It’s pretty common to hear movie buffs complain about remakes. After all, if Hollywood had any imagination, why would the studios just tell the same old stories? However, we at Rotten Tomatoes would like to offer a polite reminder that not all remakes are created equal. Sometimes, a new adaptation of an old tale is a respectable film in its own right — and sometimes it even surpasses the original. With Movies Re-Freshed, we present a selection of remakes that are worth your time — and the originals that spawned them.
Nobody made gritty urban mayhem like John Carpenter in his prime, and the original Assault on Precinct 13 serves as perfectly pulpy proof: starring Austin Stoker as the beleaguered cop left holding the bag on the last day before the titular police department is scheduled to close, it presents a stylishly hellish vision of a nation gnashing in the throes of social decay. It would be hard to argue that a remake was ever necessary, but Jean-François Richet at least had a pair of pretty sharp tools to work with when he re-Assault-ed the Precinct in 2005: Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke go head to head here, and if the results don’t quite measure up to Carpenter’s classic, they still provide a fair measure of B-movie thrills for folks who have already seen the original.
The bold stylistic innovations of the French New Wave continue to influence directors as disparate as Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. Before they made their own films, however, folks like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut were obsessive movie buffs, feasting on that most American of genres, the film noir. Jean-Pierre Melville was a little older than his fellow New Wavers, but he shared their love of crime and gangster movies. His first major success was Bob le flambeur (Bob the Gambler), the tale of a middle-aged ex-con who devises a plan to rob a casino. The planning and execution of the crime are expertly staged, but what lingers is the film’s mood: cool, smoky, pessimistic. Neil Jordan, who directed Mona Lisa and The Crying Game, is no stranger to those same blue moods. In The Good Thief, his remake of Bob, the lights are a little brighter but the mood is no less haunted, and in Nick Nolte, he has an actor that can exude a lifetime of disappointment with only a few words in his trademark rasp.
What better way to make a big splash in your feature debut than to remake a revered classic? This is exactly what director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Man of Steel) did when he reinterpreted George Romero’s 1978 zombie sequel Dawn of the Dead. Luckily for Snyder, Romero’s film was a standalone movie — not a true sequel to Night of the Living Dead — so he had some freedom to play with the story, and the result was a surprise success. James Gunn (director of Guardians of the Galaxy) came aboard to rework the script, which skipped the SWAT raid plot setup of the original and trapped Sarah Polley, Mekhi Phifer, and a disparate group of survivors in a shopping mall barricaded against a zombie invasion. Tense, briskly paced, and appropriately violent, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead eschewed the cultural satire of the original in favor of visceral thrills, but all things considered, it worked rather well.
For some audiences of a certain age, 1984’s Footloose rates up there with Dirty Dancing, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Breakfast Club as the decade’s most effective vehicles for teen nostalgia, complete with chart-topping pop hits and an anti-establishment message. But the film, loosely based on the story of a small Midwestern town where dancing had been illegal for almost a century, failed to impress critics, many of whom found its execution sloppy and trite. Fast forward to 2010, when the reins of the Footloose remake were handed to Craig Brewer, best known for his Southern-fried musical tales Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan. With a few clever edits to the original script, an updated soundtrack, and a couple of agile young stars (Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough) with hip moves, Brewer managed to make the story relevant to contemporary audiences, and he was rewarded with a 71 percent Tomatometer score. Is the remake a better film? Critics seemed to think so, but for fans of the original, there’s no replacing a fleet-footed Kevin Bacon.
Young audiences and their parents grew enamored with fourteen-year-old Jodi Foster as Annabel in the original 1976 Disney film Freaky Friday based on the novel by Mary Rodgers. The fantasy tale that had Annabel and her mother, Mrs. Andrews (Barbara Harris), switching bodies for a day eventually set off a chain of similarly themed switched-roles films like 1987’s Like Father, Like Son, 1988’s 18 Again, 1991’s Switch, and 2011’s The Change-Up. But none of those knock-offs had any of the critical acclaim of Friday, so the obvious next step was to enlist contemporary comedic talents like Jamey Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan and produce an official remake. The 2004 version of Freaky Friday worked like a charm, reaping more critical plaudits than the original, resulting in a Certified Fresh Tomatometer score of 88 percent and proving that when good source material provides the comedic backbone to a fine family film, it will entertain kids and adults alike. Watching a 14-year-old trying to walk in heels in an adult woman’s body just never gets old.
