A Remake, A Reboot and A Prequel: 3 films that worked despite themselves.

      When it comes to the the genres of science-fiction and horror Hollywood churns them out in xerox fashion, waits a few years and then churns out more sequels, prequels, and remakes.  2011 had a glut of these (though less than some years) in-between bouts of superhero flicks of varying degrees of success.
    Much to this writer's surprise three genre films stuck out defying the conventions of the modern recycling trend. While none best their source material, each in their own way crafts their tales with surprising results- one even headed for the Academy Awards in what could be a groundbreaking nomination, but more on that later.
     All three had respected actors, not slumming, but elevating the material to quality genre fair; smart, relevant scripts and surprisingly nifty FX. One of the batch traded in dark humor as much as bloody horror, one went for the gore and psychological nihilism and the third effortlessly thrilled while provoking a discussion about research, cruelty, animal rights, evolution and freedom. 

Check out the list and why after the jump


The Remake: 

 My initial response to a remake of Fright Night was one of unmitigated outrage and repulsion. The campy late night fun and surprisingly queer casting choices of the 80's flick makes it  a beloved genre classic. And what's this? No William Ragsdale cameo? How dare you! Then a funny thing happened... 
    I saw the script was by the remarkable Marti Noxon (writer for the critically acclaimed Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and boasted an insane cast: Colin Ferrell (um the Coline Ferrell Sex Tape!) , Anton Yelchin (Star Trek), David Tennant (Doctor Who), Toni Collette (United States of Tara) , Imogene Poots ( Christopher and his Kind), Dave Franco (Brother to James), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Kick Ass), Reid Ewing (ABC's Modern Family) and , um, Lisa Loeb (?!)    

2011's Fright Night finds the action shifted to Las Vegas, a city that truly never sleeps. This time around High schooler Charlie Brewster (Yelchin) has started the painful process of out growing Evil Ed , his best friend (Mintz-Plasse) and dating the ridiculously attractive Amy (Poots) . The film doesn't have the outsider bonding of the original, but perhaps its a reflection of our times, perhaps its simply more honest in that kids discard each other in search of popularity in high school.  Collette is great as single mom and real estate agent Jane Brewster but the pair of aces in the film's arsenal are clearly  Colin Ferrell's terrifying and magnetic take on vampire next door Jerry Danridge. While Chris Sarandon's original Jerry was a suave sophisticate seducing his victims and neighbors, Ferrell plays Jerry as serial killer, part shark part  Ted Bundy. He's a rapist-torturer who eats his victims.  He's also kind of lonely and watches a lot of infomercials.  Watching Ferrell's eyes constantly darting about in scenes, surveying his surrounds was  a refreshing return to form. If anything Fright Night serves to reset the scales , vampires don't glitter for teenage girls. They are monsters who feed on humans. 
     Perhaps the biggest change to the film and it's greatest attempt to own it's identify from the original is in the radical re-envisioning of the beloved cable access Horror Host vampire-killer Peter Vincent played by Hollywood legend Roddy McDowell in the original. Horror hosts are sadly a thing of the past for a modern generation.  Here Doctor Who's brilliant David Tenant spins Peter Vincent into a manic Criss Angel style pansexual stage magician/alcoholic/tyrant . He's hysterical bold performance is wildly entertaining and begs for a sequel.  While the original film stands as an exceptional 80's horror/comedy with tons of wit and heart in an era of cookie cutter slasher films, the more action-oriented remake shows that the violent yarn still has something to say to audiences.

The Prequel:  

        Universal Pictures, home to Hollywood's classic monsters, Dracula, the Wolf Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  As the 40's veered into the 50's fear came not from the dark castles of Europe but from the dark skies above.  Howard Hawkes The Thing from Outer Space is a classic of cold war sci-fi. It was remade simply as The Thing in 1982 by the incomparable John Carpenter Starring  Kurt Russel and set in a remote Antarctic research lab. It was and remains a shocking, gory, brilliantly paced study in paranoia, body horror, and survival. Bleak and brutal, it was a box office flop that is now wisely considered one of the greatest sci-fi horror films of all time. In recent years John Carpenter has been a hot property for the remake. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Fog have all been remade with varying degrees of success... So of course Universal in the flurry of cash-in remakes decided let's remake The Thing. Thankfully along the way, producers, screenwriters and a wise first time feature director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
intervened and crafted a smart, horrific under appreciated prequel set days before the 1982 film in the Norwegian Camp mentioned in the previous film.  
    Scott Pilgrim VS the World's Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a solidly real performance reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ellen Ripley in Alien as a Kate Lloyd a paleontology grad student drafted to Antarctica to help identify and study a newly discovered "structure and specimen" . Kate, along with Aussie actor Joel Edgerton's helicopter pilot Sam Carter give us our every man heroism in the face of truly disturbing horror.   Winstead's role serves to separate her from Kurt Russel's R.J. MacReady from Carpenter's film, she's the brains of the operation, not just brawn. Kate is one of two female roles in the film (the other being Kim Bubbs as Juliette) which is a refreshing contrast to the all-male 1982 film, which itself was a departure from the co-ed and female focused slasher films of that era.  The Thing (2011) our prequel , which unfortunately has the  exact same title as it's 1982 film, is  solidly entertaining horror sci-fi film for adults.  The attention to detail is pretty impeccable to match the look and feel of Carpenter's film and the FX are masterful works of Lovecraftian horror- Tentacled, inside out, genitalia-esque monstrosities.  Some have criticized the reliance on CGI over practical effects.

    Full disclosure I am a huge fan of practical , prosthetic effects, puppets, anything that can be done in-camera really. However, given then complexity of the film's content, the budget/schedule and the reality that in 2011- you use CGI as a tool for monster making folks- get over it, if Carpenter was making this film today you bet your ass he'd have employed the latest technology to make Wilfred Brimley even more frightening than he is as a diabetic oatmeal spokesman.  The CGI has the look and feel we are expecting from the classics' spectacular designs as well as taking the mutations to insanely new levels of ferocity and mobility. It's a smart gruesome thrill ride that opens with a sucker punch of tension and ends brilliantly in a post-credit sequence that stitches the film to the the opening action of Carpenter's film. Despite any misgivings you might have you'll immediately want to make it a double feature rather than a compare an contrast. 


    A sneaking suspicion arose the moment James Franco (he of boundless artistic outlets) signed on that Rise of The Planet of The Apes was going to be something remarkable, even though, by all reason this should have been absolute garbage.  Rebooting the classic 60's-70's series after a failed attempt in early 2000's with Tim Burton's  uneven remake of Planet of the Apes seemed like a fool's errand at best. What could we possibly say? Why a remake? Why a prequel? Why reboot is there nothing original left in any one's heads? the end result is arguably not only the best genre film of 2011 but also one of the best films of 2011.   Rupert Wyatt ( British writer -director of  The Escapist) handles the complex and astoundingly effective motion-capture CGI effects along side the realistic science, emotional gravity and occasionally charming humor that makes Rise (with its clunky title- though still better than The Things' uninspired title)an effectively heartbreaking family drama as much as summer spectacle sci-fi action flick.  Andy Serkis is no stranger to groundbreaking effects having been the motion-capture actor for both Peter Jackson's breathtaking Gollum in  The Lord of the Rings as well as an ape once before, cinema's greatest ape really, in Jackson's under rated epic remake of King Kong.  Here, however, the powers that be seem to have taken notice of this growing frontier as Serkis has scored a well deserved Golden Globe Best Supporting actor nomination for his emotive and painful performance as Ceaser, a genetically enhanced Chimpanzee at the heart of Rise's exploration of science and evolution. A summer movie that is essentially about animal cruelty, Alzheimer's, humanity and civil rights is a rare thing and while the film asks serious questions and offers some bleak results it also is a ripping good yarn with some stunning  set pieces. Leaves falling through San Francisco suburbs as the army of escapee apes swing through the branches is stuff of gorgeously inspired horror.  

    James Franco plays an impassioned research scientist  attempting to cure Alzheimer's Disease and save his deteriorating father from the illness played with raw pathos by the always impeccable John Lithgow. Through a series of unsettiling events Franco steals away an infant chimp, names him Ceaser and raises the increasingly super intelligent ape as more of  a son/brother than a pet. And there in lies the rub. Where is Ceasar's place in the world? Slumdog Millionaire's luminous Frieda Pinta co-stars as Franco's zoologist/vet lady love making them officially the sexiest on-screen scientists this year. It's worth noting with Franco and Pinta as lovers and English-Nigerian actor David Oyelowa as Franco's ambitious but cautious boss Rise of the Planet of the apes is the most racial diverse mainstream film this year (which is kind of sad that that was a noticeable exception). 
   Brian Cox turns in yet another understated and memorable performance as a sanctuary manager and as his younger song Harry Potter's Tom Felton ( HP's Draco Malfoy) turns in a solid American accent as a ruff-neck drunken bully making one wonder if he's corned the market on playing a a total cunt. The film however belongs to Ceaser and the wondrous effects of New Zealand's WETA digital (whom Serkis knows all too well via Jackson's epic films) . The apes are the soul of the film and with heartbreaking clarity pull focus to our own humanity and animalistic behavior.  It also have overtones of the now global Occupy Movement with the film's final act. Several clever nods to the classic Charlton Heston -Roddy McDowell original film are scattered through-out the film (Bright Eyes, fire hosings, collars, apes on horseback) A worth while effort with a sequel in the works Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a perfect example of how science fiction and horror genres can be used to illustrate our own fears and hopes of our past, present and future. 

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