3 Things Recent Horror Reboots Have Gotten Right (and 3 Things That've Gone Wrong)

The Shape rises in 2018's Halloween.
Image: Universal

The new Child’s Play movie hits theaters June 21, the latest in a long line of horror franchise reboots banking on nostalgia to lure both old-school and next-generation scary movie fans to theaters. But while some recent remakes have managed to stand on their own, others have felt more like disappointing cash grabs. Today, we’re sifting through some of the reasons why.


In the best remakes and reboots...

1. The characters have major unfinished business

Since Child’s Play is what inspired us here, we’ll mostly be referencing films that represent later additions to long-standing franchises, as opposed to one-off do-overs. But in either case, the most important thing any producer or studio should ask when considering a remake isn’t just “What do we already own the rights to?” but rather, “What do we already own the rights to that still has something to bring to the table?” The best remakes prove that a franchise still has something to say—something compelling enough to justify returning to material that’s likely been done to death pretty thoroughly already.

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The obvious example here is David Gordon Green’s Halloween, which picks up 40 years after the events of John Carpenter’s original film as if all the previous sequels never happened. That decision means that even though Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, Laurie Strode, appeared in some of those sequels, the 2018 version of her feels like the most authentic extension of the level-headed babysitter from the 1978 classic. She’s traumatized but tough as hell, and she’s spent her life preparing to face Michael Myers again.

While Halloween has some flaws, including an ending that’s a little too thirsty for a sequel, Curtis’ fierce performance—in a movie that stays true to the original material, but also allows it to evolve—offers more than enough proof of why there was room for yet another Halloween. And that’s not always easy to do: Was there really enough narrative left unexplored to require a Scream 4, for instance, or questions that needed answering by a new Blair Witch?

2. The story may be familiar, but there are inventive twists and tweaks

But Halloween is admittedly a special case, with an A-list veteran actor coming back to revive one of the slasher genre’s most important figures. Along those lines, the idea of making an Evil Dead movie without Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams sounded like blasphemy until 2013, when Fede Alvarez’s surprisingly great remake made some key changes that shifted the original film on its axis.

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The fact that the main character, Mia (Jane Levy), is now a woman doesn’t really factor into the story, though diversity in casting is definitely something horror films have improved upon overall in recent years. More importantly, Mia is a drug addict who’s trying to kick her habit; she becomes a vulnerable target for the evil in the woods that transforms her first into the story’s villain, then ultimately its battered survivor. While the rest of the characters don’t make much of an impression, Mia’s journey is suitably horrific, as are Evil Dead’s worthy-of-its-legacy gruesome special effects.

And as it happens, Ash does pop up in the end credits, but it’s more of a wink to fans than anything else. Campbell later got a chance to revisit the one-handed hero in delightful depth thanks to the Ash vs. Evil Dead TV series, which ran for three seasons on Starz; after it ended, Campbell announced he was retiring the character for good.

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3. There’s a fresh element of intrigue or inspiration

Remember how surprised you were when you heard that Halloween was going to be directed by David Gordon Green, the guy who made stoner comedy Pineapple Express—and that it would also be co-written by Danny McBride, one of that movie’s stars? It’s not the first time that talented people with hefty amounts of show-biz clout have turned their attention toward a horror remake, but it’s a trend that’s picked up lately. Remember when you heard (just last month) that comedian Chris Rock was helping reboot the Saw movies? Add to that list Jordan Peele, who’s adding to his own original horror portfolio by producing a “spiritual sequel” to Candyman, and budding movie producer LeBron James, who may or may not be the world’s tallest Friday the 13th fan.

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Of course, none of these projects have actually hit the screen yet, though Candyman has a June 2020 release date set. But the idea of Chris Rock having so much passion for Saw that he pitched a story for what could be the series’ ninth sequel? Suddenly, we’re more interested in Saw than we have been since the first film came out in 2004.

