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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Horror Remakes: Then vs. Now

There was once a time when news of a remake was pretty exciting for many horror fans. At least the ones I hung out with. That may be hard to believe, given the current glut of remakes flooding the market, but it's true. I can still remember a time when a horror remake stood a damn good chance of equaling, or even surpassing the original on which it was based. But that's all changed now. And it's time to ask why.


The halcyon time to which I'm referring was roughly 20 to 30 years ago--an era still revered as a latter-day golden age for the genre. It was a time of great creativity, with new ideas being put forth, and expressed in ways that were previously off-limits to filmmakers in the days of the Hays code. Remakes weren't nearly as common back then as they are now, in part because writers and directors were too busy exploring uncharted territory, and studios had the confidence to back their efforts.

But when remakes did occur, you can bet they were very often quality pieces of business. Because filmmakers and studios weren't all hung up on desperately returning to past material over and over again, when they chose to do so, it was usually for a good reason.

The Fly--one of the high watermarks of the remake subgenre--is a great example. David Cronenberg had already established himself as a unique visionary of horror, with a lot to say and an unusual way of saying it. He chose to remake The Fly partly because he wished to comment on the original, and to say something new about certain aspects of life in the 1980s, most notably the AIDS phenomenon.

In contrast, today remakes are greenlit without rhyme or reason. Churned out left and right without any real reason for being beyond the bottom line, they represent the ultimate in cynical thinking on the part of studios and distributors completely unwilling to take a chance and looking for nothing more than a quick, easy buck each and every time out.


Some may say I'm idealizing, but there was a time when those who made these films came at them with a great deal more respect for and interest in the source material than you find today. John Carpenter has gone on record as a huge fan of Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World. And consequently, his remake (arguably the best of them all) is made with an affection for that film. Not that you need to be familiar with the original to enjoy the movie, but it adds another dimension of enjoyment if you are.

The Thing, and others of its kind, were made by people who revered the originals, and who expected at least part of their audience to have the same familiarity/fondness for them that they had. There was a certain amount of intertextuality to them. These were films that were definitely commenting on the films that had come before them.

Conversely, today's remakes are very often greenlit before any creative folks are involved, and then foisted upon filmmakers who are not nearly as connected to the source material. They are also, by and large, made with the assumption that their audience has never seen/heard of the originals on which they're based. For all intents and purposes, they are meant to overwrite the originals.

Mention House of Wax to anyone under the age of 30, and I can guarantee you they're 100 times more likely to bring up Paris Hilton than Vincent Price. Yet, as a kid, despite being 30 years removed from the 1950s original, I was still keenly aware of it, and it was a favorite of mine. Today's remakes do not invite further exploration into the genre; rather, they impede it.


A big part of the excitement that surrounded the remakes of yore had to do with what had become possible in the intervening years since the originals came out. Vast improvements in special effects meant that the Blob would no longer look like a jello mold, but rather a truly living, elastic, acidic entity. We could still love the originals, but our interest was piqued to see what the new breed of special effects wizards could do with the classic monsters of yesteryear.

There was also the very real fact that unrestricted filmmakers could now tell more intense, more violent, and less "safe" stories. This was another aspect that made for a golden age of horror in the 1970s and 1980s--the notion that the gloves were off, and we were seeing things we had never seen before. And this even carried over into remakes.

To go back to The Thing, Carpenter's version contains a much greater sense of urgency than Hawks', and Carpenter's characters convey a much more real and intense sense of abject terror and paranoia. Remakes like The Thing were also free to end on much bleaker notes than their originals, which still hearkened back to the era when most monster flicks were forced to wrap things up nice and neat in the end.

That era of pioneering has long since passed. For the most part, many of today's fans would agree that the practical special effects of those days are, in fact, superior in some ways to what we get today. Is there anyone hankering to see what the great movie monsters of the past would like as CGI? And as for tone, the recent horror movie upsurge may have returned gore to the level of prominence it once held in the genre, but these are still films of a decidedly "safer" nature. The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, may display more blood and guts than Tobe Hooper's version, but it lacks any kind of socio-political subtext, and becomes nothing more than a mindless date movie.


