Archive for March, 2011


A Remake Blog Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

While we add a few remaining touches to the next Remake Chronicles essay, a look at two contract killings gone disastrously awry on opposite ends of the world, we thought we’d throw this one atcha: a scene that we never, ever, EVER want to see again.

The hero needs to crack the computer of a vast evil entity. He consults a computer hacker, who nods, taps at his keyboard no more than fifteen times, and says, “Okay, I just hacked into their system and uploaded a virus that will (tell us whatever we need to know, remove all traces of your burglary from the system, disable all burglar alarms, etc).”

In fifteen key strokes. He not only wrote the virus. Not only got past the firewall. But performed this feat of unbelievable sorcery.

Fifteen strokes.

Nice work if you can get it.


One was fresh. One was re-warmed but still quite tasty. The third was rancid.

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 96 minutes. ***

Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Directed by Tom Savini. Screenplay by George A. Romero, based on the 1968 screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles. 92 minutes. ***

Night Of the Living Dead 3-D (2006). Directed by Jeff Broadstreet. Screenplay by Jeff Broadstreet, inspired by the 1968 Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Brianna Brown, Sid Haig. 80 minutes. *

Other Known VersionsNight Of the Living Dead Re-Animated (2009; jam animated version);  too many sequels and films inspired by the original concept to list.

*

Before we begin this one, we’ll note that we had an ulterior motive for placing this series of films so high up on the list of possible remake blog topics: the recent release of my own entry in this now-venerable and still growing subgenre, the gorily illustrated alphabet book Z Is For Zombie, by myself and dynamiting artist Johnny Atomic. That volume would not exist had an innocent nine-year-old with an interest in monster movies not wandered into a Saturday afternoon double-feature half some forgotten piece of crap I can no longer name and half the nightmare that warped him, and apparently, uncounted others, for life. Go ahead. Click the Amazon link above and buy a copy or twelve. We’ll still be here when you’re done.

Done? Now we can move on.

Zombies are everywhere. There are now several different postulated pathologies, including the brainless, slow zombies of the three films under discussion today, the various sequels directed by George Romero, and many of his imitators: slow, mindless, ambulatory meat, who eat flesh.

There are the sentient, somewhat faster zombies introduced in the competing  Return Of The Living Dead series, who crave and chant “Brains” for reasons too depressing to go into right now.

There are the fast-moving zombies of the 2004 Dawn Of the Dead remake, who are not “all messed up” and can run. There’s an entire suite of living “zombies” such as those postulated by 28 Days Later (2002) and, arguably, Zombieland (2009), who are better described as human beings who have come down with a virulent form of rabies.

There are the splatstick zombies of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992),  arguably the best zombie movie ever made, who remain animate even when chopped into little pieces; and there are the video-game zombies of the Resident Evil movie series, of which we shall only say, they suck. Nor are these the only variations. Even if you omit the traditional voodoo zombies which are , which another kettle of fish entirely, zombies come in more varieties than penguins. And then, on top of that, there are the variations postulated by the writers of horror novels, some of which are far removed from Romero’s blueprint. (Check out, among others, Walter Greatshell, Mira Grant, and Brian Keene.)

But the subgenre as we understand it today did all begin in 1968, with a little low-budget movie that didn’t even use the word “zombie” at any point. Its characters had never seen a zombie movie and were slow to understand the nature of the phenomenon they were dealing with. They called their shambling assailants “those things,” and they struggled with the evidence of their eyes and their sense, learning the new paradigm of their world even as the monsters loose in that world closed in around them.

Night Of the Living Dead is the seed of the myth.

And all three of the movies bearing the same title share much of the opening premise. All three open with a pair of bickering siblings, Johnny and Barbara, on a long and unpleasant trip road trip to a cemetery. In all three, Barbara is the good daughter, fulfilling a family obligation to the dead; in all three, Johnny is the obnoxiously contrary brother, vocal about finding the entire exercise hypocritical and ridiculous. In all three, Barbara initially believes in showing respect for the dead; in all three, Johnny argues that the dead won’t appreciate it. (He is correct about that, but obviously has no idea just how true that will soon turn out to be.) In all three, Johnny resorts to mocking his sister’s piety by chanting, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara;” in all three, the first of the ambulatory corpses shows up to prove him right. All three films proceed to quickly write Johnny out of the equation and send Barbara fleeing on foot to a nearby farmhouse, where she will soon find herself among a small group of survivors besieged by a growing crowd of hungry ghouls.

From that seed, though, the three versions head off into remarkably different directions.

The Iconic Classic: Night Of The Living Dead (1968) 

In the first film, Barbara arrives at the farmhouse in a state of shock that renders her functionally catatonic for most of the action to follow. She is childlike, petulant, withdrawn, detached, and unable to answer simple questions when Ben (Duane Jones) arrives, having already survived several encounters with “those things.” His understanding of what’s going on is no more advanced than hers, except that he knows survival depends on keeping the creatures out.

Much has been made of Romero’s genius in casting a black man as the hero, especially since subsequent events place him in opposition with another survivor who happens to be a loathsome white coward. In tumultuous 1968, when that kind of casting was practically unheard-of, Ben’s race and the race of his instant enemy Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) gave the film a contemporary resonance well beyond what one would expect of a silly little story about dead people who wander the countryside gnawing chunks off the living. It contributed to the film’s notoriety and no doubt to its immortality.

As it happens, the casting was no stroke of genius, but a stroke of luck. The screenplay made no reference to Ben’s race. Duane Jones was simply the best of the leading-men types who showed up to audition, and Romero’s genius amounted to being open-minded enough to say, “Why not?” As it is, Jones demanded substantial changes to the character of Ben, before agreeing to play the part. The original Ben was an unsophisticated blue-collar guy, with uneducated speech patterns. The Ben Jones agreed to play is a well-spoken hero wearing a white shirt and tie, who may show up driving a pickup truck but who seems to have picked it up elsewhere when he first encountered the madness abroad on this particular night.

This Ben is clearly a capable and brave man, and the protagonist we root for when the cowardly, selfish, angry me-first type Harry Cooper emerges from the cellar, where he and several other terrified survivors have been hiding. Some have said that the black man being in charge, over a white man who is at best ineffective and at worst a dangerous liability, increased the chills for contemporary viewers, given that it formed a microcosm of a society that actually did seem to be turning upside down. This is a valid interpretation even if, as the facts bear out, the resonance was an accident of casting. We note that the movie is deft enough to avoid underlining it. Harry may think Ben is “crazy,” but he never attacks him on racial grounds or questions the propriety of a black man being in charge – even though everything we know about Harry’s character would make a racist streak wholly unsurprising. Nor does Ben ever bring it up. Ben is only  the hero because he seems to know what he’s doing; Harry is the villain because he’s a loudmouth whose wife hates him, and because his strategy for survival consists of hiding.

There is an unfortunate, unwanted additional resonance in that hateful, white Harry actually turns out to be right; the first floor is a deathtrap, reinforcing the windows is a waste of time, and just about everything brave, black Ben does, to face the hordes of undead like a man, does lead this poor group of allies who trusted him to an early death. It’s a very good thing for posterity that Ben and Cooper never actually have the white/black argument, because if they did, the bloody conclusion could be read as a vindication of Harry’s position. As it is, Ben is so much more easier to admire than Harry that most viewers can see the movie multiple times and still fail to register that Harry’s plan for survival was in fact the correct one.

