This weekend the new, gore-soaked remake of Sam Raimi‘s “The Evil Dead” (review here) chainsaws its way into theaters nationwide. A bold reimagining that jettisons much of the original film’s humor, replacing it with an unrelenting bleakness, it’s the kind of movie that sometimes feels less like an entertainment and more like an endurance test. It also got us thinking about other horror classics that have been brazenly retrofitted for modern audiences (and the other ones that absolutely do not work). So we’ve cooked up a list of five of the best horror remakes and five of the worst, omitting movies that were too sci-fi-y (sorry, “The Thing“) and focusing specifically on what worked and what didn’t work as it related to the original. Get ready for some pretty scary stuff.
If the list looks too “modern,” keep in mind that almost all of these remakes were born post-“Scream,” when the studios figured that they could mine their back catalogue for the movies that were referenced within “Scream,” updating them for new audiences, sometimes referencing the fact that the same audiences had seen the original (and countless other horror remakes). And it’s also worth keeping in mind that there are at least two other big time horror remakes on the horizon. This fall sees the release of Kimberly Peirce‘s “Carrie,” a remake of Brian De Palma‘s 1978 masterpiece (the new script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is supposedly a more faithful adaptation of Stephen King‘s original novel) and in development is a new take on the underrated 1976 true-crime shocker “Town That Dreaded Sundown,” this time from “American Horror Story” mastermind Ryan Murphy and “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum (it was also, coincidentally, written by Aguirre-Sacasa).
Take a look and note: this list caused some internal debate and water cooler showdowns in the offices and hallways of The Playlist, so prepare for some controversy and be sure to share your thoughts below.
“Evil Dead II” (Sam Raimi, 1986)
Despite its title, Sam Raimi‘s “Evil Dead II” is more a remake than it is a sequel, following the events of the first, ultra-low-budget film fairly closely, while widening the film’s scope and incorporating different tonal elements, all of which add up to an absolute classic of the genre. Anyone who saw the original “Evil Dead” and then went to “Evil Dead II” were probably surprised (and maybe a little saddened) by just how much like the original the second film is – Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend go to a cabin in the woods and unwittingly unleash an ancient evil that terrorizes them endlessly. But Raimi and co-conspirators Scott Spiegel and Rob Tapert wisely open up the world, by both adding more characters and creating a more sustained, unpredictable atmosphere where shocking violence and slapstick humor sit comfortably side-by-side, sometimes in the same scene (goodbye hand!) Raimi also pushed things, in a visual sense, into the uncomfortable realms of surrealism, sometimes going a little too far (the tree rape sequence is a little much). By the time the movie concludes with our hero being zapped into the literal dark ages (a gag that would eventually pay off with the gonzo third film, “Army of Darkness,” that would swing the horror/comedy ratio in the other direction), you’ve either fallen in love with “Evil Dead II” or lost all patience with it. As far as remakes go, it’s the most successful because it wasn’t happy on just slavishly reproducing the film that came before it. It’s impish, creatively restless, and utterly fearless, with a lovably fuck-you, take-it-or-leave it attitude that has proven even more endearing as it moves out of “cult classic” territory and into straight-up “classic” terrain. (The success of “Evil Dead II” also makes the decision to play this new “Evil Dead” remake completely straight even more baffling, especially when they had “Juno” author Diablo Cody assisting. She’s the queen of the quips. But they seem to have lobbed off her razor-sharp contributions like an unwanted severed hand.)
