Why She’s the Queen of American Horror Remakes
By now it’s safe to say that Naomi Watts is a bona fide Scream Queen. After more than a decade in small roles or B movies, the British actress finally found widespread acclaim in 2001 with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. She followed this up with a star-making role in Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, and sky-rocketted to international fame. Watts has worked steadily since then, winning coveted parts like Ann Darrow in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Oscar Nominated roles in 21 Grams and The Impossible, and franchise fame in the Divergent series.
Born in England, Watts and her brother moved around the UK with her Welsh mother before relocating to Australia at the age of 14 where she broke into acting. Despite this international upbringing, Watts is most known in the horror world for starring in American remakes of acclaimed foreign films. Her role in The Ring was just the beginning of a series of films in which she plays an Americanized version of an international character. In fact she even stars in the new Netflix series The Watcher, Ryan Murphy’s thriller about the American dream of homeownership gone terribly wrong. Watts considers herself British, but she’s come to symbolize a U.S. interpretation of femininity and motherhood within the horror genre.
In Verbinski’s The Ring, Watts stars as Rachel Keller, a single mother and journalist investigating a mysterious tape rumored to kill you seven days after watching. The Ring is a more or less faithful adaptation of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, which stars Nanako Matsushima as Reiko, the concerned mother and journalist. Telling essentially the same story, The Ring and Ringu follow these women as they race against time to save their sons from the tape’s curse.
Though the punishment for watching is the same in both films, Verbinski alters the content in an interesting way. Nakata’s version of the tape is a projection of rage from Sadako (Rie Ino’o), a little girl pushed into a well by her illegitimate father to cover up proof of his affair. Verbinski’s film removes this affair from the equation. Samara (Daveigh Chase) is a child from a mysterious land adopted by Richard (Brian Cox) and Anna (Shannon Cochran), parents struggling to conceive. When Samara appears to have deadly psychic powers, her adopted mother pushes her into a well and leaves her to die. By changing the identity of the murderer, Verbinski provides a contrast between Good Mother Rachel and Bad Mother Anna.
Verbinski’s film also gives Rachel a more heroic arc. Both versions of the story see Rachel and Reiko descend into the well to rescue the body of Sadako/Samara. However, Reiko (understandably) only goes down into the well when her ex-husband Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada) climbs out and asks her to take his place. Rachel falls into the well by accident, only realizing what’s down there after she’s already been submerged in the water. In addition to sexualizing Rachel by showing her in a wet sweater, this change also presents her as both a heroic mother and a damsel in distress. Putting aside the film’s devastating twist, Rachel has not only saved her own son, but she’s righted Anna’s wrong and erased a taboo rarely seen in American films.
Watt’s next foray into horror remakes came five years later as another mother in a desperate situation. Michael Haneke’s Austrian Funny Games (1997) is a rough watch and often named among the most disturbing films in horror. Chronicling the destruction of a family, Funny Games follows Anna (Susanne Lothar), Georg (Ulrich Mühe), and Schorschi (Stefan Clapczynski) as they’re held hostage by two collegiate madmen while vacationing at their lavish lake house. Premiering ten years later, Haneke’s American remake is a shot-for-shot recreation of his original film with nearly identical sets, script, and staging. The same decorative quilt even hangs on the wall near the home’s back door.
As Ann, Watts embraces the acting challenge, making the role her own though she’s playing a part made famous by someone else. Taking over for German actress Susanne Lothar, Watts is slightly more glamorous in the role, remaining gracefully pretty even while sobbing and enduring sadistic torture. Of course one could argue that Watts is just naturally beautiful and the film is only capturing that reality, but Haneke makes one significant change to highlight her appearance.
As a part of their torture, the two young men demand that Anna take off her clothes so they can inspect her physique. This upsetting scene is shot identically in both films with tight framing on Anna’s and Ann’s faces and the nudity kept outside the frame. We watch her reaction to this emotional torture rather than join in the objectification with the sadistic intruders. Finally allowed to dress again, Anna puts back on a slip while Ann remains in her bra and panties. This could be chalked up to a simple wardrobe change, but every other costume in the film is virtually identical to its original counterpart, occasionally differing in color but rarely in style or silhouette. Perhaps in a film that examines the ethics of horror fandom, Haneke is making a statement about how American audiences have been conditioned to objectify our leading ladies.
