Make/Remake: Deaths at a Funeral

In 2007, Frank Oz directed a gaggle of British thesps (plus Peter Dinklage) in a darkly comic farce set during an English funeral.

Just three short years later, director Neil LaBute and a gaggle of American comedians (plus Peter Dinklage) remade it in the US.

Why did they so speedily re-do an English-language film in English? Goodness only knows. But I watched both versions almost back to back, so here are my thoughts…

Death at a Funeral

2018 #44
Frank Oz | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA, Germany & Netherlands / English | 15 / R

Death at a Funeral (2007)

The plot of both versions is identical: a group of family and friends gather at the home of the family’s patriarch for his funeral. A variety of subplots unfold from there, but the main one revolves around the appearance of a guest that no one knows, and what he wants.

The thing that surprised me most about Death at a Funeral is how well-liked it is online. I vaguely remember it coming out but thought it had been mostly ignored, but it has a fair amount of ratings on IMDb (a similar number to films like All About Eve or Dumbo), and relatively high user scores on sites like Letterboxd too. I thought maybe people (well, Americans) had come to it via the remake and it seemed a lot better by comparison, but that has less than half as many ratings on IMDb, so…

I was mulling on this a lot because often I like films a bit more than the online consensus, but I wasn’t feeling it with this one. I certainly enjoyed it, but it takes a while to warm up, the laugh rate isn’t quite high enough, and some of the storylines feel overly familiar (how many times have we seen someone accidentally take drugs and try to hide it? I don’t know, but it feels like I’ve seen it a lot). Nonetheless, it develops into a decent little farce. I suppose it’s a black comedy too, what with it being set at a funeral and some of the events that unfurl, but other people have pushed the boundaries of “black comedy” so far in the past couple of decades that it didn’t feel that dark to me.

Peter Dinklage with one of the few British actors who hasn't been in Game of Thrones

The cast is a quality array of recognisable British faces, many of them not known for comedy (Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, Rupert Graves), which lends some surprising strength to a couple of scenes. Others that are more familiar from the genre (Andy Nyman, Ewen Bremner, Kris Marshall) keep the guffawing in check. And there are some Americans too, including an exposed performance from Alan Tudyk (who’s doing a British accent) and a pre-Thrones Peter Dinklage (who isn’t), but they both fit in well.

The film’s best gag, in my estimation, comes courtesy of the entire cast, in a way; an in-joke that I wasn’t 100% sure was deliberate: the end credits begin with each cast member’s name accompanied by a brief shot of them corpsing. Corpsing, during a film called Death at a Funeral. Well, I do like an in-joke.

Anyway. Although this original British version of Death at a Funeral wasn’t quite as hilarious as I’d hoped for, it’s worth a watch as a well-performed and amusing farce. And it does improve somewhat when compared to to its remake…

3 out of 5

Death at a Funeral

2018 #46
Neil LaBute | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Death at a Funeral (2010)

Where the original was a little underwhelming, this is just kinda shit. It’s the most pointless remake since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

That comparison isn’t a bad one, because this is a scene-for-scene remake — sometimes shot-for-shot, line-for-line. Even the title sequence is an inferior riff on the original. Not only that, but some bits aren’t even done as well. If it worked the first time, why are you changing it? Maybe the original cast and crew made it look more effortless than it was. Some of it doesn’t even translate very well. For example, there’s a joke in the original about how “tea may solve many things”. Here, that’s translated to be about coffee. Yes, it’s been adapted to suit the different culture, but in the process has lost the cultural significance (to Brits, tea is more than just a popular beverage).

I guess he's showing him the screenplay

There are some new gags, most likely the result of the cast improvising (this version is more populated by comedians than the British one). Some of them are even funny. Unfortunately, more often the cast don’t hold up. Most of the performances are like an under-rehearsed am-dram version of the same screenplay. They certainly don’t have the acting chops to sell the more emotional moments. James Marsden is quite good in the Alan Tudyk role, though. Peter Dinklage plays the same part, but not as well — it’s less nuanced, less believable.