“Piranha 3D” (Alexandre Aja, 2010)
“Horror remakes directed or produced by French filmmaker Alexandre Aja” could have practically been its own list, as the “High Tension” auteur has directed the exemplary “The Hills Have Eyes” (remaking Wes Craven’s mutant cannibal classic) and the underrated “Mirrors” (a Japanese horror remake that uneasily melded with his more Fangoria-subscription sensibilities), plus he’s got a writing/producing hand in the super cool remake of “Maniac” that opens this spring from IFC Films. But “Piranha 3D” is his true triumph. A redo of Joe Dante’s cheapo “Jaws”-rip off from 1978 (written by a then-unknown John Sayles), Aja swaps the original’s post-Vietnam social commentary for a more barbed (razor-toothed?) satire of American excessiveness, while keeping the original’s goofy, blood-splattered spirit. A sort of “Spring Breakers” with blood geysers, it concerns the fate that befalls a group of clothing-allergic coeds who run into prehistoric piranhas on their anything-goes holiday. The characters have a nicely seventies-disaster-movie diversity (there’s the tough female sheriff played by Elisabeth Shue, the geeky seismologist in Adam Scott, the crotchety fish expert Christopher Lloyd and the pervert pornographer Jerry O’Connell), and Aja (along with frequent confederates writer-producer Gregory Levasseur and editor Baxter), rendering the carnage in somewhat rudimentary 3D, has a sense of how depth can affect and enhance the shocks and scares, culminating in a feeding frenzy sequence that might chart as one of the most violent in cinematic history. As funny as it is scary, “Piranha 3D” is the kind of movie that only a French filmmaker could make about American culture. And as the original begat the sort-of James Cameron-directed “Piranha II,” so too did “Piranha 3D” inspire a hokey, half-assed sequel – 2012’s barely-released “Piranha 3DD” (when the funniest thing about your movie is the title, you know of know you’re fucked).
“The Ring” (Gore Verbinski, 2002)
At a certain point, Hollywood was gripped with the need to remake every even marginally popular Asian horror movie, and the results were typically (at best) mixed. In the transition from a more philosophical “Eastern” mode of storytelling, in which dreamy connective tissue is more important than concrete plot specifics, to a more fundamentally “Western” form, in which narrative structure and plot articulation is paramount, more was lost than gained. Besides “Audition,” which has mercifully avoided the remake treatment, the scariest and most profoundly influential Asian horror film from the period was “The Ring,” about a cursed videotape, it’s remake ended up easily being the best and brightest of this crop, partially because, after some narrative dead-ends (a whole subplot that featured Chris Cooper as a serial killer of children was completely deleted), Verbinski, a director with a decided visual bent towards the surreal, embraced the more ethereal Asian narrative style. The result was a winning combination of both aesthetics, one that placed a headstrong female protagonist (Naomi Watts), who doggedly tries to solve the mystery of the cursed videotape before it claims the life of her young son. Visually, it’s a completely different beast from its Japanese counterpart and that’s a good thing – Bojan Bazelli‘s rain-streaked cinematography creates a wonderfully downbeat mood, eerily complimented by Hans Zimmer‘s droning ambient score and Craig Wood‘s idiosyncratic editing. Sure, the unexpected punch of the ending is absent, but Verbinski’s visualization is still pretty neat. “The Ring” is the “best case scenario” for these Asian adaptations, one in which the original intent isn’t diluted and the Americanization makes it feel enlivened instead of overtly explained.
“House of Wax” (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2005)
For a while, Joel Silver’s Dark House production shingle, set up at Warner Bros and specializing in down-and-dirty genre fare, almost exclusively remade old horror movies, with most coming from the back catalogue of William Castle, a gimmicky, cigar-chomping producer who considered himself in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock but was more along the lines of P.T. Barnum. The results were often well-intentioned misfires (“House on Haunted Hill” was too arch, “Thirteen Ghosts” tonally and editorially uneven), but they struck gold with their remake of the 1953 Vincent Price shocker “House of Wax,” this time by then-unknown Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra (in the years since he’s become one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood). Sadly, most of the remake’s notoriety comes from the stunt casting of Paris Hilton in a pivotal role; it should surprise no one that the movie becomes significantly better once she is unceremoniously killed off. The “House of Wax” remake is impeccably crafted, combining direct references to the 1953 original while incorporating more modern influences, including the work of Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” to be sure, but also flourishes of “Eaten Alive” and “The Funhouse”). While some may feel the film’s pacing is a little too deliberate, the last act of “House of Wax,” in particular, gallops along; it’s breathlessly exciting filmmaking that you can’t help but goggle at, and feels like the only remaining evidence of original Dark House principle Robert Zemeckis’ tangential involvement. It’s that damn good.
