Spiritual Remakes: Films That Pay Tribute To Their Origins

Have you ever heard of a spiritual remake? We're here to explain.  

We’ve all heard the terms ‘spiritual successor’ or ‘spiritual sequels’, i.e., a follow-up in theory.  While The Ninth Configuration may not be a direct sequel to The Exorcist in genre or premise, it takes place within the same universe and involves some of the same characters and shared themes.  The same can be said of Prometheus being a spiritual prequel to Alien by being indirectly related and touching on much of the same iconography and mythos.  In other words, they’re like nieces or nephews.  But what about the much more debatable kid cousins, or in the case of film comparison, “spiritual remakes”?  What are some of the more overt examples of films that are, in theory, remakes of defining examples of films that set the bar for storytelling, style, and meaning?  Where a majority of modern Hollywood films as of current are direct retellings of preexisting works, what about those that are far more indirect and in their own ways share structure, design, and find themselves echoing one another?  In an effort to better understand this notion of a spiritual remake, The Movie Sleuth takes an investigative look at several movies that have more in common than most (including its makers) have been led to believe.

Taxi Driver/Nightcrawler *
Scorsese's Taxi Driver captured a young De Niro in his prime playing a sociopathic outcast that was on a self loathing path to destruction. Along his way, the character Travis Bickle routinely tried to prove his self worth but was always met with consternation and was never understood or fully accepted by the characters that surrounded him. Bickle was on off putting, uncomfortable man with mixed up morals that would define his strange and wayward path. His version of love was that of a man condemned to his own version of perverted sexuality and manipulation. In 2014's Nightcrawler, the lead character of Louis Bloom is a glimmering reflection that could be considered a modern day version of Travis Bickle. Bloom is twisted, self aware, and shares many of the same variances in persona. 

Not only does Nightcrawler hint at some of the same themes as Taxi Driver, there are scenes that are a direct reflection of the 1970s drama. There is a throwback of sorts that shows Bloom standing in front of mirror in a volatile manner similar to the classic scene with De Niro. Nightcrawler also repeats the tones of an unlovable main character that cannot have the higher class woman he so desires. In each film, the protagonist becomes more and more erratic in behavior, ultimately leading to a sad finale of sorts. While Nightcrawler is not a direct remake of Taxi Driver, its tribute like influences are very apparent. And that all goes without mentioning the vehicular elements of both movies. 

Enter the Void/Only God Forgives
Nicolas Winding Refn thanked Gaspar Noe after asking him advice on the head-stomp scene midway into the film Drive, the L.A. crime drama that would win Refn the Best Director Award at Cannes and worldwide attention as a major talent.  With his most recent film Only God Forgives, a kind of abstract, surreal, occasionally taboo and ultraviolent dreamland of silence and dead space among American drug dealers meeting their end at the hands of a sword wielding retired cop in the Thailand, he was met with an unforeseen amount of divisive and largely negative reception, including among Refn fans.  Given the appearance of Noe’s name in the special thanks portion, few years prior, Gaspar Noe’s equally divisive, dreamy, and equally if not more incestuous nightmare of a movie Enter the Void, one that also meets and posits first person point-of-view the experience of American drug dealers living and meeting their end in Japan, depicting American lowlifes almost immediate death trying to make it in Asia.  

Visually both films lush, handsome cinematography aim for a kind of Christmas Tree/neon lit noir set in the crime scenes of Asia from an outsider’s perspective.  Both films main characters have a big problem with incest, Enter the Void dispensing with it in death where Only God Forgives situation seems to cause death.  Equally slow paced in its meandering designed to evoke either a heightened reality or overt fantasy, neither movie informs the audience which is which, as the films mutually careen toward a formally inconclusive note.  Incidentally, Noe and Refn at one point or another regarded their opaque wanderers of a movie as stylized violent porn, a statement true both figuratively and in Void’s case literally.  For both directors, it’s the kind of uncommercial head-trip movie that will never be all things to all people but stay relevant in cult interest for those who like their crime tales a bit more extreme. 

