Of all the wrenching things I heard at the press conference at HBO headquarters following a screening of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s powerful documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, last but not least was Damian Echols’s admission that when he emerged from nearly two decades on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, the first movie he saw was wait for it the remake of Fright Night. Probably he remembered the original from before his life went to hell, so it was comfortable, somehow. Yes, there’s now this thing called the Internet and vinyl is pretty much gone and people carry all their music around with them in their telephones but the multiplex is still playing Fright Night. Echols thought the movie was bad, but I’ll bet he will be tempted, for old time’s sake, to see two other remakes of films he remembers from before his fall: Footloose and The Thing. What’s your excuse?
Footloose is better but only because it has a little dancing. A little. The film has the same dumb premise — Southern preacher says, “No dancing! No rock music!” and an ordinance is duly passed, only to be tested by an out-of-town rebel who has gotta dance gotta dance gotta dance — that might have been timely in 1951, but by 1984 was impossibly fraudulent and in 2011 could make sense only if set in, say, Saudi Arabia. (Even religious fundamentalists have bowed before the god of rock and roll — another hypnotic tool in their arsenal.) Nothing has been done to the script, but as the preacher, Dennis Quaid underplays where John Lithgow rattled the rafters, and the director and co-writer Craig Brewer has a hustle-and-flow syntax that works pretty well to keep move things along. We would miss rock’s liberating energy more if it weren’t blasted under every scene. And we would marvel when it comes if the dancers weren’t interrupted by the editor every half-second.
It’s a perplexing misstep, the way the dancing is shot. Footloose comes at a time when millions tune in faithfully to Dancing With the Stars to watch the good (Cheryl Burke, say) and the ghastly (hatchet-faced fearmonger Nancy Grace baring her uberous boob and blasting farts) strut their stuff in mostly medium and long shot. Why cast DWTS veteran Julianne Hough and Kenny Wormwald, a backup dancer for Justin Timberlake, if you’re mostly going to shoot them from the waist up? He’s bland but can move, and she has terrific long limbs (although why her preacher daddy won’t let her play rock music but lets her stride around in short-shorts and halters is one of the movie’s mysteries): Why aren’t they dancing all the way through this thing? You get more of the big, agreeably weird Miles Teller (he was the kid in the undersung Rabbit Hole) learning to dance than Wormwald and Hough actually doing it. Footloose plays as if Dennis Quaid’s preacher slipped into the editing room and snipped out most of the sexy stuff.
The Thing, on the other hand, is a big nothing. It’s allegedly a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film, which doesn’t hold a flamethrower to the Howard Hawks–produced original but is pretty scary anyway — more closely based on the short story, “Who Goes There?” and rich in dread, and featuring Rob Bottin’s ground- and torso-breaking effects, which look like demented improvisations on the theme of humans mating with insects. The remake supposedly takes place when humans (Norwegians, specifically) uncovered the extraterrestrial from alongside its ship frozen under the Antarctica ice, but first contact proves no more enlightening than second. It seems to have no purpose other than to kill and replicate people — as noisily as possible.
This movie is a double drag: It repeats a lot of the stuff from Carpenter’s film and you know exactly where it’s going. This one does have a woman in the lead, an American paleontologist played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but she’s basically Kurt Russell with rounder eyes. Some of the world’s most intriguing actors — Ulrich Thomsen, Joel Edgerton, Trond Espen Seim — have been cast in some of the world’s most anonymous parts, and they’re not much more interesting when they split and sprout. Bottin, whose whereabouts are reportedly unknown, shouldn’t worry that the world has moved on. I’m sure he could find work on a remake of The Howling.