Remakes are always a dicy business for film studios. Sure, they’re bargaining with name brand recognition, but they’re also running the risk of pissing off the hardcore fans who made the original movies worth remaking in the first place. For a long time, it seemed like every horror movie remake – with so few exceptions that they practically proved the rule – were destined to suck.
But the funny thing is, nowadays there are so very many horror remakes that the law of averages kicked in, and quite a few of them turned out pretty good. Many horror remakes are now even legitimately great. And while that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re all super looking forward to this weekend’s release of the Poltergeist remake, it does make use wonder: what’s The Best Horror Remake Ever?
So let’s check in with our critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Brian Formo – as they answer that question for us. What films did they pick, and why, may surprise and shock you. So let us know in the comments if you think they screwed up, and come back every Wednesday for more highly debatable installments of CraveOnline’s The Best Movie Ever!
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Brian Formo’s Pick: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Most horror remakes apply slicker kills and more gore (or merely just the English language). Sometimes that approach works, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I prefer to judge remakes not on how they elevate or improve upon the source material, but in changes they make with the story and characters. And perhaps the horror remake that succeeds the most at putting the original in spin cycle (but still maintaining its spirit) is Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Both films (1956, 1978) are parables. The original uses the fear of a communist takeover as its alien invasion parallel. But Kaufman’s is more terrifying. His centers on the “Me Generation.” In one of my personal all-time favorite character introductions, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), an employee of the San Francisco Health Department, returns home from the park with a flower she’d never seen before. Her husband, Geoffrey (Art Hindle), who is watching a basketball game with headphones plugged into the TV, snaps his fingers three times, telling her to come over. They kiss. He goes back to watching the game. This is such a minor scene, but Kaufman sets up his parable perfectly. We learn that Geoffrey wears headphones because Elizabeth struggles to work while he watches something. He gets what he wants—a kiss—while never having to look away from the television set; and she gets to work in silence. Their relationship is set up in a way so as to not bother each other.
Geoffrey is never the same again. His eyes are dead. His posture is perfect. And he always has to meet new neighborhood people. He certainly doesn’t look like he could snap his fingers and get what he wants. When Elizabeth tells her psychiatrist (Leonard Nimoy) that she thinks Geoffrey has changed, her psychiatrist takes her outside fake assaults a poet (Jeff Goldblum). He asks her response because she didn’t step in to intervene. “We make believe it isn’t happening so you don’t have to deal with it. To show that you care you tune the other person out so that your own personal life doesn’t interfere with theirs.” Indeed by the time Elizabeth notices a change in her husband the alien body-replacement has already been in full effect. Nobody noticed because they were so busy with their own isolated goals, desires, and headphones, to not engage or notice strangers who might inconvenience them. This makes Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers an urban nightmare: there is no longer a strong sense of community—which makes an invasion easier.
The original film ended on a hopeful note (against director Don Siegel’s wishes). It had to—so that Americans could be reassured that the aliens/Soviets wouldn’t defeat them. Kaufman’s ends either hopeless—or incredibly isolated and sad—It depends on your reading. Which brings us to Donald Sutherland. In a criminally undervalued career, this is perhaps his best performance. He has palpable (plutonic) sparks with Adams (his sly “do that thing with her eyes” remark—to test if she’s human—is magical). And, as a health inspector, Sutherland gets to say “rat turd” with a sense of justice and satisfaction. He spends most of the film being charming. But he also has to sell the final 15 minutes in such a way that you’re not sure if (or when) he too has been replaced.
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William Bibbiani’s Pick: Cape Fear (1991)
I know I’m supposed to pick John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Cronenberg’s The Fly, or at least Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I probably would have even been forgiven for choosing Evil Dead, Dawn of the Dead or The Ring. In fact, I think it’s pretty hard to argue nowadays that there aren’t a lot of great horror movie remakes floating around. Even Marcus Nispel’s Friday the 13th is at least arguably one of the better Jason Voorhees films ever made.
But the thing about those horror remakes is, the original films are still pretty scary. The filmmakers found a way to up the ante, emotionally or thematically or through modern gore effects (or all three), but those original films all retain their power to scare, and scare hard. Compare that to Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, which took J. Lee Thompson’s effective but hardly spine-tingling potboiler and transformed it into a shocking, sickening and altogether evil piece of cinema. Watching the two films back-to-back is like watching day turn to night without so much as a sundown, stunning us into awed silence as the dark takes hold and seemingly refuses to let go.
Max Cady (Robert De Niro, never crazier) was put in jail by his own lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). Now he’s out, and stalking Bowden’s family, seducing their innocent teen daughter in a truly depraved finger-sucking interlude, and biting chunks out of their friends. Bowden once corrupted his practice to put Cady in jail, because it was the right thing to do. Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear descends our “hero” further than ever before into depravity, corrupting every other part of his life to protect it. As the fireworks go off, the bodies pile up, and the stage is set for a wholly horrifying climax that pits the Bowden family against their worst fears. Whether Cady survives is irrelevant. The Bowdens have already lost a meaty piece of their souls.
Stunning cinematography by Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man), a downright mean adapted screenplay by Wesley Strick, tawdry performances by the whole cast and some of the most energetic direction of Martin Scorsese’s already electric career make Cape Fear, in my eyes, the best horror remake ever. Before you judge, watch it again, or for the first time. Tell me you’re not impressed. Tell me you’re not completely scuzzed out.
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Witney Seibold’s Pick: Funny Games (2007)
Yes, so many horror films have been remade, that the remakes warrant an entire genre unto themselves. And they are, for the most part, bad ideas. Horror films typically rely on surprise and stirring originality to be truly scary. By remaking them, filmmakers are reducing something striking and scary to mere nostalgia. If you have seen, for example, the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, you’ll see the best example of how studio-mandated “reinterpretation” can pretty much ruin something that was once great. There are, luckily, a few notable exceptions to the cynical rule of remakes, particularly when a notable auteur director gives their own spin on old material. When David Cronenberg, for instance, remade The Fly, he turned into a disgusting allegory for disease. When John Carpenter remade The Thing, he added his own inimitable style and a bevvy of Western badasses. When Rob Zombie remade Halloween, he saw a sympathetic killer and not an ineffable evil.
And when Michael Haneke remade his own Funny Games, he finally revealed his true intentions. Haneke put together a truly disturbing German home invasion flick in 1997, a film that moved forward with a sickening energy as two clean-cut Aryan ruffians essentially torture a family to death. At the time, critics were a bit baffled as to what he was trying to accomplish, other than to disgust and depress the audience, and it’s difficult to get past the film’s overbearing nihilism. However, in 2007, Haneke remade Funny Games in English with English-speaking actors. The film is essentially rebuilt shot-by-shot, but there’s something else lurking underneath the text in the English version. Haneke, by showing the extreme violence in English – and by incorporating the same bizarre metaphysical twist ending – seems to be implicating English speaking audiences. He is accusing you, Americans, of aching for violence, and he is deliberately making you feel bad about that.
Yes, it’s confrontational and may even be a little bit mean, but it’s rare that any film so enthusiastically gets up in your face, guilt-tripping you for your own bloodlust. It’s a daring move.