By Drew Taylor | The Playlist April 2, 2013 at 12:01PM
For a while, Joel Silver’s Dark House production shingle, set up at Warner Bros and specializing in down-and-dirty genre fare, almost exclusively remade old horror movies, with most coming from the back catalogue of William Castle, a gimmicky, cigar-chomping producer who considered himself in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock but was more along the lines of P.T. Barnum. The results were often well-intentioned misfires (“House on Haunted Hill” was too arch, “Thirteen Ghosts” tonally and editorially uneven), but they struck gold with their remake of the 1953 Vincent Price shocker “House of Wax,” this time by then-unknown Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra (in the years since he’s become one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood). Sadly, most of the remake's notoriety comes from the stunt casting of Paris Hilton in a pivotal role; it should surprise no one that the movie becomes significantly better once she is unceremoniously killed off. The “House of Wax” remake is impeccably crafted, combining direct references to the 1953 original while incorporating more modern influences, including the work of Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” to be sure, but also flourishes of “Eaten Alive” and “The Funhouse”). While some may feel the film’s pacing is a little too deliberate, the last act of “House of Wax,” in particular, gallops along; it’s breathlessly exciting filmmaking that you can’t help but goggle at, and feels like the only remaining evidence of original Dark House principle Robert Zemeckis’ tangential involvement. It’s that damn good.
“Halloween”/”Halloween II” (Rob Zombie, 2007 and 2009)
Initially, Rob Zombie's skewered, hyper-detailed approach to the mythos of John Carpenter's 1977 classic (the gold standard by which all other slashers are compared against), an approach critic Nathan Lee rightfully described as not "so much a horror film as a biopic, and a superb one at that," was either completely dismissed or outright ignored. It was long on the tortured childhood of young soon-to-be-serial killer Michael Myers and short on the blood-splattered mayhem, with Zombie essentially getting down to the business of remaking the original in a truncated, overtly hectic third act which felt less like an organic conclusion than something that the studio tried to aggressively force on him. The fact that Zombie came back to helm a sequel, mostly in order to get away from what he considered to be a constrictive contract with The Weinstein Company, is something of a shock. The fact that he made a movie even uglier (shot in ragged 16 mm and blown up to 35 mm for theatrical exhibition) and more divisive than his first film is nothing short of miraculous. Taken together, though, as some online have suggested is the only true way to "watch" the movies, and it's like the "Kill Bill" of horror remakes – an expansive, utterly personal epic that, for scope and adventurousness, trumps nearly every horror movie, remake or otherwise, from the past decade. (It should be noted, for the sake of honesty, that when reviewing the sequel for this very website, yours truly called the sequel "baffling and half-baked.") The whole bloody "Halloween" affair is psychologically adroit and unpredictably nimble, weaving between "prequel" and "remake" and showcasing what went into Michael Myers' transformation into the homicidal maniac we know and love today, which then gives way to a more impressionistic (but just as grubby) examination of the same evil. It might not be perfect but it's incredibly personal – the interpretive work of a singular artist deathly afraid of the same old shit.
"The Omen" (John Moore, 2006)
"The Omen" remake was so creatively bankrupt that, after some initial development, Fox just said "fuck it" and reused David Seltzer's script for the original, vastly superior "Omen" (directed by Richard Donner and released in 1976). The studio then installed hack du jour John Moore in the director's chair and listlessly filled out the cast with bland performers uneager or unwilling to bring even a remote sense of freshness or unpredictability to the production (Mia Farrow, making a long-awaited return to the screen, just screeches maniacally). Moore pointlessly photocopies sequences from the original – the photographer's decapitation (now with digital blood!), the priest's impalement, the army of menacing dogs – making everything more blatant and less elegant than its predecessor. There's no surprise as to whether or not Damien is a demon child, since they cast a kid that you would cross the street to avoid, and the couple (Liev Schrieber and Julia Stiles) are too young – they lack the desperation that made the original scenario work on such a profoundly sad level. When "The Omen" franchise started out it was sharp and scary – a religious chiller for the nonbelievers who had already been disillusioned by the horrors and atrocities of the sixties and seventies – but it quickly devolved into low budget schlock, a kind of proto-"Final Destination" where Damien would trigger all sorts of crazy things to happen and kill people. "The Omen" remake leans more on the elaborateness of the sequels, while somehow pummeling the original script into a shapeless pulp. Satanically awful.
"Nightmare on Elm Street" (Samuel Bayer, 2010)
Wes Craven has had pretty good luck with remakes of his films – both "The Hills Have Eyes" and "Last House on the Left" turned out to be lively takes on the original material – but the "Nightmare on Elm Street" remake, shepherded by the folks at Michael Bay-run production company Platinum Dunes (who also remade "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Hitcher," "Friday the 13th," and "The Amityville Horror") – was an out-and-out disaster. What made "Nightmare on Elm Street" particularly unforgiveable was that it was released in an era when, thanks to modern technology, literally anything is possible; the nightmares and dreamscapes of "Nightmare on Elm Street" could have far surpassed anything previously envisioned in the franchise (or anywhere else for that matter). Instead, director Samuel Bayer (who helmed the influential "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video for Nirvana) and screenwriters Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, turned in a remake that was gravely unoriginal, neither expanding nor improving on Craven's beloved 1984 feature. Future girl with the dragon tattoo Rooney Mara plays the Nancy character, who is menaced in her sleep by Freddy Kruger (Jackie Earle Haley, playing a burnt up version of his character from "Little Children"), a child murderer her parents killed many years earlier. The dream sequences lack visual splendor (Tarsem's underrated, uneven "The Cell," released a decade earlier, is still more impressive), the script is humorless and dull, and, most damningly, it isn't scary at all. In fact, it's a total snooze.