Director Neil LaBute previously found notoriety as writer-director of the Nic Cage Wicker Man remake. This does nothing to rehabilitate his reputation (what is this guy’s obsession with re-doing and ruining British films?) Again like Van Sant’s Psycho, it’s more interesting as a cinematic exercise than as a film in its own right.

2 out of 5

Make/Remake: The Daleks’ Invasions of Earth

Doctor Who: The Dalek Invasion of EarthDaleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.

Doctor Who:
The Dalek Invasion of Earth

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.

Doctor Who: The Dalek Invasion of Earth
1964 | Richard Martin | 149 mins | DVD | 4:3 | UK / English | PG

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.
1966 | Gordon Flemyng | 84 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | U

Daleks! On Earth!In a week’s time, on the 23rd of November 2013, Doctor Who will celebrate its golden anniversary — 50 years to the day since the premiere broadcast of its first episode, An Unearthly Child. (As part of the celebrations, BBC Four are showing that initial four-parter at 10:30pm on Thursday 21st. I heartily recommend it.) The programme’s success was cemented several weeks later, however, with the appearance of the Daleks — a race of xenophobic mutants hidden in metal machines from the planet Skaro. A wave of Dalekmania followed, leading to a boom in merchandising and, naturally, a sequel serial for the TV series, one year later.

It also led to a film adaptation, which I discussed last week. When that was a box office success, a sequel was greenlit. As with the first film, rather than construct an original tale starring the Daleks, the filmmakers turned to the TV series and adapted the aforementioned TV sequel. The story is set hundreds of years in the future (perhaps 10 years after 2164 in the TV series; 2150 in the film), when the Daleks have somehow left their homeworld and their city (which previously they’d needed to survive) and found their way to Earth. But this isn’t a Hollywood-style alien invasion battle: the Daleks have already occupied the planet, and Britain in particular (of course). The Doctor and his friends stumble into this situation and resolve to stop the evil invaders.

There’s little doubting that The Dalek Invasion of Earth is a minor epic. Where The Daleks struggled a bit to fill its seven-episode order, in six instalments writer Terry Nation takes us from an occupied, bomb-blasted London, to an attack on the Dalek spaceship, to a mine in Bedfordshire that’s digging to the centre of the Earth. Although made on Doctor Who’s typically tiny budget, the TV serial shines. Models vs CGIThere are some fantastic sets, bolstered by peerless location filming of a deserted London (simply achieved by shooting very early in the morning), and the usual array of quality performances from the series’ regulars and guest cast. It’s only let down by the special effects. The Daleks are as great as ever, and a weird monster that turns up for a few minutes is passable (if you’re being kind), but shots of the Dalek saucer flying over London look like a pair of foil pie cases on some string in front of a photo. Even by the standards of the era it’s bad. The DVD release includes the option to watch the story with new (in 2003) CG effects in place of these sequences, and for once I’d actually recommend that.

The story once again trades on the Daleks’ clear Nazi undertones. Here they’ve occupied a bomb-blasted country where a small band of rebel fighters hold out against them, attempting small-scale attacks while trying to work out a bigger plan. It can only be deliberate that these parts — hidden workshops, missions in enemy uniform, even the fighter’s casual clothes — all trade on familiar imagery from World War 2 resistance movies. Here, at least, collaborators are men rendered brain-dead by Dalek machinery, controlled via radio waves directly into their heads, rather than those who have chosen to betray their people.

That said, this is not a cheery view of the world. We can see that right from the opening shot: a derelict stretch of urban river bank, overgrown and decrepit, and the caption “World’s End”. Don't try suicideA man stumbles towards the steps, he screams in agony, battling with the strange machinery on his head. And then he hurls himself into the river, where he floats face down — dead. Beginning a kids’ programme with suicide? You wouldn’t do that today! We later learn that he’s a Roboman, controlled by the Daleks, essentially dead already… but it’s a bit late by then. Later, we meet unscrupulous country folk: a black marketeer who won’t give over food to the enslaved mine workers without payment, and won’t escort Ian out of the camp without payment either; and two women, employed by the Daleks to mend the workers’ clothes, who betray Barbara to get more food. There are heroes here, certainly — men and women who fight the Daleks, and some who give their lives for the cause — but not everyone’s doing the honourable thing.

