Because the 80s brought the beginning of the digital age, computer culture, synth music, and so much else that we associate with newness, it might seem a paradox that the 80s were also great years for remakes – at least in the cinema.
Let’s revisit eight movies from the 80s that remade classics from decades earlier. Most of the original films hailed from the 50s, but our list starts with one film from the 40s and closes with one film from the 60s.
Many of these remakes were frowned upon when released, but almost all garnered respect over the years. In some cases, fans have shown a distinct preference for these 80s remakes over the originals.
I’ll list the films chronologically by their original release year, and I’ll make comparisons between the originals and the remakes.
(original 1942, remake 1982)
The plot of the remake is very different from that of the original, but the essential conflict is the same: a reluctant lycanthrope heroine struggles to find love with a regular human man. The man slowly recognizes the heroine’s remoteness but is helpless to stop it. A sinister compatriot of the heroine draws her away from the man and perhaps sabotages her chances of ever living a happy life.
The biggest change from the original is the complete abandonment of subtlety and ambiguity.
The original remains famous for suggesting far more than it shows (including repressed sexuality and hints at lesbianism), and for allowing a slight possibility that the shape-changing is only in the heroine’s mind.
The remake punctuates the sexuality with nudity, seduction, and (almost) incest. It also adds some rather gross gore.
No one prefers the remake to the original. Yet the remake holds the viewer’s attention closely, not least because of Nastassja Kinski playing the hapless heroine and Malcolm McDowell her sinister brother.
(originally “The Thing from Another World,” 1951, remade 1982)
If you thought the Cat People remake was gory, wait until you see The Thing.
Gore, in fact, seems to be the main new quality shared by these 80s remakes.
But here with The Thing, the gore is appropriate as a repulsive alien shape-changer attacks a team of researchers in an isolated Antarctic compound. We root strongly for these men to somehow destroy the hideous alien once and for all.
Aside from the gore, the remade film is closer to the original than most other remakes on this list. It’s also closer to the story that inspired the original, the novella “Who Goes There?” (published 1938).
The 1951 film made the alien a humanoid start to finish. It was the original novella – and the 1982 remake – that made the alien a shape-changer.
Historically, the film is also notable for being the second of five collaborations between director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell. It was poorly received at the time but is now regarded as a rare remake that rivals an excellent predecessor in reputation and quality.
(originally “High Noon,” 1952, remade 1981)
In what is ostensibly the biggest change on this list, a Western was remade as a space opera. But the feeling of this remake, the pacing, even several characters, closely match those of the original.
Somehow, the translation of these elements to science fiction makes perfect sense.
An isolated town becomes an isolated space station. A train bringing hired assassins to the rail stop becomes a shuttlecraft bringing hired assassins to the docking bay. A young independent woman running a hotel becomes a mature woman working as the space station physician.
It’s also fun to compare Gary Cooper’s and Sean Connery’s performances. Both underplay their roles, often speaking quietly yet clearly possessed of resilience within.
Outland is never great like High Noon, but it’s good all around.
INVADERS FROM MARS
(original 1953, remade 1986)
Though directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and co-scripted by Dan O’Bannon (Alien), this sci-fi horror remake is probably the most disappointing film on our list. I’d say it’s the only film on the list that hasn’t gained a better reputation over the years.
Where it’s good, it simply rehashes the original. When it tries something new, it almost always falters. There is little reason to see it.
Having Karen Black and her own real-life son co-star sounds good to me… but the characters are flat and the performances are standard.
I did enjoy the always-amazing Louise Fletcher as a possessed school teacher and Jimmy Hunt (who played the boy from the 1953 original) as a possessed police chief.
Perhaps the Stan Winston monsters are the main appeal. The hunched, goblinlike thugs and the slug-brain Head Martian are duly hideous and frightening even in closeup.
Apparently Winston built only two monster suits since we keep seeing the thugs in pairs. But the suits were brilliantly designed: each one encompassed a man who would walk backward with a dwarf strapped to his back!
The underground Martian complex looks good except for the spotlights which have a fatuous disco effect.
