In December 1998, Universal Studios released a movie its director now calls a “weird science experiment.” Directed by Gus Van Sant, Psycho remade the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic (almost) shot-by-shot and line-by-line. “I said, ‘What you guys haven’t done is try to take a hit and remake it exactly rather than remake it and put another spin on it,” Van Sant told Marc Maron as a guest on Maron’s WTF podcast earlier this year. “I’d never seen that done yet. And the whole thing seemed experimental to me anyway, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ And they laughed. They thought it was silly. Ridiculous. Absurd.” Yet they said “yes” anyway.
The experiment failed, at least financially, and it’s not hard to see why. While it’s fascinating to watch one great director mimic the masterpiece of another, and to see actors used to performing in a more contemporary, naturalistic style adapt to the dialogue and blocking of a different era, Van Sant’s Psycho is more compelling as a big-screen museum installation than a movie. Today it’s mostly forgotten. Say the title “Psycho” to just about anyone and they won’t picture Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn. It’s a footnote at best, an unmovie at worst. (Or, to borrow a phrase from the popular film podcast Blank Check, a “movie that does not exist,” a film released, seen by more than a few people, then almost immediately forgotten.)
But while no one saw it as such at the time, it was also a sign of things to come. Much of what we think of as the modern horror movie can be traced back to the original Psycho, so it’s fitting that a remake would serve as a kind of harbinger to an ongoing trend that began a few years later, one that’s seen horror classic after horror classic get remade, released, and largely forgotten. Van Sant’s weird science experiment didn’t so much die in the lab as mutate and spread.
Here are the titles of some horror movies: Friday the 13th, It’s Alive, The Last House on the Left, My Bloody Valentine, Sorority Row, and The Stepfather. What year were they released? If you’re struggling to recall various dates in the 1970s and ’80s, struggle no more: The correct answer is 2009, a year that saw a flood of remakes of horror films released between the years 1972 and 1987. To be fair, one of those films, the Bijou Phillips–starring It’s Alive, missed theaters in the U.S. But the rest had their moment, earning between $11 million and $65 million at the box office before fading into oblivion.
Except not quite oblivion: Stumble on The Last House on the Left on cable and there’s a good chance it’s not Wes Craven’s 1972 debut, a disturbing distillation of post-’60s parental anxieties inspired by Charles Manson and Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, but a grim thriller that’s memorable mostly because Aaron Paul plays one of the bad guys. (He’s pretty good.) As with many 21st century horror remakes, the original has survived the experiment, but the offspring has taken on a life of its own, even though that life means just kind of hanging around without making much of an impression. “When everything is searchable and streamable,” Phil Nobile Jr., editor of the recently revived horror magazine Fangoria, says, “these movies don’t really get the chance to go away and become mythic the way Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Craven’s Last House on the Left did.”
Set to be released later this month, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria has been earning largely positive reviews, its most supportive critics noting that it works well on its own terms and as a companion piece to Dario Argento’s original. “Something beautiful happens after you watch the new Suspiria and then return to Dario’s,” Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf enthused in a tweet: “A pathway of creative interpretation is illuminated. […] This is how you do remakes.” Rothkopf’s far from alone in his praise, or in noting that Suspiria stands out after a long string of examples of how not to do remakes.
So how did we end up with a decade-plus of second-hand horror movies? The answer is pretty simple: for the same reason we get most remakes, reboots, and revivals. “I think part of it is obviously the name recognition,” film critic April Wolfe, whose projects include the genre film podcast Switchblade Sisters, says. And a recognizable name and story means less work. “The other part,” Wolfe continues, “is that we do have more sophisticated technology when it comes to CGI and that kind of thing. So I think directors and executives are like, ‘Oh, well if they did this movie and it was scary enough back then, what can we do with the technology that we have now? How can we up the scare and up the chills?’ And I think that’s also just kind of a wrong way of thinking, too. Because most CGI isn’t artistic or sophisticated enough to evoke the kinds of scares that the older stories had.”
Horror is also less transportable across the years than other sorts of films. These stories are born of the anxieties of a particular time and place. A remake has to double as a reinterpretation, offering not just a contemporary update on a film’s style but a reworking of its central themes. Not doing this was central to Van Sant’s Psycho, a feature not a bug (even if it ended up playing like a bug). But simply dropping modern jump scares and computer effects into an old story is its own kind of trap.
So is there anything worth salvaging in the heap of remade horror classics that have piled up in the years after Psycho? For our purposes, we’re not considering remakes of foreign films—though it’s worth noting that both The Ring and Let Me In hold up nicely beside the originals that inspired them. Let’s start with the bottom and work our way up.
Any discussion of the worst 21st century horror remakes has to start with Platinum Dunes, the production company founded in 2001 by Michael Bay, Brad Fuller, and Andrew Form. The Platinum Dunes name can now be found attached to The Purge series, A Quiet Place, and other compelling projects. But between the years 2003 and 2010 the company seemed to exist almost solely to assign directors who emerged from the same music video world that created Bay to new versions of classic horror films made in the 1970s and ’80s. Platinum Dunes’ remake run began poorly and ends even worse, starting with Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. It earned $80 million on a budget of less than $10 million. “Had Texas Chainsaw Massacre failed, it might have stopped there,” Nobile says, “but the model proved very profitable, and there was a hungry generation of filmmakers waiting to take a swing at the franchises they grew up watching.”
