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Horrors! Attack of the remakes

Special to The Times

Smell that? It’s the decay of original ideas.

Like zombies rising from the dank, maggot-fertile earth, a horde of hungry horror film remakes is now shambling awkwardly toward your local multiplex. Rob Zombie slayed $58 million worth of audiences with his resurrected “Halloween” last fall, and a slew of horror movie redos have risen up and are butchering their way through development.

“Prom Night,” in theaters Friday, is the latest remake to stir from its slumber. But right now writers are also working on updated versions of “Friday the 13th,” “The Last House on the Left,” “The Birds,” “Near Dark,” “Hellraiser,” “Piranha,” “My Bloody Valentine” (in 3-D!), “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “The Crazies” and “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!”

“The executive mind-set of most studios is that they feel much more comfortable with pre-defined material,” says Joe Cardone, who penned “Prom Night” as well as scripts for upcoming remakes of “The Stepfather” and “See No Evil.” “Our approach is that we try to find some really interesting hook that I can play with that’s relatively fresh within the confines of the cliche.”

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These remakes have preexisting brand recognition, relatively low budgets and a reliable youthful audience for the studio to bank on. And even if the work is less than gratifying, the writer-filmmaker benefits from the greater likelihood that these lower-risk scripts will be greenlighted as well as from the income provided by an ever-regenerating genre. (And look at “The Ruins,” an original premise that opened to disappointing box office.)

The reheated nature of the material can appeal to the audience as well, according to Stanford University communication professor Clifford Ness. “What we really want when we go to a horror movie is a visceral, emotional experience,” says Ness. “And the more you have to think, and figure out what the plot is, the less you can just feel the emotion. So the idea is that when you have a familiar scenario, then you don’t have to think so hard and you can just feel the terror.”

Terror was certainly the feeling jackknifing through my ribcage when Michael Bay announced his unholy remake of “Rosemary’s Baby,” which, if there is a God, should finally and definitively lock in his eternal damnation.

All I can say is: No one touches my beloved “Tremors.” Except maybe Alexander Payne. I’d like to see what he and Jim Taylor would do with giant prehistoric carnivorous underground worms.

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Austria moves in Hollywood sync

To paraphrase one of Austria’s most famous sons: They’ll be back.

When Robert von Dassanowsky’s mother, Elfi, passed away in October, the two of them were in the midst of trying to resuscitate Belvedere Film, a company with a legacy 60 years old. In 1946, at the age of 22, Elfi co-founded the studio during the postwar Allied occupation of Vienna and used it to revive film entertainment (musicals, comedies, Heimatfilm) untainted by propaganda.

The studio only made seven movies before Elfi moved to Los Angeles in 1962, where she worked as a vocal coach on Otto Preminger’s films (she had been an opera singer and casting director in Europe).

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By virtue of her achievements, Elfi is considered a feminist icon in Europe and will be honored with a special internment at Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) this summer, where she’ll share space with Beethoven and Arthur Schnitzler.

Elfi’s son Robert is an author (“Austrian Cinema: A History”) and film scholar currently teaching at UCLA, and he reformed Belvedere with his mother in 1999 just as modern Austrian writer-directors such as Ulrich Seidl (“Dog Days”), Barbara Albert (“Northern Skirts”) and Michael Haneke (“Cache,” “Funny Games”) were brewing up a resurgence. (In the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, Austria provided Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Erich von Stroheim, among others.)

And on the heels of Stefan Ruzowitsky’s “The Counterfeiters” winning Austria’s first foreign film Oscar this year, Von Dassanowsky thinks it’s the perfect time to renew Hollywood-Central European co-productions that take advantage of Central European talent, locations and aesthetics. So next month he plans to pitch three feature projects to the studios: a spy comedy, a biopic of Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis (who discovered the benefits of hand-washing) and a resistance novel that he is translating and adapting himself.

“It’s the Austrian turn now,” says Von Dassanowsky. “What the French had in the ‘60s, the Italians had in the ‘50s and the Germans had in the ‘70s -- the Austrians are finally getting it. It’s not a very feel-good cinema, but it’s a thoughtful cinema.”

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Another ‘Circuit’ for a comedy

Last Friday, news broke that Dimension Films has acquired the rights to remake “Short Circuit,” a lighthearted comedy from 1986 about a military robot named Johnny 5 that gets hit by lightning and gains a conscience. S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (“Wild Wild West”), the writers of the original film and its 1988 sequel, will also pen the reboot.

The Variety article mentioned that the new film’s producers would “factor in advances in technology” in their update. They’ll also surely factor in advances in political correctness, as the comic relief in the original film -- which starred Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy at the height of their powers -- was provided by Fisher Stevens, a white guy from Chicago playing a horny Indian scientist spouting enthusiastic malapropisms and stereotypically mangled syntax. Some choice lines of dialogue: “I am thinking she is a virgin. Or at least she used to be.” “With excitement like this, who is needing enemas?” “So now I am having no job to speak about. I will have to smack the sidewalk.”

Believe it or not, there’s actually an ongoing debate about this on the IMDb.com chat boards, for those inclined to weigh in, though the issue being discussed is less about the embarrassingly passe stereotype than the cross-ethnic casting choice. (That same year also delivered “Soul Man,” with C. Thomas Howell as a white kid pretending to be black to get into Harvard.)

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Given the evolution of our racial and ethnic sensitivities, it’s unlikely that Wilson and Maddock would revive the character, despite his ability to earn laughs 22 years ago. Well, it’s at least as unlikely as the producers rehiring Guttenberg to star.

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Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.


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