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Horror Movie Redux Review

Reviews within the ever-expanding realm of HORROR REMAKES, comparing the highs and some incredible lows.... Hopefully, I am not just biased towards originals.

The Amityville Horror Dawn of the Dead The Evil Dead The Exorcist Prequels The Fog
Friday the 13th Halloween The Hills Have Eyes House of Wax Last House on the Left
The Lost Boys My Bloody Valentine Night of the
Living Dead
A Nightmare
on Elm Street
Prom Night Ringu/The Ring The Shining The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre
The Thing (From
Another World)
Thirteen Ghosts 2000 Maniacs The Wolfman

The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror (1979)

Dir. Stuart Rosenberg

When it came out, this film had a best-selling book and a lot of hype going for it. What resulted is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the book, following a new family as they enthusiastically take up residence in a bargain house, only to be haunted by increasingly troublesome spirits.

The film is helped by a good cast with some well known stars, and although the pacing is more typical of slower 1970s movies, the drama builds up nicely throughout the unfolding horrors. The climax of the family's final night in the troubled home is woven beautifully, even as the father goes back for the dog at the last moment. This film also features an early (if not the first) disembodied voice commanding "get out."

Perhaps the strongest aspect of this movie is that it does not rely on special effects or action, but upon a good solid story and characters. This film was released when the story of the Lutz family was unchallenged, so it benefited from the gravity of being based on a "true story." It remains an effective telling of a worthwhile tale.

The Amityville Horror (2005)

Dir. Andrew Douglas

Well, you know it's going to be trouble when they recast a movie about an average family with the hot 'in' stars. You know it when the story is sacrificed to pack as many 'seat jumping' effects as possible. Still, what would be the point in telling this story the same way twice?

Casting heat aside, the actors turn in an adequate job as the Lutz family, and are likeable enough. The house itself becomes more of a star of the film, which works in many respects. However, it gets dragged down by pushing too much, too soon - films of this type benefit from a gradual buildup of tension - revealing cool special effects at the beginning undermine the impact of the effects towards the end.

Perhaps the final straw, to those familiar with the story or the first film, is turning Jodi into a little girl who lived in the house earlier, and haunts it still. This sort of revisionism smells like 'creativity by committee,' and degrades the gravity of the more enigmatic elements of the story - you don't have to reveal everything - just ask Lovecraft.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

Once again, flash and glamor is no substitute for measured storytelling, good characters, and the ability of a director to hold tension in suspension long enough to keep the audience breathless. The remake pales in comparison to the original (which is just an 'OK' movie itself), and loses by several yards.

Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Dir. George Romero

This is the film where George Romero really hit his stride. Still acutely observant of society, he had a real budget and Tom Savini by his side for gore and more. Leveraging the benefits of a real ensemble cast, it is the characters that move the story, not the frights.

Generally regarded as a blend of horror and satire, this film examines the boom in mindless consumerism in America by harshly playing that cultural priority against an end of the world scenario. Occasionally heavy handed dialog ("This place was important to them") can be easily overlooked due to the stunning overall effect. Sure, the shambling hordes of zombies were blue and slow (and occasionally confined to escalators), but the gore was first rate. For many, this film was the first look at over the top gore effects that didn't look like H. G. Lewis' distinctive red paint.

Romero's gift remains in tying a self-critical agenda to a flesh eating world's end. This gives the films relevence that keeps it from becoming lost in the pack. Looking back upon this film, we can better understand from where we've come.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Dir. Zach Snyder

Coming early in the resurgence of big-budget zombie movies, there were no doubts that this remake would be a vanilla rehash. More was expected - intensity, shocks, and gore. This film delivered them all.

Beginning with a brutal opening sequence that initially seems to be taking its time, we are plunged into the full-on zombie apocalypse. Oh, and one other thing - these zombies are speedy. The ensemble cast is gradually herded to a shopping mall, preserving the major aspects of the original. We learn about the caracters, lose a few, and even begin to care about them - no small trick for modern horror films. A solid cast, good acting and good direction do it every time.

The last element that solidifies this effort is the hopelessness that grows towards the end of the film. There will be no happy endings with this production, and providing one would feel like a sellout after the journey the characters have undertaken. After navigating oceans of zombies and an ocean without zombies, be sure to watch the end credits all the way through.

Relentless and brutal, this remake is foremost serious - a distinction that raises it above simple imitation of Romero.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

Romero is a living legend, and his original work is a classic, but in terms of impact and lingering horrors, the remake clearly stands on his ample shoulders.

The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead(1981)

Dir. Sam Raimi

Aside from launching the career or major director Sam Raimi, this film emerged as a fierce ride when most other horror films were losing their teeth. As a film, it still possesses enough 'film school' and 'indie' feeling to be interesting. More interesting is to critically watch Sam Raimi at the beginning of his craft. As a horror film, it possessed the pacing, teeth and caracter to frighten and become a cult classic.

The plot is fairly pedestrian, but the relentless inventiveness of the frights, well managed escalation of fear, and accessible characters have kept this film a favorite. Whether it is creepy possessed Cheryl locked in the basement, or an exhausted Ash having everything in Sumerian Hell thrown at him, good characters keep the movie on track, even when the acting or dialog gets a little cheesy. Distortions of sound and viewpoint add to the unsettling experience of being in this desolate cabin with these people.

Launching a 3-film franchise, this film remains the most frightening of the three, which went off to explore gore and humor in turn. This anchor of the series remains a horror classic.

Evil Dead (2013)

Dir. Fede Alvarez

Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell retained some control over this long-awaited remake, but knew enough to maintain distance. If this film had tried to emulate Raimi, or reboot the character of Ash, it would have failed instantly. Smartly written, it skates around the original film, while occasionally making a knowing nod to elements of the original. Smartly conceived, it escalates the horror, features a small, skilled cast, and delivers some beautiful frights.

