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Five Remakes That Improve on the Originals

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Will the new Nightmare on Elm Street and Karate Kid live up to these inspired reimaginings?

Filmgoers who recently saw trailers for The Karate Kid and A Nightmare on Elm Street would be forgiven for thinking they’d somehow traveled back to the 1980s in some kind of time-reversing Jacuzzi. But the 2010 bumper crop of remakes is just another example of Hollywood’s typical, cynical business motto: why cook up something new when you can reheat stale leftovers? Planet of the Apes, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland… the list of inferior remakes goes on and on, and we haven’t even cleared the Tim Burton aisle yet!

On the other hand, perhaps what seems like a depressing dearth of fresh ideas in the film industry is really just an admirable commitment to recycling. And, to be fair, repetition can sometimes be the stepmother of invention: thus, in the same way a talented chef can transform a pretty good loaf of day-old bread into a truly memorable New Orleans bread pudding, the following twice-told tales are Nerve’s favorite films that improved on their source material.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Sure, The Front Page was nominated for an Oscar, but to quote film critic Geoff Andrew, it was "rather less hilarious" than Howard Hawks’ beloved remake, His Girl Friday. Hawks’ innovation was to gender-swap Rosalind Russell into the role of fast-talking protagonist Hildy Johnson, a journalist torn between a nice, "normal" life with suburban dullard Ralph Bellamy and a big city career chasing scoops (like the one about the wrongfully convicted murderer hiding in her office). The original film simply can’t compete with the shower of comic and romantic sparks Russell strikes with Cary Grant.

Little Shop of Horrors (1982)

For a film shot in two days (on sets left over from another production), Roger Corman’s 1960 cult classic about a man-eating plant is a pretty charming example of B-movie ingenuity. Plus, it’s hard to beat Jack Nicholson (in one of his earliest film roles) as a masochistic dental patient… unless, of course, you recast Bill Murray in the role, which is exactly what Frank Oz did in his all-singing, all-dancing, big-budget version of the killer-plant comedy (based on an off-Broadway musical adaptation of Corman’s film). Goosing the original’s occasionally sluggish pace with doo-wop-flavored numbers by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, Oz further ensured the critical and box-office success of his remake with a perfect cast including Murray, Vincent Gardenia, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin (as a sadistic dentist, reminding us how good he can be in movies that don’t suck), and Rick Moranis as Seymour, the nerdy, lovestruck flower-shop clerk he was clearly born to play.

The Fly (1986)

Nothing in the history of movies is quite as disturbing as the sight of David "Al" Hedison’s tiny head on the body of a fly screaming "Help me! Help me!" in the final minutes of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 classic of science gone wild. But the image of a buff, naked Jeff Goldblum with his crazy fly-sperm libido cranked to eleven comes pretty damn close. (Just kidding, Jeff.) Actually, the offbeat love story in David Cronenberg’s grisly, gothic remake of Neumann’s film is what helps to realistically ground the otherwise fantastical tale of a scientist who (literally) falls apart when his DNA blends with that of a Musca domestica during an ill-fated teleportation experiment. While Cronenberg’s monster movie delivers more than its share of shocking moments (Geena Davis giving birth to a giant maggot, f’rinstance), the chilling, AIDS-era dramatization of love’s helplessness in the face of physical disintegration is the film’s true source of terror.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Like smoking and gangland Vegas, the original 1960 version of Ocean’s 11 seems cool and sexy until you’re confronted with the unpleasant reality. And, while everyone’s favorite Rat Pack movie has a lot to recommend it — most notably the brilliant high concept, a sexy cameo by Shirley MacLaine as "Tipsy Woman", and the aforementioned Pack — a documentary about Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and their cocktail-swillin’ pallies actually making the film would surely be more fun than watching the sluggish final product. Steven Soderbergh’s remake, on the other hand, while hardly a masterpiece (and nowhere near as hipster iconic) is nevertheless a satisfying, fast-paced fandango with a pretty cool cast of its own, including Brad Pitt, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, Elliot Gould, and of course, the Cloon. Sure, there have probably been too many sequels…but the original spawned some pretty terrible "sequels" of its own, including Sergeants 3, 4 for Texas and Robin and the 7 Hoods.

King Kong (2005)

Okay, everybody just calm down. I’m not saying Peter Jackson’s flawed (but intermittently brilliant) remake is better than the groundbreaking 1933 original. I’m saying Jackson’s version is better than Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake of the 1933 original. And, yes, I know John Guillermin actually directed the Bicentennial edition, but That ’70s Kong was definitely Dino’s baby, judging by the producer’s famous quote, "No one cry when Jaws die. But when the monkey die, people gonna cry." And, indeed, the aforementioned mechanical monkey was at least as expressive as his equally hairy co-star Jeff "the Dude" Bridges, not to mention Jessica Lange in her debut role as, uh, "Dwan" — who, in addition to the stupid name, also gets the bulk of the screenplay’s worst dialogue, including the timeless feminist declaration, "You goddamn chauvinist pig ape!" Yet while Dino’s movie scores on nostalgic charm, Jackson’s breathtaking panoramas of 1930s Manhattan (and one insanely exciting ape-on-dinosaur battle royale) make the 2005 version the king of Kong remakes.

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