Few film genres have a worse reputation for the relative quality of their remakes than horror’s, and it’s largely an earned reputation. This is, after all, the genre that gave us Nicolas Cage in 2006’s The Wicker Man.
Most horror remakes, though, are driven by simple economic expediency—they’re easier than adapting original ideas, and the recognition factor of well-known IP is guaranteed to put some butts in the seats. It’s how we ended up with remakes of films like The Omen or Carrie or Poltergeist in the last few decades—soulless, instantly forgettable retreads transparent in their lack of desire to be anything but quick cash grabs. One of these, 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street remake, we recently examined in more depth, including commentary from the original Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund.
This isn’t to say that all horror remakes crumble under the weight of comparison to their source material, however. A handful of them are stone-cold classics, and still more find one way or another to arguably improve upon their original formulas. Here are 10 in particular that succeeded where so many other horror remakes failed.
Maniac (2012), Suspiria (2018), Night of the Living Dead (1990), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Village of the Damned (1995), The Wolfman (2010)
10. The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002)
In the fall of 2002, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring was hailed as a revelation in American horror, and it really is a film that is both stylish and effective—particularly its opening establishment of the “cursed tape,” and the “I saw her face” cutaway, which had theater audiences jumping out of their seats. Naomi Watts provides one of the genre’s best central performances as investigative journalist Rachel Keller, who dives into the history of the tape while working against a ticking clock for herself and her son. With immediately distinctive, darkly shaded, green-and-blue-tinged visuals, The Ring built an expressively creepy, morose visual identity, which would be lifted by many lesser, PG-13 horror films through the rest of the decade—as would the (swiped from J-horror) aesthetic of the hair-wrapped ghost girl Samara, who memorably emerges from the TV screen in the film’s big conclusion. In the years that have followed, The Ring experienced a degree of critical blowback, as is common when a film can be described as the progenitor of a particular sub-genre style, but Verbinski’s remake absolutely deserved the attention it received in the U.S. —Jim Vorel
9. The Blob (Charles Russell, 1988)
Of all the horror remakes of the 1980s, The Blob proved to have perhaps the easiest and most natural of transitions. Simply swap out the communist paranoia of the Steve McQueen-starring 1958 original for some light satirization of the horror genre itself, along with a healthy dose of governmental distrust, and you’re all the way there. It’s remarkable, in fact, just how similar the two films are in terms of structure and characters. Where they diverge, though, is in how they depict Blob-related violence. All Russell’s The Blob has to do is get a bit closer, and the Blob itself does the rest. Incredibly icky sequences of melting faces and severing limbs give certain sequences a Dead Alive sort of flair for comic ultraviolence, but nothing surpasses the phone booth scene, wherein we learn exactly what happens when the full force of the Blob comes crashing down on someone in a confined space. It isn’t pretty. Ultimately, 1988’s The Blob is a solid popcorn thriller that taps into the inherently nostalgic, anti-authoritarian streak also present in the likes of The Return of the Living Dead. —Jim Vorel
8. Fright Night (Craig Gillespie, 2011)
What we have here is one of the better modern vampire movies to get left out of conversations on modern vampire movies, presumably because it’s a remake, but this Fright Night is undoubtedly its own film. Colin Farrell is frankly spectacular as “Jerry the vampire,” a character who positively radiates smarmy menace from the moment we meet him. Anton Yelchin is likable as this go-round’s protagonist, but the film is really all about Farrell and a great supporting turn from the Tenth Doctor himself, David Tennant, as magician Peter Vincent. The FX and gore feel visceral and suitably icky, but it’s the moments of Farrell confidently stalking his way through the sets that should win over fans of the original. He seems so very in control and completely invested in the little details of his character that his modern, hedonistic vampire transcends stereotypes of the genre to be one of the most genuinely threatening and capable ghouls we’ve seen in the past decade. —Jim Vorel
7. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004)
Is it any surprise that Zack Snyder’s best film is his least Snyder-y? You could call it a safe box office call to remake one of the most beloved zombie stories of all time, but at the same time: Snyder tackled that property in a pretty ambitious, risky way. Unlike Savini’s Night of the Living Dead, this isn’t a tribute and homage that faithfully attempts to recapture the spirit of the original. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is an entirely different beast, trading much of Romero’s cultural commentary for a leaner, action-packed modern zombie tale. It’s extremely indebted to 28 Days Later, which serves as obvious inspiration for the ghouls themselves; at the time, its “fast zombies” were hailed as revolutionary, if only because it brought the sprinting ghoul to the official Romero Family universe. Zombies booking it are indicative of the film’s high-strung energy and vitality, which kicks into high gear immediately with one of the best opening sequences in zombie film history. This truly is a world that goes completely to hell overnight, as Sarah Polley’s character Ana falls asleep and wakes up in the morning, finding all of civilization crumbling around her in an orgy of blood. The survivors we assemble at the mall are well-chosen, especially security guard C.J. (Michael Kelly), presented as the principal “human antagonist” early on but then actually goes on to completely redeem himself over time. Such measurable character growth is profoundly unusual for this genre, which so often paints exclusively in broad strokes. —Jim Vorel
6. Evil Dead (Fede Álvarez, 2013)
Taking on Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead was no small task for Fede Álvarez, given that this particular franchise has never exactly been one defined by widespread appeal. The fans of the Evil Dead franchise tend to be horror purists, and those are notoriously difficult people to please. Álvarez was wise, then, to dispense with any attempt to inject the absurd, slapstick sensibility of Raimi’s later entries (Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness) into his own version, knowing that Raimi’s signature style wasn’t something that would translate well to slavish replication. His Evil Dead is a lean, serious, genuinely harrowing series of traumas inflicted on its cast of characters, with a dynamite lead performance from Jane Levy as a demon-possessed heroin addict out for blood—a role that would likely be a shock to new fans who know her only for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Unrelentingly brutal, with some of the most over-the-top gross gore effects of any wide-release horror film of the last decade, Álvarez made his intention clear to bring Evil Dead back to its grimy, off-putting roots. Although some may miss the cocked eyebrow and cheeky humor of Bruce Campbell, Álvarez’s Evil Dead assaults the senses with verisimilitude impossible to ignore. —Jim Vorel
5. We Are What We Are (Jim Mickle, 2013)
The perpetually underknown Jim Mickle is a director seemingly always on the cusp of becoming a bigger name in this genre, and We Are What We Are is perhaps his most complete film to date. His remake of this 2010 Mexican film of the same name is a brooding, tense blend of thriller and horror, the story of a seemingly normal (if stuffy) rural family that harbors a dark secret of religious observances based around yearly acts of cannibalism. When a family member dies and the long-held tradition is threatened, allegiances come into question, familial ties crumble and the younger generation faces an extremely difficult decision in potentially breaking away from the customs that have bound the family together for many generations. It’s part crime story, part grisly, gutsy horror, and features Michael Parks in a role that is about 100 times better than what he was sentenced to do in Kevin Smith’s Tusk. In particular, the conclusion and final 20-30 minutes of We Are What We Are is shocking in both its brutality and emotional impact, an intimate case study of family dysfunction driven by the changing times and the impracticality of the archaic traditions that sustain us. Look too closely, and you’ll end up questioning your own familial routines. —Jim Vorel
4. Let Me In (Matthew Reeves, 2010)