The film is a bit less bleak in its outlook for humanity. The black marketeer remains, more treacherous than ever: he actively betrays the Doctor to the Daleks, though is killed for his troubles; the two women are there, too; but there’s no suicidal Roboman, and indeed the climax suggests the Robomen are able to return to being human just by taking their helmets off. Robo-farceSo that’s nice for them. There’s also some significant additions of humour, like when Tom is pretending to be a Roboman to stow away on the Dalek saucer and ends up in a mime act as he attempts to mimic a group of the real thing while they have lunch. Bless Bernard Cribbins. There aren’t too many of these almost-farcical bits, but the few there are lighten the general tone.

Overall, however, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (aka Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., and many other such punctuation-based variations, thanks to inconsistent spelling on posters and trailers) is, much like the the previous film, a strikingly faithful adaptation… at first. The running time is again a clue: while the TV serial takes two-and-a-half hours on its story (albeit with some subtractions for six sets of titles and five recaps), the movie rattles through it in 84 minutes. That’s with a new bookend sequence designed to establish the new character of PC Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins), leaving the film 75 minutes in which to condense Nation’s epic. Nonetheless, it’s scene-for-scene faithful, just picking the pace up with key actions and lines of dialogue rather than the comparatively-luxurious speed of the original.

As it goes on, though, things begin to diverge quite rapidly. Significant characters have been cut for time, while legacy changes from the first film also alter the plot — Dalek vs vanno burgeoning romance for Susan, here a small girl rather than TV’s young woman. Both stories split our leads into three groups following the assault on the Dalek saucer, but while the film retains the outline of these subplots, it rearranges which characters take which route. It’s a slightly bizarre turn of events, to be honest, and doesn’t always pay off: whereas the TV series manages to plausibly pace the various characters’ journeys from London to Bedfordshire, in the film the Doctor and his chum walk there in the same time it takes the Dalek saucer to fly it. Either that saucer’s underpowered or they’re impressive hikers.

Even with all these changes, the general shape of the story remains the same; yet the film feels less epic than the TV serial. It’s not just the length, but the sense of time passing: on TV the Doctor and co seem to be stuck on Earth for several days, while in the film it’s practically an afternoon’s work. And though the movie’s special effects are better (immeasurably so, in fact, because the model work in the film is fantastic), and there’s some great stunts too, the bigger-budget big-screen outing lacks the TV version’s London location filming. This makes a startling difference to the relative effectiveness of the story. On TV, you really feel like the Daleks have conquered Earth; in the film, it feels a little like they’ve conquered some expansive studio sets and impressive matte paintings. The famous image(Incidentally, perhaps the most striking thing about the serial’s location sequences are that they don’t include the iconic shot of the Daleks rolling across Westminster Bridge. That bit is in there, but it was filmed from an entirely different angle; I guess the famous image was just a unit photograph.)

There are other bits that work less well on film. Dortmun’s sacrifice on TV makes sense, a bold character moment; in the film, he seems to do it for the hell of it. On TV, the Doctor commits himself to stopping the Daleks (in one of the series’ clunkiest bits of dialogue, to be honest), whereas in the film he just stumbles into things — which, funnily, is more like the Doctor of the time. Ian and Barbara have been replaced by the aforementioned PC Tom and the Doctor’s niece, Louise, because Dr. Who and the Daleks actors Roy Castle and Jennie Linden were unavailable. Not that it matters much — Bernard Cribbins is just as adept in the comedy role, and Jill Curzon’s Louise is just Barbara by any other name. Then there’s the music, which is often jauntily comedic rather than action-packed; and the ever-so-’60s main theme, as with the first film replacing the TV series’ iconic, groundbreaking, electronic howl with something altogether more forgettable. What the film most benefits from losing, however, is a couple of hilariously of-the-time lines from the Doctor — particularly one when he tells Susan she needs “a jolly good smacked bottom”!

