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Commentary on Horror Remakes

Here is the extended commentary on horror remakes from today’s show:

Subsequent to my review of the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, I wanted to speak a bit more about the recent trend of horror remakes.

Those who listen to this show or have followed the program on the web are probably aware of my fondness for horror films, particularly horror of the 1970s and 80s. Admittedly some of this is nostalgia; I’m a product of the 1980s and characters like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees loom as large in the pop culture background of my childhood as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader or Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus. Of course, unlike Star Wars and Sesame Street, I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated horror films when I was a kid, but I found a way to do it anyway.

But my interest in the horror films of this period is not all about sweet memories of sleepovers spent watching movies that I was not supposed to be watching. Looking at cinema as pieces of art in American culture, the horror pictures of the 1970s and 80s, at their best, were daring countercultural statements. Films like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes took on the anxieties of post-Vietnam America and Halloween, The Stepfather, and A Nightmare on Elm Street launched an attack on the social values of the Reagan-era. These movies were savage and experimental; they broke barriers and were unlike anything horror audiences had seen before.

Flash forward thirty years and almost every notable title from the period has been remade. And with a few exceptions, such as Rob Zombie’s Halloween, nearly all of them suffer from the same faults: the filmmakers transplant the horrors of a previous decade into a contemporary context without updating what made these films scary or relevant.

To be fair, remakes are not inherently bad nor are they anything new. In 1962, MGM released a remake of the 1935 film The Mutiny on the Bounty and the remake is arguably a better film. Alfred Hitchcock remade his own film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and made one of the best pictures of his career. Martin Scorsese adapted the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs into his Oscar winning The Departed. And of course characters from comic books and literature like Batman and Sherlock Holmes have been imagined in various incarnations in film and television, occasionally with great success.

Within the horror genre, remakes have been very common. Dracula and Frankenstein have been revisited and reimagined literally hundreds of times. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left was an unofficial remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Many slasher stories were inspired by urban legends like “The Hook Man” and many of the sequels to slasher films were essentially remakes of the originals with a number following the title.

Despite this history, remakes rarely get a fair shake. Comparison to earlier versions is inevitable, with critics often assuming the supremacy of the original without taking the newer film on its own terms. Online fanboys and fangirls, who can be the most self-righteous, film snob, crybabies of all time, have made things worse with hyperbolic claims comparing remakes to sexual assault. This kind of emotional reaction to remakes is often based in nostalgia, as we link pop culture artifacts to treasured moments in our lives, conflating them together to the point that they are indistinguishable, and then disdaining the newer versions for reminding us that we are getting old. And while that is understandable, it makes for lousy film criticism.

But the filmmakers producing remakes haven’t done themselves any favors. Most fundamentally, these remakes just aren’t very scary and that is mostly due to their execution. To create an atmosphere of dread and terror requires a very skilled filmmaker. Inspired by the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, the original Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and some of their sequels showed a mastery of using lighting, staging, and pacing to build sequences of horror that eventually climaxed in a shocking moment of violence. The filmmakers behind these remakes appear much more influenced by the action films of Michael Bay and so the remakes contain a lot of quick edits that destroy the tension and rely on a clamoring soundtrack to elicit jumps rather than building up to a climax.

Beyond the shortcomings of craft, there is a deeper problem with a lot of these horror remakes. It is hard to find any films that viewers will talk about in ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. It is true that some of these films are made with higher production values and better actors; the case in point would be the 2009 remake of Last House on the Left which updated the low budget original with some really beautiful visuals and a few strong performances. But there is nothing about the remake that is memorable and even less that links it to the period in which it was made. The result is a generic piece of work that does not justify its own existence.

These remakes are really a natural extension of what happened to the slasher genre in the late 1980s. In the latter years of the decade, most of the independently produced slashers—movies like Maniac or The Prowler—disappeared or were relegated to direct-to-video obscurity, with the major franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th remaining. These films were turned into brand names and their killers became spokespersons and mascots for the products that their corporate owners were selling. Freddy, Jason, and Michael were attached to toys, model kits, videogames, Halloween costumes, and all other manner of merchandise. But when the audience stopped going to the movies and stopped buying the tie-in products, the films faded away.

The crop of recent horror remakes, reboots, and reimaginings is a continuation of that marketing scheme. These films have a very finished look about them, but where their inspirations hit a cultural nerve by getting to something organic, the remakes come across as plastic. Even though the remakes are almost always bigger and bloodier than the original, they are also very much a Hollywood product: safe, tame, and commoditized.

And that is antithetical to what horror is all about. Horror, like comedy, relies on surprise and the reversal of expectation, the opposite of what a prefabricated studio film provides. Horror’s strength is in the genre’s ability to go to the places that other films will not, to show us the things that polite society and mainstream entertainment cannot deal with. Horror is actually dangerous because it traffics in subjects that are not safe or tame. This was true when Euripides wrote The Bacchae, it was true when Charles Brown wrote Edgar Huntly, it was true when George A. Romero made Night of the Living Dead, and it continues to be true when Rob Zombie made The Devil’s Rejects.

The filmmakers behind many recent horror remakes have failed to understand this and turned out movies that have little bite. It didn’t have to end up this way and thankfully we’ll always have the originals.

In evaluating this recent span of horror remakes, in most cases the originals were better, but they were better for the time in which they were made. Dragging Freddy and Jason into a decade where they do not belong, where the things they represent are no longer immediately relevant to the culture, makes them an anachronism. And unless future remakes address this issue, the result will be a continued dilution of what made these characters and their stories interesting in the first place.

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