“Halloween”/”Halloween II” (Rob Zombie, 2007 and 2009)
Initially, Rob Zombie‘s skewered, hyper-detailed approach to the mythos of John Carpenter‘s 1977 classic (the gold standard by which all other slashers are compared against), an approach critic Nathan Lee rightfully described as not “so much a horror film as a biopic, and a superb one at that,” was either completely dismissed or outright ignored. It was long on the tortured childhood of young soon-to-be-serial killer Michael Myers and short on the blood-splattered mayhem, with Zombie essentially getting down to the business of remaking the original in a truncated, overtly hectic third act which felt less like an organic conclusion than something that the studio tried to aggressively force on him. The fact that Zombie came back to helm a sequel, mostly in order to get away from what he considered to be a constrictive contract with The Weinstein Company, is something of a shock. The fact that he made a movie even uglier (shot in ragged 16 mm and blown up to 35 mm for theatrical exhibition) and more divisive than his first film is nothing short of miraculous. Taken together, though, as some online have suggested is the only true way to “watch” the movies, and it’s like the “Kill Bill” of horror remakes – an expansive, utterly personal epic that, for scope and adventurousness, trumps nearly every horror movie, remake or otherwise, from the past decade. (It should be noted, for the sake of honesty, that when reviewing the sequel for this very website, yours truly called the sequel “baffling and half-baked.”) The whole bloody “Halloween” affair is psychologically adroit and unpredictably nimble, weaving between “prequel” and “remake” and showcasing what went into Michael Myers’ transformation into the homicidal maniac we know and love today, which then gives way to a more impressionistic (but just as grubby) examination of the same evil. It might not be perfect but it’s incredibly personal – the interpretive work of a singular artist deathly afraid of the same old shit.
“The Omen” (John Moore, 2006)
“The Omen” remake was so creatively bankrupt that, after some initial development, Fox just said “fuck it” and reused David Seltzer‘s script for the original, vastly superior “Omen” (directed by Richard Donner and released in 1976). The studio then installed hack du jour John Moore in the director’s chair and listlessly filled out the cast with bland performers uneager or unwilling to bring even a remote sense of freshness or unpredictability to the production (Mia Farrow, making a long-awaited return to the screen, just screeches maniacally). Moore pointlessly photocopies sequences from the original – the photographer’s decapitation (now with digital blood!), the priest’s impalement, the army of menacing dogs – making everything more blatant and less elegant than its predecessor. There’s no surprise as to whether or not Damien is a demon child, since they cast a kid that you would cross the street to avoid, and the couple (Liev Schrieber and Julia Stiles) are too young – they lack the desperation that made the original scenario work on such a profoundly sad level. When “The Omen” franchise started out it was sharp and scary – a religious chiller for the nonbelievers who had already been disillusioned by the horrors and atrocities of the sixties and seventies – but it quickly devolved into low budget schlock, a kind of proto-“Final Destination” where Damien would trigger all sorts of crazy things to happen and kill people. “The Omen” remake leans more on the elaborateness of the sequels, while somehow pummeling the original script into a shapeless pulp. Satanically awful.
“Nightmare on Elm Street” (Samuel Bayer, 2010)
Wes Craven has had pretty good luck with remakes of his films – both “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Last House on the Left” turned out to be lively takes on the original material – but the “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake, shepherded by the folks at Michael Bay-run production company Platinum Dunes (who also remade “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Hitcher,” “Friday the 13th,” and “The Amityville Horror“) – was an out-and-out disaster. What made “Nightmare on Elm Street” particularly unforgiveable was that it was released in an era when, thanks to modern technology, literally anything is possible; the nightmares and dreamscapes of “Nightmare on Elm Street” could have far surpassed anything previously envisioned in the franchise (or anywhere else for that matter). Instead, director Samuel Bayer (who helmed the influential “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video for Nirvana) and screenwriters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, turned in a remake that was gravely unoriginal, neither expanding nor improving on Craven’s beloved 1984 feature. Future girl with the dragon tattoo Rooney Mara plays the Nancy character, who is menaced in her sleep by Freddy Kruger (Jackie Earle Haley, playing a burnt up version of his character from “Little Children“), a child murderer her parents killed many years earlier. The dream sequences lack visual splendor (Tarsem‘s underrated, uneven “The Cell,” released a decade earlier, is still more impressive), the script is humorless and dull, and, most damningly, it isn’t scary at all. In fact, it’s a total snooze.