That aside, perhaps the film’s biggest loss is in the age of Susan. Nothing against Roberta “One-Take” Tovey, who is fortunately much less irritating than your average child actor, Go forward in all your beliefsbut the TV serial has a real advantage in this department. The original companion, this was Susan’s final story — the first companion departure in the series’ history. It handles it marvellously: rather than the final-minutes cut-and-run so many companions suffer, Susan’s growing sense of departure is built throughout the story… and then it’s the Doctor who realises it’s time for her to go, not her, and he leaves her behind. The speech he gives is one of the finest in the series’ history, beautifully and poignantly delivered by William Hartnell, and with a nicely under-played reaction from Carole Ann Ford. Doctor Who has had countless companion exits now, but this one still takes some beating.

Each version of The Dalek Invasion of Earth does something better than the other, but on balance the TV series is the clear victor. That said, the film is probably more entertaining than its big-screen predecessor; but that’s just the story itself, I guess, which I think is a more effective use of the villains. You could argue it ties into the fairly-modern idea of the first encounter being an establisher and the sequel a bigger, bolder, deeper, more exciting, experience. Both versions are certainly that.

Despite the enduring popularity of the titular villains, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. wasn’t as much of a box office success as its predecessor. Combined with an overrunning schedule that led to a higher budget, its profitability was clearly lower. Production company AARU had the option to make a third film (presumably to be based on the third Dalek story, 1965’s The Chase), but the money-men passed. Awesome.Most Doctor Who fans won’t lament that (especially as The Chase isn’t the most well-loved of Dalek adventures either), but, even though the TV series remains the superior product, I think the Dalek movies have their own merits and charm. I’m not suggesting we should be finding a way to write them into Doctor Who canon, but as an alternative to the norm, they’re a good bit of fun.

Tied in with Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Channel 5 are screening the Dalek movies next weekend. Dr. Who and the Daleks can be seen on the anniversary itself, Saturday 23rd November, at 10:05am. Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. is on Sunday 24th at 10am.


Make/Remake: Doctor Who and the Daleks

Doctor Who: The DaleksDr. Who and the Daleks

Doctor Who:
The Daleks


Dr. Who and
the Daleks

Doctor Who: The Daleks
1963-4 | Christopher Barry & Richard Martin | 172 mins | DVD | 4:3 | UK / English | U

Dr. Who and the Daleks
1965 | Gordon Flemyng | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | U

In a fortnight’s time, on the 23rd of November 2013, Doctor Who will celebrate its golden anniversary — 50 years to the day since the premiere broadcast of its first episode, An Unearthly Child. Those 25 minutes of 1960s TV drama still stand up to viewing today. OK, you couldn’t show them on primetime BBC One anymore; but the writing, acting, even the direction, and certainly the sheer volume of ideas squeezed into such a short space of time, are all extraordinary. It is, genuinely, one of the best episodes of television ever produced.

But that’s not why Doctor Who is still here half a century later. It may be the strength of that opening episode, the ideas and concepts it introduced, that has actually sustained the programme through 26 original series, a 16-year break, and 8 years (and counting) of revived mainstream importance; A Dalek's first appearancebut that’s not what secured the chance to prove the series’ longevity. That would come a few weeks after the premiere, in the weeks before and after Christmas 1963, when producer Verity Lambert went against her boss’ specific orders and allowed “bug-eyed monsters” into the programme — in the shape of the Daleks.

Something about those pepperpot-shaped apparently-robotic villains clicked with the British public, and Dalekmania was born. Toys and merchandise flowed forth. The series soon began to include serials featuring the Daleks on a regular basis. And, naturally, someone snapped up the movie rights.

Rather than an original storyline, the ensuing film was an adaptation of the TV series’ first Dalek serial. These days you probably wouldn’t bother with such a thing, thanks to the abundance of DVD/Blu-ray/download releases and repeats by both the original broadcaster and channels like Watch; but back then, when TV was rarely repeated and there certainly wasn’t any way to own it, retelling the Daleks’ fabled origins on the big screen probably made sense. Nonetheless, there was an awareness that the filmmakers were asking people to pay for something they could get — or, indeed, had had — for free on the telly. Hence why the film is in super-wide widescreen and glorious colour, both elements emphasised in the advertising. The film is big and bold, whereas the TV series, by comparison, is perhaps a little small, in black & white on that tiny screen in the corner of your living room…

