Hollywood has often been criticized for its inability to come up with new ideas, instead offering a wide array of remakes and sequels that already have built-in audiences (and thus, involve less risk). This year we’ll see remakes, reboots, and sequels for big-budget blockbusters like Terminator, Star Wars and The Avengers, as well as less-successful fare like The Woman in Black and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
With a remake of Takashi Miike’s brilliant film Audition in the works, it’s likely that Hollywood will continue to snatch films from overseas and remake them for audiences averse to reading subtitles.
While some Hollywood remakes of foreign-films are actually pretty decent, like The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, too often they are so sanitized and pop-culture injected that there’s nothing left of the original film’s magic. Here are ten of the best foreign films to receive the worst of the Hollywood treatment.
The Pang Brother’s 2002 horror film about a blind girl who gets a cornea transplant that ends up allowing her to see spirits is atmospheric, subtly creepy and ultimately rewarding. The acting is good and the cultural connections with Chinese Daoism provide an experience that sticks with the viewer beyond the typical Asian ghost story. The film’s R-rating also allows for some fantastically gruesome imagery that is scary even in still shots.
In stark contrast, the 2008 American remake starring Jessica Alba features mediocre acting, an attempt to replace the religious aspects of the original with pseudo-scientific nonsense, and a script reliant on jump scares. The PG-13 rating means that some of the more intense scenes from the original are toned down or removed entirely, which really hurts the film’s ability to do more than startle its audience.
Taxi is a 1998 French film, written by action genius Luc Besson, about a hip taxi driver forced to chauffeur a loser cop while trying to catch German bank robbers. The story isn’t all that original, but the film has loads of style and a sharp wit. A young Marion Cotillard stars as the taxi driver’s love interest, and the acting throughout is quite good. The film is so popular that it inspired three French sequels and a television series.
Taxi is also a 2004 American film directed by Tim Story, who also directed the Fantastic Four films. It stars Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon and attempts to turn the quirky French action-comedy into a more serious American action-comedy with quick and repeatable one-liners, similar to Rush Hour or Cop Out. The jokes fall flat, the script is meandering, and the usually funny stars can’t even save this flop.
The 2002 J-horror masterpiece Ju-on has inspired many imitators, both in Japan and overseas. The film is chock-full of disturbing images, successful jump-scares, and the creepiest kid in the history of cinema, Toshio. There are scenes that stick with the viewer for years afterward, like the Exorcist-inspired backward stair-walk or the opening sequence in which Toshio hides upstairs while his father brutally murders his mother. Ju-on is incredibly scary, even in repeat viewings.
In another instance of putting on kiddy gloves when remaking a great foreign horror film, America’s remake of Ju-on, The Grudge, is a PG-13 snoozefest. Most of the truly frightening scenes were either removed completely or toned down, and Sarah Michelle Gellar isn’t nearly as good as Megumi Okina in the leading role. The only thing this remake has going for it is that young Yuya Ozeki reprises his role as Toshio, which means that at least he’s creepy.
Frank Oz’s 2007 comedy Death at a Funeral is a hilarious look at love, family and death. The British humor is dry and a bit dark, but the film is consistently funny and entertaining. The cast is fantastic, with Brit Kris Marshall and Americans Alan Tudyk and Peter Dinklage as standouts. While the film is definitely not politically correct, the offensive bits are used to illustrate the absurd ways people react in stressful situations.
Only three years later, an American Death at a Funeral was released. Americans speak the same language as the Brits, so subtitles certainly aren’t a viable excuse for the remake. Instead, the film was remade shot-for-shot as a Chris Rock vehicle. Almost the entire cast was replaced with black actors, and several of the jokes became about “how crazy white boys are” in reference to James Marsden’s character (previously the Alan Tudyk character). The American Death at a Funeral isn’t terrible; it’s just does not come even comparably close to its original and is an unnecessary money-grab.
Park Chan-wook’s 2003 thriller is a masterpiece. It contains one of the finest action scenes in film history, a single-shot scrolling brawl through a tight corridor in which the hero uses only a hammer to defend himself. It is well-shot, finely directed, tightly edited, deftly written, and brilliantly acted. The film required Buddhist actor Min-sik Choi to eat four live octopi for one important scene, and he had to pray after every take. From the grimly amusing opening to the haunting final scene, Oldboy is a film full of incredible twists and intense moments.
Enter Spike Lee and his remake, released a decade after the original Korean film. His protagonist, played by Josh Brolin, is far less sympathetic than Chan-wook’s tortured father character. The octopus scene is missing entirely, and the single-take hammer fight is presented like a traditional action movie fight, with lots of cuts and camera tricks. The story remains mostly the same, except for some details involving the twist ending and the protagonist’s reaction to the twist. There is some decent acting here, especially on the part of Sharlto Copley as the villain, but overall the movie falls flat.
