10 great horror remakes

The remake is a much-maligned beast, but as Werner Herzog proved with his elegant, romantic Nosferatu the Vampyre, sometimes revisiting genre classics can yield new, strange fruit. Here are 10 that are more than just rip-offs. 

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Remake doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Box office numbers certainly prove there’s an audience for them, and with studios ever more reliant on a sure thing – a property with a pre-programmed appeal – there’s little chance of them going away any time soon in any case. The horror film is perhaps more predisposed to the phenomenon than any other cinematic genre. In 2013 alone we saw reinterpretations of Maniac (1980), Evil Dead (1982), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and We Are What We Are (2009), not to mention the umpteenth recent and forthcoming adaptations of Dracula (Argento’s Dracula 3D) and Frankenstein (I, Frankenstein).

Do they tend to be successful? Commercially? Sure. Artistically? I guess that depends. There are certainly plenty made on the cheap, eager to cash in on any goodwill and nostalgia towards their forebears. Others are remade for the same reason any screenplay is developed or literary source is adapted, because their respective filmmakers feel they can bring their own sensibilities or preoccupations to the project – whether it be via the means of straight homage, contemporisation or thematic transposition.

Yet it’s a fine line to walk, particularly when tackling a property with a sizeable fanbase. Change too much and it’s too far away from what the audience came for, stick too close and it’s considered an exercise in redundancy.

Of all the infamous risks filmmaker Werner Herzog has taken in his career, few can compare artistically to his decision in 1979 to remake one of the foundation stones of cinema, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Herzog’s reasoning for doing so was characteristically fearless and succinct: “I never thought of my film Nosferatu as being a remake. It stands on its own feet as an entirely new version. It is like both Dreyer and Bresson, who made films about Joan of Arc: one is not a remake of the other. My Nosferatu has a different context, different figures and a somewhat different story. It is a very clear declaration of my connection to the very best of German cinema”.

With Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre now available on Blu-ray, we took a look at 10 other successful horror remakes.

House of Wax (1953)

Director André de Toth

As much a vehicle for a scenery-devouring Vincent Price as for the newfangled 3D process that would kick-start the 1950s craze, the Grand Guignol Victorian horror shows of House of Wax had originally been brought to the screen some 20 years earlier by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz. His 1933 film, Mystery of the Wax Museum (starring a pre-King Kong Fay Wray) had served as something of a technical experiment itself, employing as it did a short-lived advancement in the two-colour Technicolor process, spearheaded by Warner Bros.

Transposing the source material of Charles Belden’s unproduced play from London to New York, De Toth shows little restraint (or, one might argue, taste) as ringmaster of his stereoscopic sideshow, shamelessly employing the most gratuitous use of a ping-pong paddle ball this side of Albert Brooks’ spoof 3D trailer for Real Life (1979). A mishmash of tropes from innumerable Gothic antecedents – from Frankenstein to The Phantom of the Opera – there’s plenty of lurid fun to be had following Price’s murderous sculptor as he rebuilds his waxwork collection out of the cadavers of the recently (and not quite) deceased.

Featuring an early role for one Charles Buchinsky (later Charles Bronson) as Igor, House of Wax may be best known for its use of 3D – famously unappreciable by its one-eyed director – but like its predecessor, ultimately impresses more in its vivid use of colour. The moment Price’s waxen mask falls apart to reveal the disfigured night stalker underneath still looks terrific 60 years on, and certainly superior to anything that appears in a third iteration that arrived (and promptly vanished) in 2005.

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Director Wes Craven

Wes Craven might not be the first filmmaker you’d associate with the austere thematic preoccupations of Ingmar Bergman, but for his first feature, Craven took the blueprint of the Swedish master’s 1960 study of God’s absence in the face of human evil, The Virgin Spring, and assembled what remains one of the most ferocious and unforgiving examples of screen horror. Based on a 13th century ballad, Bergman’s film tells of the rape and murder of a wealthy Christian girl at the hands of two herdsmen, and the subsequent revenge killing enacted by her father (Max von Sydow) after the men inadvertently find themselves spending the night at her family home.