2001: A Space Odyssey/There Will Be Blood
Opening literally in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and figuratively in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood on The Dawn of Man sequence, both epic masterpieces begin on a silent gaze over life struggling to survive the harsh and stark Western terrain before abruptly introducing dialogue and defined characters.  Thus beginning with strings heavy avant-garde music provided and inspired by Krzysztof Penderecki, both movies deal with the abject terror of man’s fear of the unknown, technology as a way of life with strife before their protagonists transcend into madness, death or rebirth before ending on a divisively interpretive note.  Both offer a uniquely creepy adversaries we love to hate with memorable dialogue and confrontations with the films heroes or villains depending on your point of view.  

Earlier detractors of Anderson’s epic dubbed it ‘sub-par Kubrick’, yet There Will Be Blood almost transposes 2001 from the future to the past and is equally ominous in size and awesome in scope.  Equally kindred is the editing, with many lingering vistas of barren landscapes either Earthly or Lunar gradually being colonized with manmade machinery.  Some will tire of the slower pace of both films while others find it hypnotic.  As for me, the artistic and technical heights reached by both films is staggering and mutually established both directors as among the greatest in cinema history!

Mean Streets/Menace II Society
Separated by race and setting, Martin Scorsese’s Little Italy mafia picture Mean Streets and the Hughes Brothers’ South Central urban crime drama Menace II Society more or less echo the same gangster drama and character study of a bad man trying to do good in an underworld he’s desperate to escape from.  Utilizing the same trajectory set by Harvey Keitel’s small-time gangster voiceover narration in Mean Streets, Menace II Society treads the familiar tracks laid by Scorsese’s film but manages to retell it in a displaced culture and environment.  Scorsese’s signature camera movement, notably the use of dolly shots moving from one side to the next, can be spotted all over Menace, notably during crime deals in motion.  The startling moments of explosive violence coming almost out of nowhere and the manner with which the story jumps with its hero from scenario to scenario also serve to echo Scorsese’s film.  

The gulf between good and evil in both criminal underworlds is navigated by the films’ mutually morally conflicted protagonist who wants to shake loose the shackles of a life of wrongdoing but ultimately to no avail.  The Hughes Brothers have of their own admission confessed to their adoration of Scorsese and while far more judgmental critics have been quick to dub the duo ripoff artists, a more sound analysis would be the recognition of the filmmakers’ transposition of Scorsese’s New York mafia tale into ghetto culture.  As much of a tribute to the grandmaster as it is a building block towards a new kind of independent crime drama, Menace II Society also maintains Mean Streets’ shattering finale where we’re not sure if the film’s hero will emerge from the bloodletting shootout alive or dead.  In what may or may not be his final moments, the protagonist looks around at those left behind as he contemplates the promise of what his life could have been before the bullet of a gun ultimately decided his fate. 

An American Werewolf in London/Chronicle
While one concerns a werewolf horror comedy and the other is something of a found footage superhero thriller with a sharp sense of humor, directing father John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and screenwriting son Max Landis’ Chronicle represent a funny and scary look at bodily transformation after an inexplicable encounter with the unknown.  Aimed between senior high and college, the films’ heroes are unassuming students who wander into a bizarre, supernatural or unearthly phenomenon and emerge changed, debatably for the better.  As their metamorphoses intensify, they begin to lose control in increasingly deadly and destructive ways that threaten the safety of all near them.  It doesn’t take long for an all-out war between man and monster to erupt.  All the while guiding viewers through the horror plot elements are the likeably humorous characters who can’t help but tug at our heartstrings when they tragically succumb to the vices of their newfound powers.  

Though the found-footage aesthetic differs the visual approach, the dynamic structure of the story and clever attitude towards it is the same.  Something of a darker, edgier precursor as well as a realistic, occasionally disturbing successor to Ghostbusters, An American Werewolf in London and Chronicle represent horror-comedy of the highest order, mixing laughs with screams.  All the while for both creative visionaries, the Landis’ offerings in this genre make up some of the most artistically successful original horror storytelling in a way that allows you an enjoyable ride whose horrific elements are counterbalanced by the rib tickling.  Like father like son, John and Max are very much cut from the same cloth.  They even sound the same in interviews, right down to their laughter and manner.  More than anything, both films complement one another by taking the same basic blueprints and making a wholly original film twice out of that familiarity.  While open to debate which work for either Landis represents the apex of their careers, their dabbling in the funhouse of horror subgenre are among their finest.

