Ah, the dreaded movie remake. Hollywood has been stuffing these bad boys down the pipeline for years now, and it only seems to be getting worse. Most cinephiles find them unnecessary, even repulsive, and even casual moviegoers know to expect meh (cough — The Karate Kid… sniff — Point Break… yawn — The Manchurian Candidate). It can be frustrating to watch these forgettable films drop into our collective psyche without a concern for the source material, and it all makes the movie biz seem like nothing more than a grease-stained, bored manager of a widget factory, pushing recycled quick flicks off the line and into theaters.
Remakes have been an especially thorny subject for horror fans. As you probably know, they are the most dedicated and rabid followers of any genre on the scene. You don’t see romantic comedy conventions popping up every Valentine’s Day, do you? Nope. But around Halloween, the holiest of holidays for freaks and anti-social heretics everywhere, horror film conventions spread across the country like a beautiful black plague. Basically, horror hounds are the toughest to please. Just ask one of them about the several abysmal versions of Brian DePalma’s 1976 masterpiece, Carrie, and you’ll hear a groan so guttural and shrill you’ll think something went wrong with the plumbing.
But horror fans should remember that John Carpenter’s The Thing is in fact a reimagining of the 1951 Howard Hawkes’ classic The Thing From Another Planet. The newer version is so much better than the original, its existence makes us struggle to justify why remakes shouldn’t happen.
A couple new incarnations on the horizon look very promising too: Black Christmas, which will be released on December 13, and a spanking new version of The Grudge to be released on January 3, 2020. When making a list of horror remakes, there are lots of real stinkers (The Fog, The Omen, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play) and some OK reimaginings of classics (Rob Zombie’s Halloween, the recent take on Suspiria, the film version of It) to choose from. But there are also many new, polished manifestations that are arguably better than their predecessors.
Horror is fertile ground for incorporating our contemporary fears and modern psychosis. Basically, what scared us in the post-Vietnam 1970s (the Golden Age of horror) has taken on grander and more sinister machinations today. You can’t recreate perfection, but you sure can build upon a solid foundation, and when it comes to fearsome fare, there’s plenty of provocative elements to play with. Here’s a list of the best horror remakes that do just that!
10. Maniac (2012): William Lustig’s 1980 Maniac is a sleazy affair. More of a contemplation about the dirty streets of NYC than a psychological study of a sociopath who scalps women for sport, Lustig’s classic gorefest is a commentary on how a broken society taps into our repressed fears. Therefore, when news hit that the bright-eyed and scrubbed down Elijah Wood was playing mannequin factory owner, Frank Zito, horror aficionados were skeptical to say the least. But what a surprise 2012’s Maniac turned out to be. Boldly filmed from the killer’s point of view, the audience is quickly plunged into Zito’s psyche, and it’s not a pretty place to be. It’s not 1980 anymore. The streets aren’t that dirty, but narcissism is peaking. The brilliance of the 2012 update is the filmmakers’ realization that our nightmares can no longer be blamed on society. Today our fears are repressed more than ever, white-knuckled into our psyches, creating a grotesque, experimental voyeurism that’s hard to shake.
9. The Crazies (2010): George A. Romero’s 1973 obscurity about a group of townies that go ape shit due to a military chemical mistakenly dropped into their lake is not what one would call a classic. Actually, the original is kind of a mess. It’s plodding, badly acted and a little schizophrenic (Romero got his groove back a few years later with Dawn of the Dead). Director Breck Eisner tightened up Romero’s original narrative and amped up the suspense (and the gore). Now the afflicted bleed from their eyes and kill each other with pitch forks and cutlery like zombie farmers on a bad acid trip. With Timothy Olyphant as the local sheriff and Radha Mitchell as his pregnant wife, The Crazies features some meticulously constructed scenes filled with such claustrophobic nausea, you’ll forget about that next Walking Dead episode and remember the unrelenting power of horror cinema.
8. The Hills Have Eyes (2006): You’d think a story about a family stranded on a nuclear testing site fending for their lives from a bunch of cannibalistic neanderthals wouldn’t be noteworthy or socially substantial these days. Not so. Wes Craven’s 1973 original was pure exploitation; thickly laden with subtext regarding America’s past transgressions. Although the subject of nuclear war has faded from our consciousness, French director Alexandre Aja brings us back to the Cold War with some elaborate set pieces and deranged mutant cave dwellers. Aja also injects the plot with high-octane action, gut-wrenching violence and surprisingly well-drawn characters. And let’s not forget about that heroic dog. A protective dog is definitely not a mutant’s best friend.
7. The Ring (2002) – The Japanese and their penchant for supernatural terror shouldn’t be taken lightly. America might have the monopoly on serial killers, but the Japanese own ghost stories. You can say they’ve elevated the subject to something akin to high art. Sometimes these spectral nightmares from the Far East translate to the American screen (The Grudge), sometimes not so much (Dark Water). The Ring, however, is considered the best Japanese horror adaptation yet. Some say it even outdoes the original. Perhaps The Ring clicked with us westerners due to our addiction to entertainment, which certain characters in The Ring indulge with a deadly consequence. Gore Verbinski’s beautifully bleached re-imagining of the Japanese original follows a journalist (Naomi Watts) as she investigates a mysterious videotape which kills its viewers seven days after watching it. Unfortunately, her wide-eyed son also watched the video and the clock is ticking. The Ring is both a beautifully crafted mystery and a wicked ghost story with an ending that is both nihilistic and shocking.
