By Drew Taylor | The Playlist April 2, 2013 at 12:01PM
This weekend the new, gore-soaked remake of Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead" (review here) chainsaws its way into theaters nationwide. A bold reimagining that jettisons much of the original film's humor, replacing it with an unrelenting bleakness, it's the kind of movie that sometimes feels less like an entertainment and more like an endurance test. It also got us thinking about other horror classics that have been brazenly retrofitted for modern audiences (and the other ones that absolutely do not work). So we've cooked up a list of five of the best horror remakes and five of the worst, omitting movies that were too sci-fi-y (sorry, "The Thing") and focusing specifically on what worked and what didn't work as it related to the original. Get ready for some pretty scary stuff.
If the list looks too "modern," keep in mind that almost all of these remakes were born post-"Scream," when the studios figured that they could mine their back catalogue for the movies that were referenced within "Scream," updating them for new audiences, sometimes referencing the fact that the same audiences had seen the original (and countless other horror remakes). And it's also worth keeping in mind that there are at least two other big time horror remakes on the horizon. This fall sees the release of Kimberly Peirce's "Carrie," a remake of Brian De Palma's 1978 masterpiece (the new script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is supposedly a more faithful adaptation of Stephen King's original novel) and in development is a new take on the underrated 1976 true-crime shocker "Town That Dreaded Sundown," this time from "American Horror Story" mastermind Ryan Murphy and "Paranormal Activity" producer Jason Blum (it was also, coincidentally, written by Aguirre-Sacasa).
Take a look and note: this list caused some internal debate and water cooler showdowns in the offices and hallways of The Playlist, so prepare for some controversy and be sure to share your thoughts below.
“Evil Dead II” (Sam Raimi, 1986)
Despite its title, Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead II" is more a remake than it is a sequel, following the events of the first, ultra-low-budget film fairly closely, while widening the film's scope and incorporating different tonal elements, all of which add up to an absolute classic of the genre. Anyone who saw the original "Evil Dead" and then went to "Evil Dead II" were probably surprised (and maybe a little saddened) by just how much like the original the second film is – Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend go to a cabin in the woods and unwittingly unleash an ancient evil that terrorizes them endlessly. But Raimi and co-conspirators Scott Spiegel and Rob Tapert wisely open up the world, by both adding more characters and creating a more sustained, unpredictable atmosphere where shocking violence and slapstick humor sit comfortably side-by-side, sometimes in the same scene (goodbye hand!) Raimi also pushed things, in a visual sense, into the uncomfortable realms of surrealism, sometimes going a little too far (the tree rape sequence is a little much). By the time the movie concludes with our hero being zapped into the literal dark ages (a gag that would eventually pay off with the gonzo third film, "Army of Darkness," that would swing the horror/comedy ratio in the other direction), you've either fallen in love with "Evil Dead II" or lost all patience with it. As far as remakes go, it's the most successful because it wasn't happy on just slavishly reproducing the film that came before it. It's impish, creatively restless, and utterly fearless, with a lovably fuck-you, take-it-or-leave it attitude that has proven even more endearing as it moves out of "cult classic" territory and into straight-up "classic" terrain. (The success of "Evil Dead II" also makes the decision to play this new "Evil Dead" remake completely straight even more baffling, especially when they had "Juno" author Diablo Cody assisting. She's the queen of the quips. But they seem to have lobbed off her razor-sharp contributions like an unwanted severed hand.)
“Piranha 3D” (Alexandre Aja, 2010)
“Horror remakes directed or produced by French filmmaker Alexandre Aja” could have practically been its own list, as the “High Tension” auteur has directed the exemplary “The Hills Have Eyes” (remaking Wes Craven’s mutant cannibal classic) and the underrated “Mirrors” (a Japanese horror remake that uneasily melded with his more Fangoria-subscription sensibilities), plus he’s got a writing/producing hand in the super cool remake of “Maniac” that opens this spring from IFC Films. But “Piranha 3D” is his true triumph. A redo of Joe Dante’s cheapo “Jaws”-rip off from 1978 (written by a then-unknown John Sayles), Aja swaps the original’s post-Vietnam social commentary for a more barbed (razor-toothed?) satire of American excessiveness, while keeping the original’s goofy, blood-splattered spirit. A sort of “Spring Breakers” with blood geysers, it concerns the fate that befalls a group of clothing-allergic coeds who run into prehistoric piranhas on their anything-goes holiday. The characters have a nicely seventies-disaster-movie diversity (there’s the tough female sheriff played by Elisabeth Shue, the geeky seismologist in Adam Scott, the crotchety fish expert Christopher Lloyd and the pervert pornographer Jerry O’Connell), and Aja (along with frequent confederates writer-producer Gregory Levasseur and editor Baxter), rendering the carnage in somewhat rudimentary 3D, has a sense of how depth can affect and enhance the shocks and scares, culminating in a feeding frenzy sequence that might chart as one of the most violent in cinematic history. As funny as it is scary, “Piranha 3D” is the kind of movie that only a French filmmaker could make about American culture. And as the original begat the sort-of James Cameron-directed “Piranha II,” so too did “Piranha 3D” inspire a hokey, half-assed sequel – 2012’s barely-released “Piranha 3DD” (when the funniest thing about your movie is the title, you know of know you’re fucked).
At a certain point, Hollywood was gripped with the need to remake every even marginally popular Asian horror movie, and the results were typically (at best) mixed. In the transition from a more philosophical “Eastern” mode of storytelling, in which dreamy connective tissue is more important than concrete plot specifics, to a more fundamentally “Western” form, in which narrative structure and plot articulation is paramount, more was lost than gained. Besides “Audition,” which has mercifully avoided the remake treatment, the scariest and most profoundly influential Asian horror film from the period was “The Ring,” about a cursed videotape, it's remake ended up easily being the best and brightest of this crop, partially because, after some narrative dead-ends (a whole subplot that featured Chris Cooper as a serial killer of children was completely deleted), Verbinski, a director with a decided visual bent towards the surreal, embraced the more ethereal Asian narrative style. The result was a winning combination of both aesthetics, one that placed a headstrong female protagonist (Naomi Watts), who doggedly tries to solve the mystery of the cursed videotape before it claims the life of her young son. Visually, it's a completely different beast from its Japanese counterpart and that's a good thing – Bojan Bazelli's rain-streaked cinematography creates a wonderfully downbeat mood, eerily complimented by Hans Zimmer's droning ambient score and Craig Wood's idiosyncratic editing. Sure, the unexpected punch of the ending is absent, but Verbinski's visualization is still pretty neat. "The Ring" is the "best case scenario" for these Asian adaptations, one in which the original intent isn't diluted and the Americanization makes it feel enlivened instead of overtly explained.