But, really, that was never the point. Doctor Who has always thrived on its stories rather than its spectacle (even today, when there’s notably more spectacle, it’s those episodes that offer original ideas or an emotional impact that endure in fans’ (and regular viewers’) memories). The plot of The Daleks is, by and large, a good’un, and certainly relevant to its ’60s origins — blatant Nazi analogyits inspiration comes both from the Nazis, not yet 20 years passed, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, at a time when the Cold War was at its peak. The film adaptation is so unremittingly faithful (little details have changed, but not the main sweep) that these themes remain, all be it subsumed by the COLOUR and ADVENTURE of the big-screen rendition.

The Daleks were, are, and probably always will be, a pretty blatant Nazi analogy. There’s not anything wrong with that, though its debatable how much there is to learn from it. Where it perhaps becomes interesting is the actions of the other characters. Here we’re on the Daleks’ homeworld, Skaro, which is also populated by a race of humanoids, the Thals. They are pacifists and, when they learn the Daleks want to kill them all, decide it would be best to just leave rather than fight back. The Doctor’s companion Ian has other ideas, goading them into standing up for themselves. These days the idea that our heroes would take a pacifist race and turn them into warmongers strikes a bum note; but this is a serial made by a generation who remember the war, perhaps even some who fought in it, and naturally that colours your perception of both warfare and what’s worth fighting for. The Daleks aren’t just some distasteful-to-us foreign regime that maybe we should leave be unless they threaten us directly — they’re Nazis; they’re coming to get us; they must be stopped.

irradiated wasteland

On the other hand, this is contrasted with Skaro itself — an irradiated wasteland, the only plant and animal life petrified, with the Thals and our time-travelling heroes requiring medication to survive. This is a Bad Thing… but this is where war has led, isn’t it? This is why the Thals are pacifists — because they don’t want this to happen again. And then they go and have a fight. Perhaps we shouldn’t be digging so deeply into the themes after all. It’s not that a “children’s series” like Doctor Who is incapable of sustaining their weight, it’s that writer and Dalek creator Terry Nation is really more of an adventure storyteller. That said, he did go on to create terrorists-are-the-good-guys saga Blake’s 7 and how-does-society-survive-post-apocalypse thriller Survivors, so maybe I’m doing him a disservice.

Delivery within 30 minutes or free Dalek breadIf the film’s rendering of the story and consequent themes is near-identical to its TV counterpart, plenty of other elements aren’t. The most obvious, in terms of adaptation, is that its 90 minutes shorter — roughly half the length. That’s not even the whole story, though: the film is newbie friendly, meaning it spends the first seven minutes introducing the Doctor and his friends. When we take out credits too, it spends 75 minutes on its actual adaption — or a little over 10 minutes for each of the original 25-minute episodes. And yet, I don’t think anything significant is cut. Even the three-episode trek across the planet that makes up so much of the serial’s back half is adapted in full, the only change being one character lives instead of dies (a change as weak as it sounds, in my view).

The funny thing is, even at such a short length it can feel pretty long. It’s that trek again, as Ian, Barbara and some of the Thals make their way to the back of the Dalek city to mount the climactic assault. It feels like padding to delay the climax, and some say it is: reportedly Nation struggled to fill the seven-episode slot he was given, hence the meandering. When it came to the film, Nation insisted Doctor Who’s script editor David Whittaker was hired to write the screenplay (apparently the trade-off was that producer Milton Subotsky got a credit for it too), which perhaps explains the faithfulness. It’s a shame in a way that Whittaker just produced an abridgement, because a restructured and re-written version for the massively-shorter running time might have paced it up a bit.