Among the smart choices was recruiting a promising young director from Uruguay who delivers slick results while retaining some of the 'indie' vibe. Smart screenwriting makes the story arc much more plausible (if you can forgive Eric for reading aloud from a creepy book that says 'do not read'), and allows Mia to become a strong character without a whiff of Ash. This is easily one of the better remakes to be found.

Still, somewhere along the way, watching an Evil Dead film without enjoying the ever-suffering Ash feels like someone is missing. Ash is the Evil Dead franchise, despite the fact that Bruce Campbell only consented to support this film if there was no Ash. It's a good film, but in the end, I still miss Ash.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

This is close, and fortunately these two films feel different enough to enjoy both. Still, the Evil Dead of Ash is a tested classic, and not easily surpassed.

The Fog

The Fog (1980)

Dir. John Carpenter

From the height of John Carpetner's collaborations with Debra Hill, one of my favortie parts of this movie is the John Houseman intro that was actually added at the last moment to pad the running time. Surprisingly, it is this very introduction that sets the tone for the movie - a gothic ghost story wrought with suspense and atmosphere.

One of the best elements of this story is the unfolding of the mystery, driven by solid characters. There characters are in a rapidly deteriorating situation, and we believe that they are really trying to deal with that. Like other films of the 1970s, more value is placed on good scriptwriting and believable characters. I could have lived without the Jamie Lee Curtiss hitch-hiking romance, but there it is. Hal Holbrook as the conflicted priest more than compensates, and Adrienne Barbeau's role as the nearly-uninvolved observer creates an unusual cast chemistry.

In fact, the few shock-gore moments were added in post production to further pad the running time. This is essentially a short story that benefits from its brevity and indie-like trappings. Like Lovecraft, it is more about what you do not see than what jumps out at you. Many consider this to be a more finely crafted film than Carpenter's preceeding effort, Halloween, although it was not nearly as successful.

The Fog (2005)

Dir. Rupert Wainwright

Rupert Wainwright's directing credits are highlited by rap music videos. I guess solid characters are not a huge deal in those, either. This film illustrates how the difference between suspense and boredom is only a few degrees. Maybe this film can best be described as 'attention deficit.' Contemporary filmmakers really need to learn the art as well as the craft.

Directing in unfamiliar territory, Wainwright opted to use flash and special effects in place of tension and character. All right, some of the props were nice, but we have seen too many elaborate splatter setups to be impressed by them now. This movie is a series of elaborate setups, strung together.

The actors are entirely unengaged in their characters, merely walking through the script. The role of the conflicted priest is now a two-dimensional gesture towards an potentially interesting character. In my mind, the only good element was Selma Blair as Stevie Wayne, since she has a loneliness about her that worked well here. Otherwise it is plagued by incontinuity, pointlessness, lack of character-chemistry, and cheap attempts at fright.

Even horror fans know a bad movie when they see one. It is unfortunate that John Carpenter green lighted this pale remake. In this case, the fog doesn't roll in... it just blows.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

The Fog 1980 by several miles. Blech. Stupid remake fever.

Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th (1980)

Dir. Sean Cunningham

This low budget film surprised the world with its shattering success. In hindsight, any impact it originally had has been hopelessly blunted by the legion of imitators throughout the decade of the 1980s as well as its own soul-sucking succession of sequels.

But that doesn't change the fact that this is a movie that delivers the goods, and then some.

The story is simple, unfolding like a 'whodunnit,' and the tale is well told. Scares are heightened by quick edits and memorable sound augmentation, including the 'ja-ja-ja-ja' whispers that have become their own cliche. The makeup and gore effects put Tom Savini on the map, and Kevin Bacon's carrer survived as well.

Is it a classic? Absolutely. Is it a great movie? Never ever. But that hasn't diminished the ability of this movie to capture the collective attention of the 1980s and resonate to this day. Something about this movie works, and it is an elusive credibility and charm that comes from earnest efforts to make a good movie, to do something new and startling. Even the ending shot of the movie, featuring Ari Lehman in his career-making role as the young Jason, jabbed cheaply at the audiences just as they were 'switching off' their attention. William Castle would have been proud of such masterful manipulation. Yet the effect of that one gag is undeniable and certainly indellible.

And that is what makes a classic, after all.

Friday the 13th (2009)

Dir. Marcus Nispel

Marcus Nispel followed his adequate remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) with a re-issue of some of the Cher videos he directed. At least he kept within the horror genre.

This film has all the right elements - good casting, varied characters, nice sets, and a sparingly used villain. Yet it falls into the trap of many recent remakes of horror films in thinking that being based on a good movie will allow that goodness to be inherited. The result is just as bland and predictable as recent remakes of The Fog or The Hills Have Eyes. In fact, this might as well just be a continuation of either of those unimaginative movies out for a buck.

I liked the use of elements from the first and second Friday the 13th films - the mother motif (I miss Betsy Palmer, though), the burlap mask and later the hockey mask. They resisted the urge to include Jason in every scene, and focused on the growing panic of his victims. Yet somehow, they managed to make Jason boring. Even the cast seems bored - Jason shows up, they see him, and then he kills them - is that a silent scream, or a yawn?

The characters were carefully varied and their relationships well defined, and I actually cared about a couple. I rooted for the Harry Hamlin clone protagonist, I rolled my eyes at the antics of the diversity stoners, and I reviled the Tom Cruise clone jerkwad. But I was insulted when they went into the old house and found a bed with the name "Jason" carved into the headboard - because I hate it when a director calls me an idiot. Seriously, did we need to be spoon fed that much?

Honestly, there's nothing wrong with this movie. I kind of enjoyed it, and I didn't feel ripped off. But it's just another quick remake, and it completely missed grabbing the zeitgheist like the original.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

The original Friday the 13th is several cuts above the remake. Classics continue to resonate even after they become dated - that's what makes a classic. Quicky remake cash-ins fade in a few weeks.


Halloween (1978)

Dir. John Carpenter

All right. John Carpenter didn't invent the slasher genre, but he gave it gravity and menace. Heavy on lurking tension, mood music, and eventual intensity, this film became an instant classic. Solid performances from the principle characters create enough empathy that you actually care what happens to Laurie and Dr. Loomis.