In 1954, Gojira opened in Japan to fearful audiences who highly anticipated a glimpse of what became the ultimate movie monster legend, Godzilla. Opening to mostly negative and mixed reviews, the film was seen by some as a commentary on the lengthy post-World War II devastation of Japan. But the creature could not be contained and found its way to American soil in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters! The newly-edited version featured spliced footage of Canadian actor Raymond Burr as a reporter providing an English narrative without the need for plentiful voice dubbing. The film’s popularity grew further with sequels and remakes, and battles were fought with other classic monsters like King Kong and Mothra. After an ill-received 1998 American reboot, the 2014 version was unleashed to fans eager for a quality remake. Like Gojira, 2014’s Godzilla addresses the politics of nuclear weaponry, but more surprises and plot twists propelled the remake to hit status by audiences and critics.
“The times… they are a-changin'” sums up this John Waters film from 1988. Set in 1962 Baltimore, MD, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad — an overweight teen who dreams of being on an American Bandstand-style TV show, overcoming social stereotypes while fighting against racial segregation. Although it had a modest showing at the box office, Hairspray became a cult classic in the early ’90s once released on home video. Since, it has been adapted into a Broadway musical, eventually leading to a remake in 2007 chock-full of a stars like John Travolta, Michelle Pfieffer, and Zac Efron — coming off his recent High School Musical fame. The 2007 remake was on point with the original, plot wise, but featured the addition of songs from the musical Broadway hit which gave it a leg-up at the box office, eventually breaking records with the biggest opening weekend sales of a movie musical at the time.
What if there were a police officer who went undercover and rose through the ranks of a notorious gang at the same time that one of the gang’s own members joined the police force as a mole? Pretty intriguing premise, right? Martin Scorsese thought so, which is why he helmed a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs — which was so popular it spawned both a prequel and a sequel the very next year. With two of Hollywood’s hottest young stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon) leading the way, a huge veteran supporting cast peppered with names like Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, and Martin Sheen, and a strong script, Scorsese managed to pull off an Americanized update of the story that impressed both critics and audiences. The Departed may not inspire any prequels or sequels, but it’s a striking example of how good remakes can be when they’re done right.
Using the Norwegian countryside as the perfectly lovely-yet-dispassionate backdrop for the harrowing tale of one man’s hellish descent into moral drift and crippling guilt, the original Insomnia served as a striking debut for director Erik Skjoldbjaerg — and seemed like just the sort of chilly European thriller that Hollywood would fumble up with American quips and extra bullets. Fortunately, the director who took the reins for our Insomnia turned out to be Christopher Nolan, and although staying true to the original’s starkly disquieting spirit didn’t exactly endear his remake to U.S. audiences, it added another resplendent feather to Nolan’s growing critical quiver — and gave Al Pacino and Robin Williams an opportunity to shine in the bargain.
Some movie plots are evergreen. Take the heist movie, for example. We never get tired of watching a charming rogue assemble a ragtag crew to design and execute a big score. But times change; everybody knows that banks, art museums, and casinos can no longer be breeched simply by knocking out the guards or cutting holes in the windows. With its awesome Mini Cooper chase, its scenic locales, and Michael Caine at his most raffishly charming, The Italian Job (1969) remains a superior caper flick. However, the technology on display is a wee bit outdated — there’s a scene in which one of the gang members hacks a computer by changing one of its tape reels. The 2003 update, starring Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, and a bunch more, kept the cars but moved the action to Los Angeles and updated the technology; the gang’s resident hacker, Lyle (Seth Green) claims he was the original Napster.
Considered to be one of the “most iconic movies in the history of cinema,” King Kong tells the story of a gigantic ape discovered by a film crew on an unchartered, mysterious island. Kong takes a shine to the film’s subject, Ann, and protects her as he is dragged back to New York City. It’s an unconventional love story at its core that in all reality is quite beautiful. Its stop-motion animation gives it a unique and distinguishable quality. Due to its cultural significance, King Kong has not been remade once, but twice. In its most recent version, starring Jack Black and Naomi Watts, director Peter Jackson gives a new interpretation of one of Hollywood’s greatest action adventure films. The original is a classic — one to be admired — while the 2005 remake is a special effects spectacle, including Andy Serkis’s motion-capture portrayal of Kong. Both films provide an equal, yet admirably different, amount of action entertainment.
