Why does Hollywood make so many horror movie remakes?
The history of film is a history of adaptation. Studios capitalize on previous successes, or sparks of originality that have low-risk profit potential. Horror is no different and possibly a shade more conspicuous in this regard. Even so-called masterpieces produced by the major studios cannot boast original content. For instance, both Psycho (1960) and The Exorcist (1973) are adaptations of novels. The movies proved to work just as well, if not better, on the screen than on the page, so naturally Hollywood squeezed more dollars out of them, by churning out sequels and after enough time had passed … remakes (for Psycho in 1998 and The Exorcist in 2016).
Hacks! All of them hacks!!!
Stealing content from previously published works has been a hallmark of cinematic horror from the beginning. Two of the earliest horror movies, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) and Der Golem (1920) were adaptations of previous performances. The former was from a Broadway play and the latter an adaptation of an earlier film by the same name… In other words, ‘a remake.’
Another notable early horror remake is Universal’s The Cat and the Canary (1939), adapted from a 1927 silent film by the same name. The appeal of remaking the silent classic was chiefly due to the advancement of filmmaking technology, which included the advent of sound in motion pictures. Remakes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) became a cinematic tradition as early as 1931. That year’s version is still the most lauded, winning critical acclaim at the time of release and in the decades since. Even Universal’s iconic Dracula (1931) was a remake of the German silent film, Nosferatu (1922).
So outside of filling studio coffers, what value can remakes serve? They often utilize technology previously unavailable, such as advances in effects and cinematography, to make a more believable experience for the viewer. This was the case with Dracula (1931). In some cases, in addition to utilizing the latest technology, the remake can simply be better than the first: Greater funding, more believable acting, more intriguing storyline, etc … This was the case with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). But more importantly (to this writer) remakes keep classic characters in our collective cultural consciousness.
More Blood! More Guts! More Boobs!
Let’s take one of horror’s most enduring icons: Frankenstein. The original Frankenstein was released in 1931 by Universal. It was an instant horror sensation and proclaimed as a masterpiece by posterity. But it was hardly original. The movie was an adapted version of a Mary Shelley novel by the same name and the behavior of the monster closely mimicked Der Golem. Nevertheless, the ‘original’ Frankenstein spawned many successful (and profitable) sequels.
But even after Universal laid the franchise to rest in the early 1950s, it’s moneymaking potential could not be ignored. It was remade in 1957 by Hammer Studios in the UK under the title, The Curse of Frankenstein. Although not a masterpiece, it’s use of vivid color and gore was revolutionary in it’s own right. The next year, Hammer did a remake of Dracula (also based on a novel). Both were big hits, just like the originals. Catching the scent of American greenbacks, Hammer went on to remake, not just the sequels to Frankenstein and Dracula, but the movies featuring the most famous Universal monsters, including Phantom of the Opera, The Mummy and The Wolfman. The Hammer remakes updated them with more gruesome effects, enhanced sexuality and story twists, sucking in a new generation on the prowl for a good scare. For the genre, the impact was enormous. Hammer revitalized the classic monsters, keeping them in our cultural consciousness. Universal has recently been attempting to do the same once more for today’s youth and if the motive is money, who cares? These are greats that deserve to be passed on and live through the ages.
The same has happened in the recent past with more contemporary horror icons. Much like Hammer waited about 25 years before remaking the original Frankenstein, Dimension Films waited until almost 30 years had passed before remaking Halloween (1978). Like The Curse of Frankenstein, the 2007 version of Halloween featured new twists to the story and updated effects that would appeal to a more desensitized audience. But most importantly, the Halloween remake passed on fear of the quintessential boogeyman to a new generation. New Line Cinema did the same with Jason in 2009. And just as the original Friday the 13th (1979) proved inferior to Halloween. The remake of the former was much weaker than the remake of the latter.