“The Fog” (Rupert Wainwright, 2005)
The original “The Fog” isn’t exactly the crown jewel in the John Carpenter oeuvre, but it is commendable and quite scary – it’s sort of like a Robert Altman movie mixed with an Irwin Allen disaster thing; a small scale drama of intersecting, sometimes overlapping plotlines and malevolent spirits (back from the past to exact their revenge). Typical of Carpenter, the original film is shot beautifully and features a wonderful cast of characters that included Adrienne Barbeau — who Carpenter was having an affair with at the time — Jamie Lee Curtis, John Houseman, Janet Leigh and Hal Holbrook. For the remake, which Carpenter and his co-writer (and wife at the time of the original “Fog”) Debra Hill produced, and the loose structure of “The Fog” remains – an odd, milky vapor overtakes the small coastal town of Antonia Bay and people start mysteriously dying – but everything else has been replaced, gutted, or substantially underplayed. A lame, PG-13 movie that toothlessly depicts the murders and minimizes any sexual activity, “The Fog” was a slog, through and through. The digital effects pale in comparison to the practical ones from 1980 and Wainwright, a limp horror director more notable for his appearance on “The Millionaire Matchmaker,” can’t manage to make any of the scares or gags connect in any kind of meaningful way. It doesn’t help that the ghostly pirates were thoroughly outclassed by the “Pirates of the Caribbean” two years earlier. Shiver me timbers!
“The Haunting” (Jan De Bont, 1999)
For a while there it looked like Jan de Bont, the cinematographer-turned-director behind two of the nineties’ most exhilarating thrill rides (“Speed” and “Twister“) would be one of Hollywood’s next great directors – he had an uncanny sense of pacing and spatial geography and his movies zipped along with moments of genuine awe and wonder. And then he closed out the decade with “The Haunting“… a movie so laboriously overwrought you can practically hear it sag under the weight of its opulent sets and revised-to-death screenplay. Ostensibly, it’s a remake of the 1963 black-and-white haunted house romp “The Haunting,” directed by Robert Wise and notable for the fact that the film’s conclusion leaves the possibility open that everything that transpired beforehand was the work of psychological, and not paranormal, demons. There’s no room for ambiguity in the new ‘Haunting,’ because it’s so overstuffed with loud noises, blatantly provocative, and goosed-up with clumsy visual effects. What makes “The Haunting” even more lamentable is the fact that at one point it was supposed to be a more faithful adaptation of the source material (“The Haunting of Hill House” by “Lottery” author Shirley Jackson), to be written by Stephen King and directed by Steven Spielberg (the project fell apart over strained creative differences). The failure of “The Haunting” effectively killed de Bont’s career, directing a single film (2003’s “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life“) since the critical and commercial drubbing “The Haunting” received. “Speed” still rules, though.
