Last weekend, horror fans were blessed (or cursed) with a new version of Poltergeist, the 1982 Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg collaboration that taught a generation of young, impressionable moviegoers to fear static-y TVs and reflections of themselves clawing their faces off. Whether an update was really necessary is, of course, beside the point; regardless of need or want, we’re still getting a movie in which another little girl intones “They’re he-eere,” as well as a new reminder that suburban families should watch out for homes built on ancient burial grounds. And if you’ve always wanted to see a haunted clown doll jump out of the shadows, well, guess who’s in luck?
Given the love for Eighties horror, as well as the Golden Age of Slasher Flicks and their grungy early Seventies forebears, it’s not surprising that filmmakers have been mining this fertile period for remake fodder over the past decade or so. In fact, today’s would-be Wes Cravens and John Carpenters have occasionally done some very interesting things with yesterday’s name-brand scary movies. So we’re taking a look at a baker’s dozen of redos, reboots and reimaginings of modern-horror classics (with a landmark Americanized version of a Nineties J-horror title for good measure) and seeing how they measure up, quality-wise. Some are cash-ins and others are creative breakthroughs. Whoever says the second time can’t be a charm, however, has clearly never seen Piranha 3D.
The Ring (2002)
A journalist (Naomi Watts) investigates a series of mysterious deaths and ends up wrangling with the curse of an evil videotape — the kind that, seven days after viewing, causes death by lanky-haired, double-jointed female ghosts.
Faithful to the original: Very. This is Japan’s Ringu in a highly Americanized version, big budget-ized with a marquee-name star and some suicidal horses thrown in.
Nostalgia factor: The U.S. version came out just four years after the ur-text for the modern J-horror boom dropped, so no attempt was made to throw back to the good ol’ days of 1998. That said, the movie is about a cursed VHS tape — so watching it now, the nostalgia factor is rather high.
Treatment of iconic villain: The original’s Sadako is a waterlogged ghost in the machine who can’t seem to keep her hair out of her face; the remake’s Samara is a full-on she-demon who much more believably stops hearts on sight.
Level/quality of kills: Samara basically scares people to death so there’s nothing too over the top or inventive here. But the distorted face of her victim in the closet is a thing of nightmares.
Scary: Surprisingly yes. Roger Ebert said that the story dips into “the dizzy realms of the absurd,” and he wasn’t wrong. Still, the unnerving visuals and atmospherics, as well as Watts’ bravura performance, manage to bypass the analytical center of most viewers’ brains and make skin crawl.
Gory: The view from the bar at your average sushi restaurant is gorier. Watts does take a dive into a well full of decades-old little-girl putrefaction, but even then most of the nastiness is implied rather than shown.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Young folks on a road trip encounter some rather odd Lone Star state residents — including a big gentleman with a fondness for power tools and masks of dried, cured skin.
Faithful to the original: There’s a passing resemblance to Tobe Hooper’s genre-defining scarefest, but other than the appearance of Leatherface, his sheriff daddy, and their house of cannibal horrors, they’re different movies entirely.
Nostalgia factor: The remake uses the careful placement of sideburns, weed, and a Skynyrd concert to hammer into the viewer’s head that the movie is set in 1973, a year before the original film was made. We get it already!
Treatment of iconic villain: Leatherface is the inbred saw-swinging goon we all know and love, though it’s sad that director Marcus Nispel felt the need to show him without his mask on.
Level/quality of kills: The film makes a point of showing blade biting flesh. Worse, though, are the scenes of hopeless agony — a bound boy brutally beaten in a car, a man pulling himself halfway off a meathook only to drop back onto it with a loud thunk.
Scary: Not really, unfortunately. There’s way too much sepia-tone — a regrettable staple of modern horror — to create any real atmosphere.
Gory: Definitely, but in clumsy ways that can’t compare with the original’s stark paranoia and terror.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
A group of poorly matched strangers find all-too-fleeting refuge from the zombie apocalypse inside a suburban shopping mall.
Faithful to the original: Hardly at all. Director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) and writer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) took the bare bones of George Romero’s 1978 sequel to his groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead and ran with it (literally: witness the film’s fleet-footed zombies). The result is just about an entirely different movie, but one that works on its own terms.
