familiar feelings

Evil Dead: 4 Reasons Why Most Horror Remakes Fail

Photo: New Line Cinema / Evil Dead LLC

You can remake The Evil Dead, as director Fede Alvarez has now done (with creator Sam Raimi’s seal of approval, no less), but all of the excessive demonic bloodshed in the world won’t let you reproduce Bruce Campbell’s iconic hero Ash. That’s just one nagging problem plaguing this latest entry in the long, depressing line of recent lousy horror remakes, which even more than do-overs of successful dramas or comedies are usually destined for failure. No genre relies more heavily on the element of surprise. So attempting to replicate material that has already stunned and horrified audiences is a fool’s errand, as the past two decades’ worth of horror-retread rubbish more than ably confirms.

To be sure, there are exceptions — think Rob Zombie’s gonzo-brutal and surreal Halloween films, Zack Snyder’s action-oriented Dawn of the Dead, Matt Reeves’s haunting Let Me In, and Alexandre Aja’s goofily exploitative Piranha. Yet for every one of those triumphs, all of which were, tellingly, made by distinctive filmmakers who reimagined while maintaining reverence, there are myriad fiascos that highlight the inherent folly of the entire horror-recycling enterprise. And while most horror remakes are primarily aimed at younger audiences who aren’t likely to seek out the decades-old originals, there’s still something that seems needless about these films. (Yet we all know the reason why they exist — as David Edelstein put it in his review of the new film, “All humans are greedy, Hollywood humans greedier.”) Here are four reasons why most horror remakes don’t work.

Gore Shouldn’t Be Glossy
In terms of production value, this weekend’s Evil Dead is more like the spiffier Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn than the low-budget original, which thrived on ingenuity rather than expensive special effects. That most modern remakes come in a glossy package is simply part and parcel of the current cinematic landscape, and there’s an argument to be made that such slick style equates murderous brutality with corporate money and power in a slyly sick way. But as confirmed by 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 2009’s Friday the 13th (both helmed by remake-crazy Marcus Nispel), substituting cheapo graininess and grunge for a fashion-mag sheen is by and large a misbegotten tack that drains material of its scruffy, nasty vitality. Sleazeball genre forebears like The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave thrived on a raggedy, no-frills dynamism that contributed to their portrait of a world where madness and chaos were omnipresent threats. To replace that with cinematographic bells and whistles and computer-generated craziness and creature makeup — never more starkly than with Jan de Bont’s terrible The Haunting, or Alexandre Aja’s 2009 The Hills Have Eyes, which couldn’t find a freakish face half as frightening as that of initial bald-headed Hills psycho Michael Berryman — is to fundamentally discard the very audio and visual signatures that helped make those films influential in the first place.

There’s Nothing Frightening About a Known Known
A well-timed scare is the result of a combination of timing, choreography, and a carefully calibrated sense of mounting dread. Consequently, trying to replicate a fright is far trickier than merely cloning plot details and set design — a fact ably proven by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s vain attempt to re-create the memorable scene where Leatherface clubs his victim and then slams his workshop’s iron door shut or the Evil Dead’s desire to go back to the demon-in-the-basement well. (The most extreme example is Gus Van Sant’s misguided shot-for-shot Psycho remake.) Because of the difficulty of precisely imitating a horrifying moment or image, remakes’ fallback methods frequently involve an overreliance on splatter-happy gruesomeness (see, again, the new Evil Dead) and cheap jolt scares, so that 2006’s When a Stranger Calls or 2008’s One Missed Call became collections of sudden loud noises. Simply put, scares don’t work if you already know when and how they’re coming.

Comparisons Are Unavoidable
If mimicking a scare is tricky from a technical standpoint, it’s also one doomed to disappoint thanks to the natural and unavoidable desire, from a viewer’s perspective, to compare it against the original. When Samuel Bayer’s 2010 Nightmare on Elm Street delivers the sight of a bloody body bag being mysteriously dragged through a high-school hallway, the instinctive reaction of any horror aficionado is to measure it against the same, superior moment in Wes Craven’s film. The same holds for the first appearance of the spectral mariners in The Fog, the rape-crazy tree branches violating a young beauty in Evil Dead, the stringy-haired specter emerging from a TV set in The Ring, or the bumps in the night of The Amityville Horror (not to mention Ryan Reynolds’s valiant but futile approximation of James Brolin’s magnificent seventies-era beard). Remakes, and horror remakes in particular, knock viewers out of the movie-watching experience by compelling them to immediately and constantly analyze the ongoing action as just an artificial photocopy — which, in turn, prevents one from being fully immersed in the mood and mayhem at hand.

Context Is King
Social, cultural, and political factors are often vital components of horror films, so to remake one in a different era is, in many instances, to leech it of meaning. That’s certainly true of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, resurrected without any of its anti-counterculture antipathy, as well as 2009’s The Stepfather, which — by eschewing the eighties setting that gave the Terry O’Quinn–headlined original its nasty undercurrents about Reagan’s “Morning in America” vision for the country — merely borrowed stock plot elements in order to dispense prototypical slasher-film havoc. A similar issue dogs almost all J-horror redos (The Ring, The Grudge, Pulse, Dark Water, The Eye), since the ghoulish girls and otherworldly aura of those films are so intrinsically tied to the Japanese milieus in which they’re set. And there are many reasons Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man doesn’t work, but most crucially, it’s because Robin Hardy’s original was of a specific seventies hippie-dippie time and place, and as a result made far less sense when set in a 21st-century universe. It’s scary how easy it can be to drain all of the blood from a horror classic.

4 Reasons Why Most Horror Remakes Fail