reason: Clint Eastwood. Sergio Leone’s retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s excellent Yojimbo launched Eastwood into stardom as the Man with No Name, an iconic figure that would inspire the creation of such beloved characters as Roland Deschain and the Saint of Killers. Eastwood is the very definition of cool in A Fistful of Dollars, calmly dispatching his enemies while slyly taking advantage of two feuding families for his own gain. Kurosawa’s original is not to be missed but I can’t help but prefer the grimy, pulpy Spaghetti Western version.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Now we move on to a remake of a Western — Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo to be exact — done by none other than John Carpenter. Released two years before he changed the horror genre forever with Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 takes the basic idea of the classic siege movie and updates it to 1970s Los Angeles. It’s a perfect balance of grindhouse nastiness and surprising polish. Carpenter made his inspiration clear when he used the pseudonym John T. Chance — the name of John Wayne’s character from Rio Bravo — for his editing credit on the film. Heck, Carpenter digs Rio Bravo so much that he repurposed it again for his sci-fi action movie, Ghosts of Mars. Assault on Precinct 13 would get its own remake in 2005, making it a remake of a remake.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
F.W. Murnau’s unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula still manages to be a striking piece of cinema almost a century after its initial release. German filmmaker Werner Herzog decided to retell Murnau’s take on the classic tale, leaning heavily on the Gothic imagery that the silent film reveled in. Herzog even recreates exact shots from Murnau’s film, making his film an obvious love letter to the original. This remake expands upon the characters quite a bit, especially focusing on Dracula himself and the loneliness his curse inflicts upon him. This is proof that remakes can hew close to their inspirations while still managing to carve out their own identity.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter remakes another Howard Hawks production! This time, Carpenter takes Hawks’ The Thing from Another World and delves deeper into the source material, John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella, Who Goes There?. Employing effects artist Rob Bottin, Carpenter set out to make a nightmarish tale about paranoia and isolation. Spoiler alert: he succeeded. The Thing is one of the essential horror films of the ’80s, gifting the silver screen with freakish monsters that haven’t been topped to this day. The cast is on point, the setting is appropriately claustrophobic, and the tension is utterly pervasive as you never quite know who has been assimilated by the titular alien. This one is the first one on the list that I feel comfortable in declaring it better than the original.
Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone took the Howard Hawks’ film (what is it with that guy getting good remakes?) about a psychotic gangster and transplanted it into 1980s Miami, turning the Italian Tony Camonte into the Cuban Tony Montana. Al Pacino gloriously chews scenery in this ode to excess that set a new standard for violence (and profanity!) in cinema. While it’s a little long and a touch trashier than its reputation would lead you to believe, it’s a cornerstone of gangster cinema that goes straight for the jugular and never releases its grip. If you can stomach it, it’s a treat for those who like their crime flicks extra bloody.
The Fly (1986)
David Cronenberg takes the underappreciated 1958 sci-fi film and transforms it into a body horror masterpiece. Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, and John Getz give terrific performances but this is a movie best remembered for the special effects and makeup by Chris Walas (Gremlins). The work Walas did was so phenomenal that it earned him an Academy Award, an accolade that horror films don’t often receive. Cronenberg plays up the tragedy and pathos of the story, elevating it to nearly operatic levels. I guess that’s why he eventually adapting the film to the stage as an opera! The Fly is the definition of a gross-out film but it’s one of the few that has a genuine heart beating inside its deformed and decaying carcass.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Originally a stage musical from the duo of Howard Ashman & Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast), this reconfiguration of Roger Corman’s 1960 black comedy is a triumph of practical effects and heartfelt acting. Audrey II is still a marvel to behold, and Rick Moranis’ lovable portrayal of Seymour Krelborn is possibly the best in his entire career. That’s not to discredit the cute and endearing turn from Ellen Greene or the hilarious Steve Martin as a sadistic dentist. The songs are uniformly catchy and the humor is both sweet and sinister. Easily my favorite film musical of all time.
Cape Fear (1991)
Martin Scorsese‘s mostly faithful remake illustrates that it only takes a few changes to make a new version of a film feel fresh. Robert DeNiro is at his best here, hamming up the scumbag nature of ex-con Max Cady, played by Robert Mitchum in the 1962 original. Scorsese even reuses Bernard Herrmann’s score from the first film, though it is given a proper reworking by Elmer Bernstein. There’s also cameos from three of the original films cast members (Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, and Martin Balsam), so it’s clear that Scorsese had immense respect for the movie he was remaking. Most of the time, that’s all it takes to make a good remake. Cape Fear is proof of that.