“The Wicker Man” (Neil LaBute, 2006)
Fuck. Where to begin? The original “Wicker Man,” released in 1973 and directed by British weirdo Robin Hardy (the script was written by Anthony Shaffer of “Sleuth” fame), is largely considered the “Citizen Kane” of horror films, a movie that’s so sophisticated, elegant, and smart that few could ever top it. Which makes sense that Neil LaBute, a man of seemingly limitless ego, would attempt to remake it (attempt being the key word). While the original was a sharply spiritual affair, with a Christian constable investigating a disappearance on a pagan island, something that rattles every belief in him, the remake is more nebulous and aloof. Again a policeman (this time played by wholly unhinged Nicolas Cage) goes to investigate a disappearance, and again it’s on a pagan island, but the island is off the coast of Washington state (um spooky?) and instead of weird sex stuff and questionable, cult-y practices, Cage finds a bunch of women who are basically running an island-sized version of the feminist book shop from “Portlandia.” LaBute’s ugly misogyny has never been so loudly on display, and Cage’s performance is the stuff of a thousand YouTube “best of” videos, which normally include bits of a sequence where he’s trapped in a mask filled with bees, another where he’s dressed up in a giant bear suit, one where he’s yelling about a burnt doll and yet another where he punches a woman, for no apparent reason. Offensively dopey and dopily offensive, “The Wicker Man” is what happens when you don’t leave well enough alone (although Hardy didn’t either, he released a bizarre sequel in 2011).
Of course, any list like this is littered with corpses of the almost-good-enough, which includes Matt Reeves‘ excellent remake of “Let the Right One In,” this one entitled “Let Me In” (2010), a movie that retrains the original’s period setting but shifts the vampiric action from snowy Sweden to equally snowy New Mexico; “Night of the Living Dead” (1990) directed by Tom Savini, is an interesting remake that’s almost essential (mostly for Savini’s outrageous make-up effects and the fact that original director George Romero rewrote his original script without the help of John Russo); “Last House on the Left” (2009) a remake of Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham‘s shocking 1972 original, doesn’t have quite the same visceral oomph but it does have an unexpectedly wicked sense of humor; “My Bloody Valentine 3D” (2009), a stereoscopic remake of the 1981 slasher classic, throws subtlety out the window (an entire sequence features a woman fighting with a lover, then running in terror, all while completely naked) but the most part it works; Gus Van Sant’s much-berated 1998 “Psycho” remake is an ambitious, lovably bizarre contraption that doesn’t deserve half the heat it got; the Platinum Dunes’ 2003 remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” goes for the earthy grittiness of the 1973 original but comes away slick, still, it’s pretty intense; Stephen Sommers took a retro adventure take on the 1932 original, and the resulting “Mummy” (1999) was a total blast; Breck Eisner‘s “The Crazies” (2010) isn’t quite as confrontationally political as Romero’s 1973 original but it is more streamlined; Glen Morgan and James Wong were responsible for two of the more underrated remakes – the rat-tastic remake of “Willard” (2003) and a more breathlessly splattery take on “Black Christmas” (2006); and if you have to watch one Japanese horror remake that isn’t “The Ring,” it might as well be “The Grudge” (2004), produced by Raimi and Tapert and directed by the original’s Takashi Shimizu.
In the “best buried in a deep, deep grave” contenders, we have the witless 2009 remake of “The Stepfather,” this time swapping out the subversive political commentary for Amber Heard strutting around in a bunch of bikinis; “One Missed Call” (2008) and “Pulse” (2006), two of the more horrendous Japanese horror remakes (“Pulse” was originally supposed to be directed by Wes Craven, who still shares a screenplay credit); “The Hills Have Eyes 2” (2007) is ostensibly a sequel to the superb Alexandre Aja remake and a remake itself of the original film’s sequel, although after the mutant rape sequence it all became a blur to us; “Prom Night” (2008) is a humorless remake that doubles as the longest 88 minute horror movie we’ve probably ever seen; “When A Stranger Calls” (2006) swaps out eerie simplicity for amped-up thrills, to decidedly unspectacular effect; “Carnival of Souls” (1998) tries to capture what was so magical and unsettling about the 1932 original and fails miserably; and a special shout-out goes to almost all of the remakes from Platinum Dunes (including “The Hitcher” and “Friday the 13th“) and Dark Castle (“Thirteen Ghosts,” “House on Haunted Hill“) – you filled them with cute young people but not nearly enough scares.
“Evil Dead” opens on Friday. Might be a good idea to bring a plastic sheet, like you’re going to a Gallagher show.