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Five horror remakes worth your attention

Five arguments in favour of the horror remake.

Words by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

With fair reason, the term ‘remake’ is considered a dirty word by horror fans. The commercial drive of the medium has given rise to many two-a-penny re-treads of beloved films, worthless cash ins that trade creativity for cynicism. We all know the culprits, and, since I’m of an essentially upbeat nature (a player, not a hater), this article isn’t going to focus on the Night of the Living Dead 3Ds, or The Wicker Mans of the world. Instead, I’m going to make an argument for the remake’s integral and important place in horror.

The notion of the horror remake is as old as the genre itself; with 1922’s adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu, having not only an American counterpart in 1931’s Dracula (which Universal effectively rebooted with 1943’s Son of Dracula), but an earlier Hungarian version (Dracula’s Death 1921, sadly lost to time). All, of course, not original material in the first place, being official/unofficial cinematic translations of Stoker’s initial novel (itself based partially on Polidori’s Vampyre tale). The story of Red Riding Hood dates from 10th century France, reiterating right up to lovely Amanda Seyfried pouting her way through 2011’s YA version, and it will last beyond that too, as stories will not fade if they still mean something to the audiences (which they are far bigger than). And horror stories are especially elemental, with the good ones touching upon fears so integral and rudimentary to the human condition that we cannot help but to revisit and retell them, perhaps in the hope of addressing those fears, or simply because those stories have infinite capacity to thrill and excite. As I write, Halloween is coming a closer, and it reminds me that horror fans love the idea of ritual, of tradition and repeated genre pleasures. More pertinently, most of the stories we cherish usually feature things coming back again and again, from the dead, from the dark; so there’s a pleasing congruity to the manner in which certain horror stories refuse to die, and instead endure, haunting audiences afresh across generations. They are camp fire stories, and designed to be told over and over, shared not around flames, but the glow of the screen, burning against the dark.

So, in no particular order, here are five horror remakes that are worth your attention this Halloween, reiterations that don’t besmirch the original, but which reinterpret and retell.

Evil Dead (2013)
Let’s begin with the most controversial… Look, I know that The Evil Dead O.G. is impeachable. It is perfect cinema, with every single shot designed to exploit the medium, each sequence pushing the genre, and with an inventive, occult energy driving its demonic, crazed narrative. There’s nothing like it at all in cinema; Sam Raimi effectively remade it himself six years and few million dollars later, but opted to subvert the more disturbing horror tone with deadpan slapstick, as if sensing that the wheel couldn’t be invented twice. No remake is going to come close to the perfection of that insane classic. But, nonetheless, 2013’s cash-in isn’t a bad cover version. Here’s why.
The premise of The Evil Dead, with its timeless scenario of teen isolation in the wilderness, is a horror fundamental. Kids lost in the woods dates back to good old Red Riding Hood, and is so iconic that post-modern smart aleck The Cabin in the Woods took the trope as its title. It isn’t the plot, per se, that was so strikingly original about 1981’s The Evil Dead, as it was the awe inspiring style and jaw dropping inspiration of its set pieces. Context is all: and if you place 2013’s remake within its era (2013’s other remakes were Carrie and that weird Texas Chainsaw seq-boot mess), its dedication to gruelling horror and beautiful, practical effects cuts through chaff like a gory chainsaw.
What the remake shares with the original is the bloody blend of extreme weirdness and simple, all too identifiable pain. Before any demons even show up, the brother sister duo at the heart of our teen quintet are subject to the brutality of their mother's death from cancer, and Mia’s (Jane Levy - where’d she go?) consequent drug dependency. There is a clumsy reading to be made that correlates heroin withdrawal and demonic possession, which, while it may be on the nose, at least shows the film is trying to say something. This appropriation of ‘real life’ misery is correlated by the film’s utter cruelty towards its characters. When the supernatural does manifest, nail guns, broken mirrors, car doors are the weapons of choice; everyday objects used in an incredibly unpleasant manner - in particular, the needle in the eye sequence is a keeper. The kids are good too, more likeable than the usual bunch. Olivia’s death sticks out: played with beautiful dignity by Jessica Lucas, Olivia is a nurse, kind and strong, so, of course, in her death sequence, we see her piss herself before sawing her own face off with a bowie knife. When this film said its dead were evil, it meant it.
A significant alteration from the first The Evil Dead is the swapping of Ash for a female lead; and while there still is a tree rape, there’s also ruminations upon Jungian’s animas and rebirth motifs. A feminist reading of this film would find ample to discuss: the script was written by Diablo Cody, whose female centric screenplays, Juno, Young Adult, are echoed thematically here. Visually, in an era where the horror aesthetic seems established on sour greens and shadows, or, worse, the utter laziness of found footage, the look of Evil Dead is also arresting: iconography of soil, flame and water abides, giving the film a pagan, elemental feel. There’s also a knowing respect for the original, with not only an Oldsmobile cameo, but sinuous tracking shots and a few fake Shemps too… (perhaps) It’s as if, despite the fact he knows it will never compare to the original, Fede Alvarez, with the unrelenting resolve of Mia/Ash, is determined to give it a go. If only all reboots had such a can do attitude. Forget Rob Zombie’s sweary misunderstanding of Halloween, ignore Prom Night, One Missed Call (we already did), this is how you remake a beloved classic.
There’s also a stage musical version of Raimi’s film, which I sadly have not seen, and can only imagine the insane goodness of (‘Zombies! Bloody Chainsaws! Singing!’ runs a poster). Speaking of musical interpretations of iconic 1980s horror…