Nostalgia factor: Other than a few in-jokes referencing the original, the 2004 film is decidedly a product of its times, from the video-game pace to the pop-culture references in the famous scene in which a rooftop sniper takes out celebrity-lookalike zombies.
Treatment of iconic villain: Slow zombies vs. fast zombies? No movie more inflamed that debate than DotD v2.0, which makes a strong case for the latter. It’s undead are quick, brutal killing machines that, while not as well suited for biting social commentary, are way more skilled at scaring the bejesus out of jaded Gen Y viewers than the original’s blue-faced slowpokes.
Level/quality of kills: Snyder’s remake is more about quantity than quality of kills, but the out-of-nowhere moment when a character accidentally maws a female companion to death with a chainsaw is a spark of sick genius.
Scary: Absolutely. What it lacks in creepy vibes, the remake more than makes up for in visceral shocks and white-knuckle thrills.
Gory: Juicy headshots, bite-induced arterial sprays and innards-baring undead abound. And what’s gorier than childbirth? Zombie childbirth, of course.
Black Christmas (2006)
‘Tis the season for a group of sorority sisters to be stalked by an insane asylum inmate who’s recently escaped and is on the loose.
Faithful to the original: It’s more or less a straightforward update of Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher flick, complete with trapped co-eds, a matronly house mother (big up Andrea Martin) and your basic holiday-themed carnage.
Nostalgia factor: Hardly any for the original’s time period, though the presence of Buffy regular Michelle Trachtenberg and Party of Five‘s Lacey Chabert will make you miss the Nineties.
Treatment of iconic villain: Iconic should be in quotes here, as the most memorable thing about first movie’s killer was his menacing voice on the phone (Black Christmas is credited as pioneering that particular cliché). Let’s just say the lunatic on the loose here is no ax-wielding Santa a la Silent Night, Deadly Night.
Level/quality of kills: The killer’s habit of putting plastic bags over victims’ heads has a way of toning down the look-of-terror factor, though director Glen Morgan’s love of eyeball trauma results in a few top-notch optic-nerve attacks. Kudos for the excellent use of Christmas lights as a garrote as well.
Scary: If you’re comparing the movie to opening presents or being kissed under a mistletoe, then yes. Otherwise….
Gory: It has its moments (see the aforementioned reference to copious eyeball trauma).
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
A family on a road trip is re-routed through a rural detour — all the better for the local mutant cannibals to go hunting for prospective city-folk meals.
Faithful to the original: Though a back story concerning atomic testing and forgotten miners is brought in to make the desert-dwellers more horrific, it’s the same basic set-up as Wes Craven’s 1976 creepfest.
Nostalgia factor: Virtually none, surprisingly, though French director Alexandre Aja clearly worships at the altar of late Seventies/early Eighties horror (see his gloriously retro Haute Tension from 2003).
Treatment of iconic villain: The remake makes the desert mutants irradiated, inbred genetic mishaps rather than just cannibals, which is a nice touch. That said, this version’s grotesque-as-fuck take on Pluto still pales next to Michael Berryman’s incomparable bald, bug-eyed killer.
Level/quality of kills: Like a third bowl of porridge: just right. The murders are still sadistic and twisted, but haven’t been made gaudy. There’s just enough suggestion to make viewers gasp.
Scary: Yes, and a disturbing scene where a mutant with a cleft palette nurses from a woman’s breast will haunt you for weeks.
Gory: The remake’s 2007 sequel is far more gore-obsessed — this movie is all about diabolical atmosphere.
Young Michael Myers goes on a killing spree on All Hallows Eve — and then returns decades later to finish the job. Trick of treat?
Faithful to the original: Like any fanatic worth his salt, director Rob Zombie idolizes John Carpenter’s 1978 original — we’re talking about the defining work of the slasher-film genre, after all. His decision to do an extended beginning about Myers’ broken home life, as well as relegating the hunted babysitters to supporting characters, is still more than a little baffling.
Nostalgia factor: Yes, Carpenter’s score is present and accounted for. But never mind the late Seventies; Zombie’s reveling in his love of the Manson Family Sixties here, and wants you to know it.
Treatment of iconic villain: Trying to make Myers a sympathetic character by showing his abusive upbringing takes away all the pure evil that Donald Pleasance rants about in the opening of the original. Instead, you just get a mute wrestler.