In any event, the original Night established the rule followed by most good zombie fiction since then (not just in the movies, but in prose as well): that since zombies as they’re usually imagined are inarticulate and unmotivated by anything but hunger, their mere presence cannot be the sole required story engine. It needs to be the motivating force that throws the interpersonal conflict of the living into sharp relief. This is true whether the issue at hand is rampant consumerism (Dawn Of the Dead), delayed adulthood (Shawn of the Dead),  a surprisingly sweet love story (Dead Alive), or, as in the original Night, the forces that alienate human beings from one another and keep them from cooperating for the common good. A zombie story that fails to reflect this, that is merely a catalogue of ways to dismember corpses, will likely be as soulless as the ghouls themselves.

The movie ends, of course, with sole survivor Ben staggering from the basement, only to be shot dead by sheriffs who spot him through an open window and mistake him for one of the walking dead. His color aside, his climactic death was shocking at the time, when most thrillers and horror films ended with a happy restoration of the status quo, and the happy escape of deserving people to a happy ending. (In 1969, when I saw it at age nine, I couldn’t believe that any movie would ever go there; today, of course, most mainstream horror movies go for that kind of closing shock, and the effect is not so much shocking as yawn-inducing.) Factor his color in and we get another accidental resonance, very vivid to those who first saw the film in those days of rural assassins taking up rifles against Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Workers Cheney, Shwermer, and Goodman.

The film itself still works, decades after zombies became commonplace on screen. The grainy black and white photography, the building tensions among the people in the house, the grinding unfairness of everything that happens, the inexorably worsening news on the radio, and the absolute dearth of any happy-ever-afters, still render it a powerful tour-de-force. There are some impressive non-performances, but Jones remains fine.

Alas for Romero, the distribution company never properly copyrighted it. The movie passed into the public domain almost immediately, and he no longer makes money from it.

Which was the key reason for the first of the two remakes.

The Unfairly Maligned First Remake: Night Of the Living Dead (1990)

By 1990, the very idea of remaking Night Of the Living Dead seemed so sacrilegious, to so many, that many critics who’d embraced the original (some retroactively) attacked this one as a blot on its memory.

It was, of course, impossible for any mere remake to have the impact or influence of the original. Among other things, the casting of a black lead was no longer shocking by then. But, largely, people who condemned this one condemned the very idea of it, rather than its execution. They hated that director Tom Savini chose to film this one in vivid color, instead of grainy black and white; they hated the sharp changes it made in the original story while simultaneously (and paradoxically) condemning it for going where Romero had gone before. In truth, consider it only as a film, without either the weight of an iconic original or the social background behind the initial release weighing it down, and it’s very much in the first film’s class, and can be sensibly defended as better.

Romero, who wrote the screenplay of this one as well, said at the time that he couldn’t just make a shot-by-shot remake; people knew the original so well by then that the remake would not be nearly as effective if everything just played out the same way. So he set up the same situation and the same conflicts and went elsewhere with them, starting just a few minutes in, when the first person to bump into Barbara (Patricia Tallman) is not a walking corpse, but a traumatized survivor of a prior massacre.

Barbara is just as traumatized, just as unresponsive, when she gets to the house as she was in the original film. When Ben (Tony Todd) shows up, she is just as unable to answer him. But circumstances soon force her to kill a zombie sneaking up behind her, and unlike the original Barbara she soon starts to (forgive us) rise to the occasion, stunningly becoming one of the strongest people in the house.

By the time the Ben / Harry antagonism begins, Barbara begins to reveal herself as having more sense and more guts than the two of them put together. She is the one who sees that the walking dead are so slow that wasting energy on barricading the windows or hiding in the cellar amounts to defending a deathtrap. She is the one who, told she’s losing it, coldly shoots an approaching zombie in the face and then angrily addresses the others:   “Whatever I lost, I lost a long time ago, and I do not plan on losing anything else. You can talk to me about losing it when you stop screaming at each other like a bunch of two-year-olds. “  (Patricia Tallman was so very good in the part, especially in this scene,that I expected major stardom for her; that never materialized, alas, though she worked regularly and was a supporting player on Babylon 5.)

Ben’s fallibility is brought closer to the forefront. At one point, he tackles Harry, who’s bringing a television downstairs. The TV is smashed, leading Ben to assault Harry for trying to sneak the TV into the cellar. Harry’s response – that he was bringing the TV downstairs for everybody, that it wouldn’t have gotten any reception in the basement – is stunning. Much earlier in the story, it becomes clear that Ben is actually part of the problem.

Nothing plays out exactly the same as it does in the original. Tom and Judy, the boring young couple nobody could stand in the first film, who get themselves and Ben’s truck blown up in a failed attempt to fill the gas tank, are not quite as bland here, and while they get themselves blown up here as well, via a similar act of clumsy panic, the mistake they make is entirely different. Helen’s death plays out differently. The final invasion of the house leads to an entirely different final confrontation between Harry and Ben (as well as the revelation that the house did include a perfect hiding place that nobody bothered to consider: the attic).

Barbara escapes by walking right past the zombies, just as she’s always contended everybody could, and what she does when she returns with help – coldly shoot the surviving Harry right through the head, and telling her companions in zombie-killing that he’s ‘”another one for the fire” –  underlines the substantial changes the night has wrought in her. She’s dead inside: a perfect denizen of the new world.

There was some impressive non-acting in this film as well, but most of the performances were better, and the pacing more assured. Tony Todd was an effective Ben, Tom Towles was an effective Harry, and Patricia Tallman was a powerful Barbara. The color cinematography was not quite as artful, but it had the benefit of being transparent: it did not get in the way of the story.

In short, the 1990 film is everything a remake should be. Aside from the accidents of casting and the contemporary background that boosted the original’s impact, which could not be duplicated, it matches just about every narrative strength of that original while justifying its own existence with a startling different take. It didn’t deserve the drubbing it got, and has fortunately been appreciated more and more as the years have passed.

No, if you want to see everything a remake should not be, just look at the most recent version.

The Awful Second Remake: Night Of The Living Dead 3-D (2006)

The makers of this version had a number of big ideas, none of them good.

Indeed, it is rare to see a remake that fails on so many levels, that has so many fundamentally bad notions, that showed such a universal misunderstanding of what made the original story work. Next to this, the Paris Hilton House Of Wax was a masterpiece.

We can’t testify to the effectiveness of that much-maligned 3-D process here, since we saw a 2-D version. But we can say that it would have needed to transform the visual aspects of this version to something on the level of Avatar to counter even one-tenth of the damage their other big ideas did to the story.

The danger signs start very early. In both prior versions, the teasing Barbara’s brother Johnny subjects her to in the cemetery ends as soon as the first zombie attacks; then the first zombie attacks, he sees that the danger is real, and he rushes to protect his sister, at the cost of his own life. This makes psychological sense, as it’s what a big brother would do. In this film, he runs to their car and drives away, abandoning her to her fate. That is the act of an unbelievable asshole, which doesn’t ring true at all. Still…all right. Maybe this Johnny really is just an asshole. If the rest of the movie were not filled with terrible ideas, maybe we could let it pass.

Alas, it is.

The biggest and worst of those ideas is the apparent premise that all the conflict inside the house, that doomed both prior sets of survivors to their unlucky fates, was boring and needed to be jettisoned. The second worst is the apparent belief that all the characters needed to be rendered more bland. As a result, this movie’s Ben (Joshua Desroses) is just a generic white college student who helps distribute the product of this film’s married Coopers , (Greg Traviss and Johanna Black), marijuana farmers who own the farmhouse and are thus perfectly at home there when “Barb” (Brianna Brown) shows up to tell everybody that the dead have risen.

Yes. The people behind this film actually thought the story would play better if Ben and Harry were friends, who knew each other and liked each other and didn’t argue so much.

