Telling the same story over and over: Hollywood remakes of British films
Thursday, 13 June 2024 03:22

Telling the same story over and over: Hollywood remakes of British films

Published in Films

Jon Baldwin and Brett Gregory review ‘Hollywood Remakes of Iconic British Films: Class, Gender and Stardom’, by Agnieszka Rasmus, (Edinburgh University Press, 2024)

‘I can always take it to the Americans. They're people who recognize young talent, give it a chance, they are.’- Charlie Croker, The Italian Job (1969)

Agnieszka Rasmus makes a excellent contribution to the study of the Hollywood remake with the first book-length study devoted to a select cycle of Hollywood remakes of British cinema classics: Alfie (Gilbert, 1966; Shyer, 2004), Bedazzled (Donen, 1967; Ramis, 2000), The Italian Job (Collinson, 1969; Gray, 2003), Get Carter (Hodges, 1971; Kay, 2000) and The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973; LaBute, 2006).

Bedazzled 1967    Bedazzled 2000

As is common knowledge, the Hollywood ‘Dream Factory’ insatiably hunts down, consumes and reconstitutes ideas and narratives from all over the place, and the remaking of films from the past, and from other countries, first began in the US with Siegmund Lubin’s ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1904.

The process offers the chance to capitalise on the familiarity and riches of the original production and, to varying degrees of success, an opportunity to update characters, dialogue, iconography and themes etc. for a contemporary younger audience.

In the 21st century new screen technologies, particularly developments in special effects, CGI and AI, have also prompted a succession of remakes that are strategically marketed as ‘enhanced’. For example, the most economically prosperous remake of all time is the photorealistic version of The Lion King (Favreau, 2019), which generated $1,646,106,779 worldwide.

In ‘Hollywood Remakes of Iconic British Films: Class, Gender and Stardom’, the turn-of-the-century remakes that Rasmus explores were nearly all originally produced during London’s ‘Swinging Sixties’. This cycle of movies, which also included Darling (Schlesinger, 1965), The Knack . . . and How to Get It (Lester, 1965), and Blow-Up (Antonioni, 1966), replaced the sober realism and earnest social commentary of British New Wave films such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962) and This Sporting Life (Anderson, 1963). Due to their hedonistic indulgence in sex and swagger, glamour and glitter, ambition and amorality, they were popular with mainstream audiences, but not particularly with the critics.

In turn, most of their remakes were produced amidst the ideologically-assembled afterglow of ‘Cool Britannia’ in the 1990s: Tony Blair’s New Labour, Britpop’s Oasis versus Blur, Euro ’96, Hugh Grant, Austin Powers, The Spice Girls, Alexander McQueen’s fashion, Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists etc. For instance, the cover of Vanity Fair's March 1997 edition featured Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit lying scantily clad on a Union Jack bedspread with the headline ‘London Swings Again!’ Thus, it can be seen, in line with the continuous capitalist campaign to profit from mediated reproduction, rather than originality, there is nothing as brand new as nostalgia.

Interestingly, these remakes were also released when DVDs were becoming a commodified alternative to VHS and, in turn, Web 2.0 had hit the market. User-generated content, connectivity and collaboration created huge communities of cinephiles – similar to today’s Letterboxd – and they freely voiced their opinions, exchanging knowledge and information. Moreover, the Hollywood remakes of Alfie et al encouraged the re-release of the original productions in DVD format and, as a consequence, both versions fed off each other in a symbiotic, compare and contrast, retail relationship which, for a short time, distracted the contemporary media marketplace.

Indeed, ‘Cool Britannia’ heralded a ‘New Lad’ subculture which attempted to ‘ironically’ portray old-school masculinity in direct contrast with the more sexually ambivalent ‘New Man’ of the 1980s. The magazines of the time – Loaded, FHM and Maxim – objectified women and celebrated male cinematic ‘rogues’ such as Gary Oldman and Oliver Reed, and posters of Michael Caine’s psychopathic London gangster from Get Carter began to adorn young men’s bedrooms and their online profiles; his hyper-masculinity, blokey nature, and overt sexism both steering and salving their emerging machismo.