Mahakaal (1993)
The only remake of 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street worth your consideration. If you are in anyway au fait with Bollywood horror, then I won’t need to tell you that this 1993 Indian version of dearly departed Wes Craven’s dreamy masterpiece was directed by two of the Ramsay brothers (Shyam and Tulsi), Hindi cinema’s low budget masters of horror. The Ramsays came to prominence in the '80s, and had perfected their art of energetic, sleazy terror by the time they re-contextualised Freddy Kruger and his nightmarish modus operandi within the rainbow hues and choreographed music of '90s Indian cinema. Mahakaal is peak Ramsay.
To this unschooled Western viewer, what is striking about Bollywood is the bravura orchestration of key sequences, the use of wide screen space and bright palettes; the sort of vivid cinema which characterise Mahakaal (translated as, simply, ‘Monster’). The Nancy stand in is Anita (an early role for comedy actress Archana Puran Singh), who we first see in a recreation of the original’s scene; Anita, confused, dream wandering through a strange home, haunted by a weird shadow and disembodied voices. The style of Mahakaal in the nightmare sequences is pure Giallo, with neon red lighting blurring the shadows, so intensely crimson it’s as if the back light is filtered through blood. Freddy is reimagined as Shakaal; still disfigured, and with the de rigueur razor fingered glove, but this time sporting a full mullet too! And, as this is a Bollywood production, the tone is more ambitious than our mono-generic cinema, with comedy, romance and teen drama balancing the horror (with, yes, musical sequences; sadly none that feature Shakaal though). But, while there may well be a (completely amazing) incongruous disco sequence towards the end (which appears for no logical reason I can fathom), when the nightmare scenes occur, they are impressive in that grand guignol way; at turns melodramatic, but also very creepy. There is a particularly nasty moment when Anita’s seven years dead sister, Mohini, haunts her dream, luring her into Shakaal’s lair; and Seema’s (Tina) death is also beautifully realised, with hand after hand after razored hand reaching through her bed to slaughter her. Poor Seema.
The story sticks closely to Wes Craven’s original script, but also fixes what I always thought was a plot hole: in Mahakaal, it’s clear that the parents who kill Shakaal have themselves lost children to the monster, and aren’t acting out of a sense of vigilante justice as they perhaps were in the original (although this was explicated in a deleted scene). If Mahakaal’s parents were, then they’d surely also burn to death the double threat of a group of bullies who are constantly heckling Anita, and at one point even try to rape her. No worries though, she (spoiler alert), is rescued by Param and Prakash (Glen and Rod), who kungfu kick the shit out of the thugs to foley sounds of pows and whams; a wonderful example of Mahakaal’s sui-generis stance. I’m not saying that Mahakaal is a better film than the original. I’m not even saying that it’s a good film, really. But Mahakaal is fascinating, vibrant cinema, and the least boring film ever made. The ultimate Halloween party film, in fact.
The Ramsays direct like a pair of complete maniacs, drawing not only on NOES, but its sequels and other pop culture iconics. I spot a new reference every time I see it: Halloween, Bruce Lee, The Evil Dead (it gets around), Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s acid house precursor Jack Your Body, Indiana Jones, Thriller, Repulsion… I could go on (and, at two hours plus, Mahakaal does a bit). Unlike the pointless 2010 retread of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Mahakaal is a reinterpretation, a point of view, and a fresh look at classic material. Throughout the movie, whenever we see/hear Shakaal, he’s laughing, his cackle booming across K J Sing and Vishal’s perky score, as if expressing the sheer joy of being a part of this wonderful film.
Go on Shakaal!