However, the parties involved don’t necessarily have to be household names—just fresh voices with the potential to breathe new energy into a project (and genre) that would otherwise feel like just another remake. Though Black Christmas isn’t part of a longstanding horror franchise, it does hold the distinction of being one of the very first slasher movies. It already got a pretty forgettable remake back in 2006 from Glen Morgan (Final Destination, The X-Files), but a just-announced second remake looks to avoid the redundancy curse by putting director and co-writer Sophia Takal—who brought a refreshingly feminist point of view to “New Year, New You,” her episode for Hulu’s Into the Dark horror series—in charge. We can’t wait to see how she’ll reinvent Black Christmas’ by-now familiar tale of sorority sisters stalked by a murderous prank caller in their midst.

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But in the worst...

1. An iconic character is recast

Jackie Earle Haley is a fantastic actor—he nailed it as the Terror on The Tick, and he was a much-needed high point as Rorschach in Watchmen. But any talk of rebooting A Nightmare on Elm Street should have started and ended with the series’ most important element: Robert Englund, the one true Freddy Krueger, who’d originated the character in 1984 and went on to play the role in eight more films.

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All the other long-running slasher movie monsters wear distinctive masks (hockey, human skin, Shatner, etc.), which both adds to their murderous mystique and provides a handy way to conceal that a new stunt person has taken over the part. Freddy’s face is covered in burn scars, but it was always Englund’s face under all those prosthetics, with his distinctive voice and mannerisms (including that maniacal cackle) bringing Freddy’s cruel banter to life. Obviously, someone along the line figured an important part of any Elm Street revival would involve recasting Freddy—what better way to distinguish the new movie from the original films? As it happens, the fact that it’s a Nightmare without Englund is the movie’s only distinguishing characteristic.

2. Style is prioritized over substance (and scares)

There was a period not so long ago when it seemed like every horror remake was being cranked out by Platinum Dunes, Michael Bay’s horror-focused production company. Its first big title was 2003's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, followed in rapid succession by The Amityville Horror, Friday the 13th, and the above-discussed A Nightmare on Elm Street. The studio favored directors who were leveling up from music videos and commercials, much like Bay himself did early in his career, and the films had a certain flashy style that couldn’t hide the fact that, magnificent gore aside, the films themselves were pretty hollow.

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Recently, Platinum Dunes announced it would be shifting away from remakes in favor of original films—and found success with movies like A Quiet Place. Thank goodness. Looking back today, there’s zero reason to ever watch any of Platinum Dunes’ remakes over the far superior original films. Well, maybe one reason—if you want to see a version of Amityville in which Ryan Reynolds’ dramatically shadowed, chiseled abs keep distracting you from, like, ghosts and stuff, it exists in cinematic history forever.

3. The timing makes no sense

Cabin Fever was a fun, gory horror comedy that introduced the world to director Eli Roth. It came out in 2002 and was followed by a sequel and a prequel. All pretty standard stuff for a breakout horror hit. Here’s the weird part: In 2016, Roth produced a Cabin Fever remake. Why? One would assume that remaking a movie so soon after the original would have some carefully-diagrammed intentions behind it. Perhaps Roth, who went on to make Hostel in 2005, had something to say about the “torture porn” craze that he helped spark, but had long since fallen out of favor by 2016. Perhaps he had a clever idea to subvert the first film’s story about kids running into deadly trouble in the wilderness, sort of how meta-horror comedy Cabin in the Woods did in 2012. Perhaps a lot of things, but none of them came through in the final product, which ended up being so faithful to the original that it felt worse than pointless.

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As for Child’s Play, we haven’t seen it yet, so we can’t weigh in on whether it’s worth seeing. It does have some promising elements—Aubrey Plaza is always entertaining, and the reworking of the Chucky doll to make him an evil AI is a clever update. But will Mark Hamill’s voice—taking over the role of Chucky after seven movies with Brad Dourif—prove an insurmountable distraction?

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