“Hellraiser.” “The Others.” “The Night of the Hunter.” “Salem’s Lot.” That’s four horror remakes in the pipeline, all announced in just the last week. And all of them feel like setups for failure, especially with untouchable masterpieces like Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter” or Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others.” “Salem’s Lot” has been adapted three times, on both the big and small screen, to middling success. Yes, original ideas have long been the Hollywood boogeyman. But when it comes to the highly profitable and road-tested horror genre, it’s embarrassing to see studios cower like little kids afraid of a sheet.
Jumpstarted by the rise of so-called “elevated horror” movies like “The Witch” ($40 million at the box office), “Hereditary” ($80 million), and “Midsommar” ($42 million), horror is in midst of a renaissance unseen since the 1990s, when “Scream” relaunched teen slashers. All three of those titles (all A24) were original scripts made for $10 million or less. Also churning the sea change of modern horror is Jordan Peele, whose original social thriller “Get Out” for Universal made more than $255 million worldwide against a budget of just $4.5 million. That film also proved horror movies could reign at the Academy Awards, earning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar win and a Best Picture nomination. And that was no one-hit wonder, as Peele ruled again last year with the more expensive but still frugal ($20 million) “Us,” which also netted $255 million worldwide.
These are bellwethers of success for a genre that has often struggled with originality, but there is a smart way into remaking storied intellectual property. This year, Universal and Blumhouse’s Dark Universe spinoff “The Invisible Man” weathered theater shutdowns to reach $122 million worldwide before exhibitors closed their doors, and has now found success on VOD. Leigh Whannell’s contemporary spin on the classic tale, starring a career-best Elisabeth Moss, was made for under $9 million, easily becoming one of the most profitable movies of the year.
Universal is looking to repeat this formula with the remake of “The Night of the Hunter,” the 1955 noir chiller starring Robert Mitchum as a serial-killing religious fanatic. The studio also promised a contemporary twist similar to “Invisible Man,” with “Operation Finale” scribe Matt Orton penning the screenplay. But history repeating itself doesn’t always equal quality product. Sony Pictures’ January opener “The Grudge,” a remake of a J-horror classic that itself was already remade in 2002, fell below expectations at just under $50 million globally. The movie was excoriated by critics, despite hot indie director Nicolas Pesce, riding high off his 2016 Sundance debut “The Eyes of My Mother,” at the helm.
One film released last year that ought to scare studios off of horror sequels and remakes is “Doctor Sleep,” Mike Flanagan’s sequel to “The Shining” that bombed for Warner Bros. With a $50 million price tag, the Halloween opener snoozed at the box office, picking up just $31 million domestic. With a bloated two-hour-and-32-minute runtime, “Doctor Sleep” delivered unique scares and unsettling visuals from the “Haunting of Hill House” director, but stumbled in tipping its hat too far to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 original. What emerged was a hydra-headed beast that couldn’t make up its mind whether it was an auteur piece, or a mainstream horror movie micromanaged into studio product.
So why do these remakes keep happening, and in the hands of directors who surely have more original ideas up their sleeves? It’s not unlike the tried-and-tested model of superhero studio tentpoles: Resurrect a property that people recognize, and moviegoers will flock. But “Hellraiser”? Come on. No one asked for this. Clive Barker’s schlocky ’80s horror franchise famously launched Pinhead, but by today’s standards feels dated and even campy. It was already rebooted in 2018, and it went straight to video. The new version from Spyglass finds David Bruckner attached to direct. He’s been lurking on the indie horror scene for the past decade, and is poised to break big as the filmmaker behind Searchlight Pictures’ hot horror acquisition title “The Night House,” which debuted at Sundance this year, starring Rebecca Hall.
A similarly coveted filmmaker who broke out of Park City, “The Witch” director Robert Eggers decided not to make his follow-up film a remake of “Nosferatu” in favor of an original movie, the horror-adjacent “The Lighthouse.” “It feels ugly and blasphemous and egomaniacal and disgusting for a filmmaker in my place to do ‘Nosferatu’ next. I was really planning on waiting a while, but that’s how fate shook out,” Eggers told IndieWire in 2016. That project remains on the shelf as Eggers wisely follows his own star to show us things we’ve never seen before. His next project will be “The Northman,” a Viking revenge saga that reunites the director with his “Witch” star Anya Taylor-Joy.
Studios, and filmmakers, could learn a thing or two from someone like Eggers or “Midsommar” and “Hereditary” filmmaker Ari Aster, who seems to be bursting with nothing but visionary, and very scary, ideas. Treat “The Invisible Man” as an exception to the rule: Whannell and Moss turned a trodden source material inside out to tell a timely story of gaslighting and female revenge — and in so doing, created something new. But ask yourself: Do you know anyone who went to see this because of the original film?