Remakes happen. The known element is popular with audiences, for all that people moan about the lack of original movies. Lost in Translation has looked at the problems different sources have when being translated to film, but remaking a movie has its own issues. For most genres, it’s not a problem. People will enjoy the same story over and over, whatever the format. For horror and mystery, there’s a problem.
Horror and mystery rely on tension and the unknown. In horror, it’s a question of when something happens, with setting, lighting, and music the only cues. Mysteries rely on solving the puzzle, following clues to the end. In both genres, knowing the end result takes away from the suspense. The remake of The Evil Dead took the same situation – a cabin in the middle of the woods and a group of young adults – and, while having similar beats to the original, added its own twists so that audiences couldn’t rely on their knowledge of the older movie.
Before the Eighties, most older films could be found either in repertory theatres or on television, either late night or weekend mornings. With the typical time between original movie and a remake being about thirty years or so, a new generation of audience could grow up without having seen the source. The Eighties, though, were when the VCR took off with hardware and available movies coming down in cost to be practical for the home. Specialty cable stations added to the availability of older movies. Today, with DVDs and streaming, if a film exists, it can usually be found somewhere on demand. A movie from the Eighties, ie, thirty years ago, is still available to the next generation of audience. The twists and turns that made an original movie suspenseful now makes a remake predictable. Yet, people want the familiar. Directors of remakes are in a tough spot. The audience wants the remake to be faithful, but not too faithful.
Slasher films and monster movies have an out. Audiences are there to see the star – the slasher or the monster, different sides of the same coin – do what they do best, kill people. Few people watch a Godzilla movie to cheer the Japanese Self-Defense Force; they’re there to see Godzilla stomp through Tokyo. Toho has rebooted the series, but hasn’t really remade the original.
Another issue with horror remakes is that horror films tend to reflect the fears of the time they are made. Going back to Godzilla, the original film was made in response to the growing fears of atomic weapons, made in a country that had the first and only two atomic bombs dropped on it. Other fears that have shown up include machines turning on humanity (Maximum Overdrive, The Terminator), humanity’s interference with nature (The Thing, Sharktopus), loss of identity (The Fly, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Borg), the faceless other (zombie films), and the seductive other (vampire movies). While some of those fears are part of being human, others change as understanding is gained and political winds blow.
Mysteries may not rely on the fear of the day, but they do rely on the puzzle. With information at the audience’s fingertips today, it’d be easy to do a quick search to find out whodunit. Adapting a mystery from literature doesn’t quite have the same problem; the audience is there to see a story they enjoyed on screen, not solve the puzzle. Remaking a mystery, though, needs to create new twists to keep the audience on its toes. There are exceptions, such as Columbo where the draw is to see how the detective solves the murder, but most mysteries rely on not knowing who the killer is until the reveal. Even the live action Scooby-Doo, while still using the tropes of the cartoon including having the monster really be someone the kids have met, created its own plot instead of using one of the animated episodes.
There are ways around the problem. The first is to make the new movie a reboot, picking up where the previous film left off. The TV series Ash vs Evil Dead is a continuation of the original The Evil Dead with Ash getting into more trouble. It’s easier with slasher films and monster movies; the star is the attraction, so even with new casting, as long as the main character acts in the expected way, the audience is satisfied. Mysteries may have a harder time, depending on how much the original actor was tied to the character. Peter Falk made Columbo his character; it’ll be some time before an audience will accept a newcomer to the role. However, other characters, like Sherlock Holmes, have been portrayed by a large number of different actors.
The key in any remake is to provide the audience what they expect. With horror, the expectation is suspense and scares; with mysteries, it’s a whodunit. The characters in the remake should behave like they did in the original, even if the plot has changed. Shaggy shouldn’t sound like an Oxford scholar and Ash Williams shouldn’t be the luckiest man alive. Get these details correct, and the audience won’t mind changes to the plot.