NOTE: Featured image from Jacob’s Ladder (1990). Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) stares off into uncertain fate, most likely contemplating the odds of the remake getting canned.
“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river… Whether it meant war, peace or prayer we could not tell”. – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Into the depths of Hell, we went,
And out the other side we came.
Horror fans have been lucky to say the least when the discussion of remaking films rears its ugly head into existence. Yes, some of the great classics have been remakes (i.e. John Carpenter’s The Thing, among others). In short, most horror remakes have been serviceable and sometimes better than their predecessors.
In this post, we will examine why some horror remakes work, like Halloween (an exceptional case) and The Thing, and why some do not, such as The Wicker Man (yeah, seriously, we’re doing this again) and those that are destined to fail, like the upcoming Jacob’s Ladder remake.
I will preface this examination with a simple statement that we will explore as we move on: If a remake has something to add to the lore of a story, it can be defined as necessary or acceptable in the least, yet if a film cannot provide anything to the original canon, I believe it falls within the category of the unnecessary.
The Remake in Conception
Pennywise, the Dancing Clown, as played by Bill Skarsgård (left) and Tim Curry (right)
For whatever reason, the idea of making one film based on a previous film has become more prevalent in recent years. While this is not an original thought and the horror-community will always be split on the idea, I feel it necessary to tackle this issue in relation to psychological horror.
Within the horror community, when remakes are announced, there is rarely ever so much unrest within one particular fanbase. Take, for example, the recent announcement of Stephen King’s IT.
The horror community was buzzing with both excitement and disdain. While the special effects of the modern era will only aid the fantasy-laden tale from the current Master of Macabre, the original film featured a beloved performance by none other than Tim Curry, as the demonic Pennywise, the Dancing Clown.
In Stephen King’s It we can see what there is to be added to the canon of the story. The original film barely even scratched the surface of the behemoth novel story, which clocks in at just over 1,100 pages, making it one of King’s longest works. In the 1990 version, we never really learn anything of the main antagonist, of IT’s history or even what IT actually is. The newer film version can certainly add to the original in many respects.
Until we can actually see the new It film, which is due out in September of this year, it will be difficult to make any further judgement. Despite this, there are many other examples we look to, as well as the two primary arguments for and against remaking horror films.
The Argument of Necessity vs. The ‘Classic’ Argument
Necessity, is a simple argument. Those who maintain a pro-remake position will typically use the conditions surrounding the making of the original to justify the remake itself, or the film just didn’t quite hit the mark. Since most horror films feature heavy usage of special effects, this argument warrants that with modern CGI, content creators can better render the effects required to create more believable monsters.
Such was the case of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which was a remake of a 1951 film and was eventually remade itself in 2011.
I cannot help but agree with the YouTuber AlternatingLine in this case, which is to say that the 1982 version was the version we truly wanted, being the necessity, and the 2011 version was unnecessary, which brings us to the classic argument.
Upon watching the 2011 version, this sentiment becomes obvious. In AlternatingLine’s video we can see that numerous scenes in the remake are literally frame-by-frame, just using CGI effects in the place of practical effects, which is something that the 1982 version was known for.
Another note that can be made here is the simple fact that scenes in 2011 which created a link to the original film felt rushed and out of place. For example, the 2011 version ends where the 1982 version begins, therefore, based upon the production studio’s logic, makes the film a prequel and not a remake. My issue with this argument is fact that these connection scenes felt out of place and forced in the 2011 version. The 2011 version came under heavy criticism when publicized as a remake and only then was the film announced as a prequel, to tell us the tale of the original crew that is found dead over the course of the film.
^An iconic scene from John Carpenter’s The Thing, which proves his mastery as a director and this scene alone displays why another remake was unnecessary.
It is extremely difficult to define precisely when a film enters that ‘classic’ status, being when the film achieves a level of grandeur and sublimity which is supposed to make it untouchable and yet rarely does.
The Wicker Man, surely, of all films had surely earned its place among those hallowed classics, and yet by 2006 filmmakers had decided that it was time to put the film through the wood-chipper. I wrote a lengthy piece in my second blog post about The Wicker Man, and having recently revisited the topic, elect not to revisit the topic with too much dedication, as enough time has been dedicated to it thus far.
Within my original writing about The Wicker Man (1973), I discussed the feeling of atmosphere and genuine eeriness surrounding Summerisle, the music, depth of mythological lore and the incredible acting of Sir Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, among others.
The original 1973 film still works and is still terrifying to this day, whereas the remake is good for little more than laughs.
And just remember, the original gave us this^ and the remake gave us this:
You can decide for yourself.
Or, to return to John Carpenter for a moment, the case of Halloween. Halloween, which is the film that placed John Carpenter on the map back in 1978, was recently remade by Rob Zombie in 2006. Where the original was a horror masterpiece, the remake did a more than serviceable job of retelling the story of Michael Myers.
More importantly, the remake spends more time with the character of Michael, exploring his psychological state and therefore, not only humanizing a monster but delving into the realm of psychological horror.
Halloween (2007) was unnecessary, and yet it gave us something more than the original. It added to the canon of the series whilst simultaneously presenting fans with something to be proud of. This is, to say the least, something that the 2011 incarnation of The Thing did not do. As mentioned earlier, I theorize that it is a matter of adding to the lore. While some examples do exist, such as Halloween (2007) or NBC’s Hannibal (2013), they tend to be far and few between.
In regards to Hannibal, this is a particularly curious event. Hannibal was a television series of 39 episodes that told a story which already contained four books and five films, most of which were excellent; this canon included The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which won an Oscar.
