The Cat and the Canary (1939)
John Willard's successful 1922 Broadway play, The Cat and the Canary (starring Henry Hull,the Werewolf of London himself), had originally been filmed in 1927 by Paul Leni at Universal, and was first remade with sound in 1930 as The Cat Creeps (now a lost film). Universal considered yet another remake in 1938, but subsequently sold the rights to Paramount, who mounted this production. The two previous versions were both straight thrillers, whereas this 1939 rendition was tailored to the comedic talents of Bob Hope. While arguably one of the best mystery-horror films of the 1930s, The Cat and the Canary is also the premier mystery-comedy of the decade.

With enough reaching hands, hidden passages and unusual plot twists to keep any Old Dark House fan happy, some genuine suspense, a hideous killer and Bob Hope one-liners make this stellar production a 'streamlined, screamlined' winner (as the New York Times reviewer so colorfully put it). Bob Hope is likable, funny and even heroic, but he's at his best when making fun of his own fears,a sort of comedic whistling in the dark,something that audiences can identify with and admire. (When told by the sinister housekeeper that 'There are spirits all around you,' Hope nervously quips, 'Well, could you put some in a glass, I need it badly.') Paulette Goddard makes a likable, strong-willed heroine, a pleasant and intelligent change from the standard window dressing screamer. And the supporting players all do well, headed by the urbane George Zucco and the mysterious Gale Sondergaard. Production values are high, and the climax, though brief, is unexpected and edge-of-the-seat material. One could do much worse than to sit in this catbird seat.

Scared Stiff (1953)
Though this slavish remake of The Ghost Breakers (1940) sports the same director and follows that previous film's script almost to the letter (with a half-dozen low-rent musical numbers thrown in for bad measure), it can't hold a candle to its comedy classic model. Retooled slightly for the talents of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (in the roles originally assayed by Bob Hope and Willie Best), the film sends the "boys' to Cuba where they aid a lovely young girl (Lizabeth Scott) who's just inherited a haunted castle. The script splits the wisecracks between the two stars (whose mean-spirited interplay quickly grows tiresome, with Martin constantly ordering Lewis to shut up or threatening to hit him). Sadly, Dean Martin is no Bob Hope, and the zingers fall flat coming from this sleepy-eyed crooner. And as for Jerry Lewis -- well, Lewis' brand of heavy mugging and high-pitched howling can safely be called an acquired taste.

Having no Gallic blood in my ancestry, I seem to lack those particular buds that would allow me to enjoy his facial calisthenics and harpy-like vocalizations. Lewis' only funny moments are those that arise from the clever script or those bits of comedy cribbed from Lou Costello (such as the 'arm chair' routine seen in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein),which the short fat man does exceedingly better than the tall thin one. Lewis flatly stated (in The Jerry Lewis Films, by James L. Neibaur and Ted Okuda), 'We didn't feel that The Ghost Breakers needed to be remade in the first place.' They were right.

The Eye Creatures (1965)
Larry Buchanan, a Texas-based schlock filmmaker, was contracted in the 1960s by American International Pictures to produce and direct several features that the company could release directly to the seemingly bottomless pit of television. AIP gave him free reign to plagiarize their past properties, and The Eye Creatures is what happened when Larry decided to remake Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957). Despite the fact that entire scenes are copied word for word from Invasion, this version possesses none of the charm, humor or fun of the original. Instead, we get a 30-year-old John Ashley playing a teenager, a supporting cast of non-actors, static (non)direction, inconsistent day-for-night photography (black night sky alternating with shots of blue noonday sky in the same scene), and, worst of all, ridiculous, pitiful, ineffectual monsters. The original Saucermen, with their huge bulbous heads, bug-eyes and leathery, veined skin, are an icon of "50s monster movies. The Eye Creatures look like the Michelin Tire Man on acid doing a bad Frankenstein's Monster imitation. The scene in which they weakly try to get into a car with a crowbar is simply pitiful. And 'pitiful' is the operative word for this entire tired mess. Watch Invasion of the Saucer Men again instead.

Tower of London (1962)
With a cast like Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Ian Hunter and Vincent Price -- Wait a minute, that's the other Tower of London, the one released by Universal in 1939. This one stars the not-quite-so-illustrious personages of Michael Pate, Joan Freeman and Robert Brown. Oh yes, and Vincent Price graduates from his supporting role as the sniveling Clarence in the original to the lead part of the evil Richard himself in this remake. Here, director Roger Corman gives us a tale of murder and ghosts and conscience involving the fifteenth century monarch Richard III and his nefarious crimes to gain the English throne. As might be expected, Corman's revision comes nowhere close to the earlier film in production quality; but then the 1939 version was a relatively high-priced effort ($580,000) from a major studio whereas Corman's project was a low-budget (less than $200,000,twenty-five years later) independent entry. (Corman even borrowed some of the original's battle footage to flesh out his minimalist fight scenes.)