Many folks don’t know that Michael Mann‘s seminal crime epic is actually a remake of a TV movie he made six years prior. L.A. Takedown was mishandled by the studio according to Mann, so he retold the story years later and ended up making one of the best films of the ’90s. Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino (hey, they both popped up again!) are at the top of their game and the methodical tone of the whole piece makes it feel two steps away from being a documentary. The landmark shootout sequence is still one of the most thrilling ever put to film, and it stands as a testament to Mann’s command of grounded action. L.A. Takedown is worth seeking out if you’re a fan, but you don’t get any better than Heat.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
There is no reason a remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 zombie classic should have ever been attempted. Thankfully, Zack Snyder’s version is shockingly great due to simply lifting the basic premise of the original and deciding to craft new characters and plotlines. James Gunn‘s script is viciously funny and manages to balance out the horror with lots of laughs. It’s a shame that Snyder got roped into making superhero films because his talent for horror is evident from the memorable opening sequence. The fact that Snyder did away with all of Romero’s allegory actually helps the movie a bunch. It’s kinetic, well-made, and surprisingly charming in its own weird way. I’d dare say it’s the best entry in Snyder’s filmography.
Funny Games (2007)
It’s not often that a director returns to their own film and remakes it — Hitchcock famously did this with The Man Who Knew Too Much — but when it does happen it’s worth taking notice. Michael Haneke’s hard-to-watch 1997 original gets an English speaking shot-for-shot remake that actually becomes a self-aware commentary on the nature of stories. I don’t want to spoil it for the uninitiated but the two films actually work as companion pieces in a bizarre way. This is one where going in blind helps the experience a lot, but it’s also a situation where seeing the original first is mandatory.
The Crazies (2010)
Yet another George A. Romero film gets the remake treatment but this one I understand why it got a second shot. The 1973 original is a decent paranoid thriller but its reach exceeds its grasp; the budget, flat filmmaking, and overly convoluted plot don’t allow the concept to flourish. However, Breck Eisner’s remake cuts out all the fat of the story and gives it a good grounding with Timothy Olyphant’s sheriff character. The direction is sleek and the tension is surprisingly effective. It may be one of the most familiar stories ever told but it’s the telling that’s important. It’s no secret masterpiece but it’s an extremely solid and simple slice of horror fiction.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)
I’ll probably get called out for this one since my editor, Nick Nunziata [Note from the Editor: Thanks Drew! But where is The Departed?], has an associate producer credit on the film. I don’t care because this redo of a clunky but effective 1973 TV movie demands to be rediscovered. We don’t get enough horror films these days that are aimed at kids and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a pretty perfect fright flick for the youngsters in your life. The monsters are creepy but never too grotesque, the atmosphere and scenery are straight out of a storybook, and the horror is never softened in an attempt to placate the overly sensitive. Kids need to watch scary movies so that they can learn how much fun horror can be, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a great entry point for them.
True Grit (2010)
Who would have thought that a remake of one of John Wayne‘s definitive pictures would not only be good but better than the original? The Coen brothers achieved exactly that with True Grit, one of the best Westerns of the last decade. Jeff Bridges does crusty curmudgeon Rooster Cogburn justice and Matt Damon easily trumps Glen Campbell’s original performance as Texas Ranger La Boeuf. But it’s newcomer Hailee Steinfeld who steals the show as Mattie Ross, easily sharing the screen with some of the best actors of our generation. Wickedly funny, appropriately brutal, and ultimately heartwarming, True Grit is a minor masterpiece for a filmmaking duo who have more than their fair share of excellent films.
Piranha 3D (2010)
What do you do when you decide to remake a tongue-in-cheek satire of Jaws? If you’re Alexandre Aja, you shove that tongue straight through the cheek. It’s this over-the-top approach that makes Piranha 3D a real gem for lovers of gonzo cinema. Instead of replicating the satirical tone of the 1978 original, Aja goes for full-on juvenile gore and never apologizes for his lowbrow take on a story about killer fish. Aja recognizes that 3D is nothing but a gimmick and takes advantage of it every chance he can. Special mention should go to Jerry O’Connell and the fate of his character. I’m sure my editors don’t want me ending this list talking about what happens to him, so I’ll just say that you should check out the movie and be prepared to cross your legs.
Stay tuned for the flipside of this discussion as I single out the fifteen worst remakes that somehow ended up in front of our eyeballs.