A trailer for Hannibal’s second season, which scored a 100% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
There should have been nothing left to say, and yet showrunner Bryan Fuller came out of left field and gave us the greatest interpretation of the twisted saga of Dr. Hannibal Lecter to date as well as perhaps the greatest psychological horror television series of all time. But I digress.
The debate will go on, but my initial conclusion is that if a remake adds to the lore, it can work, if it does not, then it must fall on the unnecessary side of the spectrum.
The Curious Case of Jacob Singer
But, as I stated in the beginning, some are destined to fail.
Despite earlier sentiments on necessity vs classic, there are certain cases in which we can guarantee a remake will not work. The Wicker Man remake was destined to fail, as the original was rich in history, lore and story.
There was nothing to add to it.
Even in Halloween, we can see how Director Rob Zombie was able to delve into the psychological effects of abuse and neglect, and how the monster was, in essence, created. Zombie was able to brilliantly add to our story without tarnishing the reputation of the original Carpenter classic.
Now we turn to a film that I have previously described as being the “epitome of psychological horror”.
Enter Jacob’s Ladder.
By Adrian Lyne and Carolco Pictures
As the trailer suggests, Jacob’s Ladder is an intensely dark film about a Vietnam veteran who is experiencing a personal hell. The main character, Jacob Singer, is having severe nightmares and hallucinations, in which he is seeing monsters and demons.
Now, without divulging into a tangent on the meaning of the film, as entire books have been written about the topic, I would rather prefer to focus on the why the remake will do nothing for the original.
In the original film, we are presented with an intentionally disjointed story that takes place on multiple timelines which confuses the viewer, so that the viewer shares confusion with Jacob himself.
Jacob sees these monsters. He knows he does. The problem is that no one else sees what he sees. As a Vietnam veteran, he was supposedly experimented on chemically during the in War. Yet we are provided with evidence that this never occurred. The film is full of these little contradictions, with the ultimate question becoming whether Jacob is even alive. Or dead and experiencing his own hellish afterlife.
^Even after this scene (chronologically), we are given evidence he is not entirely free.
We are never given a formal answer. And I do not believe we were supposed to. Jacob’s Ladder was a story of personal interpretation.
Everyone brings their own experiences in and everyone has their own opinion.
The feeling of dread and paranoia, of uncertainty and terror, based upon a recent review of the original film, still exists and is something that cannot be replaced.
Jacob’s Ladder, for all of its vague nightmares, and personal torment, is complete.
Also, consider another point, is it possible to recreate the element of atmosphere within the original Jacob’s Ladder? The YouTuber RagnarRox developed an in-depth analysis and interpretation of Jacob’s Ladder and if we are being fair, no one will be able to replicate this level of complexity.
Nor was it necessary.
Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, Remakes and the Horror Community
The community, as always, becomes divided on the case of remaking horror films. While there are some who would denounce the very idea of remaking a film (for better or worse), there are others who embrace the idea with open arms.
John Squires of Bloody-Disgusting shared my thoughts on the idea of remaking horror films and used, ironically enough, Stephen King’s It as the centerpiece of his argument, and characterized his argument by saying, quite plainly that;
“Sometimes, you have to be honest with your nostalgia.”
Ultimately, this was the conclusion I came to as well.
However, this is not to say that everyone automatically falls into the consensus of being fair with horror remakes. Hazel Cills, of The Dissolve, argues that many modern horror remakes miss a great deal of what made the originals great with aesthetics being at the center of her argument.
Cills wrote an excellent article, but I disagree on several accounts. First and foremost, Cills only considers the remakes that we already knew were going to be complete failures, such as Poltergeist or The Omen. With only a brief mention of other, more debatable remakes such as A Nightmare on Elm St. (2010), which in my opinion was a well-made film, and only a passing mention of the possibility that remakes can work, Cills should have considered her topic of conversation more deeply. Yet as I said, Cills also makes several strong points in her work; first of which is in regards to the use of CGI.
Cills argues that there is “temptation” in regards to the recreating the originals, where for the most part, practical effects were relied upon due to a lack of technology. Cills believes that the use of practical effects in classic horror films always gave the appearance of greater stage presence, as opposed to using a green screen and CGI effects; this is her most valuable point.
As aforementioned, John Carpenter (director of The Thing, 1982) utilized the use of practical effects for this reason and this reason alone. For this choice, the film has received a wealth of praise. With this point, I cannot help but agree. Practical effects tend to add a certain charm to horror films and even in a CGI-reliant world, we can still see examples of this today; Digging up the Marrow (2014), which you will remember from our examination of found footage films, created its monsters strictly with practical effects and moving on, moving from practical effects to CGI has a tendency to take away from the atmosphere of a psychological horror tale.
We must always ask one question when looking at a remake and that question should be answered unequivocally.
Was it necessary?
Poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
This one certainly was.
*A note on the italicized material: This blog follows a tight narrative on a variety of aspects of the Psychological Horror genre and the Horror Community. As a method of keeping with a narrative, I include brief bites of creative writing, a sort of short story that bleeds in to the next post, beginning with the ending of the first post on this site. Consider it our metaphorical journey through these dark works, to accompany the literal one.
We found our own boat on the other side. A row boat, with enough room for two. We get in and I begin to row us along. The camera disappeared upon our initial plunge into the river, but that’s okay, a lantern, remarkably like the one we lost, is sitting in the boat. I row us into the coming dawn as fog fills the river, which has bled into a lake. There was a sign on the right bank, which may or may not have read Toluca Lake, but the fog is too thick here. We see a light through the fog. With you on the prow guiding us, I row to the light and we come ashore once more.
A road lies just ahead, up the embankment, with a sign post we can read more clearly.
Welcome to Silent Hill.
We shiver and accepting fate, walk into town.