Practically more supernatural a creature than its starring monster, Let Me In is not only an Americanized adaptation of a foreign film that isn’t a waste of everyone’s time, it’s arguably superior in some ways to the film it’s based upon. Like the original Swedish film, Let the Right One In, Matt Reeves’ update teases a remarkable amount of tension and intrigue through meticulous plotting and arresting imagery. Though set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, rather than Stockholm, the choice of place for relocation initially seems an odd one—but it turns out it’s not the icy Swedish darkness that harbors the sense of unease. It’s the isolation of a 12-year-old boy, neglected by parents and any real parental figure. Owen’s (Kodi Smit-McPhee) bond with the eternally youthful vampire Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz) is as effective and chilling here as it is in the original, thanks in no small part to its two phenomenal young leads. Also stellar is Richard Jenkins as the young vampire’s tortured enabler, more accurately capturing the ambivalence of the character in Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 novel. No question there’s a modern horror classic here, from the unlikeliest of origins. —Scott Wold
3. Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)
Werner Herzog recreates the cornerstone of vampire cinema (and German expressionist filmmaking, for that matter) through an ever-mounting nightmare of unsettling, disjointed vignettes. Which isn’t anything new for the German director, but his methods and sensibility do lend themselves naturally to the language of phantasmagoria, as he tells a well-known story via one subconscious-upending image after another. As in any Herzog film, the story is never intended to hold together flawlessly—only barely logically—but to imprint indelibly upon the insides of the viewers’ eyelids the stark silhouette of evil borne absurdly from the primeval fear in all of us. That Klaus Kinski also plays Count Dracula means that madness bristles at the edge of every manicured line of chiaroscuro: Nosferatu revels in the beauty of horror. In fact, Roger Ebert said, “Here is a film that does honor to the seriousness of vampires. No, I don’t believe in them. But if they were real, here is how they must look.” —Dom Sinacola
2. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
Between The Blob, The Thing and The Fly, the ’80s were a magical decade for remaking already iconic ’50s horror/sci-fi movies. The original Kurt Neumann/Vincent Price version of The Fly is sometimes waved away as nothing more than a “camp classic,” but it’s a substantial film that is often more mystery than it is horror—a tightly focused narrative hinging around the question of why a woman has confessed to messily crushing her husband to death in a hydraulic press. Vincent Price is as entertaining as the fly-crossed scientist as you would no doubt expect him to be. The Cronenberg version, like the remake of The Blob, takes that basic premise and dresses it in both gallows humor and body horror, as Jeff Goldblum’s researcher literally watches pieces of his body gelatinize and melt away in front of him. As “Brundle” he’s great, full of manic sexual energy, ingenuity and eventually insectoid-enhanced physicality. Along with The Thing, the film is one of the last great hurrahs of the practical effects-driven horror era, featuring some of the more disgusting makeup and gore effects of all time. After seeing a man-sized Brundlefly vomiting acid, it’s difficult to ever look at a common housefly in the same way again. —Jim Vorel
1. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
No disrespect to the classic Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks version of The Thing From Another World from 1951, but John Carpenter’s 1982 reimagining of that story into The Thing is one of cinema’s greatest acts of modernization. In a manner that was mimicked six years later by the remake of The Blob, Carpenter took a thinly veiled Cold War allegory and cloaked it in his taut, atmospheric style, ratcheting up both suspense and the lurid payoff delivered by groundbreaking FX work, while expanding the mythology and capabilities of the titular monster. Every frame is a visual puzzle, as Carpenter’s camera drifts over empty hallways, open door frames and cloaked figures in the arctic air. Who is The Thing, and more contentiously, when and how did they become The Thing? The theories spiral endlessly into dark corners of the internet, as Carpenter’s visual clues and Bill Lancaster’s script seem to provide the audience with most—but never quite all—of the information they need to be certain. Rob Bottin delivers what may be the literal zenith of practical effects in the history of horror cinema during The Thing’s several transformation scenes, and particularly in the mind-blowing sequence featuring the severed head of Norris (Charles Hallahan) sprouting legs to become a crab-like creature, which attempts to scuttle away. The Thing has become an artifact of big-budget ’80s horror purity: Next-level special effects, a mind-expanding mystery, masterful direction and the awesomeness that is Kurt Russell/R.J. MacReady as the cherry on top. —Jim Vorel