This week, the Criterion Collection unveiled a new Blu-ray edition of The Vanishing, George Sluizer’s critically acclaimed and bluntly effective 1988 Dutch thriller. But it’s also a film with a tainted legacy, as most American moviegoers are far more familiar with the inferior and ill-conceived 1993 remake, starring Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, and Sandra Bullock. Yes, it was another case of the disastrous American remake, and rest assured, for every Departed or Birdcage, there are three or four stinkers like these.
The most depressing thing about that 1993 version of The Vanishing is that director Sluizer didn’t just see his noteworthy original violated; he had to do it himself. The picture carries his credit as director, though it seems reasonable to guess that the muckety-mucks at 20th Century Fox may have been the authors of its most upsetting element: a loathsome happy ending that neutralizes the grim power of the original. Salon’s Matt Zoller Seitz dubbed it the worst remake of all time; Roger Ebert wrote that Sluzier “savaged his masterpiece as thoroughly as if a hired hack had been brought in to do the job,” and called its reworked ending “an insult to the intelligence and also, by implication, to American audiences.”
God knows what possessed the powers-that-be in Hollywood to whip up a 41-years-later Americanized version of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 suspense masterpiece; further inquiry is required to ascertain why director Jeremiah S. Chechik — best known for helming National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — was deemed the man for the job. But whatever the logic, he cooked up a thoroughly miscalculated attempt to meld the original’s classy style with erotic-thriller theatrics (thanks primarily to the presence of Sharon Stone in a leading role). In doing so, Chechik managed to do the impossible: he made Clouzot’s story boring.
Look, when you get down to it, we brought this 1998 catastrophe on ourselves, when we went and made Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s brain-dead Blockbuster Movie Product Independence Day a giant hit. But this bewilderingly stupid reimagining of the Toho monster movie classic still seems like too steep a punishment for even that crime, its perceived commercial failure the kind of course correction that feels, in retrospect, like justice. It’s really terrible, is what I’m getting at, and the less said about it, the better.
There was an extra step involved in Rob Marshall’s 2009 film, which was technically based on the Broadway musical, which was in turn based on Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece 8½. (The extra half was because of the songs, maybe?) That stage production was reportedly a fine one, recapturing the spirit and energy of Fellini’s original; no such luck with Marshall’s spotty, messy, and oddly lifeless adaptation, mostly remembered these days as the cinematic proof that there are actually things that Daniel Day-Lewis can’t do.
City of Angels
Wim Wenders’ 1987 German film Wings of Desire is a gorgeously austere meditation on life and afterlife. If you doused it with a bucket of forced tears, maudlin melodrama, rom-com bullshit, and Goo Goo Dolls music, you might come up with City of Angels, if you were really trying to just drive the movie into a ditch. Screenwriter Dana Stevens and director Brad Silberling clumsily remove all the subtlety and nuance of the original film, spelling its themes out in capital letters for dumb-dumb American audiences, and coming up with a film that, in retrospect, seems like the beginning of the end for stars Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan.
The Wicker Man
Of course, Cage is no stranger to the shoddy American remake. Aside from Angels and the lethargic Bangkok Dangerous, he also fronted one of the most notorious remakes of all time: Neil LaBute’s gloriously batty 2006 reworking of the British cult classic The Wicker Man. Cage amped up the crazy and LaBute cranked up the misogyny, so I guess they had something to add, but the Americanization of British movies seems even more unnecessary, since there’s not even a language barrier to break down. And strangely, this isn’t even LaBute’s only crack at it…
Death at a Funeral
… since he was also the director of one of the most peculiarly unnecessary movies in recent memory. The original Death at a Funeral was released in 2007, with American Frank Oz directing a mostly British cast. LaBute’s take came out a mere three years later, retaining Dean Craig’s original screenplay, supporting player Peter Dinklage, and even a similar set (as if it were a Broadway play being performed by the touring company). About the only change is the switch to a mostly African-American cast, led by Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Martin Lawrence — but the film’s odd fidelity to the original never allows any of its performers or its director to do anything new, or interesting. It ultimately plays as an odd cinematic experiment, something along the lines of Van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho remake, and was received with about as much enthusiasm.
Like Psycho, Park Chan-wook’s 2003 cult classic is a terrific film that ends with a big surprise twist — and thus a remake of that movie, pitched to an audience already aware of that twist, seems particularly redundant. Spike Lee’s 2013 remake tries, at least in its first act, to sort of do its own thing, with particular success in the longer imprisonment sequence, where Lee plays the Rip Van Winkle angle to the hilt. But Lee’s Oldboy is ultimately a long, slow trip to a familiar destination, and its only real interest comes from comparisons to the original (where it’s bound to suffer).
The Man Who Loved Women
Though snazzily entertaining, the 1977 comedy L’Homme qui aimait les femmes wasn’t exactly one of François Truffaut’s masterpieces — which actually makes it less offensive as a target for American remaking. The trouble is, Blake Edward’s 1983 take was reimagined as a Burt Reynolds vehicle, just as the star was at his most toothless and ineffectual; he’s barely present in the movie, and this was right around the time that co-writer/director Edwards’ filmmaking instincts were really starting to fail him. He ended up with what Variety dubbed “truly woeful, reeking of production-line, big star filmmaking and nothing else.”
And God Created Woman
Roger Vadim’s 1955 French drama was a worldwide sensation — though, to be fair, its success had less to do with brilliant filmmaking than it did with the presence of hubba-hubba leading lady Brigitte Bardot, who became a star thanks to the loving gaze of Vadim’s camera. The picture was also a bit of a cause célèbre, pushing the boundaries for onscreen sexuality in its prurient period of initial release. Suffice it to say that this particular novelty was long gone by the time Vadim helmed his own English-language remake of the picture in 1988, and star Rebecca DeMornay (while quite lovely and a fine actress) is no Bardot. Toss in an ‘80s rock music subplot that aged the movie about five minutes after release, and you’ve got a justifiably forgotten ripple, an example of hubris by a director who somehow thought that he, and not his iconic leading lady, was the draw of his original sensation.