Where the themes of The Virgin Spring coalesce in the father’s spiritual self-interrogation – his questioning of divine non-intervention and sense of guilt over his reciprocal, eye-for-an-eye actions – God is nowhere to be found in Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Where Bergman finds transcendence in his film’s final miracle (the eponymous spring that pours from the spot the daughter died), Craven’s resoundingly nihilistic vision serves only to shatter any conceptions of morality and humanity – of man’s capacity for evil – in one prolonged, forsaken howl of rage.

Long-banned in the UK since its initial release, The Last House on the Left was finally passed uncut by the BBFC in 2008. It remains notoriously difficult watch, its prolonged scenes of torture of the two teenagers at the hands of Krug’s gang amplified by Craven’s scuzzy, lo-fi mise en scène. An efficiently directed 2009 retread added gloss and contemporaneity but was divested of its predecessor’s political angst. The film’s ad campaign insisted ‘It’s only a movie’, but in 1972, with images of the Vietnam War and the Manson trial filling TV screens, Craven’s evisceration of hippiedom and middle-class complacency would bludgeon its audience like no other movie had before.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Director Philip Kaufman

Remade twice more to ever-diminishing returns (most damnably as The Invasion in 2007), this first cover version of Don Siegel’s 1956 classic is every bit the equal of its forebear. With original lead Kevin McCarthy making a brief appearance – slamming into the hood of health inspector Donald Sutherland’s car before being chased down the street by a mob – Kaufman’s film can be read as much as a sequel as a remake, McCarthy’s Dr Miles Bennell having raved about the ‘pod people’ all the way to San Francisco.

As said ‘pod people’ once again begin to colonise the population, replacing them overnight with unfeeling, conformist replicas – an alien nation with little sufferance for alienation – Kaufman amps the horror element, serving up a brilliantly realised update of Siegel’s allegory of social homogenisation and group-think mentality. Both products of their respective eras, where Siegel’s film preyed on its Cold War fears of colonisation, highlighting the rotting centre beneath the A-OK surfaces of 50s America, Kaufman takes aim at the evaporating post-hippie haze that was giving way to narcissistic self (and self-helped) fulfilment.

Terrifically cast, not least in two ace supporting turns from Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy, as a struggling writer and hilariously self-involved life coach respectively, it’s the final shot of Donald Sutherland that proves indelible.

The Thing (1982)

Director John Carpenter

Expanding on one of Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ principal ideas – how can we tell who the enemy is if they look the same as us? – and grafting it onto the narrative of Howard Hawks’ stellar 1951 adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, John Carpenter’s The Thing is a masterclass in thematic transposition. Taking the Nuclear Age concerns of its predecessor and repurposing them into the paranoid inter-character dynamics of his confined male crew – stranded in an Arctic study base with a host-replicating alien being – Carpenter crafts the finest Hawks homage this side of Precinct 13.

If you needed further proof beyond Halloween (1978) of Carpenter’s mastery of the anatomy of a scare, you’ll find it here, right at the bottom of a petri dish. But at the risk of losing any staunch auteurists who might be reading, The Thing belongs as much to two collaborators at the top of their game as it does to Carpenter (or Hawks). Cinematographer Dean Cundey, responsible for lensing many of the director’s early triumphs, works wonders with depth-of-field and corners of the frame, whilst special effects maestro Rob Bottin (with Stan Winston on dog duty) sets a benchmark in visceral, practical effects yet to be bettered.

The film was a flop on release, with Universal dumping it into theatres just a fortnight after the E.T. publicity juggernaut had steamrolled into towns. Slowly but surely though, it’s taken up position as one of the seminal horror films of the 80s, and no matter how many times you’ve seen it, the defibrillator sequence alone still has the capacity to shock and awe.