It’s almost unfair to compare the 1998 American garbage-heap Godzilla to the amazing 1954 Gojira, if only because there are plenty of terrible Japanese Godzilla/Gojira sequels and spin-offs that come in between. However, America’s first attempt at a Godzilla film was so laughably bad that it has to appear on this list. Gojira is a monster-movie allegory about nuclear warfare. It’s sometimes silly, sometimes poignant, but it stands the test of time as a brilliant bit of film. The Criterion Collection has included the movie in its lineup, and it was nominated for a Japanese Academy Award (losing to Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai).
The 1998 American Godzilla film capitalized on the end of the decade’s obsession with disaster films, hiring director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Stargate) to helm a big-budget monster disaster movie. The film was made to sell merchandise and commercial tie-ins, including a Taco Bell ad campaign. Consider:
The script is atrocious, the acting is laughable, and the whole movie feels like one big, sad joke.
Anthony Zimmer (2005) is a stylish French crime drama about a money-launderer who has extensive plastic surgery in order to hide from police. The police are trailing his mistress, Chiara (Sophie Marceau), who involves the unsuspecting everyman Yvan (François Taillandier) by having him pose as the elusive Zimmer. The film is slick and fun, with memorable performances by both leads and a lauded soundtrack.
The Tourist attempts to capture the charm of the original film but fails miserably. Instead, it serves as a vehicle for stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, neither of whom can rescue this terrible movie from itself. The script is formulaic, and the film relies too strongly on its stars to carry it.
Janghwa, Hongryeon, better known by it’s english title, A Tale of Two Sisters, is one of the more atmospheric horror movies to ever be released. Based on a Korean fairy tale, this story of sisters Soo-Mi and Soo-yeon is visually breathtaking, with an understated score and a subtle, somewhat abstract plot. It’s a film that requires multiple viewings to understand completely, and that’s good because it deserves repeat attention.
Once more, the American remake is dumbed down and white-washed in order to cater to broader audiences. The violent scenes from the R-rated Two Sisters have been altered throughout, and the film’s more disturbing content has been removed, as well. The plot has also been changed, in part to work with the content changes, and revolves around the stepmother character (Elizabeth Banks) instead of the sisters. Banks is great in comedy roles but fails to inject more than vile bitchiness into the otherwise meaty role. The rest of the cast is pretty bad as well, and the movie, like so many other J-and-K-Horror remakes, is teenager-baiting garbage.
The 1987 German film Wings of Desire is an incredible film about what it means to be human, viewed through the eyes of an angel. Any scenes with angels are presented in black and white or sepia tones, as angels cannot see color, taste, smell, or feel. Human scenes are presented in bright color, illustrating the sensory experiences that we take for granted in our daily lives. Angel Damiel falls in love with a human woman, Marion, a circus performer. He chooses to become human in order to be with her, and the film is often held up as one of the best romantic films of the late 20th century.
City of Angels, made in 1998, is a hot mess trying to disguise itself as a romance movie. The angel Seth, portrayed by actor/madman Nicolas Cage, falls in love with a heart surgeon named Maggie, portrayed by Meg Ryan. He chooses to fall for her and they spend one night together before she is killed in a tragic bicycle/log truck accident. City of Angels has none of the stylistic genius of Wings of Desire, nor any of the fine acting or direction. Instead, the film is full of overly sentimental moments, overacting, and an abruptly miserable ending. The only thing anyone remembers about this movie is the soundtrack featuring the Goo Goo Dolls, and that’s probably a good thing.
While we’re talking about Nicolas Cage, let’s hit the granddaddy of all bad American remakes: The Wicker Man. The original Wicker Man, a British film released in 1976, was a unique new horror tale with haunting cinematography and a deeply creepy soundtrack. The film explored gender politics and sexuality in a way that only 1970s horror flicks really could, combining eroticism with violence to titillate and horrify viewers. The acting is top-notch, with Edward Woodward’s protagonist Sergeant Howie and Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle stealing the screen. Woodward manages to portray a virginal, overly righteous character in a way that is both sympathetic and thought-provoking.
Like so many other films on this list, America’s The Wicker Man removed content to ensure a more lucrative PG-13 rating. Instead of violence, the remake instead removed the sexual content from the original, weakening its ability to comment on gender and sexuality. Oh, and instead of a restrained-but-slightly-broken Edward Woodward, the American remake stars a completely unhinged Nicolas Cage. While that works for him in equally silly movies like Face-Off, it sure as hell doesn’t work in The Wicker Man. Some of the other actors are quite good, like Leelee Sobieksi and the always-amazing Ellen Burstyn. Their competence doesn’t make up for Cage’s maniacal over-acting, however, and the whole film suffers as a result. The most egregious change from the original film is the ending. Woodward’s protagonist goes through some touchy-feely moments with the women of the isle, only to be burned alive as the virgin sacrifice they “need” for the harvest. Lee’s Lord Summerisle is a fantastic villain, aware of the fact that the sacrifice is unnecessary but willing to do it in order to keep his followers subservient. Cage’s protagonist beats the hell out of a handful of his female captors, has his legs brutally broken, and is shut into a head-cage full of bees. (Which, of course, he is allergic to.)
After that he’s burned alive by the truly fanatical Sister SummersIsle (Burstyn). When the credits finally roll, it’s a toss-up who has suffered a worse fate, character or viewer.