The tones of the two films are miles apart as well, the earlier entry being an historical melodrama with horrific highlights while the latter focused on the themes of madness, guilt and death,more in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe than medieval history (not surprising, since Corman was at this time was right in the middle of his successful Poe series for AIP). Corman's proved the more intimate of the two, with the weight of the film resting on the humped shoulders of Vincent Price playing a man who tortures and murders to achieve his ends yet suffers from his own conscience to the point of madness. The role of Richard is a fascinating one, with the script portraying him as a man who knows what is right and what is wrong, but chooses the path of evil anyway. 'Is it what men do that darkens the sky, or do the skies blacken the souls of men?' asks this reflective villain.

Unfortunately, Tower of London fails to live up to its potential. The script is structured so that the film will rise or fall with the performance of Vincent Price. He provides a larger-than-life portrayal, sprinkling his wild-eyed, open-mouthed, full-blooded delivery with moments of subtlety and emotion. It's an enjoyable performance without doubt, but an uneven one. Still, 1962's Tower of London remains an entertaining movie, filled with intrigue and shock and bizarre situations. More importantly, something worthwhile lurks beneath the garish surface. 'He escaped the headsman's block, but he could not escape his own conscience.' At least it's something to think about.

The Lost World (1960)
This tepid Saturday matinee filler doesn't deserve to share the same name with the 1925 Willis O'Brien silent classic. O'Brien filled his version with over 50 excitingly realistic stop-motion animated dinosaurs. In this weak remake, producer-director Irwin Allen decided a few dressed up lizards would do just fine. What's worse (in an unkind bit of irony), the talented, down-on-his-luck O'Brien worked on this production as an 'effects technician',but was not allowed to work his stop-motion magic. This version sticks to the standard story of a small group of disparate individuals finding a lost prehistoric plateau where they encounter dinosaurs and primitive peoples before making their escape when it all blows up.

The great Claude Rains stars as Professor Challenger, the leader of the expedition; Michael Rennie ('Klaatu' himself) plays a big-game hunter; Fernando Lamas is the experienced local helicopter pilot; and David ('Help meeeee!') Hedison acts as the standard hero. Unfortunately, Allen is not a good enough director to get the most out of this talented cast. Rains goes over the top with his eccentric and blustery portrayal, Rennie seems to be just walking through his role, Lamas isn't given much to do except glower, and Hedison is obviously trying too hard. The effects are anything but special, consisting of terrible matting and unconvincing miniatures. But Allen simply goes too far when he has Rains label a lizard with a frill a 'brontosaurus' and a baby alligator with horns glued to its head a 'tyrannosaurus rex'! Sad.

Zontar, the Thing From Venus (1966)
Aaaaargh!!! Larry Buchanan, that grade-Z filmmaker from Texas, strikes again with this uncredited remake of Roger Corman's 1956 cult classic, It Conquered the World (no great cinematic treat itself, if truth be told). The cheap sets are of the 'Motel 6' variety, the acting amateurish, and what new dialogue was written is contemptible. Add to this unimaginative direction, inept camerawork, muddy lighting and a sad, dimestore monster, and the total comes to a big fat cinematic zero.

John Agar is the only 'name' in the cast (and the only real professional), but is given so little direction that his already flat acting style reaches new heights in banality. Agar (who starred in three of Buchanan's features) once observed, "Larry, God bless him, is a nice guy but he really was not a director." The viewer can only agree. A few bits of dialogue provoke a snort or two of derisive laughter ('I hate your living guts for what you've done to my husband and my world!'), but it's not enough to justify 80 minutes of tedium. When one character exclaims, 'Zontar, you're slimy, horrible,' she could just as well be describing the whole movie.

One Million Years B.C. (1967)
Despite its rather hackneyed story, One Million Years B.C. ranks as one of the best prehistoric/dinosaur films ever made (and certainly far superior to its 1940 model, the Hal Roach-produced One Million B.C.).

While the drawing card may have been the stunning face and figure of Raquel Welch (whose generous pulchritude is the most prominent feature in the posters and ads), the real star of the show is stop-motion superstar Ray Harryhausen, whose meticulous animation work took nearly nine months to complete. Harryhausen's pre-Jurassic Park dinosaurs are so exciting and lifelike that something new can be seen with each successive viewing as he brings to vibrant life a lumbering brontosaurus, a startling realistic giant sea turtle, a lithe and deadly allosaurus, a thrilling and bloody battle to the death between a triceratops and ceratosaurus, and a swooping and diving pterodactyl who carries off the heroine as food for her hatchlings (though, fortuitously, it drops her in the surf in order to combat another pterodactyl in an exciting aerial dinofight).