Chew on that. It deserves repetition.

The people behind this film actually thought the story would play better if Ben and Harry were friends, who knew each other and liked each other and didn’t argue so much.

Having trouble digesting that, aren’t you?

The third worst innovation is that the confusion over the nature of the phenomenon that faces everybody, so clearly delineated in the first two films, is here removed completely. In the first two films, the phenomenon was treated as something almost beyond comprehension. But this film’s Barb knows the word “zombie” from seeing zombie movies herself, and bursts in on Coopers who are getting stoned while watching the 1968 version. They know exactly what she’s talking about; they’re just skeptical and reluctant to call the police to their pot farm. The conflict is reduced to Barb’s increasing frustration at them for being so thick and stupid – which they greet with a compassionate equanimity that goes on for way too long. It’s deadly to any suspense the film might have, even as the zombies start to accumulate in the yard.

The fourth worst is the removal of the disaster’s scale. Any implication that the rising of the dead is afflicting anybody but this one small group of people is simply omitted. We don’t get the horror from the first two films of a widespread disaster and of the radio and television reports sending people to shelters that are then described as overrun or no longer accepting refugees. So we lose that, too.

The next worst is the reduction of this film’s doomed Tom and Judy to a standard horror movie couple who we see fucking so we can then still see them get killed. They are the worst incarnation of Tom and Judy, and that’s saying something.

The result of all of this is that there’s no subtext, either by accident or design. It’s just stupid boring people being attacked by zombies, none of whom do anything we haven’t seen zombies do before. Even a bad zombie movie, like Flight Of the Living Dead,  can be remarkable for the cleverness of its zombie gags. But no.  For the first time, a Night Of the Living Dead movie is exactly what the detractors of the series would say it always was: a stupid exploitation movie without any ideas.

All of that, which serves only to establish that nobody involved with this thing had any idea why this story ever worked, and completely remove the character issues that gave the first and second versions whatever weight they had, is just background to their greatest innovation: casting horror-movie veteran Sid Haig as a mad mortician whose funeral home is the source of the contagion. It all, eventually, becomes about Haig acting crazy.  And it must be said that he does give the proceedings what little energy they have. But the character is a stupid innovation and he isn’t good enough to overcome a story which, ironically enough, has had all its life sucked out of it.

The Final Respects

The 1968 version, a hugely influential and still terrifying horror film. The 1990 version, a worthy remake marked by a genuinely different take. The 2006 version, nothing but rotten meat.

Thanks to K.C. Locke, who provided us with the 1990 version.

*

And now, the wife peers out through the barricaded window…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 96 minutes. ***1/2

Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Directed by Tom Savini. Screenplay by George A. Romero, based on the 1968 screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles. 92 minutes.***

Night Of the Living Dead 3-D (2006). Directed by Jeff Broadstreet. Screenplay by Jeff Broadstreet, inspired by the 1968 Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Brianna Brown, Sid Haig. 80 minutes. 0000000 NO!!!!!

Other Known VersionsNight Of the Living Dead Re-Animated (2009; jam animated version);  too many sequels and films inspired by the original concept to list.

I thought that this comparison was going to be an easy-peasy job based on having seen and loved the original and seen and hated everything about the third, but damn the middle version made it rough.

Let me warn anyone who even slightly enjoyed the 1968 NOTLD, DO NOT WATCH THE 2006 REMAKE!!  I REPEAT DO NOT WATCH THE 2006 REMAKE!  That so called movie takes everything that was right and tosses it to the winds.  Why bother with character development and plot, when special effects and action are available. OK. so fine,  the makers wanted to cash in on the 3D craze, so they threw in a few hokey effects.  I could deal with those as long as the story made sense, but come on guys, using the original film in your own really bad interpretation was just plain stupid!  Why invite the comparison? Were you so sure of your own greatness or just too dumb to realize the end result?

Now, let me admit to something a bit shameful.  I didn’t see the 1968 original film until sometime in the late 1970’s, and that in a cut to shreds version on local TV.  Of course, I doubt my parents would have allowed me to see it much before then, but I had snuck in a few nightmarish childhood treasures by that time (The Birds remains a favorite pre teen scare).  However, even that ripped apart, commercial-ridden version left me wanting more undead fun. I even placed the film into my pantheon of classic horror to be rewatched and savored alongside the Universal classics I so adored.  High praise for a little black and white film.  I finally got to see the film uninterrupted by ads and hopefully uncensored in college and realized there was an art to pulling the guts out of a writhing body.  Wow, even more coolness!  I was hooked like the proverbial big fish.  And again, I begged and pleaded for more, but none came. 

Sure, there were the sequels, but they just didn’t have the oomph I got from the first.  The magnetic draw just never occurred. And, while I enjoyed the Evil Dead movies for the fun romps they were, I still didn’t find the walking dead I needed to tickle my thrill bone.

By this point I had given up on ever seeing NOTLD remade with the proper respect, but thanks to this blog, I got most of my wish.  The 1990 version directed by Tom Savini and written by dead master/creator George Romero  reworks the original into an updated story, tighter and tauter than the original.  The film follows the same opening premise, but from there, most of the character conventions shift slightly.  We no longer have just the tough hero, we get a useful, tough Barbara instead of the whimpering, nearly comatose girl from the original.  Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman are not just folks  that were picked for their availability, they can act and did.  The nods of respect to the original are there throughout the film for the people who need that, but the changes make for a better film overall.  Why then, did it leave me just slightly disappointed?

When a masterwork is created no revision, even by the originator, is ever going to give me the same feeling of wonder/chills/awe, that the original had.  Is a copy of the Mona Lisa as good as seeing the original?  Is Beatlemania the same as having seen the Beatles perform live?  That’s the problem I have here.  The 1968 film crept into my soul and warped me permanently.  The 1990 Savini vision, while really good and eminently watchable, just becomes a poor cousin despite the fixing of the original’s flaws.  So, yes, watch both films.  Enjoy both for the works they are. And, please, I beg of you, DON’T WATCH THE 2006 3D NOTLD!   Pretend it doesn’t exist.  It will poison you.  In the immortal words of Latka Gravis, “Thankyou very much.”


We agree that half the people at the party are idiots. But which half?

A new height in “explaining the premise.”

 

“I Have Laid Eggs Inside Your Brain.”

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Dinner Game, originally released in France as Le Diner de Cons, literal translation The Dinner Of Cunts (1998). Directed by Francis Veber. Screenplay by Francis Veber, from his play. Starring Jacques Villeret, Thierry Lhermitte, Francis Huster, and Alexandra Vandermoot. 87 minutes. ** 1/2

Dinner For Schmucks (2010). Directed by Jay Roach. Screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman, from the French original by Francis Veber. Starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Bruce Greenwood, Zach Galifianakis. 114 minutes. ** 1/2.

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, the Hindi Film Bheja Fry (2007); the Malayam film April Fool (2010); the Kannada film Mr. Garagasa (2008). Veber’s play has also been translated and produced in China.

*

There’s a bunch of well-to-do guys. They are privileged and they are arrogant and they consider themselves Masters of the Universe. For fun they get together for dinner parties centered around a cruel game: the feting of people far below their station, whose sole sin is their personal enthusiasm for some endeavor these well-to-do guys consider beneath them, an endeavor that the presumed guests of honor can be invited to defend at length while their hosts secretly laugh at them. The “idiots,” as they are called by the men who throw this party, never learn that its sole purpose is mockery.