In creative terms, lurking use of long shots establishing relationships between foreground and background characters is a key ingredient. Also, this film is from the age when films still emphasized characters, often without rush. Unlike older movies, however, Halloween balances that emphasis with building tension and a crashing finale.

Carpenter deliberately avoided answering the questions that would have demystified Michael Meyers. We don't see his childhood, or his parents, or his institutional experience. He becomes one of those great characters that is described and anticipated before he really arrives. And this lack of detail allows him to embody a very personal nightmare for each member of the audience. By the end, we very well believe that Michael Meyers just may be the Boogeyman.

Halloween (2007)

Dir. Rob Zombie

Rob Zombie is certainly developing as a filmmaker. His approach to this film is fresh, and lives up to Zombie's goal - "I want to make Michael Meyers scary again." However, by deliverying a terrific backstory of Michael Meyers' childhood, he accidentally takes the mask off of one of horror's great shadows.

Part of the 'larger than life' aspect of Michael Meyers is that he is the shadow. Lovingly crafted with an exceedingly rational approach, Zombie's revelation of how a little boy could become a murderous psychopath leaves Michael Meyers a little too - well, human. He is certainly the central character of this film, and he garners quite a lot of empathy. We feel sorry for him, we feel that some of his outbursts are even justified. He is ill, he is a product of a harmful environment, and he is human.

But he really can't be a shadow while he is being human.

Bring to the mix the roster of Zombie favorite castmembers (despite solid direction and solid performances), and a rushed-feeling second half of the movie, and this film becomes less than classic. Certainly worth the price of admission, though.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

Halloween 1978 by several yards. Classic at it's release, and standing up to the test of time, it's just hard to top John Carpenter.

House of Wax

House of Wax (1953)

Dir. André De Toth

Sure it's melodramatic, and was originally released in 3-D, but it has Vincent Price. And a very early appearance by Charles Bronson. But mostly, it has murder, menace and technicolor melting wax.

Set in the late 1800s, this is the tale of a wax artist who is wronged, and seeks vengance. A highlight of this film is the wax museum istelf, featuring very fine wax figures (provided by Toussaud's in France). Price is at his melodramatic best, and the supporting cast is decent. A fire at the wax museum provides many memorable images of slowly melting wax figures, which must have been even more impressive in 3-D. I am willing to forgive a few gratuitous 3-D shots, including a huckster with a paddle-ball, as 3-D movies were all the rage when this film was released.

In all, this is a nice, old-fashioned horror show for the deeply nostalgic. Still visually rich, it is worth watching, although it won't change your life.

House of Wax (2005)

Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra

Rather than pumping the original movie with a pointless rehashing, this movie successfully amps up the core concept with contemporary characters, clear antagonist(s), and a gorgeous 'town of wax.' You might say that the only thing wrong with this movie is Paris Hilton. Fortunately, they fix that before the midpoint.

Maintaining good energy throughout, this version succeeds in pulling the action from scene to scene by immersing the characters into a 'something is not right' town that turns out to be a set piece in wax. As the film proceeds, the threat becomes more specific and clear to the participants, until they unravel a mini Scooby Do mystery and the whole wax town melts in fantastic goopy glory.

The film boasts some imaginative murders, and feels contemporary with the remake of The Hills Have Eyes without seeming as contrived or clumsy as that remake. It may not exactly be about an artist, but there is more art to the finale of this film than I have seen in a long time.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

I love old Vincent Price movies, but the remake really nails everything that a House of Wax should have, and then some. Perhaps the real question is why French-sounding directors are attracted to this story?

Last House on the Left

(Virgin Spring) (1960)

Dir. Ingmar Bergen

Review soon...

Last House on the Left (1972)

Dir. Wes Craven

Review soon...

Last House on the Left (2009)

Dir. Dennis Iliadis

Gotta review soon...

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

The original Last House wins by five yards, retaining shock value in gritty realism, rather than losing punch with slick production and pretty faces. Virgin Spring is more a cautionary tale cut from the same cloth. I am not even going to mention Chaos (2005), a high-shock rehashing involving a reluctant Sage Stallone.

The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys (1987)

Dir. Joel Schumacher

Alarmingly entertaining when originally released, The Lost Boys seems to enjoy an widespread affection, perhaps in part due to nostalgia, and possibly because great original horror films were uncommon in the 1980s.

Succeeding at so many levels, this film offers great casting and characters, memorable settings, original story elements, finely honed humor, and good gorey effects. A very 1980s movie, it seems less dated than many other films of that era simply because its design aesthetic pushed in the right directions. The grungy Frog brothers are offset by the glam-pires, who are offset by the conservative older folks. Generation gaps between children, teens and adults provide tension that bridges to the gaps between the vampire hunters, the vampires, and the unwitting victims.

Perhaps that is the main reason for this film's enduring popularity. Whenever in your life you first saw The Lost Boys, there were characters worthy of your empathy, creating a lasting association. Holy water-shooting supersoakers and melty, explodey vampires merely seal the deal.

Lost Boys: The Tribe (2008)

Dir. P. J. Pesce

Ordinarily, a direct-to-video remake is forgettable at best. In this case, several strengths keep this movie fresh and entertaining.

Firstly, good casting and good acting makes a huge difference. Key roles are well considered, and bringing back the (now adult) Edgar Frog works brilliantly. (Watch after the credits for another callback, despite Corey Haim's legendary status as a Hollywood train wreck.) The characters are generally credible, which is better than most remakes already.

Secondly, the film takes steps to avoid becoming a rehashing of the original. The story line takes interesting, original turns, and the entire feel has been updated for a contemporary generation without feeling like a ham-fisted tweenies fest. Surfer vampires substitute for biker vampires. A more robust vampire subculture substitutes for four dandies in a cave. You get the idea.

