One of the standard debates you can expect to find all over any horror forum is about the value of remakes. Usually, both sides make pretty reductive arguments. And, of course, a lot of it boils down to matters of taste: somebody who prefers the style and tone of modern cinema is not going to have the same attitude as someone who prefers the approach of an earlier era.
To my mind, about 90% of remakes would seem to be crap, but, then, that’s just Sturgeon’s Law at work: 90% of EVERYTHING is crap. Horror remakes really don’t deserve any special stigma in this regard.
Even the most ardent anti-remake, classic-or-die activist typically acknowledges a few significant exceptions, remakes that sometimes outdo and at the very least don’t insult the originals – movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Thing (1982) and The Fly (1986). But one thing we (yeah, I’m counting myself in that group) often forget is how many of the “classic original” films we stand by are actually already remakes.
Here, then, are a few well regarded horror movies which have been remade, and which everybody tends to forget were already remakes themselves.
There have been many, many attempts to re-adapt Bram Stokers classic novel over the decades, and there’s a lot of argument about who the greatest big screen Dracula is, with a lot of supporters for Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman. But whoever you’re backing, the first comparison is always made to the silver screen’s definitive Count, Bela Lugosi. Much of Tod Browning’s Dracula may be considered a little too stagy in retrospect (although, if you’ve only ever seen it on a television set, then you’re missing out; those long takes in static wide shot play a lot better on a big screen), but the performances are iconic and the atmosphere is at times enchanting.
Poster for Dracula’s Death
But, as much as words like “definitive” and “iconic” are applied to the film, and Lugosi’s performance in particular, this was by no means the first time Dracula made its way to the screen.
There are rumors of a Russian version of Dracula made in 1920. Earlier this year, portions of this movie were supposedly re-discovered and screened in Russia, but the authenticity of the clips has been disputed. There is, however, no dispute about another lost take on the character, a 1921 Hungarian production called Dracula’s Death, although current speculation leans towards this being a movie based on local folklore, and simply borrowing the character name.
But then, of course, there’s the big one: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Even if the title and character names were changed – with Count Dracula himself becoming Graf Orlok – there is no mistaking that this was a direct adaptation of Stoker’s novel, and in many respects a far more faithful adaptation than Universal’s film. Max Schreck’s portrayal of Orlok is undeniably one of the most disturbing and captivating presentation of a vampire in cinema history. Werner Herzog remade the film in 1979 (opting to call the character Dracula, rather than hide behind the name Orlok), and that same year the Orlok look was an undeniable influence on the presentation of Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder) in Tobe Hooper’s adaptation Salem’s Lot. The making of Nosferatu was fictionalized in Shadow of the Vampire (2000), in which Willem Dafoe plays Schreck as a real vampire. The 2004 Angel episode “Why We Fight” featured Camden Toy as an unmistakably Orlok-influence vampire called The Prince of Lies. These are just a few examples of the ways that this oldest surviving Dracula adaptation continues to resonate with horror fans and filmmakers.
Universal’s Dracula is an influential classic, but it is not the original big-screen Dracula.
In this case, there’s a lot less debate about which is the best version. While there have been several other very good adaptations and variations on the theme, the only Frankenstein movie that is frequently ranked above – or even equal to – James Whale’s classic is his own masterful sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The Monster as designed by Jack Pierce and portrayed by Boris Karloff may even surpass Lugosi’s Dracula in permanently defining a character in the public’s mind. Many of the movie’s details, such as the method of the monster’s assembly and birth and the presence of the hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) – who has no basis in Mary Shelley’s novel – have likewise become an almost inextricable part of the Frankenstein legend in popular culture (though the name associated with the assistant is usually “Igor,” based on the character Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi in two of the later sequels).
But, as with Dracula, there were three versions of Frankenstein produced in the silent era. The first of these is the only one which survives. Directed by J. Searle Dawley for Edison Studios, Frankenstein (1910) is a 16-minute short which emphasizes the alchemical aspects alluded to in the novel. Charles Ogle played a particularly hideous, goblin-esque Monster.
In 1915, a modernized re-telling called Life Without a Soul was produced by Ocean Film Corporation under the direction of Joseph W. Smiley. This was the first feature-length adaptation, and ended with the revelation that its events were all just a dream the main character experienced after reading the Shelley novel.
Finally, in 1921, Eugenio Testa directed an Italian adaptation called The Monster of Frankenstein. Very little is known about this production, beyond a few sources claiming that the Monster’s creation in this version occurred in a cave.