Our protagonist is one of the men in on the joke, who finds himself a grade-a, first-class shmuck to parade about: a fundamentally sweet man who is otherwise so socially clueless and so emotionally invested in the absurd hobby that takes up all his spare time that he will certainly be the hit of the party. Unfortunately, our “hero” makes the mistake of allowing this guy to meet him beforehand, at his home…and not just on any random day, but on the day when the love of our protagonist’s life gets so fed up with his heartlessness that she’s stormed out in a huff.

Worse, the dim guest is so grateful to be invited to the party that he resolves to do whatever he can to “help” his suffering host…and winds up making matters worse, reducing the man’s life to an utter shambles in record time.

This is the premise of a minor international phenomenon, spawned by a French play and remade multiple times around the world. Most people will only be familiar with the most famous of the adaptations, which stars a sitcom star who rose to fame playing a different kind of socially clueless cretin on the American version of The Office (which is itself a remake).

We don’t make the argument that any of them are great movies. Of the two we’ve seen, The Dinner Game is consistently funny but stage-bound, and doesn’t so much reach a recognizable conclusion as flash to a freeze-frame just as the madness starts all over again; while Dinner for Shmucks is so desperately over-the-top that for much of its length that it often buries the comedy, just barely achieving a checkmark in the Win column only through the performances of its leads and the late appearance of genuine inspiration at the titular event. But it’s instructive to examine exactly how the two versions under discussion today differ and how, despite substantial similarities,  they wind up occupying entirely different moral and narrative universes.

The Dinner Game (1998)

The protagonist of the French original is Francois Pignon (Villeret), a wealthy publisher very much invested in his vile “game,” who jumps at the chance to invite one Pierre Brochant (Lermitte), a tax worker infatuated with building matchstick sculptures of world monuments.

Brochant is a fascinating comic creation. Small, lumpy, with frizzy male-pattern baldness that make him look a little like a gnomish Chia-pet, he is a desperately lonely fellow abandoned by his wife who has subsequently found the one thing he is good at. Like many one-trick ponies, he is a bore on the subject, and delights in the opportunity to regale others with recitations of just how many matchsticks he used to build his Eiffel Tower or Golden Gate Bridge. A little child-like smile appears on his face when he accidentally-on-purpose drops one of the photographs he has taken of his work in the lap of a fellow commuter, and is thus afforded the chance to box a total stranger’s ears off with an unwanted discourse on his work. He is a true innocent, a man incapable of guile, whose subsequent efforts to “help” Pignon with improvised lies constantly fall victim to his inability to remember exactly why he adopted those lies in the first place.

Brochant means well when he invites Pignon’s old girlfriend over, and when he subsequently mistakes Pignon’s wife for her and sends her storming off in renewed fury by telling her that the affair must end; and he’s certainly not entirely responsible for the further disasters that ensue when an increasingly desperate Pignon goes along with inviting over another tax-assessor who just might know the address of the secret love nest belonging to the local rake with whom Pignon’s wife might have sought refuge. He has a knack for exposing all subterfuge at the worst possible moment, multiplying the complications for Pignon, who needs his complacency shattered in any event.

Still, he’s a relatively low-wattage source of outright idiocy, compared to the heights of insanity to be found in the Carell film. So is the only other “idiot” we get to see in any real detail, a fellow whose passion is collecting and throwing boomerangs. It is (by design) possible to watch this film and feel real contempt for the throwers of the party, and the absolutely unforgiveable disdain they harbor for people who simply have interests different than their own. (And it’s not just because I’ve been a boomerang fancier as well, though I haven’t collected any or thrown mine in years; after all, I’m also a science fiction writer, who has from time to time had to deal with dullards who think it the height of wit to ask me, always with a look of unearned superiority, where I keep my Spock ears. Ha-ha, that’s really funny, nobody ever said that before. And seriously, fuck you.)

Pignon is very different from the version of him Paul Rudd plays in Dinner for Schmucks. Unlike Rudd’s character, he’s not a nice man. He deeply loves the idiot dinners and has been attending them for years, despite his wife’s revulsion for their cruelty. We also learn that he wooed the woman he’s so desperate to keep from his erstwhile best friend, Just Leblanc (Francis Huster), a man who he has been estranged from ever since, and who turns out to still harbor substantial friendship for him despite the damage done. The crazy girlfriend Brochant invites over may not be an ex, but Pignon’s actual current mistress. He deserves everything that happens to him…and when he is finally moved to call himself an idiot, after watching the entire house of cards he has built fall apart as much due to his own dishonesty as Brochant’s force-of-nature interference, it has the weight of a personal epiphany. 

Leblanc, who despite the weight of the hurt his friend has done him still shows up to help, is a marvelous subsidiary character. Not only does he give the story added heart, but he also makes the chaos sowed by Brochant much funnier, by his constant silent eruptions of schadenfreude-laden laughter. He’s glad to have his friend back. He doesn’t want anything bad to happen to the guy. He actually does want to help. But can anybody blame him for so deeply enjoying the spectacle of the man who hurt him so much, suffering so much tsuris from the interference of a helpful idiot?

The stage-bound story offers only a glimpse of the dinner party, at the opposite end of a phone call; it indeed only briefly leaves Pignon’s apartment. It ends with Brochant, who has by now learned why he was invited in the first place, picking up the phone, speaking from the heart to Pignon’s estranged wife and almost fixing Pignon’s marital woes. It ends with a freeze-frame just as another break sends Pignon’s life spiraling into chaos again. Still, by that time, Pignon has taken a step toward becoming a better person.

Even so – and this is a huge “even so” – it would take an extreme act of audience generosity to interpret the brief interval of apology on Pignon’s part as evidence that the two are destined to become friends. The class divisions between them remain in place. Whether Pignon’s marriage gets patched together or not, whether he applies the lesson he has learned or not, he will ultimately manage to get Brochant out of his life and never, ever invite him back.

This is not the direction taken by Dinner For Schmucks. 

Dinner For Schmucks (2010)

Translate the Yiddish term that has entered English usage and the French Dinner Of Cunts becomes the American Dinner of Dicks, which has the nice effect of turning the title around on itself and referencing not the dinner guests, but the party throwers.

This is only appropriate in that the very first move the American version makes is softening its protagonist, who here becomes Timothy Conrad (Paul Rudd), a rising young executive desperate to ascend to the top level of management, who has finally impressed the evil boss Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood) only to find out that participation in the board’s occasional feting of idiots a requirement for advancement in the corporate culture. Unlike Pignon, a rotten guy who might be induced to become a better one, Conrad is a decent guy repelled by the premise of the party – he calls it “messed up” – but his ambition makes him temporarily lose himself, especially when he happens to, literally, run into  one Barry Speck (Steve Carell), whose eccentricity is extreme enough to make him a hit at the party.

Barry’s hobby is taxidermy. He searches for dead mice, mostly road-kill, then stuffs them, dresses them like people, and arranges them in wildly elaborate scenic dioramas that define the borderland between absolutely fetching and genuinely creepy. The set-piece is a bucolic study of young lovers at play in the countryside, complete with one pair meeting in a gazebo, another pair boating, others strolling or playing, and all, pretty much, illustrating a dream of peace and company that we rapidly come to understand Speck has lost. It is downright beautiful, in a way that may qualify as genius.

Balancing that, Barry is far more aggressively stupid than Brochant, to the point of seeming borderline dysfunctional, but like Brochant there is nothing vicious in him, nothing but insistent and destructive helpfulness as he shows up at Conrad’s apartment a day early and rapidly dismantles his poor host’s life.

