The Terror Of The Horror Remake

22 April 2013 by Mikey P

This week, something very strange happened.

A horror remake was released in UK cinemas...and it wasn’t terrible.

In fact, amazingly, it was pretty good. Evil Dead may not possess the dark comedic genius of its 1981 predecessor, but who needs laughter when you have this much unflinching, unadulterated gore?

Evil-Dead-DIEvil Dead is one of few the exceptions that prove the rule: the scariest thing about horror reboots is the moment studios announce they are to be made.

You hear the news. You get an uncomfortable feeling. The more you are exposed to the idea, the more afraid you become. Your pulse rate increases. The panic intensifies. You want to look away but are gripped by the words of creeping dread- a beloved film is about to be massacred by an unthinking, unstoppable, studio system wielding an enormous chequebook. You can’t wait for it all to be over, but fear you will never sleep soundly again.

That’s true horror.

In the context of our argument, American remakes of modern foreign horrors don’t really count. It is an immutable rule of Western cinema that subtitled, foreign language films perform poorly at the box office. Cineastes may grumble but the simple fact is, if a film isn’t in English, audiences aren’t really interested. English remakes of foreign films have been occurring since the invention of sound and will almost always be more successful than their inspiration.

No, what we are discussing here are remakes / reboots / reimaginings of English language horror movies.

The problem with so many of these remakes is that not only are they not as good as their predecessors, it’s that they are almost universally awful, capturing none of the original's energy or atmosphere.

But why?

The reasons are numerous.

However, first and foremost- it’s because of money.

The-Fog-DINo-one is remaking The Fog for artistic reasons. Studios aren’t hoping to use John Carpenter’s 1980 version as a springboard to further explore the human condition. They want to make a profit. 2005’s The Fog was relatively cheap to produce at $18m and was an utter critical failure. It still grossed $46m.

These films are cheap to produce, are almost guaranteed to turn a profit and are utterly critic proof. Why would a studio spend additional cash on better actors, directors and writers if the quality of the finished film is largely irrelevant? Why gamble on an award winning cast and crew in an original film when ordinary talent in familiar, less risky fare will still produce the requisite box office?

Classic films like Dawn Of The Dead, Carrie, Halloween or The Thing are brands. The infamy of these types of movie is a shortcut to audience expectation. They may not have seen the original films, but they have a good idea as to what to expect. Hollywood is crippled by fear about risk and this approach minimises it. This is why their slates are packed with comic book movies and remakes, and why challenging, original big budget films like Inception are so rare.

However, in remaking the familiar, all novelty is lost. The fearful impact of the unknown is diluted. Even tweaking the story or characters still leaves audiences waiting for Leatherface to appear on his rampage in either the 2003 or 2013 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)Modern horror films also seem more obsessed with startling their audience than genuinely unsettling and scaring them. So much of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre happens off-camera. It’s the imagination that is filling in the (bloody) gaps. Nowadays, making an audience jump is considered a success. Perhaps this is because making a genuinely terrifying film risks an NC-17 rating- a commercial kiss of death. Far better to replace serious, sustained menace with scattered jumps, and secure that profitable R, or even PG-13 rating.

We as an audience also have to take our share of responsibility. We buy tickets for these movies with low expectations. We are therefore rarely disappointed. If we demanded better, we would receive better.  

Wouldn’t we?

Surely the audience response to low budget horrors infused with wit and originality helps make a film like The Blair Witch Project one of the most profitable in history…and the original Evil Dead such an enduring classic. These exceptions are as rare as a sound sleep on Elm Street.

With the remake of Carrie delayed until October, and remakes of iconic An American Werewolf in London and The Birds in the pipeline, the conveyor belt cannot be stopped. The recycled horror never ends.

Which brings us back to the success of director Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake. Many have loved it. Most have enjoyed it. And at the very least, people are relieved it hasn’t desecrated Sam Raimi’s masterpiece. We should count ourselves fortunate. We've endured much worse.

Nic Cage and director Neil LaBute’s remake of 70s cult favourite The Wicker Man deserves to burn on a pyre at the centrepiece of a bad film ceremony. It took all that was great and strange and disturbing about its predecessor, and excised it with an anodine, Hollywood scalpel.

It remains the biggest gulf between the quality of original and paucity of remake- a grim, slick, soulless aberration that elicited laughter rather than fear. The only thing frightening about the entire film was having to sit through it a second time.

Now that was a reboot that was truly evil.