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Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006 07:45 pm

Halloween remakes

Tinseltown busily churns out new versions of classic horror flicks

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Camilla Belle stars in When a Stranger CallsRunning Time: 1:27Rated PG-13

Hollywood is not currently in its golden age of horror, and to compensate it is remaking the horror films of better days. An unusually high number of horror films from the ’70s have been remade in recent years, further fueling the exaggerated claims that Hollywood has run out of ideas. I’ve waded through numerous films of the genre, and the remakes in many cases are better than the new originals. No one could reasonably expect The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) to top its classic original from 1974, but that doesn’t preclude it from having qualities of its own. The remake retains the same basic storyline of a group of youths lost in the Texas backwoods and the iconic Leatherface character, but it sacrifices its minimalistic power for some over-the-top violence. Where the remake does excel is in its glowingly creepy setting. The image of that house is indelible. The Hills Have Eyes (1977) was Wes Craven’s lame rip-off of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and in this case the 2006 remake is far superior. The story of a family attacked by cannibalistic mutants in the desert of the American West is deepened in the new version with more detail about the root cause, and, unlike the original, it doesn’t fizzle out in the last act.

When a Stranger Calls (1979) is by far the best of the post-Halloween (1978) slasher films, but few remember anything more than its first act. The original departed from the usual slasher fare by turning the killer into a slightly more sympathetic character. In fact he is caught only a half hour or so into the movie. The 2006 version rejects most of the original storyline, narrowing the focus to the opening act. Ultimately its success rests on Camilla Belle as the babysitter who has the daunting task of being onscreen alone for most of the film. She is quite good, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that she is one of the most beautiful actresses in film today. As a companion piece there is the not so subtle rip-off version When a Killer Calls (2006). Better yet, avoid the cheap copy unless you are a fan of sadistic stupidity. Here is an obscurity from the previous decade: Herschell Gordon Lewis became known as the father of gore cinema with the release of Blood Feast (1963). His films are generally incompetent and repulsive, but Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) rose above his other films. The 2005 remake 2001 Maniacs still manages to improve on its original. A Southern ghost town comes to life for a Civil War centennial celebration, during which Yankees are tortured and killed. Cult favorites Robert Englund and Lin Shaye lead the group of Southern wackos in this violent, but very funny, black comedy. As for Halloween, Rob Zombie is planning his own version.

New on DVD next week: Mission Impossible 3 and Keeping Up with the Steins.

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