Horror undead

Remakes of scary movies have never been hotter, but who wants to see a beloved cult classic gentrified?

Horror undead“The horror! The horror!” In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad liked the word so much he wrote it twice. More than a century later, Hollywood still has the same approach. Any horror movie worth making once is worth making again. And again and again. If you want to rent a scary movie for Halloween, it’s no simple matter. Will it be the 1978 Halloween or the 2007 Halloween? Or one of their eight-sequel brood? Do you rent Hitchcock’s Psycho or Gus Van Sant’s eerily embalmed shot-for-shot remake with Vince Vaughn? Just how dead do you want your Night of the Living Dead? George Romero’s black-and-white classic, or the 1990 colour version? Should the zombies in Dawn of the Dead terrorize a ’70s mall or a 21st-century food court? Which Body Snatchers would you prefer to be invaded by? There are four, and a fifth is in the works.

And if you want to be absolutely sure to see a movie that’s unoriginal this Halloween, go to the multiplex. There you can pick between the hard-core torture porn of Saw VI, the latest bloodbath from history’s most lucrative horror franchise, or the soft-core suspense of The Stepfather, a toothless remake of a 1987 cult movie about a man who never joined a family he didn’t want to murder.

Horror movies are Hollywood’s backlot of the living dead. No genre is more fond of replicating itself. Zombies, pod people, psychopaths, wolf-persons—they love to breed. It’s in their nature. Most promiscuous are serial killers, spawning serial franchises like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw—and Friday the 13th, which is one film shy of a baker’s dozen. But while slasher sequels generate the bulk compost in Hollywood’s graveyard of recycled horror, the more intriguing experiments are remakes. And with more than 40 of them currently in the works—including The Wolfman, An American Werewolf in London, Poltergeist, Videodrome, The Fly and The Birds—horror remakes have never been hotter.

There is, of course, a fine line between sequels and remakes. A sequel is often just a tarted-up remake with a Roman numeral. And some remakes are just attempts to reboot a franchise, resetting it to zero for a new round of sequels. But a genuine remake is a stand-alone project from a filmmaker who has the nerve to say, “I’m going to make the same great movie, but better.” Which begs the question—if the original was such a bloody masterpiece, why try to improve on it?

The most common reason cited: we’re making it for a new generation that never saw the original. Followed by: we can do things with special effects that weren’t possible when The Blob/The Thing/The Mummy was shot. (Not to mention cellphones—now it’s hard to imagine how psycho killers could ever have functioned without them.) Remakes of arty foreign language shockers, like The Vanishing or The Ring, come with a loftier rationale: we’re bringing hyper-cool world cinema to American viewers who won’t read subtitles. But almost inevitably the art gets lost in translation, with script makeovers that amp up the action. The next victim is Sweden’s Let the Right One In (2008). In the hands of Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, the austere beauty of this child vampire tale has about as much chance of survival as a succubus in the glare of the noonday sun.

Cannibalizing the past with a Dr. Frankenstein sense of manifest destiny, Hollywood is always trying to build a better monster. But now it’s excavating horror’s pulp roots the way it strip-mined comic books. And what we’re seeing, at least from the studios, is the gentrification of a genre. Whether the original is B-grade schlock or a Gothic gem, vintage horror is being upgraded with digital effects, slick spectacle and marquee names.

The cast of Universal’s Wolfman, a remake of the 1941 classic, boasts two Oscar winners—Benicio Del Toro in the title role originally played by Lon Chaney, and Anthony Hopkins as his father. Directed by Joe Johnston, whose uncool credits include Jumanji and Jurassic Park III, this blockbuster already has a whiff of decomposition about it—originally slated for 2008, its release has been delayed several times and is now set for February.

Gentrifying horror for mainstream audiences is a risky proposition, because in trying to please a broad audience, the filmmaker can end up neutering whatever made the movie work in the first place. Take the current remake of The Stepfather. It’s the film equivalent of a cheesy reno. Director Nelson McCormick and writer J.S. Cardone (the culprits behind the dreadful Prom Night remake) took a low-rent scary movie, which grossed US$2.5 million in 1987, gutted it, and turned it into a piece of tame US$20-million eye candy—an exploitation film of a different colour. Dylan Walsh (Nip/Tuck) plays stepdad to an airbrushed hunk (Penn Badgley of Gossip Girl), who spends most of the film cavorting half-naked around the pool with his bikini-babe girlfriend (Amber Heard).