Dark Water (2005)
Paternal relationships are the stuff of action adventure (ahoy John McClane, hi there Liam Neeson), but the bond between mother and child is the province of horror. Remade from the Japanese original From the Bottom of Dark Water 2002, by a director (Walter Salles) who seems to neither understand horror nor care for it all that much, 2005’s Dark Water is an intriguing cash-in on the J-Horror which ends up prioritising character and emotion over cattle prod scares and greasy haired apparitions. 
Jennifer Connelly (who does haunted so well) plays a mother in the midst of a divorce. Struggling not only with money but an impending custody battle, she moves with her young daughter to the ugliest apartment block in Seattle, where a terrible secret awaits…
The horror in Dark Water is rooted firmly in the domestic; frankly, I would rather have a poltergeist in my house than a damp problem, and Connelly has both, which manifests in running water, a shuddering washing machine, dead hair draining from the tap… primordial forces invading that which we would hope is impenetrable. But the real grown up fears exploited in Dark Water are every parent’s nightmares: losing a child, and, the second worst, letting your child down, or becoming a disappointment to them. So, as a drawn Connelly does battle with the variety of inept men about her, there are moments of sublime tenderness - as Cecelia bravely introduces herself to her new class (‘Hi, I’m CECELIA’- no, I’m ok, there’s just something in my eye), her mother watches from outside, relief and pride passing over her face like shadows from the ceaseless rain clouds above. She is deemed hysterical by both her ex-husband and the sinister comedy pairing of the super and her landlord, a gothic trope exemplified by the Brutalism of the block’s architecture which renders Seattle’s skyline claustrophobic and prisonlike, and makes our sympathy for Dalia almost righteous.
Dark Water is an example of a studio remake that succeeds against the odds, or perhaps because of them; the superb cast never seem like they’re slumming it, and Salles' direction expertly plumbs depths of emotion in the unflinching manner of Dahlia finally reaching into that water tower to uncover the building’s awful secret. From the darkness of domestic nightmare, in Dark Water, the supernatural is used not only to scare, but as an index to explore the pressures of single parent nightmares, and the abiding love that conquers both.

The Blob (1988)
Surely there can be no argument concerning 1988’s The Blob remake? Of course, the '50s monster mash O.G. has a place in genre audiences’ hearts, and not only because it featured a debuting 27 year old Steve McQueen playing a teenager, but also as it’s the film the gang in Grease watch at the drive-in. Chuck Russell’s version is not only wonderfully indicative of the '80s era it was made in, but still stands up well now, due to its gloopy intensity. Screenwriter Frank Darabont locates the action in the sort of small town middle America he will later mine for his Stephen King adaptations - we open with a high school football game, all cheerleaders, jocks and working up to ask the cute girl on a date - but the corny cinematic predictability of the setting does not extend to the film’s plot. An early victim is the kid we’ve been led to believe is the movie’s alpha hero; the film’s titular antagonist, a nebulous jelly-like bacterium that devours and dissolves anything slow enough to not get out of its way, noshes down on him first. All bets are off as the blob proceeds to spread carnage throughout the town in the most EC comics nasty way imaginable, and how! Through a series of gloriously practical set pieces, we see surging alien jelly, dissolving flesh, and some poor sod being pulled through a plughole as Tony Gardner creates special effects perfect for the VHS rewind/pause culture (Gardner went on to help design Daft Punk’s iconic helmets- nuff said).
It's cinematic law that in the '50, any monster from outer space had to have clunky metaphorical resonance; thus, the rubicund amorphous alien of the original Blob was (of course) considered a stand in for the communist threat, a real red menace! Lazily, the looming globule of the '80s was read as an allegory for AIDS, due to the creature’s resemblance to a ‘mucus membrane’ (!). What a load of arse. If the blob does stand for anything, it’s, in one of those weirdly schizophrenic ideologies that horror is privy to, a threat to the conservative status quo. Throughout the film, the blob is associated with having teen sex, disobeying parents, and motorcycle racing on the outskirts of town: those crazy kids are out of control and the town is ‘about to fold’. A telling sequence involves the blob seeping into a cinema, wherekids and other ne’er-do-wells are watching a Friday the 13th/Texas Chainsaw rip off (another remake?!), Garden Tool Massacre, as if the act of witnessing such a transgressive movie is tantamount to a black magic ritual enacted in order to conjure up anarchic goo. The film’s nominal male hero, Kevin Dillon, plays a mulleted rebel without a clue, who, by the film’s finale, set to gung-ho military drumming, receives true qualification when he not only defeats the threat, but allows his anti-authority scowls to mellow to conformity.
Terror may have no shape, and the ideology of this film may too have a fascinating confusion at its core, but, most importantly, it also has thrills and spills galore. Just don’t watch it after too much trick or treat candy.