6. The Blob (1988): There’s nothing profound here. Take a 1958 drive-in classic with Steve McQueen, throw in Kevin Dillon’s flowing mullet, some gooey special effects, a few awe-inspiring kills and you got yourself a fun Saturday night. Screenwriter Frank Darabont’s script (The Mist) stuck to the original’s basic premise but dropped the nuclear scare cheese and even molded some memorable characters. The result is a grounded albeit malicious voyage into sci-fi horror. An alien creature lands in small town America where it devours its victims like an acidic glob of bubble gum. This is a surprisingly gruesome movie. Even by today’s standards, the death scenes are fantastically sadistic. The acting in The Blob is top notch, but the real star of The Blob is special effects designer Tony Gardner who created some of those most bizarre images put on celluloid.
5. The Last House On The Left (2009): Remaking Wes Craven’s 1973 game-changer that dealt with post-Vietnam anxiety, rape, revenge and the sadistic nature of violence is not an easy feat. Director Dennis Iliadis succeeds. However, this is not a film for the weak of heart or stomach. When a married couple in their lake home realize they’re giving shelter to a group of sociopaths who raped and nearly killed their daughter, they exact their revenge, brutally. Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garrett Dillahunt and a young Aaron Paul give gritty, convincing performances. Iliadis’ direction is pure Hitchcock mixed with a good dose of Tobe Hooper. Love it or hate it, you won’t be bored, and you’ll have to stick around for the final sequence which involves a microwave. Ultimately, Last House forces us to question if violence, righteous or not, is ever worth it.
4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): While the original Don Siegel 1950s classic explored the platitudes of McCarthyism and the sweeping paranoia of communism, Philip Kaufman focuses on the me generation with their self-help books, mud baths and New Age zeitgeists. The overriding fear of losing one’s carefully tended individuality to a widening totalitarian structure is the true subtext of this brilliant film. “Flower-power” takes a literal turn in Invasion when cloud-like eggs land on the shrubbery of San Francisco, turning everyone into pod-people. With the always amazing Donald Sutherland and a group of incredible actors like Veronica Cartwright, Brooke Adams and a hilariously wired up Jeff Goldblum, this inspired version pushes us to the brink of paranoia as each character fights off the possibility of becoming one of “them.” Of all the films that spoke to a generation who endured Vietnam, Nixon and the death of a peace movement, Invasion is the most metaphorical but paradoxically honest. Will we be able to trust each other or will we be called out as traitors with a Munch-like scream?
3. The Fly (1986): David Cronenberg’s The Fly legitimized remakes for years to come. You can hardly recognize the tacky Vincent Price original in this explosive Freudian nightmare. Cronenberg has always been intrigued with how our psyches can literally alter our bodies (Scanners, The Brood), and he takes that obsession to its zenith in his best film ever. A brilliant Jeff Goldblum, who should’ve won an Academy Award for this performance, plays Seth Brundel, an awkward, coy scientist who finds himself losing limbs and his sanity after being cross-fertilized with a fly in a self-imposed experiment. The problem is Brundel just discovered love for the first time with a beautiful journalist, Geena Davis. But just as Brundel begins to learn about himself sexually, his transformation and destruction begins. Like most Cronenberg films, you walk away thinking about the darker mores of sexuality, human vulnerability and our insatiable need to create something palpable from our ideas.
2. Cat People (1982): Sometimes it takes an auteur who never delved into horror to make one of the most enthralling and surrealist genre films of all time. Paul Schrader, who usually explores the lives of existential pariahs on the brink of a breakdown (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo), goes one step further, creating a species of people who can literally turn into deadly black leopards after having sex. Based on the 1942 French film, Cat People is a flawed, albeit ethereal work of genius. When Nastassja Kinski arrives in New Orleans to work at a zoo, she finds herself drawn to co-worker Oliver (John Heard). However, her new life evaporates when her brother, a brooding and bizarre Malcolm McDowell, enters her world, sharing their incestuous family secret. Extreme eroticism, black felines and dream-like set pieces set to a brilliant Giorgio Moroder score make this one purr. There are some genuinely unsettling scenes in Cat People and an eerie feeling that losing one’s virginity is the blackest moment of our existence.
1. The Thing (1980): Here it is. The big daddy of horror remakes; a movie that despite its greatness was a box-office failure, having gone head-to-head with the family friendly E.T. on its opening weekend and hence, got knocked down hard. It took a bunch of horror-obsessed film geeks to bestow due respect for John Carpenter’s surreal passion project, which is one of the most inventive horror movies ever made. What makes The Thing unique is its unwillingness to follow any narrative rules. Carpenter doesn’t care about characterization as much as creating an undercurrent. The Thing’s only concern is the vagaries of paranoia and dread. The characters are interchangeable, but the cold, slithering tone of this film never wavers. Rob Bottin’s handmade visual effects (a stomach with teeth, a severed head scurrying across the floor like a spider) are so shockingly original and vomitous, you wonder why CGI became popular at all. Kurt Russell is masculinity incarnate as the head of a station of scientists in the Antarctic fighting to stay alive and sane while a parasitic alien ingests each inhabitant, taking on their biological makeup. Carpenter’s pacing builds with such strategic tension, you can feel it seep into your veins. A truly exceptional film that stands the test of time, we feel sorry for whoever tries to re-do this thing. They won’t do it better.