Fans of the genre have an aversion to this kind of pasteurized horror. On, critic John Fallon calls it “The Stepfather for pussies.” Dubbing its makers “the Hannah Montana(s) of horror,” he says: “Much like the Prom Night remake, this one went out of its way not to show anything. I think there’s like one drop of blood in the film… someone should tell these dudes that PG-13 doesn’t mean ZERO red grub.”

Mark Burg, who produces the Saw movies, specializes in “red grub.” And in a Maclean’s interview, he underlined the pitfalls of sanitizing horror for a broad audience. “If you’re running Universal, you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to hit the 10-year-old and the 40-year-old, because I’ve got to worry about that Wolfman [theme park] ride in two years.’ ” Burg’s outfit, Twisted Pictures, doesn’t have that problem. “We’re not here to make movies for everyone,” he says. “Our movies are edgy and hard-core and our fans like that.”

Unlike the big studios, Burg doesn’t gentrify horror. He revels in doing just the opposite—refurbishing old films to make them more grisly for the increasingly jaded young male audience. “If you look at a lot of the movies in the ’70s,” he says, “they didn’t have the edge that ours do. We’re trying to push the envelope.”

Twisted Pictures recently bought the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. Burg isn’t ready to reveal whether he will grind out more sequels or reboot the series with a remake, but he promises the violence won’t lose any of its “edge” (which seems to be his favourite word). He is also producing four horror remakes that are now being scripted: The Body Snatchers, Bedlam, Five Came Back and I Walked With a Zombie. The last three are vintage titles from the ’30s and ’40s. Bedlam featured Boris Karloff and Five Came Back starred Lucille Ball.

“We’re not taking anything away from the original,” Burg stresses. “We’re just putting our own spin on it, trying to make it more current for a generation that never saw the original. I mean, how many people do you know who saw the original I Walked With a Zombie?” Even if they had, by the time Twisted Pictures blows off the cobwebs and lays on the gore, they may not recognize it.

Burg was developing a remake of David Cronenberg’s Scanners with Dimension producer Bob Weinstein and director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw III, IV) before the project collapsed over creative differences. (Not everyone sees exploding heads the same way.) But even Burg believes some movies should never be remade. When asked about talk of remaking Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds with George Clooney and Naomi Watts, he says, “Certain directors are untouchable. You don’t remake Hitchcock or Scorsese.”

One might say the same of Canada’s David Cronenberg. But there are three Cronenberg remakes in the works, including The Fly, which Cronenberg has agreed to produce and write for 20th Century Fox, with an option to direct it. The notion of a director remaking his own movie seems perverse. Austrian director Michael Haneke did it with Funny Games, but at least he had the pretext of transplanting his cruel tale of psycho home invaders to U.S. soil. It’s baffling why Cronenberg would remake a classic like The Fly, which itself is the remake of a classic, especially after he’s already turned it into an opera that failed to take off. When I contacted the director, he said he couldn’t discuss it. But The Fly is, after all, a tale of mutation, and perhaps it’s still lodged under Cronenberg’s skin, creating an itch that just has to be scratched. It’s hard to imagine him doing a hack job.

Although most horror remakes and sequels are crassly commercial, some are artistically defensible. Aliens was a better movie than Alien. And as Colin Geddes, Midnight Madness programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, points out, some films are dismissed as remakes when they are simply fresh adaptations of the same literary source—something Francis Ford Coppola emphasized with his productions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “Often remakes are cash grabs,” says Geddes. “But they can serve to further a legacy.” No one gets upset when there’s a new production of Romeo and Juliet, he points out. “You missed the original. Now you can see it with an all-new cast.”

Besides, he adds, remakes update old stories to reflect the times. Citing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he says the first remake in 1978 “was as good as the original and both clued into different paranoias of the era.” Geddes is even tolerant of Hollywood producing inferior remakes of foreign horror films. “I don’t get up in arms,” he says, “because they’re just going to shed more light on the original.” In that sense, horror remakes are like cover versions of rock songs, or in the case of Gothic monsters, like jazz standards. Horror has become so rich with ironic homage that every film is a kind of monster mash-up—especially when the clichés are remixed by a trickster like Wes Craven, who created A Nightmare on Elm St. and Scream. Horror fansites are now abuzz with reports that Craven may direct Scream 4, reuniting the original cast. It would be like a reunion tour by a revered rock band.

Be it trash or art, the horror movie remake is hard-wired in the DNA of the genre, which exploits the fear of something coming back to haunt us—whether from the grave, the asylum, or the basement. What we’re most afraid of, after all, is not the unknown, which we can’t begin to imagine, but a scary new prototype of the monster we’ve already come to know and hate.

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