The next hour or so pretty much echoes the events of The Dinner Game, complete with painful back injury, a much-beloved woman storming away from her man in disgust, and the use of tax records to find the love nest where Conrad’s missing girlfriend might be. It is all, however, played at a level far more elaborate, and crazier, than anything that happens in The Dinner Game.  This is for much of its running time not particularly a compliment. The makers didn’t trust the Barry/Timothy interplay to be funny enough, and populated the film with such a broad variety of grotesques that it seems odd for Conrad to have expressed so much dismay at the mere prospect of even finding a good idiot, when the world he inhabits is so overpopulated with them that he should merely have to reach out for the nearest person at random.

Thus, it is not enough for Barry to be clueless; he must be such an idiot that he rarely speaks a sentence without exposing his stupidity. It is not enough there to be another woman, who Barry can mistake for Conrad’s girlfriend and vice-versa at the moments when each misunderstanding will cause the greatest possible damage; she must be a shrill, psychotic stalker, who runs violently amuck when she doesn’t get her way. It isn’t enough for Barry to have a colleague at the tax bureau who causes trouble; that colleague must be a megalomaniac who has long tormented Barry (by among other things taking his wife and controlling him “with the power of (his) mind.”) It isn’t enough for Barry to wreck Conrad’s life; he must also wreck Conrad’s belongings. 

(I would almost include the character of Kieran (Jermaine Clement), the pretentious artist Conrad’s art-gallery girlfriend does business with, as one of the problems, but I actually find him a delightful comic creation, who is simply too much for this overstuffed movie. Kieran’s artwork consists of tributes to his own allegedly seething sexuality, and his conversation includes deep questions like “Have you ever lived among a herd of goats, for months at a time, as one of them?” and blather like,  “Sometimes I’ll be working on a piece, and I’ll think, “No, this is bullshit.” So I will literally rub bull excrement on the piece as a metaphor.” Kieran is hilarious. And the screenplay actually gives him a moment where he sadly recognizes his own absurdity, a sad moment of self-awareness where he labels himself a goat in the act of self-cannibalism. Charlie Sheen could use that kind of self-awareness.)

The movie is exhausting and only fitfully funny for most of its length, often descending to that point no-longer funny that is reached by many sitcoms (including, at times, Carell’s The Office) where we simply feel embarrassed for the characters. Then it gets to the titular dinner, as the original does not. At this point the anarchic nature of the enterprise takes over, and the comedy suddenly takes off.

I won’t cover the craziness in any real detail, except to note the chief difference that most makes the earlier parts of the film worth sitting through. When Barry presents a parade of elaborate dead-mouse dioramas to the assembled smirking zillionaires, his pretentious descriptions of his work awash with malaprops and terribly, terribly misunderstood summaries of the depicted historical events, we get, among all the reaction shots of Greenwood and others barely able to contain their mirth…

…close-ups of Conrad…

…who has come to feel for this lonely man…

…and who is against all odds, against all his expectations, and against all his will…

…charmed by what he sees.

Conrad gets it. And that’s a moment of personal epiphany far greater than the passing remorse his equivalent shows in The Dinner Game.

When, a couple of scenes later, Conrad prepares Barry to confront his “mind-controlling” IRS nemesis by telling him, you’re a telepath yourself, you’ve moved into my mind and taken up permanent residence there,  it’s an unlikely, but still effecting, emotional payoff that in context feels perfectly real. It is Paul Rudd, not Steve Carell, who has the responsibility of selling this, but he manages the trick, and it feels entirely earned.

There’s more insane havoc to follow, not to mention the scene wrapping up Conrad’s troubles with his girlfriend. But we have already passed the true emotional climax.

Unlike Brochant, Barry will be coming to dinner with Conrad again, this time as a friend.

The After-Dinner Mint

The Dinner Game, a stage-bound French farce that steadily builds in hilarity, but fails to provide a satisfactory ending. Dinner For Schmucks, an often-frustrating film that takes a long time to deliver the goods, but ultimately does.

*

My wife, who wouldn’t throw such a dinner or be invited to one, hereby offers her two cents from a nearby diner.

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Dinner Game aka Le Diner de Cons, literal translation The Dinner Of Cunts (1998). Directed by Francis Veber. Screenplay by Francis Veber, from his play. Starring Jacques Villeret, Thierry Lhermitte, Francis Huster, and Alexandra Vandermoot. 87 minutes. *

Dinner For Schmucks (2010). Directed by Jay Roach. Screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman, from the French original by Francis Veber. Starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Bruce Greenwood, Zach Galifianakis. 114 minutes. *

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, the Hindi Film Bheja Fry (2007); the Malayam film April Fool (2010); the Kannada film Mr. Garagasa (2008). Veber’s play has also been translated and produced in China.   

I objected to Dinner for Schmucks from the first time I heard the title.  My parents had drilled it into me from childhood that one of those words (and it must be stated here that it is not dinner as my round, youthful figure can prove) was VERY BAD!!! and should never, ever be used under any circumstances.  Now, I must admit that my current vocabulary does tend to run along the lines of what used to be called a bit salty , and my current common cussiage is something four lettered and malleable, I still carry that childhood aversion to the word chosen for the American title.

Now that I have that off my chest, I can begin my rant on how I hate the glorification of stupidity.

Both films, at the core, are about how evil and vile these so called superior beings are in relation to the poor, dumb and actually naïve shmoes they trick into their dinner party.  We are supposed to feel sorry for the poor abused “idiots” (none of which actually are), and feel contempt for the guys who have made it and are amusing themselves at the poor folks’s expense.  Isn’t this most of the NERD films?  Let the underdog show how he is truly the better person by dint of his kind and virtuous nature.  Bull hockey!!  What happened to social Darwinism?  That’s what we see here, but the writer has decided that good MUST triumph and in the American version allows for the happy ending.

Before you folks believe that I would be one of the evil overlord types, I was the invited dog at a frat party once in college.  And, no, I didn’t catch on for many hours.  But I’ve grown and moved on.  So when I see Barry/Brochant not catching on at any point, and in fact stumbling even harder down that same loser path, I feel no pity or sympathy.  In fact, I just want to kick them and wake them up to the reality that they so desperately hide from. Is this supposed to be the humor?  I sincerely doubt it.

There is little I can say that would reflect well on either film.  Both “fools” were set up as talented artists, more savant than genius.  With the lack of social skills one often associates with autism they stumble through their daily grind, with few friends,  desperate for attention.

The real difference between the French film and the American is in the take on the “user” .  Pignon is left virtually unchanged emotionally by his encounters with Brochant, while Conrad is awakened to how horrible he is and rallies to Barry’s side.  While this change was made to give the upbeat ending Americans supposedly desire, I found the redemption neither truthful or uplifting.  It was a cheat.  Both men should have been left ruined by the experiences, or untouched by them, and then, oops, no story.  How sad.

So, now you ask, how is either film the glorification of stupidity?  Simply put, in each film, the naïve fool is left the final heroic moment and therefore given to glory.  To this I object!   I can tolerate a lack of knowledge, that can allow for growth.  I can allow for youth/old age because not all is available to their minds. But, I can not stand when a human being refuses to see the facts when placed gracefully before them.  That is the fool. The purposefully blind. There are your dinner guests.

Remake These!

Posted: March 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

A Remake Chronicles Extra By Adam-Troy Castro

As we await the next entry, which covers a french comedy and its American remake, we provide a partial list of movies that should, should, be remade, either because they were made poorly the first time or because they can speak to our present time. Understand that this is not about their box office prospects, but about how much we’d like to see them.

 

An empty suit.