Costing about a dollar for every year in its title, One Million Years B.C. grossed over $8,000,000 worldwide, making it Hammer Films' biggest ever commercial success. For both stop-motion and dinosaur fans, this is one remake not to be missed.

Godzilla (1998)
Despite what the cranky critics and annoyed armchair pundits said, this recent update is a thoroughly enjoyable monster romp for the '90s. Die-hard Godzilla fans complained that the Big Guy in this version didn't look anything like the original. Indeed, it's a huge relief not to have to watch yet another laughably awkward and slow-moving man-in-a-suit clomp about on tiny models. Who wants to see that again, when you can now watch a frighteningly realistic-looking and fast-moving giant menace brought to life via the magic of CGI? (Perhaps if the film had been named Giant Monster Movie rather than Godzilla it would have fared better.) Another frequent complaint falls on the shoulders of the Jurassic Park raptor-like 'baby godzillas.' While they may indeed conjure up images of those rapacious Spielberg dinos, the Madison Square Garden hatching/pursuit sequence is both well-shot and suspensefully-staged, and its inclusion brings the gigantic spectacle of the huge monster down to a more approachable scale.

Given a good buildup, some extremely clever and exciting set-pieces (the 'old fisherman' sequence and the helicopter pursuit through the canyons of Manhattan spring readily to mind), a gigantic monster that's both convincing and menacing, a horde of smaller creatures to generate a more personal menace, and a Beast From 20,000 Fathoms-style ending, what more could one ask for? Well, more engaging human characters, perhaps'but this is a monster movie, after all (and Jean Reno's enigmatic Frenchman proved quite entertaining). Though this newest incarnation of Japan's (second) worst nightmare may lack the brooding ambiance and topical-for-the-time subtext of the original, it remains one of the more entertaining recent remakes. And, thankfully, Raymond Burr is nowhere to be found.

Mighty Joe Young (1998)
As remakes go, this joins that all-too-rare breed of film that turns out better than its model. Scripters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (Star Trek IV) and director Ron Underwood (Tremors) did an admirable job of transforming what was a charming yet juvenile children's film into a more mature yet still-charming update. By adding such subtexts as global ecology, hunting for profit, personal revenge (personified by a well-integrated human villain,something the original lacked) and the pain of childhood loss, the 1998 version surpasses the 1949 entry in terms of story and concept. It also stands (gorilla-sized) head and shoulders above the original in both acting (with Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton bringing a likable enthusiasm and determination to their lead roles) and special effects.

While die-hard O'Brien/Harryhausen fans and stop-motion animation purists may take issue with the new, improved CGI version of Mr. Joseph Young, there's no denying its technical superiority over the admittedly well-done but uneven stop-motion effects from the original. Thankfully, those hands involved in the remake managed to instill in their 15-foot gorilla a charisma and personality that reflects and enhances O'Brien and Harryhausen's original creation. (And it does a fantasy fan's heart good to finally see Ray Harryhausen step in front of the camera for a brief and amusing cameo.) While 1949's Mighty Joe Young may please the nostalgic child in all of us, 1998's Mighty Joe Young satisfies both the Inner Child and the Demanding Adult in what turned out to be one of the more enjoyable cinematic adventures of the decade.

Psycho (1998)
Once having seen it, who can forget Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1960 tale of Momma's-boy-gone-bad Norman Bates? Certainly not anyone who plunked down eight dollars to see the new colorized replica,er,remake. Oh, I'm sorry, there were new actors in it. But, apart from the addition of color, a few new Vince Vaughn mannerisms in place of Anthony Perkins twitches, and some loud retro wardrobe worn by Julianna Moore (playing Marion Crane's sister), there's nothing updated nor innovative here, since director Gus Van Zandt simply copied Hitchcock's film word for word and shot for shot. While this makes the new Psycho a good movie for those unfamiliar with the original, it makes it impossible for anyone else to really enjoy it, since the seasoned viewer spends the whole time comparing the two versions scene-for-scene.

While this remake may serve Van Zandt's intent of bringing Psycho to those gen-Xers who think that black-and-white is simply a synonym for Geritol, it's a pointless and frustrating exercise for anyone who's seen the Hitchcock version. Not only did the Master of Suspense's original cause an avalanche of knock-offs (from such diverse sources as England's Hammer Films and America's own William Castle) and create a whole new cinematic subgenre (the 'Psycho-thriller'), it made an entire generation of moviegoers think twice before drawing that shower curtain. The new Psycho may very well make that same generation think twice before patronizing another remake.

Bryan Senn is the author of Drums of Terror: Voodoo in the Cinema, available from Midnight Marquee Press and Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography of Terror Cinema, 1931-1939, available from McFarland & Co.

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