We first met bumbling flower shop employee Seymour in Roger Corman’s 1960 low-budget horror comedy The Little Shop of Horrors. A bit of a horticultural tinkerer, Seymour accidentally creates a carnivorous plant that feeds on human flesh. Look for cameos from “that guy” Dick Miller and a young Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient. Corman’s film spawned a stage musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (of The Little Mermaid fame), which in turn spawned the 1986 musical remake Little Shop of Horrors, starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin. The stage musical takes a few dark turns from the original movie, but many of those aspects were left out of the 1986 film. The original stage actress Ellen Greene reprises her role as Audrey and manages to steal the show and everyone’s hearts.
Over the course of his career, Alfred Hitchcock consistently (many would say obsessively) rehashed plot points, themes, and archetypes in his films. Only once, however, did he outright remake one of his own movies. The Man Who Knew Too Much first came to the screen in 1934 while Hitchcock was working in England; in 1956, he gave the same materials a big-budget Hollywood update. In each, the setup is basically the same: a married couple on vacation meet a man who is subsequently murdered, but not before passing them some important intelligence. Kidnappers take the couple’s child in order to keep them from talking, and our heroes struggle to rescue their child and foil a conspiracy. The 1956 version has a slight edge with critics and a big edge with Hitch himself, who told Francois Truffaut, “The first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” But for movie buffs, it’s a much tougher call. True, the later version has Jimmy Stewart, certainly one of the most sympathetic of all of Hitchcock’s leading men. On the other hand, the 1934 take has Peter Lorre at his most sinister. The 1934 film is creepier and more experimental; the remake is slicker and more picturesque. Ultimately, neither ranks in the upper tier of Hitchcock classics, but, taken as a pair, they offer fascinating insights into the creative mind of one of cinema’s greatest auteurs.
Everybody — and we mean everybody — wants to be in the Rat Pack. And why not? There’s something undeniably appealing about getting all your buddies together for a wild romp in Vegas. The carefree, vaguely disreputable spirit of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin still holds a powerful place in the public imagination; recent films like Now You See Me and Think Like a Man Too tried to channel some of the Rat Pack’s breezy cool. (There’s a reason the dudes in The Hangover dubbed themselves the Wolfpack.) That said, the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960) owes its rep more to its dazzling array of stars than to its quality; it’s fun to spend time with Ol’ Blue Eyes, Sammy, Dino, Peter Lawford, and the rest of the gang, even if this heist caper is notably short on tension. Fortunately, the 2001 remake retained the hipness of the original but moved at a much quicker pace. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Julia Roberts, and a crack supporting cast brought the star power, while Steven Soderbergh directed with the flash and sizzle of a Vegas fire juggler.
Joe Dante was one of a select few directors in the 1980s who specialized in off-kilter horror/sci-fi cinema with B-movie sensibilities, most evident in films like Gremlins and Innerspace. Had he not first established himself with 1978’s Roger Corman-produced Piranha, though, arguably none of those cult classics would have been as memorable. Essentially a Jaws knock-off inspired by the success of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster (the trailer warns, “Sharks come alone; piranha come in thousands!”), the film centered on a lakeside community terrorized by an invasion of the flesh-eating fish and featured heaping helpings of blood and gore. While it did spawn a sequel and a 1995 cable network remake, the franchise found new blood in 2010 when French genre director Alexandre Aja (High Tension) was commissioned to reboot the series in earnest with Piranha 3D. Initially dismissed by some as a blatant attempt to cash in on the classic horror remake trend, the end result was a surprise hit, thanks to a bigger budget, better production value, and Aja’s ability to marry gruesome thrills with a cheeky, self-aware sense of humor.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, most of Hollywood’s iconic horror villains had succumbed to formulaic self-parody (Jason in space, anyone?), and thrillseeking audiences were increasingly being treated to shocks rather than scares. Across the Pacific, though, Japan saw its highest grossing horror film ever in 1998’s Ringu, a dark and twisted ghost story about a cursed videotape that brings imminent death upon any who watch it. Ringu‘s vivid imagery and deft storytelling made for a potent (and profitable) supernatural thriller, and Hollywood came calling in 2002, enlisting the aid of director Gore Verbinski and then-rising star Naomi Watts in an American adaptation. Not only did The Ring introduce the western world to the chilling image of the East Asian ghost, it ushered in a new era of horror remakes from Japan, South Korea, and China, effectively saturating the market with pale women dressed in white with faces obscured by long, black hair.