While 1940s noir is already an ongoing location for homage, few movies are as distinctively similar in tone, approach and even dialogue as Roman Polanski’s timeless noir Chinatown and Rian Johnson’s transposition of the aforementioned film into high school, Brick.  Right down to the private investigator protagonists who eventually find their faces obscured behind bandages after being roughed up to the jarring dialect which feels even more displaced in modern day, Brick and Chinatown walk the same ground as the films’ sleuthing protagonist tries to piece together the murder mystery as the body count, intrigue and threats to his own life begin to rise.  

Where Chinatown on the one hand authentically recreates a bygone era as a stylized backdrop for Polanski’s story, Brick on the other hand creates an even more displacing paradox by keeping the words of Chinatown while jettisoning the timeframe, setting and age group.  At times, dangerous to Brick, is just how far Rian Johnson goes to call attention to the awkwardness of a spider web of crime being enacted ostensibly by minors.  There’s even a scene involving a meeting between the film’s hero and a villainous Godfather whose mother comes in to bring him a glass of orange juice.  He might be overseeing a powerful syndicate but he’s still really just a child.  Chinatown feels naturalistic and believable where Brick almost attempts to make a sendup of Chinatown by giving Polanski’s treatment of film noir a pair of training wheels.  In this sense, the idea of Brick being regarded as a spiritual remake of Chinatown is somewhat more open to debate as they walk the same line but couldn’t be more different in their aims with one film drawing you in while the other deliberately keeps you at arm’s length.

The Hidden Fortress/Star Wars: A New Hope
Of his own free admission, George Lucas pointed to Akira Kurosawa as his number one cinematic influence and singled out the Japanese master’s one and only lark, The Hidden Fortress, as a direct link to Star Wars: A New Hope.  Though separated by decades and genre, one being a jidaigeki while the other is a futuristic science fiction story, everything from Kurosawa’s wipes, fades, camera movement, shot arrangement, and the structure of the story itself finds its way into Star Wars.  The two main peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, wander the barren Tokugawa period landscape of Japan on their journey that will soon involve a lone hero and a princess battling against mercenary forces of evil, much like C-3PO and R2-D2 as they begin their own journey on Tattoine before eventually encountering Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia.  

Both movies are something of swashbuckling entertainments depicting thrilling battles with richly detailed characters you’re invited to laugh at as well as with.  More than anything, both films at the time of their inception represented technically proficient widescreen works which pushed the envelope as far as what people were used to seeing in the movies, whether it be Kurosawa’s use of panorama, graphic violence or the multi-channel Perspecta sound format or Lucas’ groundbreaking visual effects, creature and set design.  Proof that the same story can be retold in vastly different ways, The Hidden Fortress and A New Hope share a unique and original vision of the American Western as never experienced before, one displaced by medieval Japan with the other transposed into classical science fiction serials not unlike Buck Rogers or King of the Rocket Men serials of the 1940s.  In time, both also would eventually take their place in the annals of masterful and timeless cinema to be cherished again and again.

The Man Who Fell to Earth/Under the Skin
Though separated by decades and differences in the amount of dialogue, Nicolas Roeg’s sprawling and psychedelic The Man Who Fell to Earth and Jonathan Glazer’s opaque and minimalist Under the Skin provide experiential science fiction fantasies that are as much about the extraterrestrial perspective as they come to grips with contemporary human sexuality before losing sight of their original mission on Earth altogether.  Although David Bowie’s benevolent entrepreneur aiming to replenish his drought stricken planet differs questionably in nobility from Scarlett Johansson’s silent nymph luring unassuming men to their deaths, the point with which both aliens incognito abandon ship and lose sight of their otherworldly identity and the tragedy of their mutual inability to deal with their own skewed definition of human frailties.  

