How To Fix Horror
Scream is a good movie, but it's great movie criticism. Its characters accurately enumerate the rules of the slasher movie ("Never say, 'Who's there?' It's a death wish."), and mix in commentary about the genre (as Billy Loomis notes, it's always scarier when the killer has no motive). Scream 4, which, judging by its grosses, might be the last of the series, is less ambitious than the original, both as a movie and as criticism. But it does end with a line that perfectly reflects a piece of Hollywood common wisdom. The long-surviving Sidney Prescott, played by Neve Campbell *, defiantly shouts at the killer: "You forgot the first rule of remakes: Don't fuck with the original!"
Most die-hard horror fans will tell you that the remake is a corrosive virus that threatens to take over the entire industry. Critics are either dismissive or infuriated by it, especially when they learn that a sacred cow like Carrie is being remade. Alas, there are enough moviegoers willing to shell out to see the same old monsters trotted out once again that the studios aren't likely to close up the remake mill anytime soon. But here's the good news: Remakes don't have to be as bad as they are. And the best way for directors to start making them better is by breaking that first rule.
Hollywood generally approaches each horror remake with the same strategy: the same, only more. The idea is to be very careful not to mess with the fundamentals that made the original a hit while jacking up the budget, body count, and blood to give moviegoers a reason to see the new version. This strategy has produced such forgettable affairs as the remade versions of Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen, The Last House on the Left, When a Stranger Calls, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The serial offender behind many of these remakes is Platinum Dunes, a company created by three filmmakers (one of them is Michael Bay). Platinum Dunes is so loathed by horror fans that recent rumors that it might abandon the genre inspired one fan to express a belief in God.
It's strange that these movies show such fidelity when the films they're remaking often defied conventions, broke taboos, and challenged prevailing tastes; their unwillingness to take their own risks has given the remake a bad name. Horror directors and producers would benefit from emulating the model of a very different medium: the Broadway show. Remakes are respected in the theater, where they go by the more elegant term, revival. The difference is that on Broadway, a revival is generally expected to either provide a new interpretation of the material or showcase a major star—something to justify bringing the show back. There are exceptions, but if you want to, for instance, produce a really celebrated Sweeney Todd, you'd better fuck with the original indeed, at least a little. That's exactly what British director John Doyle did in 2005 when he mounted an inventive, stripped-down version of the gothic musical. There wasn't even an orchestra—the actors played their own instruments. This tightened the show's focus and made for a thinner sound, but the spare, angry production kept the emphasis on the tortured psychology and emotional stakes for the characters. (It will be interesting to see whether Mr. Doyle takes a similar approach when he mounts a stage version of The Exorcist next year.)
The finest horror remakes are made in this spirit. Think about those two classics from the 1980s: The Thing and The Fly. John Carpenter and David Cronenberg shook the dust off of 1950s genre movies, adding ambiguity and a sinister edge to originals that had become a little campy. By dramatically updating their style, tone, and story, these movies actually recaptured some of the danger that the originals had when audiences first saw them. Both versions of The Fly center on a scientist who invents a teleportation device that accidentally fuses him with an insect. The 1958 version tapped into Atomic Age fears without taking itself too seriously; its famous ending included a ludicrous shot of a fly with a human head. * Cronenberg's 1986 remake, besides focusing more on a Beauty and the Beast-style romance, is gorier and more realistic, merging the man and fly gradually and painfully. The story also took on new resonances: some audiences saw the scenes of one partner watching another slowly deteriorate as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic. It's also far darker, with the scientist/fly asking to be killed by the woman he loves.
It may be that anxiety about upsetting fans contributes to the conservatism of remakes; The Thing and The Fly reworked films old enough to be obscure to the young demographics that matter so much to Hollywood producers today. Fanboys and fangirls are the life-blood of the genre and are more vocal and engaged than ever thanks to the proliferation of horror sites and conventions. But they can be finicky, and the producers of remakes seem to live in fear of annoying them by toying too much with beloved source material. Of course, it's possible to make an inspired remake that only tinkers with the original, such as Let Me In, a reworking of the Swedish vampire hit Let the Right One In, and The Hills Have Eyes, an update of Wes Craven's severely dysfunctional family movie. These remakes amplify the elements that made the originals so memorable while more or less staying faithful. But it's generally more difficult to create something fresh when covering familiar territory.
In an ideal world, one where directors took a more adventurous approach to revisiting the classics, fans of the originals might welcome news of a remake. One of the best arguments for the greatness of a work of art is that it's flexible enough to support multiple interpretations. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead only seems more impressive because Zack Snyder reinvented it as a badass action film; the Royal National Theater's ingenious production of Frankenstein, performed in London but recently filmed and shown in American movie theaters, proved that the classic tale could be just as powerful as an intimate psychological character study as it was an atmospheric monster movie about the dangers of scientific hubris. My first reaction to the news that Carrie was going to be remade was audible disgust. How could they mess with something so perfect? Then again, the issues the movie taps into—bullying, sexual politics, and school violence—have changed dramatically since the mid-1970s. This provides an opportunity to reintroduce us to Carrie White in a new generation.
The horror film has always balanced the familiar with the new. You need clichéd rules and genre conventions—because there is something pleasing about the ritual of these movies, and because one of the best ways of scaring viewers' daylights out is by unexpectedly breaking one of the rules. Familiarity establishes certain expectations, lulls you into feeling comfortable, and sets you up for a big scare. Horror without the new is like a joke without a punch line. A remake that follows the script of the original while ratcheting up the body count offers few surprises. But one that brings back beloved old monsters while occasionally turning left when we're expecting a turn right has the potential to scare us in ways the original never did.
Correction, July 7, 2011: The article originally stated that Sidney Prescott was played by Courteney Cox. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, July 11, 2011: The article originally stated the shot featured the body of a fly with the head of Vincent Price. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
This week, Jason Zinoman is writing a four-part series on how to fix horror films. Click here to buy Shock Value, his new book on the genre's golden age.