Cat People (1982)

Director Paul Schrader

“To tell you the truth, I don’t think much of the [1942] film. It was interesting in its use of shadows and so forth, but I didn’t find it very good and I was perturbed that people were trying to compare the two. In retrospect, I wish I’d changed the title because then there wouldn’t have been the comparison.” Schrader can try to distance his film from the concept of the remake as much as he wants, but a viewing of Jacques Tourneur’s (terrific, actually) 1943 film quickly shows up the explicit bond between the two pictures. Schrader goes so far as to lift scenes and sequences note for note, but his late-night swimming pool set-piece is little match for Tourneur’s.

Not that his psychosexually amplified take is anything to be snarled at, despite an inherent silliness. For a filmmaker who would later go on to direct a prequel to a film that he actually did admire, the laboriously monikered Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005), it’s perhaps ironic that the film in that particular series that his Cat People most resembles is John Boorman’s much maligned (but severely underrated) sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).

Straddling a line between body horror and erotic fantasy, Schrader mostly avoids any pandering to generic horror tropes (one recourse to a well-timed jump scare during an autopsy aside), serving up instead his motif of feline metamorphosis as metaphor for sexual fear and awakening. Layers are added courtesy of visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s ace design work and Giorgio Moroder’s synth score, along with an iconic title track from David Bowie.

The Fly (1986)

Director David Cronenberg

There aren’t many remakes, horror or otherwise, that manage to so fundamentally eclipse their forebears as Cronenberg’s 1986 take on The Fly. Not that there’s anything wrong with Kurt Neumann’s 1958 original. In fact, it’s one of the smartest, most thematically layered sci-fi-horror pictures of its ilk – yet one seemingly predestined to be appropriated by the king of body horror nearly 30 years later and transformed into one of his key works.

Cronenberg doesn’t disavow his source material, his adaptation retains the beating heart of B-moviedom – mad scientist discovers secret of teleportation, experiment goes wrong, mad scientist turns into giant fly – but the film’s huge commercial success lay in the tragedy of its doomed central romance. Essentially a chamber piece about love and loss, Geena Davis’ reporter is quickly enamoured by scientist Jeff Goldblum’s charismatic interiority, only for her lover to begin a slow, physical disintegration, transforming into a hybrid of the fly to which he’s been genetically fused.

Of course, such exteriorisation of bodily mutation and degeneration offers one of the clearest and most literal readings on man’s relationship to disease in Cronenberg’s oeuvre, and the director certainly doesn’t shy away from the yuk factor (aided by Chris Walas’s exemplary makeup and effects work). What’s perhaps most disturbing though, and played to perfection by Geena Davis, is that which we don’t see. What’s slowly eating away at Goldblum from the outside is also growing inside the pregnant Davis – the seen and the unseen, sex and disease – Cronenberg in his element. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The Blob (1988)

Director Chuck Russell

Before he disappeared into the televisual doldrums after a few indistinguishable pictures in the mid-90s and early 2000s, director Chuck Russell was beginning to carve something of a name for himself in mid-budget horror off the back of a pair of films with writing partner Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption). First came the most successful of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, 1987’s Dream Warriors, quickly followed by this 1988 take on the Steve McQueen sci-fi classic.

Playfully riffing on its 50s B-movie heritage, there’s little mistaking The Blob for anything but a horror movie, especially in the glee it takes in dispensing with its victims. Russell and Darabont have few qualms in setting up likeable characters only to turn them inside out moments later, with even what one would assume to be the hero of the piece quickly subsumed into the ever expanding gelatinous mass of space goo.

Events run a similar course to their predecessor, albeit this time with a knowing, mostly successful vein of macabre humour running throughout, with an updated cinema set-piece (Garden Tool Massacre!) proving a highlight. Fans of Darabont’s The Mist (2007) won’t fail to see his hand in the downbeat religious zealotry of the epilogue, but the real star of The Blob is undoubtedly Tony Gardner’s effects work. While perhaps not quite comparable to Rob Bottin’s on The Thing, it’s amazing how well it stands up compared to many a CGI behemoth made over a decade later. As video-shop staples go, this one well deserves another spin, even if it’s always destined to remain in its predecessor’s iconic, wobbly shadow. Theme song not included.