“You need people like me,” says Tony Montana (Al Pacino). “You need people like me so you can point your f—in’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.'” Scarface‘s ruthless, foul-mouthed antihero says these words to a roomful of scornful restaurant patrons in Brian De Palma’s 1983 classic, but he could just as easily be calling out movie audiences as a whole. We do need bad guys: we love to feel the vicarious thrill of watching larger-than-life characters break all the rules and live large — as long as order is restored at the end. If anyone understood the lurid appeal of big-screen criminality, it was the great director Howard Hawks; the release of his Scarface was delayed for almost a year because censors feared his film glorified gangsterism. It’s hard to argue with them, because Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is the most compelling figure on the screen, and he seems like a pretty cool customer — for a bloodthirsty mobster, of course. You can’t go wrong with either Scarface, but regardless, whether you prefer Hawks’ dark shadows or De Palma’s glowing neon, one thing is certain: for a few hours, you can revel in evildoing and conspicuous consumption from the comfort of your own home. In other words, the (under) world is yours.
Just as Americans were captivated by tales of the Wild West, so too did the Japanese mythologize the samurai. In an increasingly urbanized and urbane world, there’s something undeniably compelling about cowboys and samurai — they’re free to roam as they please, answering to nothing but their own moral code. What’s interesting is how much these distinctive legends were nurtured by outside influences. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa loved John Ford’s Westerns, and his epic Seven Samurai was in many ways an attempt to reconfigure Western archetypes into a Japanese framework. The story of a ragtag group of wandering samurai who team up to protect a village from marauding bandits, its influence can be felt on everything from Star Wars to Inglourious Basterds. At the time of its release, Seven Samurai was a huge international success, and Hollywood took notice; John Sturges’ 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven transported the story to Mexico but maintained its themes of honor and sacrifice in a land without pity. Sporting a cast that includes Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn, The Magnificent Seven is a terrific film, but nothing can top Seven Samurai, which remains one of the boldest and most epic action movies ever made.
Three different takes on the same story and they’re all about showbiz? Have no fear, though, each version of A Star is Born tells a universal love story set amongst different eras, making each a unique experience. The first film came when David O. Selznick decided he wanted to expose what it was like behind the scenes in Hollywood (although he kind of already did that with 1932’s What Price Hollywood). The result is a rags-to-riches tale of starlet Esther Blodgett and aging actor Norman Maine, who takes her under his wing, only to see her soar beyond him. Played by Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in the 1937 version and Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1953, all four performers were nominated for Oscars. The oft-maligned 1976 version sees the story transplanted to music business, with Barbra Streisand playing Esther Hoffman and Kris Kirstofferson burnt out rockstar John Norman Howard. It seems the only thing this last film had to offer that anyone wanted was the mega-hit “Evergreen.” There’s been talks that Clint Eastwood would helm a fourth version, although not much has happened on that front since Beyonce dropped from the cast. Maybe the idea isn’t so evergreen after all.
American cinephilles were puzzled when Three Men and a Cradle swept France’s César Awards in 1986. A goofy farce about hard-partying bachelors who act as surrogate dads for the daughter of one of their ex-flames, Cradle may have been light as a feather, but it had energy and charm to spare. The French were on to something; Leonard Nimoy’s remake, set in New York and starring Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, and Steve Guttenberg was the biggest box office hit of 1987, and mostly won over the critics with its warmth and good cheer. The commercial triumph of Three Men and a Baby inspired a wave of Hollywood Francophilia, as studios gave la lumière vert to remake everything Gallic, be they action comedies (La Totale! begot True Lies), period dramas (The Return of Martin Guerre became Sommersby), dark thrillers (La Femme Nikita spawned Point of No Return), or even abysmally-reviewed children’s films ( Little Indian, Big City induced Jungle 2 Jungle).
Written by Ryan Fujitani, Marya Gates, Jeff Giles, Kerr Lordygan, Catherine Pricci, and Tim Ryan.