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Carrie and Oldboy may lack spark - but there's nothing wrong with remaking horror classics

Remakes always happen for a reason, even if that reason is obscure. Horror and sci-fi director John Carpenter puts it down to a perpetual "nostalgia cycle" inherent in American pop culture.

Josh Brolin.
Josh Brolin in Spike Lee's remake of Chan-wook Park's Oldboy.

Two high-profile remakes in two weeks of films that were hardly obscure in the first place has got me wondering: who are these movies for? The answer is different in each case. Carrie, released last week, is a serviceable remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 version, incorporating elements from the Stephen King novel from which that picture was adapted. De Palma’s ripe, operatic reading has been replaced by a flatter, more clear-headed one, which is to say that it’s rather boring. But the story itself—about a downtrodden, sheltered adolescent girl with telekinetic abilities—is resilient enough that the film will connect with its target audience: teenagers who haven’t seen the original, and may not be able to see past the garish 1970s fashions and perms and shag-cuts even if they did.

Then there is Spike Lee’s new take on Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, the Jacobean-style revenge thriller which won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival ten years ago. (How I wish I could tell you that the president of the jury in 2003 was Nora Ephron or Richard Curtis. But no. It was Quentin Tarantino.) This might seem like an instance of Hollywood hijacking a foreign-language title with which most audiences will be unfamiliar, except that the appeal of the original Oldboy is pretty broad; it’s not some obscure curio. Lee’s version is dogged and stylish, if rather lacking in intensity—with the exception, that is, of a performance of Nick Nolte-like gruffness from Josh Brolin as the businessman who is imprisoned in a room for 20 years by unseen tormentors, framed for the murder of his wife, then released apparently arbitrarily. The “yuck” factor is also surprisingly low. Either that or I’ve become dangerously inured to the sight of people being shot at close range or attacked with the contents of a tool belt. The gooeyness of Park’s original is kept to a minimum, though there is a nice in-joke about that version’s most notorious scene, in which the hero devours a live octopus. That creature gets off lightly here. Others are not so lucky. Stuart Little just became that little bit sadder.

So why remake Oldboy? Clearly Lee was energised by the material. Together with the cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, he brings a slick metallic gloom to it that is very New York. Beyond that, the reason must simply be that Oldboy’s time had come. Remakes are cyclical. “I know there are a lot of 1970s and 1980s titles around again right now,” the director John Carpenter told me in 2007. “But my theory is that there's a 20- to 30-year nostalgia cycle in American pop culture. We long for those great old movies of yesteryear. In the 1950s, there was a nostalgia for the Karloff/Lugosi Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. It’s difficult to look into the future, but I don’t think that trend’s going to change.”

When it comes to the craze for revisiting movies from the 1970s and 1980s, Carpenter may be the most remade of living film-makers. Hollywood studios are eating through his back catalogue like locusts in a wheat field, with remakes of Assault On Precinct 13 and The Fog already released, and filming underway on new versions of Escape From New York, Halloween and The Thing. Carpenter, who is himself responsible for witty takes on the Howard Hawks classics Rio Bravo (as Assault On Precinct 13) and The Thing From Another World (as The Thing), was sanguine about this glut of remakes when I spoke to him. “I’m flattered if someone comes to me with the idea of remaking one of my films. Remake or original, making a movie still comes down to old-fashioned hard work. If it’s based on another film, well, so be it. Remakes have been part of cinema since its earliest days—think of A Star Is Born, which was remade numerous times. And they’re especially big right now because it’s become increasingly difficult to lure audiences into theatres. Advertising a remade title that may be familiar to audiences can hopefully cut through the clutter of titles and products that one sees.”

It’s true that some remakes acquire the taboo ring that the word “Macbeth” has in theatre dressing rooms: think of Diabolique, Get Carter, The Ladykillers, The Wicker Man. But the remake is not in itself an objectionable concept. Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped was a brilliant adaptation of James Toback’s Fingers, as well as a rare US-to-France remake, while Gus Van Sant’s colour Psycho, though vastly unpopular, was an authentically avant-garde experiment. Consider also The Magnificent Seven, Roxanne or Jim McBride’s Breathless—not masterpieces, perhaps, but each of them fast and free and full of possibility. Reinterpretations, not rehashes. Oldboy can’t claim to be original, but with its distinctive visual palette and fresh (if convoluted) plot twists, it strives in its own way to be new.

Carrie is on release. Oldboy opens on Friday.