This is a fun movie, partially because everyone is so familiar with the original. Functioning equally well as a remake or a sequel, the formula still works, and as long as Edgar Frog is around, California will be battling vampires.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

The original Lost Boys wins by a yard, although I feel safe recommending a mini film festival to enjoy both movies.

My Bloody Valentine

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

Dir. George Mihalka

Review soon...

My Bloody Valentine (2009)

Dir. Patrick Lussier

Review soon...

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

The original My Bloody Valentine just might win it. Or it might not. We is still waiting for an expert review by the Broomax.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Dir. Wes Craven

Half a dozen limp sequels later, it is sometimes hard to remember what an original and unsettling picture this was. Wes Craven, once again drawing personal experiences and real events, crafted one of the most enduring villians in horror history, brought to life by character actor Robert Englund. Strong casting also resulted in a very earnest cast featuring Heather Langenkamp and Johnny Depp, who each brought a nuanced believability to their roles.

Of all the Nightmare treatments, the original had two strengths above all the others: A frightening villian and a nightmarish quality throughout. Robert Englund is rarely seen until well into the film, but we know he is 'coming for you.' Gone are the goofy puns and winks at the camera that would characterize Freddy Kruger in later sequels. This Freddy is a lethal monster lurking in the shadows. The film repeatedly tricks dream/reality perception, keeping the viewer off balance, and then exploits that uncertainty with solid shocks. Not since Suspiria has a film captured such a dreamlike atmosphere throughout.

A testament to the solidity of this film and its characters is its success in driving sequels and remakes 25 years later.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Dir. Samuel Bayer

I have to give credit to this remake for not falling into the 'cheap and empty' trap that swallowed so many other remakes (such as Friday the 13th). They put a twist on Craven's original story (and in fact, restored Freddy Kruger as a child molester rather than a child killer as Craven had originally intended) to keep the audience guessing about where it was going. Apparently out of respect for the original, they preserved several beloved scenes that themselves have become iconic. There is a gritty, haunting atmosphere as the protagonists descend into Freddy's world, and often these are realized with depth and beauty. Finally, by casting Jackie Earl Haley as Kruger, they make good use of an unnerving actor that has been making audiences uneasy since The Bad News Bears.

However, it feels a little hollow. The key scenes are imitated, but not ehnanced. The casting is adequate, but the performances register somwhat flatly, perhaps capturing the lingering disinterested feeling of the 'shoe gazer' generation. There are a few nightmare/reality tricks, but we generally see them coming. Perhaps my biggest disappointment is the treatment of Kruger himself, in competing with 'himself' (as crafted by Robert Englund). He seems small, even puny. He looks like a burned child. He has a flat, gravelly 'Batman' voice that isn't scary. By abandoning the subtle grim humor introduced by Englund, they are left with a flat, somewhat generic villian in a familar sweater. Haley's own appearance has an unsettling character, but it is lost beneath the makeup. Englund's countenance, by comparison, was positively enhanced.

It's tough to step up to a classic. This film did better than most, and it remains enjoyable, but far from classic itself.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

The original Nightmare 1984 wins by miles. Both films as worth watching, but only the original resonates enough to power a 25-year film franchise.


Nosferatu (1922)

Dir. F. W. Murnau

It is difficult to find fault with a pioneering film like this. To a modern audience, there may be aspects of this film that initially could be taken as liabilities - silent film, black and white, primitive effects, and rough editing. Yet these are the very aspects of this film that make it a work of art first, and a film second. Murnau's sparse use of lighting creates an epic of the German Expressionist school, while remaining faithful to Stoker's Dracula. Shadow is every bit a leading character, and it is used to innovative advantage.

Relying on characters rather than effects, this often dreamlike film retains a fairy-tale like feeling, as Count Orlock is more a were-rat and Renfield is a were-spider. Max Schreck is an undeniable presense, creating discomfort and dread whenever in frame. No suspension of disbelief is needed to accept that his is indeed a vampire. This sinister current is essential to the success of the character, and is the main strength of the film.

It is unsettling to imagine the impact this film had on contemporary audiences, and the fact that it continues to draw attention today underscores it's appeal.

Nosferatu (1979)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Firstly, Herzog is a great film maker. The sense of place delivered by location shooting vaults across decades and makes the acceptance of this 19th century tale immediately immersive. The lurid palatte invokes the luster of the silent film, but invites us to look upon the plague-ridden city as a participant.

Secondly, Klaus Kinsky brings a creepy menace to this character that glows like a hollowing candle. He is at once a villanous vampire and a lamentable victim of his own eternal condition. A new aspect of somber sensuality is delivered by Isabelle Adjani, who seems to have stepped from a silent screen herself.

Although the subject is well served by the deliberate, funerary pacing of the film, it becomes a bit too ponderous for most viewers. The entire film is a study of melancholia and despair, artfully achieved.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

Nosferatu 1922, but narrowly. The strength of both of these films is that they both believe in their vampires.

Prom Night

Prom Night (1980)

Dir. Paul Lynch

Let me be brief. Although this is a film from the classic era of slasher films, it is not actually a classic. It is kind of like a space filler while Jamie Lee Curtis figured out her next role after Halloween.

Still, it wins points for 'being there' when a slasher movie could be judged by the cleverness of the kill methods. These were simpler times, when middle-aged folks could pass for teens, and a hackneyed 'somebody wants revenge' plot was enough to hold a thin movie together. Apparently everyone who has seen the accidental death of a loved one will turn into an uber killer, capable of outsmarting the kids at the prom. Still, this plot was enough to keep the plot cohesive. Back then, movies actually had plots, too.

Perhaps the greatest enduring horror of this movie is the early 80's fashion and the dancing, dancing, dancing.

Oh, the horror. The horror.

Prom Night (2008)

Dir. Nelson McCormick

I have stopped asking 'why remake this movie?' in the last few years. If someone promises a quick payout for a recycled plot, nobody is going to stop them.

Still, I found this movie to be smart and stupid at the very same time. Let me explain - there are some very smart things about this movie. A recurring theme of closets and hangers (apparently central to the manipulation of the audience) shows some thought, and possibly a fetish. The victims are maniulated nicely, too, utilizing the divide and conquer slasher strategy pretty well.