The Candidate. The process of running for Senator gradually turns an  idealistic young lawyer into an empty suit, disillusioned, depressed, and unable to make a move without his handlers. How much more true is this today, with the 24/7 news cycle? The same material also merits a sequel, Mr. Redford; we can imagine the same guy, an elder statesman who has spent decades in Washington occupying his chair without ever accomplishing a damned thing. Mr. Redford? Please?

One of the best movie beat-downs of all time.

Bad Day At Black Rock. A mild-mannered and disabled WWII vet travels to a hellhole small town to visit the father of a fallen buddy, and discovers that the father has been murdered for the sin of being a Japanese man in the wake of Pearl Harbor. As good as the original film is, and it is very very good, can you not imagine the same situation with an Iraq or Afghanistan War vet who makes a similar journey only to discover that the father of his fallen buddy was murdered for the sin of being a Muslim?

 

Thanks for the gift, you alien assholes.

The 27th Day. Aliens give five “random” human beings the ultimate weapon and bet them that they can’t resist the temptation to use it before its power goes away. In the 1950s film, the only nonwhite member of the five commits suicide right off. The movie cheats in other ways, as does the novel, but wouldn’t it be epic drama if the five really were more representative of this troubled planet? Like one African whose country is in the midst of Civil War, one angry middle-easterner, one battered American wife, one North Korean and one Haitian kid?

Looks familiar.

 A Face In the Crowd. A self-serving tv personality whips up the masses, for his own personal gain. The greatest performance of Andy Griffith’s career, this film was prophetic in its time. A modern take would speak directly to the political media of our time.

That’s an ugly mug.

Jonah Hex.  A first-rate comic book character becomes a truly awful movie that sullies the reputation of the source for all time. Ha, ha, very funny. Now where’s the real Jonah Hex movie?


Doing everything exactly the same, and still getting it all wrong

Can you imagine any movie trailer like this, today?

 

Newcomers were led to expect a fast-paced roller-coaster ride of shocks. Sorry.

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles. 109 minutes. ****

Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus van Sant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. 109 minutes. *

Other Affiliated Films: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (TV-movie, 1990), all starring Anthony Perkins; A Conversation with Norman (2005). There is reportedly a making-of-Psycho dramatic film also in the pipeline, but who knows if it will ever be completed?

*

Your name is Marion Crane. You’re a good girl aching for domestic bliss with your lover, a man from another town who returns your affections but is financially unable to commit. He tells you that until he can pay his father’s debts you will have to be content with stolen moments, the occasional hour of passion in a motel room, and the promise of a better tomorrow. You cannot wait. But then a boor doing business with your employer flashes a wad of cash, you are entrusted with the task of getting it to the bank…and you succumb to a moment’s mad temptation. You take the money, pack a passport, and hit the highway, hoping to talk your man into escaping the country with you. It’s a desperate and poorly-thought out plan, one that begins to fall apart even before you make it out of town. But your temporary madness is nothing compared to the greater madness that awaits you, in a small out-of-the-way motel with no guests and a desk clerk who seems as vulnerable, and as trapped, as yourself. It is where you will meet your annihilation…because this story was never really about about you. The story’s about the sad, lonely, and stammering little desk clerk, who harbors a madness dangerous to any who cross his path.

The original film Psycho is often given the directorial possessive, and listed as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, as if he was solely responsible for creating Norman Bates and structuring the plot. Entire forests have been cut down to print the articles and books crediting him with the genius required to get audiences invested in the fate of Marion Crane, and then to have her brutally murdered in a shower only one-third of the way through the story, changing the direction of the tale completely. It honestly isn’t so. The story wasn’t ushered into being by Hitchcock, but by one Robert Bloch, a veteran writer of pulp thrillers whose career included Lovecraftian fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, Star Trek episodes, a couple of the best stories ever written about Jack the Ripper, recognition as a grandmaster of both science fiction and horror, and a declaration frequently misattributed to Stephen King (who had provided attribution to Bloch when he said it), that he had the heart of a small boy…pickled in a jar on his desk.

It was Bloch who read of the gruesome murders committed by a Wisconsin loner named Ed Gein, speculated on just what kind of madness might have driven that strange man to furnish his home with such art objects as an armchair constructed of real arms, and applied his rich imagination to the creation of one Norman Bates, an affable homebody deadly only to those who cross his path. It was Bloch who was contacted by Hitchcock’s representatives, and not told just who had taken an interest in his story…Bloch who was paid a few hundred dollars for the story that he would soon see hailed worldwide as the manifestation of another creator’s genius.

Nor was this hogging of credit entirely Hitchcock’s sin. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano’s contribution to the original film was superb, but when discussing the film in interviews during his later years he would go on at length about the train of thought that led him to make certain story decisions, as if he and not Bloch had been the one to originally decide that Marion Crane would steal the money and meet her fate in that shower. Trust us, folks; Stefano and Hitchcock and the various actors all contributed to the splendid collaborative stew that is the 1960 Psycho, but as far as the grand outline of the story was concerned, they “decided” little. Again, it was Bloch who had his seeming protagonist, one Mary Crane, steal that money; it was Bloch who had her stop at the Bates Motel and befriend its pathetic proprietor; it was Bloch who had her lose her life in the shower; it was Bloch who arranged everything that happened with her sister, and Sam Loomis, and “Mrs. Bates” after that. Against pretty much the entire body of literature that’s been written about the movie in all the years since, Stefano and Hitchcock were interpreters: interpreters deft enough to qualify as artists, but still interpreters…and Bloch was swindled not out of the full payday he deserved, but also of the wider popular recognition he merited for his pivotal role in the creation of Norman Bates.

Which is not to deny the stamp that Stefano and Hitchcock put on the material. Bloch’s shower scene is very minimal, and ends almost as soon as Marion Crane realizes that she’s being attacked. The shock moment consists of two sentences, which I here paraphrase from memory: “The knife came down, cutting off her scream.” Paragraph break. “And her head.” I’m sorry to say, that’s pretty much it.  From that, Stefano and Hitchcock crafted one of the most indelible scenes in motion picture history.

Once, this was the most shocking movie moment anyone had ever seen.

Don’t feel too sorry for Bloch, as he enjoyed a long and productive and reportedly happy life, and did indeed profit from Psycho,  if not from the movie’s earnings then in increased book sales for the rest of his career.  It doesn’t mean Hitchcock behaved well in obtaining the rights, or in minimizing Bloch’s contribution afterward. As epilogue we note only that when Gus van Sant announced the plans for a shot-by-shot remake, there was no thought of rewarding Bloch’s estate with any additional payment…until a public outcry, way beyond the usual level of popular concern for what a writer might be owed, forced the backers to begrudgingly open their pocketbooks. Every once in a while, justice prevails. Or somewhat prevails. Given the millions the studios made from Psycho and its film sequels, Bloch still deserved more.

van Sant’s 1998 remake was ballyhooed as a thought experiment, dedicated to finding out whether a new version using the 1960 screenplay, as well as the 1960 Bernard Herrmann score, and the 1960 set design, that matched the Hitchcock version shot by shot, would have the same impact. Or at least, that was the rationalization, the one that may have motivated him as he pointed his camera. The motivation of the money men was more crass. By that time, we had a new generation of filmgoers with little respect for the past, who despite an unprecedented wealth of home-video opportunities open to them had nothing but revulsion for anything made before they were born…especially if it was in black and white.  And yet Norman Bates himself remained a familiar, marketable name, one that had driven a number of inferior but financially successful sequels, not to mention attractions in theme parks where macabre film-lovers could, among other things, buy Bates Motel towels and shower curtains imprinted with the murderous silhouette of Norman in the guise of his mother. A new color version that hit all the same beats as the original was, they thought, just the right thing to revive the brand.