NOT OF THIS EARTH
(original 1957, remade 1988)
We’ve already mentioned remakes that “updated” their predecessors by adding gore. Now here’s one that adds sex.
Actually this remake has much less sex than you’d expect, given that former porn star Traci Lords plays the lead. She really only has one nude scene, and even then she’s partly obscured.
You’ll also be surprised how closely this film follows its predecessor, not only rehashing the same plot but also repeating exact lines word for word. Perhaps producer Roger Corman (who directed the original) saved money this way.
I prefer the slower and more mysterious original to this sassy remake. But the remake has plenty of fans. A climactic car chase scene is energetic and fun. Some teleportation special effects are good. And I actually sympathized with “Johnson” the emotionless alien vampire-villain.
(original 1958, remade 1988)
Like The Thing, this Blob remake adds an awful lot of gore to the minor gore depicted in the original. And as with The Thing, the gore is appropriate.
But unlike The Thing, where the gore generates fright and repulsion, The Blob sometimes pushes gore to such ludicrous extremes that it becomes campy and funny.
The story also takes on new directions after some early scenes that mimic those of the original.
Here are five particular ways this remake updated the original:
1. The small town is struggling rather than flourishing
2. The blob is a botched government germ experiment rather than an alien invader
3. The blob is quick and aggressive
4. The script makes a dozen sex jokes
5. The script is self-referential
If you don’t mind the gore, you may prefer this remake to the original as I did, even if it does lack Steve McQueen. Kevin Dillon (Matt’s brother) is very convincing as the greaser-hero with the mullet haircut. Shawnee Smith (Amanda from the Saw series) displays a wide range of emotions as the cheerleader-heroine.
(original 1958, remade 1986)
Here we go again with gore, some of it pretty disturbing. Many critics see this film as scripter-director David Cronenberg’s apotheosis of intellectual “body horror.”
But if you have a strong stomach, the film is very good. One of the changes from the original – having the scientist mutate slowly into a fly-man hybrid rather than instantly into a man who simply has a few fly body parts – is brilliant.
It was a surprising hit – in fact the biggest hit on this list.
Unlike the sad original film which couches its story in a flashback, this remake focuses closely on the scientist and his girlfriend, their relationship transforming slowly and sinisterly just as the scientist himself transforms.
It gets even more interesting to consider that Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were a secret couple at the time. They were married a year after The Fly‘s release.
The spooky (and rather unbelievable) “lost cat” from the first film was originally written into the remake as a “monkey cat” after cat and monkey atoms are accidentally fused together. But the cat was dropped from the script, so only an unfortunate monkey (i.e. baboon) was used.
If anything in the original film beats anything in this remake it would be the unforgettable “help me!” coda, something so unique in sci-fi horror history that this remake never tries to top it. Luckily, it doesn’t need to.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
(original 1960, remade 1986)
This is the second of two films on this list that remakes a Roger Corman classic. But unlike Not of this Earth which follows the original very closely, Little Shop of Horrors turns a quietly quirky Beatnik comedy into a grand (some would say grandiose), stagey, special-effects-heavy musical. In fact, it was adapted into an off-Broadway musical in 1982.
Such a nutty story (a nerd grows a talking carnivorous plant that becomes his master) needs campy treatment, of course, but how much is too much?
The original ending of this 1986 remake actually depicted Audrey the carnivorous plant growing to kaiju size, spawning multiple brethren, fighting off the US Army, and devouring the whole planet! A much quieter and happy ending was substituted, but you can find this original alternate ending on YouTube and elsewhere.
The happy ending works because we sympathize with Rick Moranis’s Seymour much more than with Jonathan Haze in the original.
The vaunted cast includes Christopher Guest, John Candy, and Jim Belushi in small roles, Steve Martin in a prominent role (possibly the most memorable in the film), and Bill Murray as the masochist played by Jack Nicholson in the original.
My favorite touch was giving the giant plant an “evil black guy” voice, courtesy of Levi Stubbs from The Four Tops. “Reach Out” indeed!