Yet just when I want to give the writer some credit, the police do something unbelievable. Forgive me - they do everything unbelievably. From the "Unknown killer in the hotel? Flush everyone out!" strategy, to the "Who needs a backup?" approach, to the "Cop that asks questions, then runs away before getting an answer," law enforcement is depicted as a bunch of distracted nincompoops. Oh well.

And still, there are frighteningly rich teens doing stupid things. Even the killer (a former obsessed teacher) spins off their self-important narcissism. Ye gads, there are throngs of roped-off photographers as the 'kids' enter their prom! That part actually is scary, and probably increasingly realistic.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

Prom Night 1980, by a knife-blade. The remake had closets, but I still felt stupid for watching it. The original benefits from being deep in the zeitgheist of slasher movies that all of these cheap remakes are still trying to capture.

The Hills Have Eyes

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Dir. Wes Craven

Ordinarily, movies set in the desert bore me, and remind me how much money they probably saved on sets. Wes Craven, on the other hand, rides us into the desert in such a fashion as to make us understand the isolation of the protagonists. The silent emptiness becomes a backdrop to a physically and emotionally violent ride that manages to deliver character transformations that never become trite or contrived. By the end of the film, you will hate the antagonists. Raw emotions evoked by a raw movie.

This movie has solid, fairly balanced performances all around - even those that are, by necessity, over the top. I have met Michael Berryman, and he is just as physically intense and imposing as he appears on film. He brings a credibility to the movie, simply by working as an actor and not as a prop or special effect. Also, don't underestimate the impact of the final scene for the retired cop - in 1977, this was deeply troubling.

Sure, the plot has been done to death, both before and since. It is Craven's capable hand that makes this more than a B movie. In his hands, it becomes a credible morality play, posing the question of 'how far would you go' to each viewer. The humanity of this question is what elevates it above schlock. It also scores points for charm - the grainy film and low-budget feel are just what today's 'grindhouse' imitators are still trying to recapture.

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Dir. Alexandre Aja

Again, the plot is not what made the original film a classic - it was a great director. Alexandre Aja has already proven his talent with Haute Tension (which itself has been remade as an Americanized High Tension), plus he benefits from the 'freshness' of being non-American directors in an American field. I enjoyed the opening scenes of this movie much more than I expected, as he solidified his ability to create tension and to jangle his audience's nerves. Next, he sprinkles in the beginnings of solid character development. And then the prosthetics and CGI get in the way.

Somewhere along the line, they decided that cool, over-the-top makeup and contrived (yet very effective) gore was the best way to reshoot this film. Granted, I did appreciate the 'nuclear test town' as a tool to keep the desert motif from becoming too ponderous. The trouble started when highlighting the 'cast of action freaks' became more important than empathizing with the protagonists. Perhaps this film is too tuned towards it's intended MTV audience, but it seems to sacrifice substance for ample style.

Remaking any classic is a daunting task. I doubt it could have been done much better. Some elements of change appear to be well thought out, but the overall result, while delivering shock and gore, seems to lack the humanity of the original.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

The Hills Have eyes 1977 wins by about 30 yards. Good stories can be copied, but great directors cannot. Interestingly, in July of 2007 I had an opportunity to speak to Michael Berryman, one of the stars of the original production. He felt that the remake added nothing to the original, and that the exercise of attempting a remake was generally effort wasted.


Ringu (1998)

Dir. Hideo Nakata

Ringu hit western audiences as the vanguard of Asian horror, offering a wonderful new aesthetic before we found out how similar many of these movies were. Prior to this, I was wowed by A Chinese Ghost Story, but had access to precious few others.

The film follows the mysterious case of a troubled child with some paranormal gift, and the trail of a videotape that destroys anyone who watches it. The opening scene is jarring, and was frame-by-frame copied in the western remake. Some familiarity with ghost traditions in the east is helpful, although this film mines those traditions less than Ju-on. Still, the imagery in the tape is haunting and occasionally alarming, and the menace of the strangely gifted child grows throughout the film.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Ringu and its western remake is that this film is more explicit in revealing its backstory. A key scene in this regard shows the ridicule heaped on the child's mother, and a natural defensive response through psychic means. More information is given throughout, providing a more deliberate tale, with less enigma than its successor.

The Ring (2002)

Dir. Gore Verbinski

For a remake, this is more of an essential reimagining. Barring the literal frame-by-frame retelling of the opening sequences of Ringu, this film takes a more enigmatic, less explicit storytelling path. Visually, it benefits from high production values and a few very vivid visual effects - elements that proved key to Verbinski's later Pirates of the Carribean epics.

This movie succeeds primarily because the viewer is just as confused by the events as the characters. We are given no reason as to why these things are happening, other than a few broad motivational keys. And just when we think we have it figured out, the scene in the well double-crosses us from achieving typical western horror plot resolution.

The morose palate of the film underscores the hopelessness of the characters. Key scenes are lovingly crafted and successfully disturbing (like the horse jumping). The climax is jarring and memorable, and you may not feel entirely comfortable watching the 'haunted video' after the film completes.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

The Ring remake wins by a narrow margin - mainly for creating a disarming ambiguity from a relatively straightforward Asian horror film, without losing all the visual impact of the original film.

Thirteen Ghosts

Thirteen Ghosts (1960)

Dir. William Castle

William Castle is more of a promoter than a filmmaker, but his movies are typically fun. The hook for this one was "Illusion-O" glasses used by the audience to reveal the ghosts on screen. It tied in with characters in the movie using similar glasses, and it is better than some of Castle's other hooks.

The ghosts are cute, but it looks like they really started running out of ideas for them (about the time the ghost chef and ghost lion tamer arrive). Let's face it - 13 quality ghosts is a tall order. Fortunately, Margaret Hamilton (yes, that Wicked Witch) adds some depth and interest, and even a few spooky twists. However, centering a movie around an adequate child actor tends to hobble the entire production. The acting is a little dated, but at least it's acting.