Get Carter 1971     Get Carter 2000

In the Hollywood remakes of The Italian Job and Get Carter Mark Wahlberg and Sylvester Stallone re-appropriate Michael Caine’s working-class gangsters respectively. As a consequence, the movies morph into star vehicles, and the narrative and genre are shifted to accommodate this predictable Hollywood trope. That is, both remakes endorse heteronormative relations, and any subversive elements present in the originals are ushered into the background.

While Sylvester Stallone’s ‘nice guy’ portrayal in Get Carter can be seen to be a failed attempt to reboot his declining screen image by way of his spectacular physique – The New York Times deemed the film to be ‘pointless’ – it could be argued that the remake of The Italian Job is more interesting. This is mainly because it presents a more balanced approach to gender representation than the inherent misogyny of its 1960s progenitor. This is achieved by activating and elevating the role of its female lead, Stella Bridger (Charlize Theron), in reaction to the original passive portrayal of Lorna (Maggie Blye) as a ‘dolly bird’.

So Stella is a professional safecracker whose skills are essential for the narrative’s heist and, as a result, she wins over the all-male criminal gang. As Rasmus qualifies however, ‘Stella is a progressive young woman, yet she remains visually objectified’ and, ultimately, the plot is reduced to a heteronormative action/love story. For instance, the classic cliff-hanger which concludes the original – ‘Hang on a minute, lads. I've got a great idea…’ – is made redundant by Wahlberg and Theron travelling to Venice with their loot to ‘live happily ever after’.

In turn, Wahlberg’s Charlie Croker offers a version of Hollywood masculinity that is somewhat unthreatening since he uses his brains, rather than his muscles, to solve problems. Moreover, his democratic leadership stands in contrast to the original’s class divisions; a corporate gangster culture with an officious and bureaucratic hierarchy is replaced with scenes and themes of bonhomie and camaraderie.

Rasmus reminds us that remakes are like any other form of adaptation in that they involve an acknowledged transposition of a recognisable work and are both a creative and interpretive act of appropriation. Like the genre film, remakes produce pleasure in terms of repetition with variation, recognition, remembrance, and change. Therefore, they welcome comparison as they implicitly and explicitly acknowledge their predecessors. If sequels and prequels are about ‘never wanting a story to end’, then remakes are about ‘wanting to retell the same story over and over in different ways.’

The Wicker Man 1973    The Wicker Man 2006

Each chapter in the book considers each of the five pairs of films by recalling their production, distribution, exhibition, and reception. Significantly, it identifies that such films can provide, inadvertently or not, a commentary on wider socio-cultural changes and developments as they illuminate anxieties at the heart of their original. For example, aristocracy and authority figures no longer dominate British cinema like they did in the 1960s and 1970s, and are now frequently mocked and undermined instead.

Overall, Rasmus’ book could be far more successful than the cycle of remakes she focuses upon. Different cultures, socio-historical periods, audience expectations, genre conventions, directorial styles, aesthetic orientations, identity politics, and industry practices are interrogated appropriately, and it is well worth a read as a result.

‘Folk Horror on Film: Return of the British Repressed’
Thursday, 13 June 2024 03:22

‘Folk Horror on Film: Return of the British Repressed’

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Louis Bayman, Associate Professor Film Studies at the University of Southampton

BG:  Even before the suicidal insanity of Brexit, the UK has always been regarded by the wider world as a very posh, very violent and very strange country: out of place and out of time, lost in its own history, locked inside one of its own dungeons.

Indeed, to acquire some sort of insight into the oddity of our people, our customs and our belief systems, one only needs to watch four films: ‘The Witchfinder General’ from 1968, the unsung classic ‘Cry of the Banshee’ from 1970, ‘Blood on Satan's Claw’ from 1971 and, of course, ‘The Wicker Man’ from 1973.