My regular readers know I'm far from close-minded in my viewing habits. When I see quality, I recognize it. And I admit, therefore, that not all remakes of today are bad. A few, in fact, are quite good--and it's worth looking into why that is in order to even further understand why it is that most don't work.

I hold up Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead as a recent example of a terrific horror remake. And I say this as a die-hard Romero stalwart who railed against the very idea of a remake for months prior to the film's release. But once I saw it, I had to shut my big fat mouth.

Yes, Snyder's film removes the social commentary utterly, which I just pinpointed as one of the weaknesses of modern remakes. But in this case, it worked for me, because Snyder was making a conscious decision to take the source material and move in a different direction, for a reason. He didn't want to slavishly ape the original for new fans; rather, like the great remakers of old, he wished to add something to what had come before.

The new DOTD is more action-horror than its predecessor, with set-pieces that Romero wouldn't have the budget--or the inclination--to pull off. As controversial as they were, Snyder's fast-moving zombies completely restructured the film's entire dynamic, creating a very different kind of terror based more on frantic desperation than creeping dread. It even took pains to acknowledge its source, with nods to Romero's film that were included with respect for the original, and its fans.

Yes, I still prefer the original. But Snyder's movie does what so many current remakes fail to--justify its existence.

* * * * * * * * * *

From a business standpoint, it isn't hard to understand why we're seeing all these remakes. With built-in "brand recognition" and a pre-existent script, the horror properties of the past are a safe bet. People will come to theaters based on name alone, or at least the name becomes a kind of "marketing starting point". You don't have to build something from scratch--and hey, if it worked before, it should work again, right?

Idealists need to understand that questions like, "What is this adding to the original?" "Why do it? The original is untouchable," are irrelevant. At least to the decision-makers involved. These are not people who are interested in improving on the originals, adding to them, or even commenting on them. They are only interested in the money to be made, and nothing more. And that's the whole problem.


Alana Noel Voth said...

Hey B-Sol. Well articulated. Thank you. I love the Dawn of the Dead remake. You sure it's void of social commentary though?


cyberschizoid said...

Yeah I totally agree with you! I couldn't have put it better myself!

Gestalt said...

Great article! I agree with so much except the Dawn of the Dead remake. I walked away longing for something more or different. This is how I feel about most modern remakes. The only worse than a post-millennial horror remake is their sequel, i.e. The Hills Have Eyes 2.

B-Sol said...

I simply don't find the same kind of social commentary in the new Dawn of the Dead as there is in the original. It's not a very introspective movie, it's having way too much fun for that. Romero's film is much weightier, which is why I still prefer it. But I admire that Snyder had the balls to try something different and pull it off well, even if it is more fluffy. And I will also go on the record as saying that I enjoyed the Hills Have Eyes Remake more than the original.

Christopher Zenga said...

Hey B,

the remakes have to be more visceral for the current crop of desensitized youth, and for the most part they do loose the political tone of a Romero film or even the camp of an 80's era film But look how well the DOTD remake worked when it decided not to try to be anything more than a re telling of a zombie tale.

I truly feel that the studios are to scared to back unique ideas in fear of lackluster box office sales so we will have to look to Canes, and independant film festivals for new blood.

And new blood doesn't necessarily mean new themes, " and his hand was.....a HOOK!" can still work if the set up is fresh. A perfect example is Fido. Zombies, not a fresh idea, Zombies as the family pet,BRILLIANT! So fear not film goers, there are new ideas on the horizon, and keep the remakes coming, we may get a gem every now and again.

Later days
Christopher Zenga

gord said...

Hurray, suggestion complied with!

Great article too.

What I want to know is, why are horror the films almost the sole genre being remade?

And on the off chance that a film from another genre is remade, people don't usually go apeshit?

AndyDecker said...

Good article.

I for one loathe those remakes. Not because they are a sign of a new creative low, but because 99% of the time they don´t even get the basics right and are inferior to the original.

If you watch the worst offenders, it is painful to see how the directors and writers are virtually unable to handle (or update) material even in a halfway competent way. If a screenwriter in the 40s would have send in a script as fucking incoherent or senseless as the remakes of The Fog or Haunting of Hill House, he would have been fired on the spot. Today there seems to be no thing as quality control in all things genre. When has fan-writing taken over professional standards?

