Horror depends on surprise. Something that remakes lack.
Little compares to Leatherface’s first appearance, or the reveal of the Crawler, lurking like a photo-bomber in The Descent.
Both scenes are an ice-pick to the viscera.
I’m not talking about jump scares. Those are easy. It’s the mystery that skewers the viewer; the disorientation of a world where the rules no longer apply.
Horror films rely on being a step ahead of their audience.Otherwise they become repetitive.
It’s no wonder that horror remakes suffer a particularly high rate of failure.
If the viewer comes to the film understanding its world, much of the terror is diminished.
The endless slew of Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes, reboots and reshuffles demonstrate this. So do Friday the 13th remakes, the American Martyrs and, for the love of god, Gus van Sant’s Psycho.
But hidden in all the unoriginal misfires are a handful of remakes that genuinely offer something new.
Whether it’s a new political application, visual style or tweaked story, sometimes they come back . . . improved!
The Ring – Gore Verbinski, 2002
Original (Ringu) – Hideo Nakata, 1998
Thank the Gods of horror for Gore Verbinski’s remake of Ringu.
As well as being gorgeously atmospheric, Verbinski’s film was instrumental in bringing J-horror to the forefront of western horror.
Not only did The Ring lead to remakes of other Asian horror-classics like The Grudge and Dark Water, it also encouraged a wider exploration of the original Asian tradition.
Without A Tale of Two Sisters, Pulse and Audition may have been overlooked!
The original Ringu is a terrifying beast. The concept of a haunted videotape that kills anyone who watches it seems to pre-empt our current obsessions with meme-culture.
Verbinski’s interpretation strips away the overly-complex backstory, turning the antagonist Samara (Sadako in the original) into an elemental force of evil.
He also injects plenty of style. When Naomi Watts’ Rachel visits Moesko Island in pursuit of answers, the story takes a gothic turn.
A sequence of riddles and half-answers that is as much filled with melancholy as horror.
Nothing in Ringu compares with the scene of the horse leaping from the ferry to its death to escape Rachel’s contamination.
And Verbinski frames it all in a wintery twilight palette that looks like the absolute colour of sadness.
The Crazies – Breck Eisner, 2010
Original – George Romero, 1973
It helps that George Romero was involved in this remake of his own small-town nightmare.
Some of the nasty, grindhouse tone of Romero’s original remains in Breck Eisner’s glossier version.
The whole thing is elevated by the presence of a likeable cast, including Timothy Olyphant’s Sheriff Dutton.
Dutton must navigate the dual threat of homicidal neighbours and inhumane military response when a madness-inducing toxin makes its way into the water supply.
The original was heavily inflected by the ongoing horrors in Vietnam, and Eisner’s version is no less reflective of its own era’s militaristic misadventures.
The end of the film, in which the smaller human story is shown to be irrelevant to the powers-that-be, is a wonderfully downbeat way to drive home our shared powerlessness in the face of military might.
The Crazies strikes just the right balance between authentic, depressing horror and a B-movie sense of fun.
It also features one of the best opening horror scenes in recent memory.
The Last House on the Left – Denis Iliadis, 2009
Original – Wes Craven, 1972
Some remakes are better than their originals because of genuine improvements made.
However, some can’t fail when the original is awful.
Wes Craven became a master of horror, but he began with the vile (for all the wrong reasons) The Last House on the Left.
The plot is simple: a gang of thugs abduct, rape and leave for dead two teen girls before being forced to seek shelter in the house belonging to the family of one of their victims.
Once the truth is revealed the **** really hits the fan.
Iliadis’ remake remains a tough, visceral watch. The sexual attack is still depicted without filter or interruption but the improved visual quality of the film seems to at least strip these scenes of some of their snuff-movie aesthetic.
More importantly, one victim lives in the remake, offering at least some hope of new beginnings, whereas Craven’s original is black nihilism all the way.
Though the violence remains strong, a lot of the exploitation has been dialled down.
The victim’s mother no longer exacts death-by-fellatio on her daughter’s attacker, instead opting for the more Nigella-alternative of microwave murder.
It’s still grim, but the remake of The Last House on the Left leaves you feeling at least a percent of vicarious victory, rather than just needing to take a shower.
The Hills Have Eyes – Alexandre Aja, 2006
Original – Wes Craven, 1977
Another Wes Craven original given the once-over, The Hills Have Eyes hit cinemas in 2006 in the middle of the great debate over the “torture-porn” sub-genre.
Films such as Saw, and Hostel had critics reaching for their smelling salts and tutting at the state of modern cinema.
Alexandre Aja’s remake is often considered to be part of this new ultra-gory horror trend.
It is, however, much more sophisticated in approach than this suggests. It’s not as dependent on splatter as you would think.
The remake sticks close to Craven’s original story, with a modern family caught at the mercy of a tribe of cannibals after breaking down in a desert pass.
Aja injects more backstory, with a neat riff on the impact of nuclear testing that strays close enough to B-movie to be fun but still scary.
It also lets him up the ante when it comes to the cannibals’ deformed appearance.
The best thing about the remake is the time spent examining the role of masculinity in a family unit; something that Aja pursues when looking both at the Carters and their assailants.
In perhaps the most horrific scene, the Carters’ domineering father is crucified and burned alive whilst his family is molested and abducted. This means the beta-male son-in-law Doug steps up to the plate (literally, he uses a baseball bat).
All the while, a parallel power-struggle is taking place amongst the cannibals.
It’s brilliant, graphic and occasionally horrendous, but never so much so as to tip over into farce or exploitation.
Of all the films in this list it’s the one that benefits most from improved technology.
The colour palette is a scalding Martian red that stands out from the dour, public-bathroom aesthetic that stained so much noughties horror.
And the propulsive editing of the violent set pieces is up there with the best in the genre.
The Thing – John Carpenter, 1982
Original (The Thing From Another World) – Christin Nyby, 1951
It may come as a surprise that the 1982 version of The Thing is a remake.
Based on a now-obscure 1951 science-fiction film, itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There,” Carpenter’s version is far from original in its story.
Nonetheless it stands as one of the greatest meldings of horror and science fiction in the history of cinema. Only 1979’s Alien can compete.
Whereas the 1951 original is a science fiction film about man versus monster, Carpenter’s remake is a paranoid nightmare of man against man.
Trapped in their Arctic research station with an entity able to take the form of any one of them, the men devolve into violence and suspicion.
Add to this a range of practical effects that have gone largely undiminished by four decades of technical development.
Plus the ambiguity and nihilism of that ending, an argument can be made for the The Thing as one of the most successful remakes in horror or any other genre.
Honorable mentions: The Evil Dead (2013), Let Me in (2010) Maniac (2012), Dawn of the Dead (2004)
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