Psycho (1998)

Director Gus Van Sant

Watching Gus van Sant’s remake of Psycho is like watching an old 3D film. Two images, projected slightly out of alignment from separate prints, only making sense when you put the glasses on. Hitchcock the left eye, van Sant the right. I’m sure there are those out there that haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 shocker, but for the rest of us it’s only possible to view the remake through the heavy filter of the original. We can’t just watch the van Sant film, it’s always going to be both at once.

How do we look at something so indelibly ingrained on our cinematic subconscious anew? Van Sant was never going to win with this one. We’d have complained if he departed too far from such a seminal text, yet we complained even louder when he stuck too close. But it’s exactly our (over) familiarity with Hitchcock’s masterwork that makes this one of the most successful remakes on this list, that makes us alert to its changes, its deviations, its contemporisation. The shock of colour alone – in Saul Bass’s credits, on Marion’s underwear after the opening crane shot through the window – is enough to garner an electric attention.

It’s the quintessential homage to Hitchcock, an intertextual riff that forces us to re-evaluate and reposition what we know about the film (or what we think we know) and what we know about performance too, similar to seeing two different companies take on Hamlet, decades apart. It’s a divisive experiment – sure – but for the purists, it doesn’t subtract from the original, while for those of an open mind it can only add to it. And for those who’ve yet to experience Hitchcock’s film, while never a substitute, van Sant’s can more than hold its own against a dozen of its knife-wielding contemporaries.

Halloween (2007)

Director Rob Zombie

You’ll find little of the elegance of John Carpenter’s 1978 masterwork in Rob Zombie’s take on the Michael Myers story, but you’ll certainly find a lot more blood. For better or worse, as the vanguard of a distinctive brutalist auteurism, Zombie’s aesthetic sensibilities have never erred on the side of subtlety, his Halloween substituting Carpenter’s creeping predation for blunt force trauma.

Carpenter’s impeccable compositions and editing unsettled in their psychological ambiguity, with Myers listed simply as ‘The Shape’ in the film’s closing credits. Carpenter had enshrined his boogeyman in myth long before a legion of sequels came along to simultaneously superhumanise and reduce him, leaving Zombie – in his clear adoration for the Shatner-masked star, and clear incomprehension of its original director’s methodology – little recourse but to take things back to basics and do them his own way.

It’s a different beast to Carpenter’s film, a rampage instead of a sinuous prowl. At its strongest when Zombie finds himself at his most stylistically overindulgent, it’s only in moments of attempted mimicry of its progenitor that Halloween begins to creak. It may ultimately lack the formal finesse of its forebear, but remains a savagely distinctive remake unafraid to go straight for the jugular.

Evil Dead (2013)

Director Fede Alvarez

Director Sam Raimi had already served up his own maniacally twisted remix of his 1981 film, The Evil Dead with its sequel some six years later. It would be a brave studio today that would throw $20m at a remake or sequel as tonally out-there as Evil Dead 2. With fans still baying for a fourth entry in the series (after 1992’s Army of Darkness), in the meantime they’ve had to make do with Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez’s surprisingly successful take on Raimi’s brilliantly inventive, handmade horror (branded, sight unseen, the ‘Number one Video Nasty’ by Mary Whitehouse in 1983).

As a neat twist on the reason for its cabin in the woods setting this time round, the kids are there to help one of their number kick a junk habit. Offering a neat segue into the ensuing demonic possession after one incantation too many from the Book of Dead (to log cabins what bibles are to hotel rooms, it seems), soon trees are raping and bile is spewing – business as usual up to its blood-soaked third-act reversals. If Alvarez plays thing a little too po-faced in his set-up, it’s merely a preliminary to the macabre excesses soon to come. Nail guns and electric bread knives figure prominently in the ensuing bloodlust, Alvarez expertly managing its escalation while retaining a firm handle on the shifts between laughs, squirms and screams.

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