Folk horror The Wicker Man 1973

[Audio clip from ‘The Wicker Man’]

LB: Hi there, Brett. It's really nice to be here and thanks very much for inviting me to speak to your listeners at Arts Express. My name is Louis Bayman and I'm an Associate Professor in the Department of Film Studies at the University of Southampton here in the UK.

BG: Many thanks for lending us your time, Louis. So, folk horror.

LG: British cinema and, in fact, television in the late 1960s and 1970s contributed many of what's now recognised as being the classics of folk horror. The folk horror scholar, Dawn Keetley, in fact points out that most horror can in some way find its traces back in tales around the campfire, in folklore, in myths and legends that were particularly popular back in the earlier kinds of periods which folk horror often represents.

BG: And what about its cultural history?

LB: There had been an interest in folklore and the folkloric past at least since Victorian times. James Fraser and ‘The Golden Bough’ - actually not a really particularly scholarly reliable compendium of supposed pagan practices, but nevertheless one that was enormously influential on popular modern understandings of what might have existed before modernity in Britain. We're interested in looking back at the societies that we feel that we've supplanted as well, of course, as looking forward to the society that we may wish to become in the future.

BG: Fascinating. Unlike most other film genres folk horror is very much seated in British history, its internal conflicts and its desire for self-destruction.

LB: Folk horror stages times of social crisis. So ‘Witchfinder General’ is set in the 1640s during the English Revolution, ‘Blood on Satan's Claw’ is set in the very early 18th century, again in England, and there's frequent reference made to the Jacobite rebellions which were ongoing at the time. And then there's also a film called ‘Cry on the Banshee’ from 1970 which was set in Elizabethan England.

Folk Horror Cry of the Banshee 1970

[Audio clip from ‘The Cry of the Banshee’]

LB: These are films that are squarely about Britain itself and British history, and can't simply be solved by a group of peasants with pitchforks chasing after Frankenstein's monster. There's an important class element here as well because the gothic tends to be set in the castles of barons and counts; there's a whole other history about how the gothic is a product of a modern England which is going through the Industrial Revolution / capitalist liberalism but looking anxiously back on the aristocratic past that it hasn't entirely left behind. However, what you get with folk horror is much more of a concentration on the peasantry which, of course, made up the vast bulk of the population.

BG: What's distinctive about folk horror though? What separates it and, in my opinion, elevates it beyond other horror sub-genres?

LB: Whereas in the traditional gothic you might have vampires, werewolves, other kinds of ghouls that threaten the community from outside, in folk horror what's distinctive is that it is the community itself that is the source of violence, of anguish and fear. In folk horror it's civilisation itself which is the problem: its belief systems, systems of ritual, systems of punishment and justice which are actually particularly threatening. So it's not a fear of savagery but actually of customs, of lifestyles, of arable agricultural land – rather than the wilderness that we might associate with the sublime of the gothic – and it's a fear of a particular form of education and social development; fears of how what is totemic for one society could be taboo for another.

BG: I remember sitting in the living room in the 1980s and watching ‘Psychomania’ on the television, hypnotised by its premise that with a little bit of witchcraft and self-belief suicide and death were just the beginning. However, these topics of teenage interest in our current happy-clappy corporate culture are now seemingly verboten.

LG: What I think is most radical is that folk horror removes any sense of there being a stable set of values at all, or any normative social order; both traditional society, pagan or cult worship and modernity are all shown to be equally mad. In ‘The Wicker Man’ Howie’s Christianity is just one form of ritual fanaticism which removed from the social structures that give it meaning and give it force seems perhaps to be just as ridiculous as the veneration of the old gods of the pagan community that he finds himself among.