At the time of it's release, it was probably quite a work. It stands up in many regards today, mainly feeling like a family-friendly spooky movie. And that is not all bad, either.

Thirteen Ghosts (2001)

Dir. Steve Beck

For a change, it feels like a lot of effort and forethought was put into this remake. Every aspect - the house, the backstory, the ghosts themselves - feels very well developed, mining all the ore from the mine. They even brought back the glasses in homage to the origianl. Yet for all this effort, it still falls into the same trap that plagues most contemporary horror films - it remembers to be cool and shocking, but forgets to be frightening.

Some fine actors showed up for this thing, and they are generally on target. The 13 ghosts themselves are truly upsetting, and a few are actually scary when the are on film. They benefit from being actors rather than CGI effects. But it is more a 'run from the upsetting thing' than 'fear the unexplained' sort of scare. Granted, this film has some real showpiece death scenes, and they usually come as a surprise. And that is a good thing.

The plot trips over a few cliches from time to time, but overall, this is a very visual piece. It is just over-the-top enough to work, and almost all of the credit goes to the production and art direction itself. The ending is hackneyed in a fashion almost compulsory of the late 1990's big budget horror style. But it is fun to watch.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

Thirteen Ghosts 2001 by less than a yard. Face it, neither of these is beyond a B-Movie....

The Thing

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Dir. Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks

To be honest, most of the 1950's black and white science fiction movies bore me. I feel badly about this, because I always nag people to put themselves in the context of the time a film was released. So usually, these movies bore me to tears. But not this one.

Adaptation from short story usually results in tight character development and a brisk plot, and those are both true here. Tension between military and scientific characters keeps the story on tack. The acting is solid, and the mystery of 'what is this thing' keeps the story moving. A great director (uncredited Howard Hawks) helps a lot too. I swear, the 1950's black and white presentation actually enhance the feeling of cold Arctic snow.

Special effects? Who needs them when you have mystery and suspense of this sort. James Arness (the Thing) is best viewed in glimpses, otherwise you may notice that his head looks about as lifelike as a bowl of silly putty. The less is more philosophy is working overtime again. Lighting and staging fill the effects void, especially in the use of fire indoors - pure art.

Overall, this is a classic of the Cold War era. It is easy to see why John Carpenter chose to reinterpret this movie.

The Thing (1982)

Dir. John Carpenter

Most people seem to approach a remake as a shortcut to developing a film. John Carpenter took a solid core and waxed it into a fully realized work of paranoid splatter-art.

Firstly, this is one of the best ensemble casts ever, hitting notes all across the acting spectrum, but rarely creating artistic dissonance. All the arc and tension of the original film are preserved, but within a much more entertaining set of circumstances. The petri dish scene is all about tension, and Carpenter milks it like few can. The dialog is naturalistic, and character interplay is relaxed - at the beginning.

And then Rob Bottin stole the show. I often dismiss empty special effects, but these effects propel the story like a gas soaked monkey. Light it up and watch it go. I think Bottin was pretty young, and he obviously had a boatload to prove - and Carpenter let him do it. The effects balance on the wierd cusp between horror and science fiction that works well. People still talk about the impact today.

Finally, you have the haunting ending, with characters sitting around a fire in the snow, waiting, waiting. Folks still reinterpret and argue contextual clues (like who's breath is making fog) to infer the real ending, but they will never know for sure. And that open-endedness is the last part of the storyteller's genius.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

Carpenter's version is more than a remake - it is a massive reinterpretation that clearly wins, and out-classics the original.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Dir. Tobe Hooper

Forget for a moment what a classic this film is. Watch it for the grainy, neer-documentary style, the natural, capable performances, and the voyeuristic approach to not showing the gore you remember. What sets this film apart is its ability to impart a brutal impact to the viewer. You will feel Marilyn Burns' primal terror.

The protagonists are far from perfect. Some aren't even likeable. But for that, they seem real - certainly real enough to gain our empathy. All right, I'll admit that I have never met anyone that actually 'rooted for Franklin.' But I have also never met anyone who was not troubled by the depiction of pain evidenced when that girl was hung on the meathook. (She was actually injured during that shot, and she quit the film that day).

I will grant that the whole Grandpa thing drags on and gets hokey pretty quickly, but otherwise, this movie has it all. Suspense, impact and gore. The entire glory of this film can be seen in the pivotal scene of "character enters house, steel door slams open, hammer blow, body shakes, body is dragged, steel door slams shut." I defy anyone to breath through that scene. And it is at that moment that the ride really begins. Truly a classic.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

Dir. Marcis Nispel

I viewed this film with open mind and great anticipation, and it delivers (for the most part). The characters have a chance to display depth, and the revamped hitch-hiker scene is worth the cost of admission. And some of the characters are likeable. What a great start.

I was also pretty pleased with R. Lee Ermey's work (which I hear was largely improvised). Introducing the new warehouse/junkyard setting was effective at extending the anticipation of the house scenes. Care was taken to show fetishistic behavior before the antagonists are revealed, giving them a needed depth and enigmatic quality.

I was also very impressed with the basement scenes (especially the piano setup), as these managed to keep my interest, and underscore the pathos of the situation. I even got a few chills of empathy - they seemed to re-capture the depiction of suffering without relying on gore. That is an artistic achievement, these days.

What struck me at weak was the attempt to 'flesh out' the antagonists, to give a reason for their behavior. The explanation of Leatherface's childhood issues could have come from any hackneyed Friday the Thirteenth sequel. The abducted child setup seemed trite and unnecessary. And the final tunnel chases at the end seem to be lit with louvered underground halogen lights - why?

In the end, I must wonder why they felt a remake was needed. There are some fine moments in the film, but it lacks the grittiness and impact of the original. This film is worth watching, but it is hard to measure up to a classic.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

The original is still a classic, and no remake (or shoddy sequel) can diminish that. The original wins by ten yards.