Level/quality of kills: Say what you want about the rock star-turned-retro horror filmmaker: The dude does sadism well, and the murders he stages here are long and painful to watch — in, er, a good way.
Scary: It’s hard to fear the Bogeyman when someone has explained his motives in extensive detail. But it is brutal as hell.
Gory: Most definitely. The murder of scream queen Danielle Harris — who was a child star in Halloween 4 — is especially hardcore.
Friday the 13th (2009)
It’s the residents of Camp Crystal Lake vs. an indestructible, hockey-mask-wearing maniac on the unluckiest day of the year. You know who our money is on.
Faithful to the original: Originals, to be precise: This Marcus Nispel-directed remake combines pieces of the franchise’s first four films in an attempt to cover the complete Jason Voorhees story, and does so with proper respect for its source material.
Nostalgia factor: The setting screams modern-day, but the machetes popping through cabin floors and the chh-chh-chh-haa-haa-haa musical motif are pure Reagan-era horror homages.
Treatment of iconic villain: The beauty of Jason is that, unless you make him tap-dance, he’s always the same nonstop murder machine. So dropping an original-recipe version of the character in amongst a new group of teenagers is probably the smart way to go, if also the most predictable.
Level/quality of kills: Jason tying a girl in a sleeping bag and suspending it over a campfire gets points for creativity; otherwise, we’re talking about a lot of by-the-book hacking and stabbing.
Scary: If the mere sight of a giant guy in a hockey mask still leaves you quaking in fear, then yeah. Otherwise, eh.
Gory: There’s less gore here than your average Eighties horror remake, to be sure; you’ll have to wait for the David Bruckner-directed reboot hitting theaters next year for that.
The Last House on the Left (2009)
Two girls are abducted, raped and nearly murdered by a trio of sociopaths; later, the parents of one of the victims has a chance to pay the scumbags back with interest.
Faithful to the original: The story remains virtually the same, with one major change — a victim who dies in the original is allowed to live — which makes this a somewhat kinder (yet still tough to watch) version of Wes Craven’s depraved 1972 exploitation movie. You’ll never have to keep repeating, “It’s only a movie…”.
Nostalgia factor: Virtually none.
Treatment of iconic villain: It takes one hell of an actor to step into David Hess’ shoes and play the head psycho, Krug; thankfully, Garret Dillahunt fits the bill. Yes, that’s Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul (!) and Garfunkel and Oates’ Riki Lindhome (!!!) as his literal partners in crime.
Level/quality of kills: Three words: death by microwave.
Scary: Parents will find the film petrifying; hardcore horror fans are likely to shrug.
Gory: There’s nothing here that would qualify for a Fangoria spread, though a truly excruciating rape scene unnerves more than any viscera-covered set pieces.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
Teenagers see their dreams turn deadly, courtesy of everyone’s favorite striped-sweatered, razor-gloved murderer. One, two, Freddy’s coming for you….
Faithful to the original: A number of scenes from Wes Craven’s 1984 hit were given the shot-for-shot Xerox treatment, including the famous free-fall bedroom and rising-claw bath sequences.
Nostalgia factor: It’s a present-day affair, but this redo from director Samuel Bayer (the man behind Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video) is so nostalgic for the original that it’s surprising he did not put the entire cast in parachute pants and “Frankie Says” t-shirts.
Treatment of iconic villain: Freddy Krueger’s famously scarred mug is made to look more like an actual burn victim’s face (read: even less pretty) and the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as the villain is inspired; even Robert Englund, the O.G. Krueger himself, said it was a good call.
Level/quality of kills: Prepare yourself for some excellent copycat takes on Nightmare‘s well-known deaths, though there’s little here that impresses beyond the karaoke aspect of it all.
Scary: I mean, it’s still Freddy, but….
Gory: Considering the damage that razor-gloves can do, not nearly as much as you’d think.
Piranha 3D (2010)
An earthquake unleashes a school of prehistoric predators into a lake — one that conveniently happens to be filled with partying spring breakers. Yum!
Faithful to the original: Other than the title of Joe Dante’s 1978 Jaws rip-off and the use of toothy little fishies, Alexandre Aja’s remake owes little to the original — and is a better movie for it.
Nostalgia factor: It captures the vintage spirit of exploitation cinema so well that you’ll wish you could have seen this at a drive-in or a fleapit theater on the Forty Deuce. And just when Richard Dreyfuss thought it was safe to go back in the water….