It also embodied the worst of what was to come, trading in the grime, sweat, and ugly, low-budget artfulness of Tobe Hooper’s original for a fussily aestheticized collection of jump scares and gross-out moments. Nispel got his start directing videos for C+C Music Factory, Janet Jackson, and others, and he never really let go of what he learned there, adding screams and spurts of blood to his palette in Chainsaw and his later remake of Friday the 13th, another Platinum Dunes release. Nispel at least fared better than Samuel Bayer, the video veteran brought in for a new take on Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, which borrowed its most striking images directly from the original while upping the gore and depicting Freddy Krueger’s past as a child molester in queasily explicit detail, an excursion into real-world horror that plays as exploitative and out of place in the midst of all the stylized glossiness.
Platinum Dunes’ remake campaign proved compact—only The Texas Chainsaw Massacre inspired a follow-up, the repulsive The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning—but influential. The company’s the-same-but-more approach became the default for many 21st century horror remakes, be they new passes on The Fog, Prom Night, or The Thing (the lattermost is technically a prequel, but one that shares more than just a title with its source). Sometimes it worked better than others. French director Alexandre Aja brought some of the same effective boundary-pushing seen in his High Tension to his remake of another Craven film, The Hills Have Eyes. Other projects doubled as proving grounds for directors who would go on to make more distinctive work.
Zack Snyder probably owes much of his subsequent career to the remarkable opening sequence of his 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake (too bad the rest is such an exercise in tedium). Jaume Collet-Serra’s loose, extremely Platinum Dunes-y remake of House of Wax isn’t particularly good, but it contains flashes of the style he’d develop in better genre films like Orphan and The Commuter. Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead never escapes the shadow of Sam Raimi’s original, but it put him on the path to make the great Don’t Breathe.
That last film points to another problem with 21st century horror remakes by serving as an exception. Before getting drowned in a deluge of bloody CGI rain, it’s a story of addiction, its characters having fled to a spooky cabin in the woods as part of an intervention, and addiction continues to be the film’s controlling metaphor. In other words, it’s about something other than just hitting the beats of its source material again, only harder and with a bigger budget.
The best 21st century horror remakes, the ones that stand a chance of being remembered beyond the occasional, “I think they remade that one …” remark, attempt to bring something new to the material. The Craig Gillespie–directed, Marti Noxon–written Fright Night benefits from a first-rate cast that includes Colin Farrell and David Tennant as a seductive bloodsucker and a cheesy magician, respectively, and finds scares in an unexpected setting: the sprawling suburbs of Las Vegas. Rob Zombie’s Halloween doesn’t surpass John Carpenter’s 1978 original in part because Zombie seemingly knows it would be foolish to try. Instead it works as a kind of mirror image to Carpenter’s film, delving deep into the psyche and history of Michael Myers and portraying him not as a knife-wielding cypher but as an abused, broken kid. One of the eeriest moments in Carpenter’s original comes when Myers is unmasked and revealed to be an unremarkable-looking young man about whom we know nothing. Zombie’s film turns that moment on its head.
Some have stood out just by abandoning any pretense of gravity. Aja’s Piranha 3D and Patrick Lussier’s My Bloody Valentine 3D both go ridiculously over the top, delivering gratuitous sex and violence and then delivering even more, almost as though asking viewers whether this is what they really want. They’re the cinematic equivalent of when Donald Duck forced Huey, Dewey, and Louie to smoke a whole box of cigars. Sorority Row, a remake of the ultra-cheap 1983 film The House on Sorority Row, pushes even further into tart camp than Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens series would a few years later. If you want to see Carrie Fisher trying to protect a bunch of reprehensible sorority members with a shotgun, this is your movie.
Others with strong visions have fared less well. Neil LaBute’s 2006 version of The Wicker Man is nothing if not distinctive, a tale of misogyny writ large, florid and anchored by one of Nicolas Cage’s wildest performances. Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 Carrie remake has a still-timely story of bullying, and a strong directorial hand yet, lacking the shock of the new, plays like a long shrug of a film. Sure, it kills a gym full of prom-goers in a bloody spectacle of fire and flying objects, but we’ve seen that before. We’ve seen all this before.
So what have we learned? The ultimate lesson might be that, the occasional radical reinvention aside, there’s a ceiling on a horror remake. Consider Poltergeist, which, in case you’ve forgotten, is the title of a film released in 2015. Produced, like the Evil Dead remake, by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures, it does everything right while doing nothing extraordinary.
There are few better records of suburban life in the Reagan era than the 1982 original directed by Tobe Hooper from a script by Steven Spielberg; the remake attempts to be the same for 2015. Written by Pulitzer-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, it follows a downwardly mobile family headed by Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt as they move into a less-than-desirable Chicago suburb after Rockwell’s character loses his job. They’re economically anxious in the truest sense of the term. (One memorable scene finds Rockwell deciding to shoot the moon with his one working credit card, tired of depriving his family.) They watch cheesy reality shows about haunted houses that they come to realize have nothing to do with the real thing. They’re always staring at phones or iPads, which come to play into the action of the film. DeWitt and Rockwell are terrific, as usual, as are Jared Harris and Jane Adams as bickering would-be ghostbusters (whose team includes a pre-Succession Nicholas Braun). Gil Kenan, who helmed the fun, Spielberg-inspired animated film Monster House, brings a sure hand to the direction. Apart from featuring a collection of creepy clown dolls in an attempt to top the original’s single creepy clown, it mostly avoids one-upmanship. The effects look pretty good, too.
And that’s where it lands: in the realm of the pretty good. Yet who remembers it just three years later? The 2015 Poltergeist is an example of how a film can avoid every potential remake misstep and still just slip out of the collective memory almost immediately. Its pretty goodness is diminished by the original’s undeniable greatness and it exemplifies just how hard it is to tell the same scary story twice and make it meaningful both times. We dredge up yesterday’s ghosts at our own peril. Usually, they’re best left alone.