To Remake or Not to Remake: When it's Worked, When it's Failed

One of my favorite movies of 2008 was a little Swedish flick called Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in), a dark and wistful love story about friendship between two lonely kids: Oskar, a timid 12-year-old, and his new neighbor Eli, who also happens to be a vampire. With superb direction from Tomas Alfredson, gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, and a pair of preternaturally poised central performances by child actors Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, the award-winning Let the Right One In was, by all accounts, a damn near perfect film.

So why did Hollywood have to remake it?

Even before it hit theaters in the fall of 2008, the buzz-building Let the Right One In had been optioned by Hammer Films; a month into its limited release run in the U.S., Cloverfield director Matt Reeves was on board to direct the Americanized remake, set in New Mexico. On October 1, 2010, Overture Films will release Let Me In, starring Hollywood kid thesps of the moment Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) and Chloë Moretz (The Amityville Horror, Kick-Ass), and one way or another we'll see if this was all worth the trouble or just another Hollywood cash-in on someone else's good idea.

Reeves insists he's remaking LTROI out of pure love for the film and its source novel, and he's got author John Ajvide Lindqvist's seal of approval. Director Alfredson, on the other hand, adheres to the "If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it" school of thought. Both filmmakers have a point, as the hit-or-miss history of the Hollywood remake has shown us.

So when has remaking a foreign language film worked best?

Some Like It Hot (1959) / Fanfare of Love (1951)

Billy Wilder's screwball comedy about a pair of cross-dressing musicians hiding out from gangsters is lovingly lauded as one of the best comedies of all time. But few people know that it was heavily influenced by an obscure German film, Fanfaren der Liebe, itself a remake of the 1935 French film Fanfare d'amour. Wilder added the gangster subplot and the comic firepower of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe as the sizzling Sugar Kane, and the rest was movie history.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) / Seven Samurai (1954)

Six years after Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa debuted his influential film Seven Samurai, director John Sturges transferred the saga, about seven warriors who battle bandits on behalf of a village, to the dusty climes of an embattled Mexican border town -- and it still worked. With an all-star cast including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and Eli Wallach, The Magnificent Seven went on to become a classic of the Western genre and led a spate of remakes of Kurosawa's work, including Yojimbo (remade as A Fistful of Dollars) and The Hidden Fortress (an acknowledged influence on the Star Wars franchise).

12 Monkeys (1995) / La Jetée (1962)

Chris Marker's 28-minute black-and-white French-language film La Jetée told the story of a prisoner participant in a post-nuclear time travel experiment haunted by a memory from his past -- an unlikely candidate for a full-length, English-language feature remake at a major studio. But with a sharp script adaptation by David and Janet Peoples and visionary director Terry Gilliam at the helm, 12 Monkeys became a critically acclaimed sci-fi classic and notched an Oscar nomination for co-star Brad Pitt.

The Departed (2006) / Infernal Affairs (2002)

When Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's crime thriller Infernal Affairs debuted in Asia in 2002, the Hong Kong film industry jolted to attention thanks to its inventive plot and atmosphere thick with psychological suspense. So when Martin Scorsese announced he was remaking the film into The Departed, anticipation shot through the roof. By setting the twofold tale of a cop and a gangster working undercover against one another within the Boston-Irish crime community rather than the Hong Kong Triad underworld, Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan made the material their own, and the film went home with four Academy Award wins (including Scorsese's first Oscar for Best Director).

The Ring (2002) / Ringu (1998)

The plot was simple: after watching a mysterious videotape, people die. With that basic premise director Hideo Nakata made a splash in 1998 when his horror-thriller Ringu became Japan's highest-grossing film of all time based on Koji Suzuki's novel of the same name. Four years later, a pre-Pirates of the Caribbean Gore Verbinski earned his first critical and commercial hit with his remake, The Ring, which imported Ringu's plot (and the landmark revelation that ghost chicks with stringy dark hair are terrifying) to the Pacific Northwest and ushered in a whole new era of Hollywood remaking J-horror and various other Asian horror genre hits, albeit with diminishing returns.

On the other hand, in our age of rampant copycatting and creative bankruptcy we've seen more bad remakes than good ones. Behold, the remakes that failed:

Godzilla (1998) / Gojira (1954)

Goodness my, did Roland Emmerich's Godzilla suck. The multiple Razzie-winning mess of monster proportions even came with its own all-out media blitz and horrible chart-topping alt-rock soundtrack (which I may have owned, but you'll never prove it). If it were any one-off creature feature disaster movie it might not have left such a bad taste in our collective mouths, but in the light of the well-loved classic kaiju flick Gojira and its many sequels, Godzilla was an epic slap in the face to fans.

The Vanishing (1993) / Spoorloos (1988)

Dutch audiences and international critics alike applauded George Sluizer's 1988 film Spoorloos, in which a man obsesses over the disappearance of his girlfriend for years until her abductor contacts him with the tantalizing knowledge of what really happened to her. But in remaking The Vanishing as a 1993 Hollywood redo starring Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges, Sluizer chopped up, watered down, and rewrote the ending of his own hit, prompting critic Roger Ebert to call it "a textbook exercise in the trashing of a nearly perfect film."

The Last House on the Left (2009) / The Virgin Spring (1960)

Sometimes a remake works when you dramatically overhaul its time, setting, and genre. But Wes Craven already did that once, giving Ingmar Bergman's medieval Swedish revenge drama The Virgin Spring a gruesome face lift with 1972's Last House on the Left. So by the time Rogue Pictures and Craven dug Last House up again in 2009, the only thing to add was more gore and intensity -- and when it came to the film's pivotal rape scene, that's exactly what turned most audiences and critics off.

Taxi (2004) / Taxi (1998)

The Luc Besson-penned French comedy Taxi may not have earned critical raves, but it made tons of cash and spawned three sequels (the last of which is actually entitled T4xi.) So it's not hard to see why 20th Century Fox thought it'd make a perfect New York City-set American vehicle for then-burgeoning mainstream stars Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon, who rung up the box office but left critics wildly unamused. Open plea to Hollywood: don't remake a movie just to cash in. Our collective brain cells depend on it.

The Invisible (2007) / Den Osynlige (2002)

Lastly, I'll leave you with a failed Hollywood remake that could presage a worst case scenario for Let the Right One In / Let Me In. Den Osynlige was a 2002 Swedish drama based on the novel of the same name about a high schooler (Gustaf Skarsgård, son of Stellan) stuck floating in limbo as his body lays dying, while his killer (Tuva Novotny) wrestles with her conscience. However, translated into rote teen thriller terms with David S. Goyer at the helm, it turned into The Invisible, a muddled, navel-gazing snoozer starring Justin Chatwin that wound up one of the more forgettable films of 2007.

Jen Yamato really loved Let the Right One In, and has her fingers crossed that Let Me In is more like The Magnificent Seven than Godzilla.