Treatment of iconic villain: These new piranhas are nasty little bastards and far worse than the military-experiment-gone-bad creatures from the first flick.
Level/quality of kills: That scene of a woman getting her hair caught in an outboard motor and losing her face is one for the gorefest ages.
Scary: It’s more over-the-top and straight-up bloody than scary, though a few scenes will genuinely jolt you — and make you more than a little apprehensive to jump in a lake.
Gory: Off the charts. You’d think the filmmakers had bought stock in Karo syrup.
Fright Night (2011)
A young man starts worrying about the way the new hunk in the ‘hood is checking out his girlfriend. Oh, and this gentleman may, in fact, be a vampire responsible for the large amount of locals who’ve gone missing.
Faithful to the original: Craig Gillespie’s take on Tom Holland’s 1985 bloodsucker-next-door thriller keeps the essential premise and fang-in-check approach; it just supersizes the spectacle near the end to a detrimental degree.
Nostalgia factor: It’s too busy making Twilight jokes to be nostalgic, though original vampire Chris Sarandon does drop by for a cameo.
Treatment of iconic villain: No one could accuse Colin Farrell of not being able to play a brooding bad boy, though you end up wishing that the film took advantage of the actor more and really let him sink his, um, teeth into the part.
Level/quality of kills: The original was never really about jaw-dropping kills, though we will tip our hat to the way a flaming suit is used to dispose of a creature of the night.
Scary: It’s closer to an amusement-park ride sense of scary rather than a chilling, lose-control-of-your-bladder type of horrifying.
Gory: Other than some mildly spurting jugulars and the occasional exploding bad guy, not particularly.
The Thing (2011)
Researchers and military men stationed in the Antarctica stumble across an alien spacecraft and its pilot in the ice; they make the mistake of taking the extraterrestrial back to their base, where it thaws — and wreaks mayhem.
Faithful to the original: Depends on which “original” we’re talking about. This is ostensibly a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 body-horror masterpiece, which was a radical reimagining of 1951’s chatty watch-the-skies sci-fi parable. But let’s be honest: The newest Thing is really more of a remake of Carpenter’s version, copping not only the setup but also a lot of creature design and gross-out gags.
Nostalgia factor: Carpenter didn’t nod to the Fifties original at all; the 2011 remake takes place in the exact, and exactingly reconstructed, world of the ’82 film.
Treatment of iconic villain: Rob Bottin’s shape-shifting abomination was as horrifying as movie monsters get. Kurt Russell dynamited the creature in the end, but the 2011 prequel finds a surer way to kill it: CGI.
Level/quality of kills: The delivery feels too derivative and plastic to truly shock.
Scary: There’s nothing nearly as terrifying as the ’82 version’s chest-defibrillation scene; even the few genuine scary moments pale in comparison.
Gory: The effects look like they were lifted straight out of a video game.
Evil Dead (2013)
While staying in the country, a group of twentysomethings find a mysterious old book — the kind that causes demonic possessions and impromptu attacks with nail guns.
Faithful to the original: Thankfully, Uruguayan director Fede Alavarez is not trying to ape the gonzo splatter-meets-Three-Stooges feel of Sam Raimi’s 1981 cult classic and scream queen Jane Levy is not trying to do a Bruce Campbell impersonation. There’s less nuttiness and far more nastiness here.
Nostalgia factor: The original is the definitive Cabin in the Woods movie, and the remake hits all the right notes — the flooded bridge, the living vines, the bottle in the shed marked “Chainsaw Gas.” Stay past the end credits and you will see a familiar face.
Treatment of iconic villain: Having the over-the-top deadites spew swear words is creepy at first, and incredibly tiresome after a while. The real delight is the revitalized version of the Necronomicon, here illustrated in a terrifying mix of mystical chicken-scratch and insane blood-scrawl.
Level/quality of kills: Top shelf. There’s nailgun murder, self-mutilation with a broken mirror, and third-degree scalding, all happening right before you eyes. It pushes the envelope without seeming trashy.
Scary: More upsetting than shivery, but still the stuff of nightmares.
Gory: Hell yes. Look for a scene where a man gets his hand split in half with a crowbar — if you can stand to watch it.