2000 Maniacs

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

Dir. H. G. Lewis

This film is slow, hokey and amateur by any standards. In 2009, Mr. Lewis admitted to me that he mostly made his films just for the fun of it. However, it is also a milestone in early creative murders and budget effects. Filmed in ultra-vivid color, this bizzarre alternative to Brigadoon is a drive-in classic.

Whether butchered, crushed by stone, or rolled down a hill in a spike-lined barrel, this movie has fun with murder in a way that must have been shocking in 1964. A small southern town, not unlike "Mayberry" is populated by simple rural folk, who gradually reveal a vengeful agenda and a gift for mayhem. There is much on-screen blood, but it all has the look of bright red paint, giving the film a nostalgic surrealism by today's standards.

The slow pacing of the movie, while normal in older films, may be a bit too much for today's attention-deficit audiences. However, this film should be seen to understand how far film horror has evolved. You may not see all two thousand maniacs, but there are enough to make the point. The unexpected ending must also be acknowledged, as it underscores the creepyness of the film in its final moments.

2001 Maniacs (2005)

Dir. Tim Sullivan

This film was remade with love. While it would have been easy enough to revamp the original with slick camerawork and modern special effects, the filmmakers took the time to cast horror icons as well as unashamed wierdos. The result is a fun, unsettling, and contemporary wacko movie. For a serious film, look elsewhere.

Deliberately avoiding the trend towards intense grindhouse horror, this movie is fun. The wierdos are fun. Robert England is fun. The smarter than normal victims are fun. The acting is as quirky as the dialog, and you get the impression that making this movie was a blast.

No low-budget cheepie, the sets and costumes belie an attention to detail, and a budget that the original lacked. Sets are lovingly adorned, and gore is painstakingly dressed out. The murders pay homage to the original (despite the absense of the barrel-roll, which will reportedly appear in an upcoming sequel). Some new murders are thrown in by the enthusiastic redneck girls. And redneck girls + metal teeth = gore genius.

This remake is more of an homage, paying love and respect to an original. It is paid in full.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

The original is a quirky, dated classic, but the remake wins on many levels by several yards. Robert Englund adds a menacing mirth that grounds the production solidly.

The Exorcist Prequels

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

Dir. Paul Schrader

Firstly, this is the orignal Exorcist prequel, even though it was released a year after the remake. Both films have Stellan Skarsgard as Father Merrin, and that is why this whole matter is confusing. Here is the difference: this version has a creepy eyebrowless monkey boy. There, that should be pretty frightening.

Yes, the sickly eyebrowless monkey boy is a major problem with this film. Someone obviously can't tell the difference between contrived and troubling. At best, this character is disrupting every time he appears on film. At worst, he is a steaming pile of crap where empathy should be.

The story is interesting, the underground church is great (in both movies). This film seems to lack committment in describing why Father Merrin has turned his back on the church, becoming Mr. Merrin. It shows you, but it seems like a superficial effort.

Upon near-completion, the studio recognized that they had a problem with this film. It was scrapped altogether, and one can only assume that it was re-edited again and released to avoid taking a total loss on the effort. I doubt the studio will ever let that first "what the hell is this?" edit out of the can. Maybe that's for the best.

Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)

Dir. Renny Harlin

After reviewing Dominion, the studio realized that the film just wasn't working. They sent copies to 5 directors and asked them to offer suggestions about how they would each salvage the film. Renny Harlin was the only one to respond "start over." He was hired.

This film definitely works better, although it does get mired down in the military conflict side-story. The best thing about this film is the elimination of the amazing eyebrowless monkey boy as a central character. In fact, he is entirely gone, all the better. Izabella Scorupco brings new aspects to Father Merrin's conflicts, and the chemistry just works.

It is a good film until the last 30 or so minutes. Then it becomes great.

Claustrophobic subterranean demon chasing create fantastic tension, and the movie manages not to 'take the easy way out.' It also helps to have the protagonist attempting to save a character that you actually might care about (rather than a hideous eyebrowless monkey boy). By the end of the film, Father Merrin's path seems clearly defined, complementing the original Exorcist. It is hard to imagine how a movie could be completely remade, but this exercise justifies it.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

Renny Harlin's mulligan was a much needed effort. Still, it is fun to watch both, just to imagine why they chose to remake, and how they approached it.

The Shining

The Shining (1980)

Dir. Stanley Kubric

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but this is one of my favorite films ever, regardless of genre. It represents the combination of a peak-form Steven King story, a legendary director, and spot-on performances from all the major characters. Oh, and it's a horror movie.

Kubric took the plot elements that worked the best, deftly avoided elements out of reach (I didn't even miss the hedge animals), and picked up on the humanity that makes Steven King characters so vivid. Recurring mirror shots create a strong symbolic language underscoring the duality of Jack's mental state. Kubric also inserted an unwholesome context of the deviant nature of the ghostly party-goers that still makes me uncomfortable, although it is touched on in very brief, ambiguous images (like the dog suit).

Kubric also pushed Shelly Duvall to an incredible performance by pushing her to the brink of an emotional breakdown. It seems cruel, but it certianly paid off. And Nicolson is at his best in this film, before so much of his acting became self-referrential.

The result is a menacing horror juggernaut that may be a little slow for modern tastes, but worth the voyage. Extra points awarded for creepy twins.

The Shining (1997)

aka "Steven King's The Shining
Dir. Mick Garris

Your first response should be "what remake of The Shining?" Easy to miss, this was a made-for-TV remake, which should set low expectations already.

Mick Garris has gone on to distinguish himself with entries in the "Masters of Horror" series, and even though Steven King wrote the teleplay based on his book, this became more of a "That guy from Wings wants to be a good dad" movie than a horror film. Perhaps it represents King's own changing values, which have admittedly moved further from horror in recent years.

The special effects were admirable - the selling point of this movie (at least, in the commercials) was the inclusion of the hedge animals that created such memorable moments in the novel. The CGI is nearly adequate, but more distracting than alarming - hey, it was 1997.

