Sunday, September 1, 2013

Remake: We Aren't What We Were

It's been a little while since an acclaimed horror movie that wasn't made in the United States got an American remake, and now…just now…as I'm typing these words…I'm realizing maybe for the first time how much of an expression of cultural privilege the idea of a remake is, as if it's only the United States that can't seem to watch the same fucking movie the rest of the world did.

Which isn't to say that there isn't a market or appreciation for movies not made in the United States here in the U.S., there definitely is, but there's definitely this feeling at some level of the film industry that the movie doesn't "count" until it gets its American remake. Maybe that's a function of the everyday American moviegoer not "getting" it and expecting to have everything handed to them in cinematic language they understand. Maybe it's the idea that the American version will somehow always be "better", even when it really, really, isn't. I'm not sure it's not any more depressing that any other number of things about the film industry in the United States, and I probably should have twigged to this a long time ago, but there it is.

Believe it or not, that's not the main point of this post. That just sort of popped into my head as I started writing.

What I wanted to talk about was the upcoming remake of Somos Lo Que Hay, remade in the U.S. as We Are What We Are. I'm not someone who believes that the original is always good and the remake is always bad, though it does bum me out that movies don't always get the audience they deserve until they're remade (see above). Remakes vary in quality and in the degree to which they depart from the original. You've got cases where the remake shifts things just enough to take advantage of cultural differences in the audience ([REC] to Quarantine comes to mind), others where you get bigger changes that still preserve what made the original good, even when the narrative departs significantly (Ringu to The Ring), and instances where the remake manages to completely betray the heart of what made the original so good and make you wish movies never got remade (Spoorloos to The Vanishing). So there's a fair amount of freedom in what it means for something to be a remake.

We Are What We Are caught my attention because it looks like it's pretty much telling the same story, but inverting everything else about it.

The original is the story of the sudden death of a family's patriarch, and the attempts of his family to maintain their way of life in the wake of his death - it's a story of mounting desperation, as the rest of the family attempts to fill the role vacated by the father and secure the necessary materials for an undescribed ritual before the clock strikes midnight. The family lives in Mexico City, and the dead father leaves behind a wife, a daughter, and two sons who jockey to pick up where he left off to keep the family alive. The remake relocates the family from urban Mexico to a rural part of the United States, and it is the mother who dies, leaving behind a husband, a son, and two daughters.

These seem like very simple changes - just flip adjectives and there you go - but having watched the trailer, it really does change the entire feeling of the film. Setting it in the country frames it less in terms of poverty and running out of time and options, and more in terms of an attempt to maintain a way of life against encroaching civilization. I'm curious to see what reversing the genders of the family does, because a big part of the original dealt with the construction of masculinity, and I don't know if it'll be the same here. Finally, the original's less about what the family does and more about how the father's death fractures them and makes them question themselves and their place in the world. I'm curious to see how much of that is preserved in the remake, because the trailer makes it look (as it probably should) like a more traditional horror film, cutting back and forth between the family and the people in the community who begin to put some puzzle pieces together in the wake of the mother's death.

Honestly, I think that's for the better - one of my criticisms of the original was that although it had some interesting things to say about gender roles, it wasn't scary. It wasn't so much a horror movie as a drama with horror tropes slapped on top. The trailer for the remake puts much more focus on the idea that there is Something Wrong with this family, and there's lots of thunder and lightning and menace seething under the surface. I'll be interested to see if they're able to pull it off.

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