It wasn’t. I saw it during its theatrical release out of sheer perverse curiosity, not expecting much, and was stunned by the hostility it received from a large audience that went in expecting to see their idea of a horror movie, and was bored beyond endurance by this lame, slow-ass story where the killings were few and far between and reprehensibly bloodless by the standards they had come to expect. Though van Sant has claimed that it eventually broke even, it is remembered as a bomb and has largely disappeared except as a cautionary tale. It is certainly almost never seen on television, whereas Psycho 1960 still plays in revival houses and pops up regularly on all the classic-oriented movie channels, to be cooed over by hosts and enjoyed anew by viewers who recognize it as a still very much living relic.

But the question remains. Why doesn’t the remake work?

Smallest Problem: The Tin-Eared Updating From 1960 to 1998

For the most part the updating manifests as how much things cost. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane steals $40,000;  Anne Heche’s steals $400,000. There are similar adjustments to the price of a used car and the cost of a cheap, no-name motel room. That’s reasonable.

Other updates are just tin-eared, like Julianne Moore’s Lila Crane declaring, “Let me get my Walkman,” before accompanying Sam Loomis to ask the local sheriff some pointed questions. (Yes, when your sister’s vanished into thin air following the theft of a large amount of money, and you don’t know whether she’s alive or dead, your first thought should be having some tunes to bring along.) 

One of the minor plot points that remains intact is Marion’s boss at the real-estate firm (Rance Howard) telling his client to join him in his own office, the only room which happens to be air-conditioned. In 1960, it was reasonable and believable for a real estate office in downtown Phoenix, of all places, to reserve air-conditioning for the boss, and force the rest of the firm’s employees to sit in the general reception area and sweat. The lack of air conditioning was after all a key requirement of a great movie Hitchcock had made only a few years earlier, Rear Window. In 1998, air conditioning was far more ubiquitous. The girls in the front room, not to mention the drop-in customers waiting to be helped, would have not only expected but demanded it. (I suspect that matters will change back in the coming decades.) Again, this is a small point. But since it doesn’t really affect the flow of the story one way or the other, why not omit the line or adjust it in some way?

At least one other change that assaults the ear has to do with an entire word leaving the popular vocabulary: in the original film, the dogged private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) tells the evasive Norman, ”Well, if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jellin’.” As was also pointed out in the recent film Julie and Julia, people don’t really eat aspic anymore and for the most part have no idea what the word means. So the remake’s Arbogast (William H. Macy) says, “If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t jello.” Which may be more current, but still lands with a thud. The solution may have been to just use the “aspic” line as is, accept that it’s a bit odd to the modern ear, and let its essential meaning come across through context; either that, or drop it completely.

What may be more serious is the second film’s Arbogast dressed in a snappy blue suit with matching hat that together look positively antiquarian to the modern eye, telling Lila that he could trail her undetected because it’s his job to avoid being seen; a plot point that makes sense in the original film when Arbogast is an average-looking guy who dresses like everyone else and makes less sense in the remake when, in context, he looks like an escapee from an old-time movie. In truth, Lila should respond, “You haven’t been unnoticed, mister. I’ve been noticing your  hat everywhere I went all day.”

Nor is that the only generational fashion faux-pas. When the second film’s Marion Crane gets out of her car and unfurls a pink parasol to protect her from the Arizona sun, my audience audibly snorted.

Larger Problem: The Terrible Miscasting of Norman Bates

One of the biggest changes between the original novel and the first film was the physical look of Norman Bates. Bloch’s Bates was a pudgy little man in the first throes of middle age, obvious to Mary Crane’s eyes as a guy who had been so dominated by the mother over the years that he’d never had a life of his own. It was believable that she felt sorry for him and saw him as no threat. Faithful adherence to Bloch’s description would have resulted in the casting of Rod Steiger, or maybe even Ernest Borgnine. Today, it might have been Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Stefano and Hitchcock decided to go another way. They decided it was critical for their audience to like Norman Bates and feel empathy for him. So they cast a slight, boyish young actor named Anthony Perkins, who had played young leading-man roles as, among other things, the young town sheriff opposite Henry Fonda in The Tin Star. As Bates, Perkins projected a loneliness and a vulnerability that rendered Marion Crane’s immediate compassion for him entirely believable. It made sense for this young woman, on her own with 40,000 reasons to be afraid, to agree to join this total stranger in his parlor, to listen to him and to feel for him, and to see in his tale of a life trapped with a deranged mother not a potential danger that would lead her to get back in her car and drive away as fast as possible, but an object lesson in the trap she’s made for herself and a reason to return home to face the consequences of her actions. It made sense, all in all, for her to like Norman, even when she suggests institutionalization for his mother and gets a flash of anger in return. Who wouldn’t like that Norman? Watching the scene, it’s even possible to believe that had she left the motel alive, returned to Phoenix with the stolen money, avoided serious legal consequences  and then come back to town to settle down with Sam Loomis, she would have sought out Norman again, this time as a concerned friend, and tried to help him.

All of this was central to the impact of the story as intended. Marion’s subsequent murder in the shower really does come off as a shocking twist, even if it’s already been spoiled for us by reputation or previous viewings. And Norman’s subsequent horrified reaction and desperate efforts to clean up after the killing do come off as the trapped actions of a man trying to protect his homicidal mother. It even comes off this way if you go in already knowing that Norman pretty much is his mother. His horror feels genuine.

You know who would have been able to project the same qualities while making the performance his own? Ed Norton.

Instead, van Sant went with Vince Vaughn, a big guy far broader and more imposing than Anthony Perkins, who looks even more massive when photographed alongside his film’s Marion Crane, the petite Anne Heche. He is able to manage a goofy, frat-boy affability during their initial meeting, but after that, when he presses Crane to join him for dinner and later discusses his sad circumstances with her, the likeability goes away and all that’s left is a seething, oversized man-child whose eyes go cold and distant when he talks about his mother.

Yeah. I can totally dig Marion being willing to share a roof with this guy.

It is difficult to tell whether this more sinister characterization of Norman is a poor acting choice by Vaughn or a directorial decision on the part of van Sant, reflecting the inescapable fact that most of the people who saw this movie would enter the theatre already aware that Norman Bates kills people. But it’s fatal to the scene and a serious blow to the movie. An ominous Norman Bates makes Marion Crane look like an idiot. In 1960, when Janet Leigh tells Anthony Perkins that she can’t have breakfast with him the next morning because she needs to get an early start, it’s an attractive woman being kind to a stranger who doesn’t get to speak to many attractive women, and who she can tell already harbors a substantial crush on her. In 1998, when Anne Heche has the same conversation with Vince Vaughn, it’s a tiny woman who has become profoundly creeped out by the big hulking man…and who out of incomprehensible recklessness doesn’t change her plans to spend the night in his hotel. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane honestly doesn’t think she has reason to fear. Anne Heche’s Marion Crane is rendered nervous, but remains in a room next to the office of the scary hulking man with the master key. It’s a spike through the very heart of the story, harming everything that follows.

And it’s not the only one.

Stranger Problem: Changes Crass, Repulsive and Nonsensical

van Sant’s mission statement of directing a line by line, shot by shot remake to the contrary, the changes he made to his Psycho are not only obvious, but gross.

Some are understandable. For instance, he extends the climax slightly. When Lila Crane finds the mummified corpse of Norman’s mother and Norman rushes in wearing wig and housedress to murder her, Van Sant’s Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortenson) needs to struggle with him a little bit more in order to subdue him.