Open up!The most obvious change — the one that gets the fans’ goat, and why so many dislike the film to this day — comes in those opening seven minutes. On TV, the Doctor (as he is known) is a mysterious alien time traveller, his mid-teen granddaughter Susan is also a bit odd, and Ian and Barbara are a pair of caring teachers who he kidnaps to maintain his own safety. In the film, the title character is Dr. Who — that’s the human Mr. Who with a doctorate — who has a pair of granddaughters, pre-teen Susan and twenty-ish Barbara, while Ian is the latter’s clumsy fancyman. They visit the time machine that Dr. Who has knocked up in his backyard, where clumsy old Ian sends them hurtling off to an alien world. In many respects this is once again the difference between TV and film: the former is an intriguing setup that takes time to explain and will play out over a long time (decades, as it’s turned out — the Doctor is still a mysterious figure, even if we know a helluva lot more about him now than we did at the start of The Daleks), while the latter gives us a quick sketch of some people for 80 minutes of entertainment. Plus, making Ian a bumbler adds some quick comedy, ‘essential’ for a kids’ film.

Even more different is Peter Cushing’s portrayal of the Doctor. At the start of the TV series, William Hartnell’s rendition of the titular character is spiky, manipulative, tricksy, and in many respects unlikeable. In the first serial he even considers killing someone in order to aid his escape! Not the Doctor we know today. As time went on Hartnell softened, becoming a loveable grandfather figure. It’s this version that Cushing adopts in the film, with a sort of waddly walk and little glasses, looking and behaving completely differently to his roles in all those Hammer horrors. If proof were needed of Cushing’s talent, just put this side by side with one of those films. But this was at a time when Hartnell was the Doctor — with ten men ‘officially’ having replaced him in the TV seriesCushty Cushing (not to mention Peter Capaldi to come, a recast Hartnell in The Five Doctors, and various others on stage, audio, fan films, and so on), it’s easy to forget that Cushing taking over must have been a bit weird. It certainly put Hartnell’s nose out of joint. And for all Cushing’s niceness and versatility across his career, Hartnell’s Doctor is a more varied, nuanced, and interesting character.

You can see why fans don’t like it — it’s not proper Doctor Who. I think that’s not helped by the film’s prominence in the minds of ordinary folk. During the ’90s, when Who was out of favour at the BBC (except with Enterprises/Worldwide, for whom it’s always made a fortune), the main way to see it was with repeats of the films on TV. Even before that, I’m sure the films have been screened much more regularly than the serials that inspired them. Plus the general public don’t understand that Cushing isn’t a real Doctor (even now, you see people asking why he isn’t in the trailers for the 50th anniversary, and so on), which just rubs it in. But if you let that baggage go (which you really should), Dr. Who and the Daleks is an entertaining version of the TV serial.

And yet… it isn’t as good. The widescreen colour looks good, sure, and the Daleks’ tall ‘ears’ are an improvement (hence why they were adopted for TV in the 2005 revival), but other than that the design is lacking. Bigger on the TVThe console room in the TARDIS is another iconic piece of design, the six-sided central console and roundel-decorated walls having endured in one form or another throughout the show’s life (even if some of it’s become increasingly obscured in the iterations since the 1996 TV movie). In the film, however, it’s just… a messy room. There are control units and chairs and stuff bunged around, with a mess of wires draped about the place. On TV it looks like a slick futuristic spaceship; on film it looks like a junkyard. Oh dear.

Then there’s the Dalek city. The film’s version is more grand, with lengthy corridors rather than the faked photo-backdrops used on TV; but that’s besides the point, because that very grandness undermines its impact. The Daleks’ corridors on TV feel truly alien — they’re the same height as the Daleks, which is about a foot smaller than most of our leads, meaning they’re constantly having to duck through doorways. It’s perfectly thought-through design, led by how the place would actually have been built rather than making it convenient for the cast. The film’s city is the opposite, with big doorways and rooms. It’s a minor point perhaps, but it can leave an impression.

Ridley Scott is, by and large, a great film director, and is responsible for at least two of the all-time greatest science-fiction movies; but I doubt even his 26-year-old self, then a BBC staff designer originally assigned to work on Doctor Who’s second serial, could have come up with a more iconic look for the Daleks than Raymond P. Cusick. With the exception of the ‘ears’ and the colour scheme, his design is rendered faithfully from TV to film, because it’s so good. Why does it work? I have no idea. Perhaps because it’s genuinely alien — they’re not in any way the same shape or size as a human. Of course, it sort of is: the design is based around being able to fit a man sitting down, in order to control it — but it doesn’t look like that. The Doctor and Susan meet the DaleksThen there’s the way they glide, the screechy voice, the sink-plunger instead of some kind of hand or claw… It’s a triumph, and it works just as well in gaudy colours on film as it does in simple black and white.