So I think that folk horror, actually what's most disturbing about it, is the way that it points to how some societies and belief systems actively engage in ritual sacrifice. Other forms of social organisation might engage in corporisation, in the enclosures of the land, in persecution of heresy. And our adherence to one or another of those belief systems is not based on their fundamental rightness, but is based simply on accidents of history: the things that we find right and proper are considered by people from other cultures as horrific and vice versa.

Folk horror The Blood on Satans Claw 1971

[Audio clip from ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’]

BG: And, symbolically, we see such sacrifices played out over and over again when, for example, a prime minister is voted out of office. The right-wing mass media leading us to believe that this is some sort of ceremonial blood transfusion, but it isn't: as a country, as a collection of countries, we're actually dying, rotting on a throne like a Francis Bacon painting.

LB: There's a sense that maybe a certain vitality or a certain form of British pre-eminence is now slipping away and in that all sorts of other alternative forms of social organisation could come to the fore. And as well as this I think decolonisation is extremely important. No longer is weirdness and foreignness located in far-flung places across the rest of the world but actually within the British Isles itself, perhaps we're actually forced to look at ourselves now that we're no longer an imperial power.

This is the same kind of time that E. P. Thompson was talking about the rise of the English working class, a book which, in particular, is about the decline of handicraft, artisanal trades and ways of life, the very things that folk horror is particularly interested. Tom Nairn was writing about the breakup of Britain, and one of the articles, one of the chapters in the book that we've just co-edited, by Beth Carroll is about the uncomfortable position that Celtic cultures play within a broader understanding of Britain, and it draws attention to how many folk horrors are set, for example, in Wales, in Cornwall and in Scotland. So while Tom Nairn was writing at the end of the 1970s about a future breakup of Britain, in some ways we can see folk horror already in the decade prior to that kind of anticipating this notion.

John Berger, the Marxist art critic, had caused a scandal with his television show from 1972, ‘Ways of Seeing’, where he de-mythologises landscape painting by showing the ways that it actually asserts the dominance of a landholding class as being beautiful and as being part of nature, rather than the actual violent social process of enclosures and corporisation that it really was.

So there's a very similar demythologising impulse there in the films of folk horror which, as I say, on the one hand can be related to the counterculture of the late 1960s or a sense that society in general is perhaps falling apart or disintegrating, there's a great deal of disorder, and maybe folk horror is a fear of that sort of disorder; but underlying it even further a more relativised place and understanding Britain's own place within history, a recognition of the violence that formed British history and perhaps also a certain insecurity about what exactly Britain's future might be.

BG: It's such an all-encompassing and deeply involving film genre. For those who wish to investigate further, as well as your book, what would you recommend?

Folk horror Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched 2021

LB: Any of your listeners who are fans of the genre might have seen the recent documentary, ‘Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched’, which is a three-hour long documentary that sprawls across a hundred years of film history from one part of the globe to another, and seems to pretty much cover everything that it possibly can do with any kind of sense of strangeness that might be attached to prior or rural beliefs and ways of life.

BG: And in conclusion, Louis, how would you personally sum up British folk horror?

LB: So I would say ultimately it speaks to a certain confusion about who we are as a society and where we're going. I don't think that there's the same kind of faith in progress that there was in the Victorian era or in the middle of the 20th century, and so folk horror speaks to a certain fear and an anxiety about social change, but without progress where are we going as a nation, as a people, as a class? What is there left for us to believe in?

BG: I couldn't have put it better myself, Louis. It's been an absolute pleasure.

Folk Horror on Film Return of the British Repressed 2023

This has been the UK Desk for Prairie Miller’s Arts Express with Dr Louis Bayman, co-editor with Professor Kevin Donnelly of ‘Folk Horror on Film’ which is currently available to buy through the Manchester University press website here. Cheers.

This interview originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York on January 31st. Brett Gregory is an independent filmmaker and broadcaster based in Greater Manchester. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Social media: @seriousfeather. Website: