The ’90s Curse of the World Cinema Remake

Ben Hopkins

George Sluizer’s 1988 film The Vanishing focuses on Rex, a young man who spent years obsessively searching for his missing girlfriend. It comes to an end when her abductor offers him closure: “The only way to tell you is to make you share the exact same experience.” Rex takes the offer of a drugged coffee, and his fate soon enough echoes hers — they were both buried alive with no means of escape.

His decision wasn’t a heroic one, merely the last throw of the dice by an increasingly desperate man. It’s a finale that works because the performances, atmosphere and photography are so mundane. Its grim denouement would fit any day-to-day setting, from the film’s French service station through to modern day London. No wonder that Stanley Kubrick described it as “the most horrifying film I’ve ever seen.”

If curiosity killed the cat in Sluizer’s original, the same director’s 1993 remake brought him back in one of cinema’s most appalling sell-outs. Rex — now named Jeff and played by Kiefer Sutherland — escapes from his grave and resurfaces to polish off his nemesis (played by Jeff Bridges) with a spade. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s followed by a scene in which Jeff and his girlfriend (Sandra Bullock) are recounting the tale to a publisher over dinner. A waiter brings two coffees, leaving Jeff to smirk, “No coffee, thanks. We don’t drink that anymore.” Roll credits.

‘The Vanishing’ Sucked, But What About Other Remakes?

After Rocky, Sly's world wasn't all sunshine and rainbows.

Just as The Vanishing sent Rex/Jeff into an obsessive downward spiral, such a disastrous remake inspires a dive into a rabbit hole. How did the era’s other big-budget adaptations of foreign-language films fare?

The answer, in short, is… not well. Hunting through other 1990s remakes all too often brings up common signs of failures: budgets being double that of box office takings and almost unanimously bad reviews. It became a curse, and surely the reason why the term reboot was coined as a euphemism to distract from the creative poverty associated with the word ‘remake’.

It’s easy to see why some failed. In retrospect, casting Sylvester Stallone in Oscar, a remake of a 1960s French comedy relocated to NYC at the height of the Depression, was never going to work. A less-than-eloquent action hero starring in a speedy farce demonstrated either a knowing twist on his own image, or a complete gamble that didn’t pay off. Critics hated it, although audiences have been more forgiving in the years that followed, which suggests that three nominations at the Razzies might have been a little harsh.

Other remakes that were also mocked at the Razzies included Two Much, which at least instigated the marriage of Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffiths; Keanu Reeves’ A Walk in the Clouds; and Diabolique (Worst New Star for Sharon Stone, who was reinventing herself at the peak of her popularity).

By the middle of the decade, the Razzies had so many dubious reanimated films to heckle that they introduced a new gong for the Worst Remake or Sequel. Rarely did they go to a foreign-language remake. Step forward Gus Van Sant’s Psycho which, like a mother’s love of an errant teenager, resulted in reviews that expressed disappointment rather than true anger.

In most cases, the remake failed in more mediocre style. EdTV was inspired by 1994’s Louis 19, King of the Airwaves, but for audiences the problem was that it wasn’t The Truman Show. What was groundbreaking had therefore already been done — not only recently but better. Similarly, Point of No Return (AKA The Assassin) was essentially the original Nikita with English dialogue, global stars and, as Entertainment Weekly snarkily observed, “bigger explosions, smaller performances.”

You Know Who Could Fix This? Bill Murray!

Quick Change
"I'm not going to live by their rules anymore!"

Big names didn’t help to buck the trend. A remake of the black comedy-meets-high-tension-horror of Danish flick Nightwatch jettisoned Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (pre-Game of Thrones) and Sofie Gråbøl (pre-The Killing) in favour of Ewan McGregor and Patricia Arquette. The result? As generic as could be.

Even the great Bill Murray couldn’t shake the pattern. Co-directing and starring in Quick Change, an engaging reworking of Hold-Up, is barely remembered despite Murray’s irresistible popularity. His performance as Grimm, however, represented a turning point. As the film’s co-director Howard Franklin noted, “If you really want to see where the turn came, the turn where he became the guy in Rushmore and Lost in Translation, it’s Quick Change.”

Both then and now, the commercial appeal of remaking an international favourite is obvious. You have a story that has already resonated on a smaller scale like some kind of mass-market test screening. It reduces the financial risk of making a film without requiring the huge budgets of an established franchise. Yet it’s also so easy to go wrong. Subvert the plot to make it more palatable to a bigger audience? The Vanishing demonstrates that’s a bad idea. Keep it close to the original? As Point of No Return shows, even a slight change of tone can be a killer trait.

But when it worked, it really worked. True Lies was La Totale! scaled up to blockbuster proportions with the stars of the day and became one of 1994’s biggest box office triumphs. The less explosive Sommersby also had cinema tills ringing with gleeful abandon, this time by adapting The Return of Martin Guerre for the early 90s’ romantic drama audience. Few who loved the original would feel the same about Sommersby, but a whole audience who would never have discovered Guerre at least gave Sommersby a go.

They’re (Still) Coming Outta the Goddamn Walls!

World Cinema movie remakes didn’t suddenly cease to exist at the end of the 1990s like they’d caught a Y2K mega-bug. But we haven’t seen such a dismal decade for remaking international classics since. At times, they’re triumphs (The Departed, Let Me In), and at others, competent — if a little pointless (Funny Games, Oldboy).

Of course, they’re needed less now than ever before. To dig out a World Cinema classic in the ’90s, you’d need access to a well-stocked Blockbuster video rental store, and a willingness to read subtitles — both of which are no longer an issue in the days of streaming services Nordic Noir and Walter Presents. And with TV series now a bigger cultural phenomenon than movies, we’ll continue to see the trend repeated on the small screen. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ben Hopkins
London-based writer who's still waiting for Gremlins vs Withnail to be made.
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