Thanks to being just on contract, Cusick’s contribution to the Daleks and Doctor Who can be overlooked. Even after the creatures became a phenomenal success, the most he managed to get was a £100 bonus and a gold Blue Peter badge; though as the latter is practically a knighthood, it could be worse. Nation, meanwhile, reaped the rewards (though no gold badge), to the extent that today his estate control whether the Daleks can appear in Doctor Who or not. Nation gets a credit every time they appear; Cusick doesn’t. Obviously Nation is owed much of this, but Cusick is too: without that design, the Daleks would have been nothing. Thankfully, the making of Doctor Who is probably the most thoroughly researched and documented TV production of all time, and even if he doesn’t get an onscreen credit on new episodes or any financial rewards for his family, Cusick’s name is well-known in fan circles — the outpouring of appreciation when he passed away last February was equal to that received by many of the programme’s leading actors (always a more obvious object of adulation).

I think the Dalek films aren’t given the credit they’re due by many Doctor Who fans. There’s a reason for that, but those reasons are past. The original stories have been available on VHS and then DVD for decades now, meaning the films aren’t the only way to experience these adventures any more. Plus, as the relaunched show has established Doctor Who as a contemporary popular TV series, so the general populace sees it as a franchise that has had three leading men; or, for the better-informed masses, eleven. Daleks' little helperWhenever the series brings up past Doctors (and that’s surprisingly often, considering the “come on in, it’s brand new!” tone in 2005), Cushing isn’t among them. While he may once have been a prominent face associated with the show to non-fans, the ‘war’ has been ‘won’ — he’s become a footnote.

Maybe it will take a while for fans to stop being so stuck in their ways, but I hope they do and can embrace the Dalek movies as fun alternatives — they don’t replace the originals, but should stand proudly alongside them as symbols of Doctor Who’s success.

Next time… the Daleks invade Earth twice, as I compare the second Dalek serial to its big screen remake.


Make/Remake: The Spiral Staircases

The Spiral Staircase 1945The Spiral Staircase 2000

The Spiral Staircase (1945)


The Spiral Staircase (2000)

The Spiral Staircase started life as a 1933 novel titled Some Must Watch. Written by Ethel Lina White (who’s perhaps most notable for having also penned The Wheel Spins which became Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes), Some Must Watch is set on the Welsh border in the then-present day. In response to a recent spate of murders, the residents of a Victorian mansion are locked in one dark and stormy night — but is the killer among them?

Both of these adaptations keep the basic story of Some Must Watch, though one updates it to turn-of-the-century New England and the other to turn-of-the-millennium… somewhere (it was shot in Canada), and the latter adds a massive preamble and romance subplot. And apparently they both add the titular staircase. I’ve never read the novel so can’t comment on either of these as adaptations, but in comparison to each other one is vastly superior. The ’40s film is an atmospheric Gothic-noir treat, while the ’00s remake is a cheap TV movie that aspires to be little more than trashy romance welded on TV-friendly ’90s slasher movie. Risible.

For my full thoughts on each, please click through:

The good one is on BBC Two tomorrow, Friday 31st August, at 12:50pm. Record it and watch it on a dark and stormy night.

Make/Remake: Assaults on Precinct 13

In the second of my irregular series looking at films and their remakes / re-imaginings / shameless cash-ins, we sample the grand tradition of Hollywood taking a beloved cult flick and recycling it as a shinier, blander, lowest-common-denominator-aimed property.

In this instance the original film in question is John Carpenter’s action exploitation movie Assault on Precinct 13, made just before he’d begin to build his reputation as a Master of Horror, and the shiny remake is by Jean-François Richet, made just before he’d gain some critical cache with his two-part crime biopic Mesrine.

