[11 October 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Hollywood loves a remake. From the earliest days of the artform, studios have sifted through previous hits (and a few near misses) to reformulate and resell the same stuff to audiences who don’t seem to care about the subterfuge. Over and over again, similarity has struggled against individuality for celluloid recognition. For example, Love Affair, the 1994 Warren Beatty/Annette Bening vehicle was actually an update of the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr weeper An Affair To Remember...which itself was a take on 1939’s… Love Affair. There have been several A Star is Borns and dozens of Draculas. In fact, horror seems to stoke the fires of reconfiguration more than any other genre. Go down a list of classic fright films and you’ll see a smattering of originals - and a whole lot of reduxes.
As a result, the dread devotee has more to fear than the monster in the closet. Again and again, the creative forces behind the bean counters want re-imagined versions of beloved spook shows because (1) they can easily market the movie based on the original, and (2) the built in audience for fear will buy into almost anything. Indeed, as long as it is remotely scary, the macabre geeks will show up in droves. With aficionados dodging a major bullet this week (the new Thing hitting theaters is a prequel, not a remake…of the John Carpenter remake…) it’s time to look back and determine when the horror remake was actually done right. While some may argue with the choices, what is clear is that - to paraphrase Jud Crandall in Pet Sematary (itself worthy of a do over) - “sometimes, redone is better.”
So here they are, the 10 Greatest Horror Remakes of All Time, beginning with a goofy gorefest so fun you’ll actually laugh at all the lost limbs…
While he also scored big with the update of Wes Craven’s cannibals in the desert effort The Hills Have Eyes, French fright master Alexandre Aja made a true terror statement with the superbly schlocky Spring Break splatterfest based on a creaky old Roger Corman title. With enough blood and body parts to keep an entire mortuary in business for a year, the results reminded fans that gore could be nasty and nauseating, but it could be a lot of fun as well.
Much of the success of this revamp comes from the efforts of eccentric director Gore Verbinski. Anyone whose seen his films outside the original Pirates trilogy knows he is a man of unique vision. While following the Japanese original rather closely, the filmmaker found a way to make sure the creepiness crawled under one’s skin - and stayed there. The film within a film, representing the supposedly deadly videotape content, remains a macabre masterwork.
As a gift to F/X god Tom Savini, high profile buddy George Romero let him helm an early ‘90s revamp of the film that literally started the entire zombie genre. Considering the man behind the lens, one knew that the blood and guts would be great. What they couldn’t have expected was the overall results. It remains revelatory - gory, grim, and given over to the time and temperament of its mostly post-modern mindset.
Marcus Nispel clearly needs to helm every horror remake on the horizon. Before helping Mama Voorhees’ favorite son get his garroting groove back (in the equally effective take on Friday the 13th), he took Tobe Hooper’s power tool loving lunatic and made him even more terrifying. With the budget and body count the original couldn’t match, Nispel reimagined the Massacre myth as a kind of last layer of Hell. Unfortunately, he let an audience in to watch the wicked fireworks. A stellar update.
Originally, fans were split on Rob Zombie’s FBI profiler take on John Carpenter’s famous butcher knife wielding maniac Michael Myers, with most hating his brutal interpretation. They just couldn’t get the excellent source material out of their geek heads. Now, Zombie’s horrific take is appreciated for what it truly is - a marked masterwork that’s just as strong as its inspiration. Even the self-indulgent sequel does Myers and his mystique proud.
In the ‘50s, it was the threat of Communism. In the ‘70s, it was personal alienation and the individual struggle for identity that fueled the monster movie metaphor. In either case, the conclusions were the same - humanity was doomed by its own inability to embrace individualism and think for itself. That such a message was made out of a narrative revolving around alien pods infiltrating the planet underscore the update’s sensational social commentary.
Zack Snyder pulled off one of the greatest motion picture magic acts ever. He took what many consider to be the seminal splatter zombie shocker from the late ‘70s - and made it his own. Some believe he made it even better. Sure, the living dead are aggressive and fast moving, avoiding the sinister shamble associated with the genre. Still, they pack quite an impact. While not actually in Romero’s league, it’s pretty damn close.
How do you improve on the one film in the last decade that made the vampire viable again? Easy - you turn the project over to Cloverfield‘s Matt Reeves and you let him explore the darker, more deadly side of the seminal Swedish creepshow coming of age. It also helps to hire actors as strong as Chloe Grace Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee as your doomed member of the undead and her intended caretaker, respectively. A genius revamp.
Thanks to John Carpenter’s precise direction and Rob Bottin’s still sensational special effects, this take on the favored ‘50s film remains the benchmark for all remakes - smart, uncompromising, inventive, and above all, truly horrific. Few will ever forget the wicked watercooler moments that made the movie so memorable - the dog attack, the severed “spider head,” the bravura blood test. Put together with a bleak setting and true auteurism behind the lens, the overall effect was terrifying - and terrific.
David Cronenberg’s operatic take on the hoary old Vincent Price b-movie from the ‘50s couldn’t be better. Brilliant direction, strong performances, and more than enough physical F/X grue to make even the most stalwart scary movie fan gag. But the biggest improvement over the source - the sense of seriousness. Cronenberg’s obsession with biological terrors gives his update a sense of significance that few fright films can ever imagine achieving. A classic in its own right, with an ending that will cause you to cry as well as scream.