Less and less of this film had to do with horror, or even madness. More and more had to do with alcoholism and fatherhood. If I wanted that, I could get wasted and watch something like "Simon Birch." Fooey.
Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

There is no comparison here. In fact, my recommendation would be to avoid the remake entirely.

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the
Living Dead (1968)

Dir. George Romero

It is hard to be critical of a classic - especially when it has become part of the public domain and seen so many times that you forget just how good it is. Remember, this is the movie that was 'banned in 13 countries' for most of the 1970s - it was the forbidden horror, tantalizing the masses. It spawned the modern zombie genre, and launched George Romero as a real filmmaker.

In today's cultural context, it is easy to forget how incendiary this movie was to a Viet Nam/Civil Rights enflamed nation. The film is a bundle of metaphorical narratives using horror as an access point for a nation in fear. Racial and class tension simmers beneath the surface, and newsfeed-like violence punctuates the crawling sense of dread. This film captures the fears and tensions of the late 1960's and puts them in a bottle for display.

The budget filming and grainy black-and-white film adds to the immediacy, and almost invokes a flavor of expressionism. The story is well paced, and unfolds with deliberate slowness to stoke tension throughout. And the acting is better than you usually get in this sort of late-60s low budget effort.

This film is not a classic by accident, but in today's era of big-budget special effects, it is easy to lose track of the storytelling in a film like this. If today's viewers can bridge the years and impose their contemporary fears upon this film, there is still a resonance. This movie should be watched periodically, just to remind us of how ground breaking it turned out to be.

Night of the
Living Dead (1991)

Dir. Tom Savini

Through the last few years of the 1980's, George Romero fought an effort to release a 'Turner-colorized' verison of the original Night of the Living Dead, which had fallen into the public domain. Shortly after winning that fight, he heard rumors that someone was going to do a remake - so, with his FX ace Tom Savini, he beat them to it.

Tom Savini is a special-effects legend, but his acting is not the best. However, he turns out to be a solid director with this remake. The color is muted slightly to sepia, the effects are gory, and the plot pulls you along while staying true to the basic plot of the original. On it's own, this is a fair movie, but to really enjoy it, you should be familiar with the original.

The payoff of this movie is that it is a referential remake. Savini lovingly considers key moments in the original film, and finds unexpected ways to twist them. We are so familiar with the original film that we 'know' what to expect in each scene - and Savini uses this against us, to surprise us. The better you know the original, the more you will enjoy this film.

One of the best twists is to take the frail character of the female lead and turn her into a strong protagonist. Good acting finishes the effect, and this is an effective ensemble piece, just like the original. Most of the other characters stay essentially true to their original counterparts, so the chemistry is not changed too much.

As remakes go, this is a fun one, and often overlooked. Not to be confused with the awful 2007 3D 're-imagining' remake (with Sid Haig), this film is more a lovingly crafted homage to the original, not attempting to replace it in any way. And that respect is why it works.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

Savini gets all respect, but you can't out-Romero the original master. The original is a classic for many reasons, and still stands up to the test of time.

The Wolfman

The Wolf Man (1941)

Dir. George Waggner

As part of the official vintage Universal pantheon of horror films, this is an automatic classic. Although it embodies much of the melodrama common in other movies of this era, it establishes high-water marks for makeup effects and vintage horror. It is sweetened by well crafted supporting characters brought to life by fine character performances. All of this is enhanced by Universal's beautiful aesthetic for nighttime villages and forest settings, delivered in lavish black and white.

If there is one weakness in this film, it is the acting abilities of Lon Chaney Junior. Most of his scenes carry the dramatic subtlety of a brick doing Hamlet. He strives to bring the melancholy of the cursed man to life, but mainly comes across as mopey and simpery. His greasy 'Moe Howard' hair doesn't help, but it was probably in fashion back then. Simply put, it is hard not to snicker at parts of his performance. Much better are the haunting characters of the Gypsy Maleva and her son, played with gusto by Bela Lugosi, in a role that is so brief that you wish it was longer.

However, the moment Chaney dons the yak-hair appliances of Jack Pierce, he siezes the role with all the zeal of a wild animal. He becomes the wolf man. By including his transformation on screen, Universal set the bar for horror films, and was not outdone until Rick Baker's work in the 1980s. The close-up of his wolf-feet stalking through the foggy forest is worth the price of admission on its own.

The Wolfman (2010)

Dir. Joe Johnston

Casting in this sort of film is everything, and Del Toro is a great choice - he normally looks half-lupine on a good day. And while his performance is sufficiently somber and cursed, I never felt the bond with the character of a tormented soul. Some of this distancing is intentional, reflected by his equally detatched father (Anthony Hopkins), but I was never truly moved by this Lawrence Talbot.

Still, everything is here - lavish sets that lure you into a world decayed by fear, ample gypsies, rich music and a tighter, more well-developed story line than the original. The effects are masterful, and Rick Baker's wolf man allows you to see the actor beneath the appliances. I was never distracted by some poorly placed comedic relief, or derailed by poorly-placed CGI either. This is a more interesting wolf man story, and a more interesting wolf man, who savages his victims like a lupine hammer. Gone forever is the notion of Lon Chaney's wolf man, oddly strangling his victims.

I enjoyed several key moments in this movie. I enjoyed it when I realized that Del Toro looks more like Lon Chaney Sr. than his son. I enjoyed it when they made genre-nods to other classics, including a rooftop city wolfman chase (ala Curse of the Werewolf), the charming villagers hiding in the pub (as in An American Werewolf in London), and recreations of visual tableaus from the original Wolf Man.

Yet for all the improvements over the original, I still had trouble connecting to the characters. And that detracted from the heart that should have pulled me into the film. It may be a lot to ask for in a horror remake, but I still felt that it was deserved. Especially with something as precious as the Wolf Man.

Mr. Spooky's Verdict:

This is a very fun and worthy remake, but I can't imagine it will have the shelf life of the original classic - Lon Chaney wins by a narrow margin, partially because he went there first, fur deep and snarling into an archetype.