But one thing I truly don´t get is the pointlessness of the whole enterprise. Why spend millions for a movie, if you slavishly ape the original? I watched the remake of The Omen the other day, and all I could think was: this has to be a tax write-off. There was no other explanation for this boring waste of time.

But the remakes will keep on coming, their beautiful but talentless actors and directors will tell us how they worship the original and why we - the paying public - should give their work its much deserved chance.

And it will be the same awful crap like the last one.

B-Sol said...

Horror movies are generally easy money in Hollywood--they don't cost much, and appeal to a wide fan base. They're a safe bet in general, and doing a remake sweetens the pot even more. That may be why we see horror remakes more than any other kind.
And yes, The Omen remake was almost as slavishly shot-for-shot as The Psycho remake. Pointless.

Anonymous said...

Mention House of Wax to anyone under the age of 30, and I can guarantee you they're 100 times more likely to bring up Paris Hilton than Vincent Price. Yet, as a kid, despite being 30 years removed from the 1950s original, I was still keenly aware of it, and it was a favorite of mine.

Ah, yes, but were you aware that House of Wax was itself a remake of 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum, with Lionel Atwill and sexy, sexy Fay Wray? Interestingly, the original Mystery of the Wax Museum was an experimental two-strip Technicolor movie (six years before Wizard of Oz), while House of Wax was the first 3D movie [paddleball!]. And the last remake made use of what cutting edge technology? Smellovision? Flavorama? The only new technology in that one was debsploitation. Hah!

Regarding the current remakes of seventies horror films: I suspect that someday some cultural historian will get quite a bit of mileage out of the fact that the classic 70s horror films were made against the backdrop of Nixon and Vietnam, while the remakes stand opposite Bush, Iraq, and the GWOT. There's a point to be made about the lack of politicization in these new movies vis a vis the Bush era, but I don't know what it is. Yet.

gord said...

while the remakes stand opposite Bush, Iraq, and the GWOT. There's a point to be made about the lack of politicization in these new movies vis a vis the Bush era, but I don't know what it is.

Not to paint with too wide a brush, but I think that can be chalked up to films being made by retards, for retards.

People just don't care about making or watching smart horror films anymore.

Sure one could easily argue that the messages in Dawn of the Dead don't exactly compare to the messages in other, more consumer friendly fare (To Kill A Mockingbird, for example), but some message is always better than none.

Just because there's a lack of politicization in movies these days, doesn't mean that that's a secret, ironic retaliation against the current admin. Also, while I wasn't around back then, it does seem that even in the 70s and 80s, when these allegorical films were being made, filmmakers and reviewers could clearly discern the messages and subtexts hidden within.

If you aren't seeing anything in todays horror films, it's because there's nothing too see.

Amanda said...

I have to agree with you about the remakes. To my horror I saw that Last House on the Left and Straw Dogs are being remade. I mean, come on, when will it stop?

Brian, aka Hellstorm said...

Not everyone remembers that "halcyon time" you referred to the same way - http://is.gd/gzih

B-Sol said...

Interesting stuff, Brian, thanks! If Kael was depressed about the quality of movie-making in the late 1970s--a golden age by the estimations of many--just imagine how she'd feel today...

Brian (a.k.a. Hellstorm) said...

B-Sol, suggesting that movies are getting progressively worse with each passing generation is one way to look at things. Another interpretation is that this 'golden age' paled in comparison to the nostalgia Kael felt for films from her youth - much like critics today.

B-Sol said...

It's a tough call, cause on the one hand Kael was a real champion for the new generation of filmmakers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It mya have been her feeling that the rise of the blockbusters that occurred post-Jaws had laid to rest the era of experimentation that she was such a fan of. As for movies getting progressively worse, while I don't think you could make that case in the big picture, I do generally feel that mainstream American films of the 1970s and 1980s, generally speaking tend to be of a higher quality than in the 1990s and 2000s. But, for example, I don't think films of the 1950s and 1960s were generally superior to films of the 1930s and 1940s (rather, the opposite). So, in other words, there might still be hope!

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