Watt’s newest horror remake is an American version of the Austrian film Goodnight Mommy. Written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the original follows the twin sons of a TV hostess recovering from facial surgery. Wrapped in bandages, Mutter (Susanne Wuest) asks Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Lukas Schwarz) to respect some simple boundaries and they begin to believe that their mother has been replaced by an imposter. This film is a brutal examination of motherhood and sacrifice as Mutter is viciously punished by her son who can’t accept her desire to move on with her life. Matt Sobel’s American remake stars Watts as Mother and Nicholas and Cameron Crovetti as Lukas and Elias. It’s a serviceable version of the story but Sobel makes significant changes that rob the film of its upsetting bite.
Taking the subtext and making it explicit, Sobel seems afraid to explore the depths of matricide in Franz and Fiala’s film. Like Mutter, Watts’s Mother does not survive, but in the newer remake her death is an accident. Elias realizes that the twin brother he’s been talking to the whole time is only an illusion. Lukas has actually been dead for the duration of the film, killed in a tragic accident. Elias begins to turn against the manifestation of his brother Lukas and tries to rescue his mom, killing her by accidentally knocking her off a beam in the barn where Lukas died. The original Elias never shows Mutter this compassion. Along with the ghost of his dead brother, Elias brutally tortures his mother to get her to admit that she’s an imposter. When she can’t share his delusion and allow him to keep believing Lukas is in the room with them, Elias burns her alive by lighting the curtains on fire. Rather than dying by immolation while glued to the floor, Watt’s Mother perishes in the flames while unconscious, having already gotten a heartfelt reunion with her son.
Though the American version ends in the same place, Sobel seems reluctant to show Watts enduring extensive abuse on par with Franz and Fiala’s Mutter. Watts is merely bound, doused with water, and gagged with tape over her still healing skin. Mutter sustains prolonged imprisonment, burns to her face from a magnifying glass, and mouth torture perhaps best left to the imagination. Though she is in a similar predicament, Watts’s face remains relatively unharmed, enduring a loss of glamor rather than actual mutilation.
In addition to these changes, Sobel seems determined to avoid presenting Watts as a villain. Franz and Fiala depict Mutter as rather standoffish with her sons, feeding the audience’s belief that she might actually be an imposter. A scene in which she bites a roach that’s crawled into her mouth furthers this assumption. But despite the bandages, she always appears as herself. Sobel’s film gives us more information about Mother, showing her frustration with her ex-husband and expertise in charming a leering police officer. Sobel also has Mother explicitly tell her sons why she’s gotten this surgery, reasoning left to the audience’s deduction in the original film. All of this humanizes Watt’s character, setting up maximum sorrow at her death. Unfortunately it also removes any doubt that she may be an imposter, presenting the boys as sad and confused rather than dangerously curious and disobedient.
Sobel entirely removes Watts’s image from that of the monster, further positioning her as the tragic hero of the story. Rather than crunch a roach, we see her pull a bit of skin off of her toe. Continuing to peel her outer layer, Mother slowly skins herself to reveal an inky black humanoid shape below. This figure returns again, bursting through a window to attack her sons. While both films show that this monstrous behavior is a dream, it’s notable that the original film allows Mutter to be monstrous while looking like herself and Sobel’s film must transform Watt’s image completely before presenting villainy. Rather than an exploration of familial taboos, this new remake becomes a tragedy in which a mother and son are consumed by grief.
Each of these three original films, Ringu, Funny Games, and Goodnight Mommy, are transgressive in their brutality and their confrontation of societal norms. Your mileage may vary on their American counterparts, but each remake features Naomi Watts as the ideal of American motherhood. The talented actress does her best with the roles she’s given and many would argue that her performances elevate each film from straightforward remake to artful reimagining. With her blond hair and blue eyes, Watts fits the physical archetype of an American woman and mother; a nurturing and compassionate caregiver who will stop at nothing to protect her child. She may not be perfect, but her flaws are usually minor and always stem from an all-consuming love for her children. She must always look attractive, even when in distress, and she must always be the hero rather than the villain. Even when she does get a chance to be evil, it’s never for keeps.
For better or worse, Naomi Watts has built a career on translating films that examine feminine taboos and translating them to a more mainstream audience.
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