A History of Copycats
But we aren’t simply witnessing a renaissance of remakes mysteriously stirred by the advent of a new millennium. Remakes have always been ubiquitous amongst the horror genre. Here’s just a few notable ones in quick succession: The Blob (1988) is remake of The Blob (1958); The Fly (1986) is a remake of The Fly (1958); The Thing (2011) is a remake of The Thing (1982), which is a remake of The Thing From Another World (1951); I am Legend (2007) is a remake of The Omega Man (1971), which is a remake of The Last Man on Earth (1964); The Invasion (2007) is a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), which is a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Ripping off our Trade Buddies
With the explosion of horror that has taken place in East Asia over the last twenty years, it has become fertile ground for studios searching for new moneymaking schemes. As a result, audiences have been treated to remakes of a number of foreign horror films. Although film snobs deride the remakes, many are just as scary as their foreign counterparts. For example, the 2002 American remake of the Japanese horror film The Ring (1998) is just as well executed and can terrify just as well as its predecessor; maybe even more so, because the viewer does not have to constantly look down to read the dialogue.
There are several reasons to celebrate the phenomenon of foreign film remakes. For one they make the horror more accessible to a broader audience. Some people don’t mind subtitles, but others are irritated by them and will look for a scare in their own language (the nerve!). Regardless, seeing people who appear to be just like us, right down to the way they talk, experience terrifying moments makes us feel the fear all the more deeply. The foreign horror movies bring fresh scares into our cultural subconscious from ‘outsider’ traditions. Remakes of them expand the audience exposed to those scares and broadens the reach of horror in our minds and collectively.
It’s all just crap! All of it!!
Just because remakes are ubiquitous among the horror genre does not mean all remakes are created equally. There are some god-awful remakes of horror films. Like many original movies can be poorly executed, so can remakes of otherwise great movies. Take The Grudge (2004). Although based on an intensely creepy Japanese film, Ju-on (2002), due to poor acting and a haphazardly assembled storyline, the American version only succeeded in bastardizing the original (even if it did spread the profit potential of the concept to American markets).
But lets look at the other side of that coin: I don’t think there is a horror fan alive who would not agree that The Thing (1982) was vastly superior to The Thing From Another World (1951). Not only were effects updated in a revolutionary way, but the plotline was more unforgiving and a very dark theme pervaded the entire feature allowing viewers to feel the terror like they couldn’t possibly with the first one.
Then there’s the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, which surpassed the original in none of these ways. Like some more original horror movies, some remakes are just plane crap. But the poorly done remake tends to bother us more, because there is the added gripe that the remake isn’t even ‘original’ crap. Moreover, for those who were fans of the first one, the remake can sully it in a way that makes it difficult for us to enjoy the original ever again, thus adding a double outrage.
Personal experience: Since Ju-on is quite possibly the creepiest film ever made, I have berated myself for carelessly letting the American version inflict a memory of awfulness on me that I am now reminded of whenever I sit down to watch the original. Therefore, because of that one experience, ALL REMAKES SUCK! Hmmm … Well… Then again, two of my favorite movies are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003). Just like with the original, the remake kept my attention rapt from start to finish and left me shocked and awed.* If I had let my experience with Ju-on sour me on remakes I never would’ve discovered that gem of a scare. At the same time, from what I’ve heard, the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, which I have never seen and hopefully never will see, does nothing but defecate on one of the greatest and truly original horror films of all time.
Now that you’ve read this crap …
So where does this leave us? Since remakes are as old as horror itself we either learn to accept them or we end up rejecting a large chunk of the genre outright on shear moral principle. If we hold our concept of what is right and proper too narrowly, we deprive ourselves of films that are as darkly grotesque as The Fly (1986), as revolutionary as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and as terrifying as The Thing (1982). If that’s the way you want to go that’s fine, but I would rather exercise judgment on a case by case basis.
Here’s a little advice when deciding whether or not to watch a remake: Get to know the director’s previous works, check out the cast and funding behind the production and always addictively scan the reviews of popular horror websites like HFN.
* – ‘Adapted’ usage taken from the 2000-2008 remake of the original George Bush (1988-1992).