The Fly (1986)
In the recent offbeat curio The Lobster, in a Logan’s Run style twist, people who are romantically unattached are converted into animals if they can’t find a partner. Colin Farrell is given the choice of what creature he would be if such events were to occur, and, as the title suggests, Colin plumps for a lobster, because it lives for a long time in the sea. Now, I haven’t seen The Lobster (I’m going on the trailer/publicity), but I would bet that no one in the history of The Lobster’s world has ever chosen to be a fly. You wouldn’t, would you? Apart from being irritating, the fly, born of decay, is aligned with death and disease, a pest that feasts upon animal waste. Poor Jeff Goldblum, then, whose tragic Seth Brundle gradually, painfully metamorphoses into a human insect hybrid over the grim genius of David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
No list of horror remakes would be complete without the sublime repugnance of Cronenberg’s masterpiece (of all the horror auteurs, Cronenberg’s career is the most consistently incredible, and I think The Fly is seminal, bridging the horror monomania of his early films with the existential identity crises of his post '80s work). It’s the sort of intensely visceral, deeply thoughtful major studio horror that almost never happens now. And it’s also one of the most convincingly romantic films ever made. The opening sequence, where we cold open on Seth and ambitious journo Ronnie (Geena Davies) chatting about Seth’s project, awkwardly flirting before leaving the party together, sets the narrative ideology: as of yet, we know nothing about these two, and everything that ensues in the film is peripheral to, or a consequence of, their relationship (the fact that Davies and Goldblum were a real life couple is a serendipity that imbues this science fiction with real chemistry).
What separates The Fly from the other great man-turns-into-insect text of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with its dreamy, ironic remove, is the deeply felt, unapologetic humanity that Cronenberg uses to exemplify the horror of Seth’s condition. The original 1958 atomic terror The Fly (based on a short story by George Langelaan, and wonderful in its own right) is remembered for its final sequence, which depicts a tiny fly with a human head squealing ‘Help meeeee! Help meeeee!’ as a spider advances towards it. In the '86 version, Brundle is a man who is crying for help throughout; despite his imposing 6’ 4” frame, he’s entirely vulnerable, cinema’s most handsome geek. The only reason he submits himself to experimentation (after what must have been decades of careful, scientific approach) is because of a childish reaction to heart break. As his gross degeneration intensifies, Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis’ Academy Award winning effects realise Brundle’s transformation with repulsive, imaginative detail: ears falling off, skin rotting, puking on food in order to consume it. One of the reasons The Fly has endured so well is the painstaking use of practical effects (which, unlike CGI, don’t age easily - the only aspects of this film that are dated are superficial, like the hair styles and Seth’s bricky phone).
Whereas the '50s The Fly locates its terror specifically in the nuclear age (‘The First Time Atomic Mutation On Humans Has Been Shown On The Screen’ boasted the tagline), Cronenberg’s interpretation has been variously cited as a treatise on aging, or a metaphor for AIDS (again), or (my interpretation of choice), a drug movie. But the fact that The Fly has meant such diverse things to different people is proof of its resonance; a true artist, like some sort of haruspex, Cronenberg sinks his hands deep into his body horror, and pulling out whatever entrails he discovers, arranges them artfully for our edification. Fittingly, there’s a commentary on sequels coded into the film too. As Seth emerges from the ovum shaped pod, he questions if ‘it’s live, or is it Memorex?’  Is it actually Seth, or has the machine made a copy of him? Brundle arrives at the conclusion that he is an engineered reinterpretation, rather than a reproduction. An accurate metaphor for The Fly, and the other films on this list.
Be afraid, be very afraid.

Happy Halloween!

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