To date, while there have been more faithful adaptations of Frankenstein, there hasn’t been another version that could rival Universal’s film as a cinematic achievement (disregarding, of course, its own sequel). And that achievement is in no way diminished by the fact that it was not the first, but rather the fourth time that the story was brought to the screen.
House of Wax (1953)
Try bringing up the 2005 version of House of Wax on any internet forum, and see how long it takes before someone tells you how much better the “original Vincent Price version” is. I don’t know whether I agree or not, because I’ve never bothered to see the 2005 version; that’s really not the point, anyway. The point is that they are mistaken in calling André de Toth’s stylish chiller the “original version,” a fact which one need only look at the DVD edition to discern, since the b-side of the disk includes Michael Kurtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) as a special feature.
Atwill and Fay Wray in glorious two-strip Technicolor!
In Mystery of the Wax Museum, genre favorite Lionel Atwill plays Ivan Igor, the deranged wax sculptor who would be re-named Henry Jarrod and played by genre favorite Vincent Price for House of Wax two decades later. Like Curtiz’s earlier horror picture, Doctor X (which also starred Atwill and his Wax Museum costar Fay Wray), it is one of the few early horror films to have been shot in color. Specifically, these films were shot using two-strip Technicolor, which employed only red and green filters, giving everything a slightly uncanny look (the later three-strip process added blue to the occasion, creating a much more naturalistic effect).
Just as Mystery of the Wax Museum was ahead of the curve in its use of color, House of Wax is remembered in part as the first American studio film shot in 3D. And de Toth’s direction certainly had an impact on later filmmakers; as I’ve mentioned in a previous article, Mario Bava unabashedly imitated one sequence in his film, Baron Blood (1972). But, innovative though House of Wax may have been, it was not the original version of its story.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Once again, I haven’t bothered to check out the latest version, so I’m in no position to discuss the relative quality of the two. Certainly, a lot of fans stand by the 2009 re-make of The Last House on the Left, often citing the involvement of Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham – the director and producer, respectively, of the 1972 version – as a legitimizing factor. I’m not sure that the issue of legitimacy is of any relevance to a discussion of the film’s quality; if so, then those same fans ought to dismiss Craven and Cunningham’s film on the grounds that Ingmar Bergman never gave it his stamp of approval.
Everybody’s favorite exorcist, Max von Sydow, in The Virgin Spring
In seeking a model for a horror film that would be shocking and disturbing to the increasingly jaded audiences of the 1970s, Craven turned to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), itself based on a medieval Swedish ballad called “Töre’s Daughters in Vänge.”
Last House, of course, does not credit the Bergman film; there’s no way such a low budget production could have been pulled off if they were also paying for remake rights. One could even argue that, since the original ballad was recounting the supposed origin of a real church, and that the well near which the murders of Töre’s daughters occurs was also a genuine location, that the “based on a true story” card which opens Last House has some validity. But that doesn’t change the fact that Craven’s version is obviously an adaptation of Bergman’s film, and not of the source legend.
Ring (aka “Ringu,” if you don’t mind truly terrible transliteration, 1998)
The Ring (2002), Gore Verbinski’s re-working of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (itself based on the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki), is generally regarded as the best example – the shining star – of the post-millennial wave of American re-makes of Japanese horror films. It is certainly well-crafted, and which version one prefers seems in most cases to come down simply to which version one saw first. I saw the Nakata film at a screening in 2000, and it had a tremendous impact on me, which Verbinski’s just couldn’t match. While I suspect that I’d prefer the Japanese picture’s tone, style, and pace regardless of the order in which I saw them, that’s just speculation.
The infamous cursed video as presented in Ring: Kazenban
It’s true that Nakata was the first to bring Ring to the big screen, but, remember, there are other kinds of screens. In 1995, Chisui Takigawa directed Ring: Kazenban, a made-for-TV adaptation of the novel for the Fuji Television Network. It is, in some respects, a much more faithful adaptation of the soure material than is the Nakata film (and, in turn, the Verbinski film, which directly adapted the previous movie rather than returning to the book). However, it has none of the atmosphere, tension, or stylistic flair that made the later versions so effective. At this point, it’s little more than a footnote in the still-expanding line of sequels and remakes which occasionally revisit elements of the novel (and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend checking it out; it’s an interesting and at times chilling read) but mostly seem to treat the 1998 film as the definitive source.
Nakata’s Ring is one of the most clever, genuinely frightening horror movies ever made. It is not, however, the first motion picture version of the story.
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Most people don’t realize that John Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake.
Now, why you gotta go and tell me something depressing like that? 🙂
Sad part is he’s right.