Much of this comes from the films’ mutually disorienting and unorthodox editing, drifting through a fog of occasionally freakish and often sexualized images, abstract as well as sneakily within context.  Both films find common ground in their deliberate attempts to break down comprehensible linearity by filtering both stories through a disjointed prism.  Of a decidedly different but equally surreal visual language, Roeg and Glazer’s films leap from one point of view to another so fast it’s easy to either get lost or forced to resort to our own interpretation of what we’re seeing through their eyes.  Likewise, each alien masterpiece of carefully constructed images serve as unique metaphors for what it means to be human.  No doubt Roeg’s film is far meatier where Glazer’s film draws its strength from how little it gives, leaving the debate open for which version of the story is more artistically successful.  Still, in the end there’s no doubting their intentions couldn’t be more likeminded if they tried.  


Battle Royale/The Hunger Games
When the recent cinematic adaptation of the teen dystopia novel series The Hunger Games first came into pop cultural consciousness, a debate arose over the undeniable similarities it shared with a lesser known, ultraviolent cult epic from Japan known as Battle Royale.  The story of youths battling in a violent contest to the death under the duress of an oppressive, totalitarian government, one got the impression both movies essentially did the same thing.  Due to the extreme violence of the late Kinji Fukusaku’s final masterpiece, Toei Pictures refused to license Battle Royale to American moviegoers for over 10 years out of fear it would be given the NC-17 and restricted to the arthouse circuit only.  It wasn’t until word of mouth surrounding The Hunger Games’ connection to Royale that Fukusaku’s ode to the teen suicide phenomenon due to the intense competition behind Japanese collegiate entrance exams finally garnered a theatrical and home video release in the United States.  Inevitably, comparisons in terms of quality, lack of compromise and richness of vision were drawn between the two teen science fiction parables, but both couldn’t be more different in terms of aims and style upon closer inspection.  

For one thing, The Hunger Games depicts an extensive selection and training process for the kids before being unleashed into the open wild with their guns and arrows drawn, ready to spill one another’s blood.  In Battle Royale, the youngsters chosen at random are dropped with flailing arms into their incomprehensible predicament and are given no time to come to grips with the situation before they’re fighting for survival of the fittest.  Given the distinctly Japanese social commentary behind Battle Royale, it’s not difficult to see how Fukusaku’s mournful swan song could be easily misunderstood by viewers consuming the bloodshed at face value as not much more than entertaining violence.  Those who have that point of view about Battle Royale ought to take a closer look at The Hunger Games and decide which of the two is merely violence as entertainment.

Night of the Creeps/Slither
The creepy crawly subgenre of horror, often preying on man’s fear of insects, rodents and other microorganisms out to eat us alive is taken to a new level with the concept of extraterrestrial slugs from another distant region of the universe set on infiltrating the human race.  The concept of alien gastropod molluscs may have been reached first by David Cronenberg’s Shivers, only instead of becoming murderous nymphomaniacs, Night of the Creeps and the obvious nod Slither depict their slimy crawlers as zombifying their victims from beyond the grave as they both resurrect the dead and transform the living into serial murderers.  Horror comedies of the highest order lovingly assailing creature feature tropes dating back to the 1950s, Night of the Creeps and Slither achieve that unusual feat of rib tickling with humor as well as testing the gag reflexes with their intensifying gross outs.  

Both movies deliberately serve up the same gaggle of B-movie heroes and villains, believers and skeptics as all kinds of bloody Hell break loose in the small town Americas they take place in in a manner that’s not so much reciting a cliché as it is paying homage.  Needless to say, however, when word of Slither broke with the trailers, fans of Night of the Creeps decried the film as a shamelessly derivative carbon copy, which it is and it isn’t.  While following the same trajectory as Night of the Creeps, Slither ups the ante in terms of special effects and even grislier grue than the source of its inspiration.  The similarities are undeniable, as is the level of goofball fun they’re both able to whip up!  

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-Andrew Kotwicki