The only things Hollywood likes as much as sequels are remakes — and no genre is better suited to constant reincarnation than the horror film. Hey, if it scared them once, it’ll scare them again! Right?
Well, yes. And no. I am not one of those hardliners automatically outraged by the news of a horror classic’s being rehashed for a new generation. As a concept, remakes have great potential, especially when you’re dealing with a movie that has not aged well (and many horror films are products of their times and don’t weather the years).
In honor of Friday’s arrival of a new take on “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” we’ve compared a few recent horror remakes and their originals. This is only a partial list. A comprehensive one would fill a book.
—‘THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE’
Made on a tiny budget by director Tobe Hooper, the original 1974 shocker drew its considerable power from the feeling that it was really happening, shaky acting and all. Despite the ominous title, the film contained little to no gore — the opposite of the graphic, tedious 2003 remake, in which director Marcus Nispel included a shot through the gaping hole in the head of a woman who had just blown her brains out. The original was genuinely disturbing — the stuff of nightmares. The remake is just gross and nihilistic.
—‘DAWN OF THE DEAD’
George A. Romero’s seminal 1979 classic set a standard for graphic gore — and made flesh-eating zombies as popular as vampires and werewolves. The notion of a remake seemed blasphemous — until you saw director Zack Snyder’s from 2004, which cleverly spun the shopping-mall setting into a larger, more apocalyptic scale. Snyder also did inventive things with the undead, including the appearance of the first (to my knowledge) zombie baby, ravenous right from the womb. Unfortunately, the characters spent much of the film needlessly bickering (the lazy screenwriter’s crutch) and were not nearly so memorable as the original’s quartet of heroes. But the remake gets bonus points for one of the best death-by-chainsaw bits ever filmed. Watch where you point that thing!
—‘LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT’
Wes Craven made his directorial debut with this nasty 1972 shocker about two young women who run afoul of a gang of murderous creeps. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” but as shoddy-looking as a snuff film, the movie was a product of its tumultuous era — Vietnam, the Charles Manson murders and the curdling of the free-love 1960s into rampant drug addiction and crime. The 2009 remake lacked subtext, and director Dennis Iliadis filmed in a sleek style that was the mirror opposite of Craven’s documentary realism. But the remake was still surprisingly effective, especially when the bad guys took shelter in the house of one of the girls they had brutalized, and the parents exacted sweet revenge. Craven’s film was unpleasant and crudely harrowing. The remake settled for a gory good time that answered the burning question “What would happen if you stuck someone’s head in a microwave?”
—‘THE HILLS HAVE EYES’
Another early Craven effort, made in 1977 about a family stranded in a desert populated by cannibals, showed considerable growth on the director’s part. Its menacing feel hinted that even major characters could get killed at any moment, and some — remember the shocking massacre inside the trailer? — did. Director Alexandre Aja’s 2006 cover was brutally sadistic, sometimes to the point of being unwatchable, but Aja did not shy away from duplicating the surprise twists of the original. Bonus: The mutant cannibals were a “lot” uglier this time, thanks to advances in make-up effects.
When Gus Van Sant announced his intention to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece — one of the most influential movies of the past 50 years — almost everyone assumed the director had lost his marbles. But Van Sant delivered a “Psycho” that was almost a shot-for-shot replica. Unable to overcome the memories of the original and simply too tame for today’s audiences, the movie flopped and was critically reviled. But I watched it again recently and appreciated it as a one-of-a-kind cinematic experiment: The movie is not meant to supplant Hitchcock’s but to serve as an alternate-universe take on the story.
Released in the summer of 1982, when “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” was spreading feel-good vibes about aliens around the world, John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” a hair-raising remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic “The Thing From Another World,” was roundly ignored by audiences. But over the years, the incredibly gross (and scary) movie has amassed a huge fan base — and for good reason. Rob Bottin’s elaborate creature effects remain just as astonishing today — the stuff of gruesome beauty.
Seeing John Carpenter’s groundbreaking horror picture in a theater in 1978 was a riotous, you-had-to-be-there experience. To this day, I’ve never seen a movie that made the audience scream so often or so loudly. The film is often credited for inventing the slasher genre, although some diehards argue that 1974’s “Black Christmas” got there first. By the time Rob Zombie remade “Halloween” in 2007, the sight of a masked killer with a knife was woefully tired, and Zombie’s attempt to illuminate Michael Myers’ twisted psyche was noble but misguided. Zombie’s 2009 sequel, “Halloween II,” was even worse, inexplicably changing the personalities of the survivors of the first film (they became practically different characters) and giving the Ginsu-loving Myers visions of white horses. Ugh.
—‘FRIDAY THE 13TH’
A big part of the appeal of the 1980 box-office smash was how seedy and low-rent the movie felt. (It was shot independently on a low budget, then picked up by Paramount Pictures and given a lavish promotional campaign.) Today, its elaborate murders still hold up, thanks to the work of make-up genius Tom Savini, but everything else reeks of bad acting and shoddy direction. The sleek 2009 remake, actually more of a condensation of the original and its first three sequels, was infinitely better acted and photographed, but the thrill was gone. There wasn’t even a single good jump scare. Camp Crystal Lake has been wrung so dry that a proposed sequel to the remake has been permanently scrapped.
Arguably the best horror remake of all time, David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of the campy 1958 Vincent Price vehicle remains as disturbing as ever. The movie was a perfect fit for Cronenberg’s career-long obsession with body horror — what happens when our flesh and blood start to mutate and turn against us? — and Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis as the mad scientist and the reporter who loves him anchored the plot with a touching love story that made the movie all the more tragic when Goldblum started to mutate into something monstrous. Rumors hint that Cronenberg is considering remaking his remake: Please don’t. This one is perfect.
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