This makes perfect logical sense in that this film’s Norman Bates is a bigger guy, larger in fact than this film’s Loomis.

And it also makes commercial sense in that the generations of thrillers since the original Psycho have trained  audiences to expect more substantial action climaxes than the mere moment or two Hitchcock provided in the original. (It still wasn’t enough, as per the reaction of the theatrical audience I saw it with, when they realized that the struggle was already over…but it could have been worse; van Sant could have gone whole hog and constructed a climax more in tune with the new era’s sensibilities, complete with an extended battle in a burning house and a bad guy who kept coming to life after being presumed dead.)

Some of the other changes are unfortunate, but forgivable. The original shower scene is justifiably famous for implying extreme violence while never actually showing the knife touch Marion’s flesh. This film’s version duplicates it almost shot by shot (the exception being a few inexplicable inserts of rolling clouds), but makes sure that we see the gaping wounds in Marion’s back as she collapses over the rim of the tub.

Some are repulsive and unnecessary. It was creepy enough, in the original film, when Norman Bates peered through the hole in the wall and spied on Marion in her room. We didn’t really need to see him hyperventilating or hear the vivid moist sounds of masturbation…in part because it’s vulgar, and in part because it prematurely erases any sympathy we might feel for the man. (This is by far van Sant’s most irritating move.)

And finally, some are nonsensical.

This scene is also known as WTF: THE MOTION PICTURE.

What on Earth was van Sant thinking, when he added a random shot of a cow on a highway, and another of a blindfolded woman reclining on a bed, to Arbogast’s murder on the stairway? What did he think this communicated, other than random film-school absurdity?

The Fatal Problem: We already know who Norman Bates is 

Scroll back up and watch the trailer for the remake again. Does it hide Norman’s nature, or trumpet it? Is this now a story driven by an unexpected twist at the one-third mark and shocking one at the conclusion, or by the dreary inevitability of an icon behaving exactly as we expect him to behave?

The 1960 Psycho was not born already imbedded in amber. It was paced for its time, driven by twists unexpected at the time, and appreciated as something new by the audiences of the time. Though now devoid of surprises, it can still be appreciated for the better mousetrap that it is. By contrast, the 1998 version was for audiences who could never be fooled into thinking that the movie was about Marion Crane’s theft, or a fundamentally innocent man trying to hide the crimes of a deranged mother. Remade beat for beat for people who know going in that Norman Bates was a crazy murderer, but too interested in paying obeisance to that original to offer them anything but strict adherence to that blueprint, it completely failed to achieve audience identification with either the main victim Marion or the just as sympathetic killer Norman. It played the notes but did not make the music. It’s no wonder that modern audiences, expecting a modern horror film, sighed with exasperation at the dullness of everything they saw on screen. van Sant did not have to emulate the murder-every-fifteen-minutes pacing of Friday the 13th with his Norman Bates, but what he made was as lifeless, really, as Norman’s mother, moldering in her rocking chair in the basement.

It might have been possible to remake Psycho in a manner that incorporated its main secret as already common knowledge. In fact, it’s been done, in a way. Starting in 1983, Anthony Perkins made a series of sequels that began with Norman Bates released from the mental hospital as “cured,” and went on to elicit thrills over uncertainty over just how unstable he really was. They weren’t great films – in fact, they were largely derided by critics – but they were all far more entertaining than van Sant’s distorted carbon copy remake. I liked Psycho II, in particular,  quite a bit, for presenting us with a story where Norman really is trying to atone for the insane crimes of his past despite Marion’s vengeful relatives  trying to drive him back to a state of madness. It was easy to feel sorry for Norman, in that movie. There was nothing in van Sant’s subsequent straight remake that matched the sheer geeky wit of that endearing moment in Psycho II when Norman Bates, desperately struggling to behave better now, declines to slice a female guest’s sandwich, telling her, “I have a problem with c-c-cutlery.” Anthony Perkins acts the hell out of that moment.

Norman does ultimately return to killing, of course. And he is returned to the asylum at the end of Psycho III. But I always took deep satisfaction in the final moment of the final sequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning, a made-for-TV movie – also written by Stefano — about the events that twisted him in the first place, where the Norman Bates of the framing sequence, mysteriously paroled from the asylum again, ultimately seems cured for good and ready for an unlikely but still gratifying happy ending that includes marriage to a loving young woman and the implied birth of his child. This redemption made almost no psychological or real-world sense, but I liked Norman enough to embrace it. I’m a wuss that way.

For what it’s worth, Robert Bloch’s own version of Norman’s aftermath, the novel Psycho II, was quite different. It’s all about a series of murders that follows Norman’s escape from the asylum. Norman, who is off-stage after the first couple of chapters, seems the obvious culprit, but the book ends with the revelation that he died soon after going over the wall, and that almost all of the recent killings attributed to him were committed by another character entirely. It’s an interesting use of a legendary monster as mere red herring, but feels like a betrayal. Ambivalent as Bloch may have been about his signature creation, Norman Bates really did deserve better than that.

In any event, van Sant received more than his share of abuse by people who called him a talentless hack for his stunt, but let us be honest about this much. He tried something that failed. That’s all. And he has more than earned his way out of purgatory with some of  the work he’s done since then, including the splendid biopic Milk.

As for the man who really started all this, crazy old murderous Ed Gein: he continued to have a tremendous impact on the world of motion pictures, as his crimes also separately inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill from Silence Of the Lambs.

*

And now, the wife’s ominous silhouette comes into view behind the shower curtain…!

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles. 109 minutes. ****

Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus van Sant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. 109 minutes.

Other Affiliated Films: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (TV-movie, 1990), all starring Anthony Perkins; A Conversation with Norman (2005). There is reportedly a making-of-Psycho dramatic film also in the pipeline, but who knows if it will ever be completed?

Thank you so much, my loving hubby.

Who decided that Psycho needed to be remade?

Was this one of those late night drunk then wake up in the morning kinda What have I done deals?

It had to be for the remake to so totally miss the mark.

OK, An updating is never a totally bad idea, but you gotta go all in or fold the hand (too many hours playing online poker).  The folks here knew they couldn’t best the original, so they decided to copy and tweak it.  Fine, but again come on and play like ya mean it.  Everything is mixed between 50’s and 90’s .  The dresses look like someone went to a 60’s vintage shop and said give me the ugliest ya got plus the accessories.  And every PI tries to blend in by wearing the Ward Cleaver off to work look.  I mean they are going from a sweltering city to an unused motel and nobody seems to feel that shorts and a t shirt might fit a bit better?  And, besides some older ladies and a few younger Latinos, I have yet to see a parasol in regular sun use. And I live in the Sunshine state.

The big surprises in the course of Psycho worked back then because they were surprising.  Now, the shower/murder scene comes across as toothless as a defanged vampire.  All bloody and wet, but not very scary. And lets face it, Vince Vaughn doesn’t look like he’d have any problem lifting away Anne Heche’s remains. I mean at least the movie goer had a reasonable doubt whether Tony Perkins could actually manhandle Janet Leigh’s body ( and I mean that in the nicest way possible guys).

Oh, AND ONE MORE THING, who the hell decided that the Daliesque images enhanced the fall down the stairs?  Talk about throwing the scene out of whack.  Is it supposed to be his memories or just some random last thoughts?  HUH?!?!  I just didn’t get it.  Did anyone?

Alright, So two guys walk into a bar and one guy says Hey, I’ve got a few million lying around, lets make a movie.  The other guy says sure and they begin to drink.  That’s the joke and the punch line was this remake.