The question, as ever, is: is either film as good or as bad as the standard perception of originals and their remakes would have us believe? These may be surprisingly muddy waters…

the siege is the key element but doesn’t start until quite far into the film…

The first third-ish of the film, where the ragtag group of people wind up in the station, is a bit random, but that’s also kind of the point: this group of people stand up to protect one man, even though they have no idea why he’s there. Very moving.

Read more in my full review here.

And then follow it with…

James DeMonaco’s screenplay presents an essentially new story built on the premise of the original film… Which is a good thing, really. Unfortunately, the new stuff isn’t necessarily as compelling as what it’s replaced… there’s now a surfeit of character backstory, and yet for all that extra work I’d argue we probably care about these characters less than those in the original. The original’s quasi-horror element is also sadly lost

Read more in my full review here.

Separated by 30 years, the two versions of Assault on Precinct 13 are rather different beasts. The remake is undeniably slicker, but in the process loses some of the original’s soul. While it arguably represents steps forward in areas like character development and story structure, it also presents a surprising step backwards in the representation of race on screen. You might not notice that almost all the cops were white and all the criminals black or hispanic, were it not for that being a significant reversal of the original’s race distribution.

Though I’ve given them the same score, it’s the original that sticks in the mind. The remake isn’t bad, but it’s generic enough not to stick. The original, while imperfect for whatever reasons, has a fair few elements that float around in your mind afterwards, either being pondered or just being recalled. To put that last point bluntly: it’s more memorable.

Make/Remake: Let the Right Me In

It used to take Hollywood ages to churn out a remake of a foreign film. Les diaboliques and Diabolique? 41 years. À bout de souffle and Breathless? 23 years. Insomnia and Insomnia? Five years. But increasingly nothing like as long is needed. I suppose we can thank a more globalised film culture brought about in the last decade (ish) by a combination of the internet and readily-importable, quickly-released DVDs/Blu-rays; ways for learning of, reading about and seeing films that weren’t a factor even in the VHS era, let alone earlier.

Let the Right One InThe most recent example of this speedy-remake phenomenon is Swedish vampire drama Let the Right One In, remade last year by the recently-relaunched Hammer Films as Let Me In. Or, if you prefer, “re-adapted”, as they’re both based on a 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. A film of a Swedish novel produced by a British company set in America with a US cast & crew? Globalised indeed. The gap between the films, by-the-way, is just two years.

Me being me, it’s taken until now to see either. But make hay while the sun shines, because this allows me to watch them almost back-to-back and see what I think. First off, then, and of course, is Låt den rätte komma in

Lindqvist’s novel is, apparently, autobiographical. Oskar is Lindqvist, essentially, and it seems Alfredson could relate too. Perhaps this is what helps it feel so true. Maybe that’s why Let Me In struggles to translate the tale as effectively: it’s taking a story set in a specific time and place for a reason, and mashing it into a different one by someone who, maybe, doesn’t have quite as personal a connection as the previous authors.

Read my full review here. And then follow it with…

Let Me In

any time there’s a scene that’s a direct lift from the original, it feels less well played, by the director, by the cast and sometimes, despite the faithfulness, by the screenplay. The aforementioned swimming pool climax is a case in point: the original version is perfect, but directly copying it would be a no no, so instead Reeves jazzes it up… and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work half as well. You can’t improve on perfection.

Read my full review here.

I’m not one of those people who prefers the original just because It’s The Original, so hopefully it means something (as much as my opinion ever does) when I say that Let the Right One In is the better of these two films. It feels like Alfredson set out to make a drama about young love that happened to feature a potentially violent loner and a vampire girl — Let Me Inin fact, the director is keen to point out (in a surprisingly unpretentious fashion) that he doesn’t aim his work to slot into any particular genre — while Reeves set out to make a horror movie first and a young-love drama second. Though don’t go expecting out-and-out vampire thrills and gore from Let Me In, because it retains enough of the original’s DNA to make it still a pleasantly unusual genre entry.

Some viewers prefer the remake. I can’t see it myself. Maybe viewed in isolation it would seem better, but watched almost back to back it felt like Let Me In lost the original’s nuance. It’s not as dreadful as a Van Sant Psycho-style retread, but it’s still a pale reflection of its inspiration. Ironic for a vampire film.

(Let the Right One In placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.)