“For titles which tend to be seen as similar or formulaic or ‘just another copy’, there’s a lot of variety”
Following our recent five star review of Reanimated: The Contemporary American Horror Remake, Rebecca McCallum sits down with author Laura Lee to discuss remakes, reboots, requels and more…
Laura, congratulations on your book! In your work you discuss how in the early boom of the 2000s it felt as though American Horror Remakes took up a substantial chunk of space in horror but when we assess it more closely, this was not actually the case. Why do you think it felt this way and moreover, why do we enjoy giving so much time and attention to discussing remakes in both a positive and critical light?
Thank you so much! I’m really pleased it’s out there now and so happy with the response it’s been getting. There was definitely an uptick in the number of horror remakes in the early-mid 2000s, both new versions of American horror from the 70s/80s as well a lot of US remakes of horror films from East and South East Asia and elsewhere. Alongside that there were still sequels to established franchises being released (Halloween, Friday the 13th) and the launch of new franchises too (Saw, Final Destination). And this is coming on the back of a couple of decades of very sequel-heavy, franchise led popular horror cinema. So really, US remakes of US films were seen as yet another example of horror appearing in serial or recycled forms, and even if the actual number of remakes were not as high as you might expect, I think it felt like more because they were appearing amongst all these other familiar franchises, stories, and characters.
I also think that this coincided with a couple of key horror trends in the 2000s – namely found footage and “torture porn” – which got a bit of backlash from certain critical corners. So overall, remakes were just one small thing happening among many other things at the time which led to a lot of lamenting the “death of the genre” and so on. Of course, as horror fans we know that wasn’t the case, and even if all these films don’t have their own merits (which they absolutely do!) there was so much more going on in the genre, as there always is!
In terms of the time and attention we give remakes, well, I think it’s natural to want to compare a version of something we love (or hate!) with the original. We can’t watch remakes in a vacuum as if the older version doesn’t exist (or at least we can’t if we know about it) – we might be furious about the implications of updating or revisiting an older story, but it doesn’t mean we’re not curious to see the results.
Within the realm of the remake, there are a proliferation of labels and designations across the genre ‘reboot, requel, sequel, remake, preboot’. Given how expansive and collapsible these terms are with criteria constantly changing and new ones being developed all the time, how important and how beneficial do you believe these categorizations to be?
Before I answer, I’m going to first say that I know categorising things is human nature. Grouping stuff together with other, similar stuff is how we make sense of the world and the art and culture we engage with, and for some people and certain purposes these labels and designations really do matter. But for me, they’re insufficient and unwieldy, they overlap, they’re often used interchangeably, and I’ve largely given up trying to be precise about what labels I use to describe what. While researching, I was seeing producers, writers and directors claim that their remakes weren’t ‘remakes’ (which is often, of course, a bit of a dirty word) but ‘reimaginings’ or ‘reinventions’ – what do these even mean? Some definitions are more simple of course – prequels and sequels are fairly cut and dry in the way they indicate a ‘before’ or ‘after’ on a linear timeline, and so they are useful, but they become more complex the more entries there are in a franchise because the relationships between different versions grow and interconnect, with multiple timelines and so on.
Criteria changes mean that any given film can have a shift in designation too – does a ‘reboot’ become a ‘remake’ if it fails to reboot a franchise, for example? The ‘requel’ or ‘legacy sequel’ is the latest label, and it is useful to an extent, but it’s not a new strategy – films like Bates Motel (1987), and Halloween H20 (1998) were doing this decades ago. Scream VI is out on the day we’re doing this interview, and I just saw it described as a ‘requel-sequel’ – I can’t keep up! Though I needed to tackle this issue of definition and designation in the book, I ultimately wanted to argue that it’s kind of impossible and not ever so helpful to precisely define these serial forms, and doing that was actually quite liberating!
You quite rightly point out that horror relies on regeneration in order to survive and you specifically discuss the presence of villains across the genre: how far do you feel that iconic characters such as Freddy and Jason are the through line in regenerative horror?
All genres rely not just on reinvention but also repetition and regeneration. But I think there’s something very fitting (and poetic!) in the way this relates to horror. Old stories rise from the dead, franchises cannibalise themselves, and familiar villains and monsters are reanimated and resurrected. Those villains are really central to their franchises, they’re anchors around which stories continue or are retold. In a remake or a requel or sequel, it might be nice to see the return of Laurie or Nancy or Sally – but it’s essential that Michael or Freddy or Leatherface (or Jason, or Chucky, or Ghostface, or Pennywise…) come back. Their presence is often central to promoting new versions too. Iconic characters, recognisable from decades of franchise lore, are a real draw for audiences, whether they’re original fans or just familiar with these villains – I think it’s fair to suggest that Freddy, Jason, Michael are contemporary pop culture icons in similar ways to Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster.
Slashers are often the sub-genre most closely associated with the horror remake and have both been continually viewed as lacking creativity and being devoid of innovation outside of the horror community. Do you think this is unfair, and why do you think the slasher and the remake continue to be viewed in this way?
I do think it’s unfair, yes. Slashers were, and often still are, seen as pretty formulaic to the extent that the subgenre parodies itself with films like Scream, but of course there’s huge variety of films sat under the slasher umbrella, and they remain a common and popular horror mode after nearly 50 years. Slashers can be just as creative, diverse, unique, unusual, or innovative as remakes, and I think that a great deal of originality can be found in these films we think of as unoriginal. If you look at slasher remakes, there’s some really interesting artistic expression in Halloween or Maniac, the creative use of 3D in My Bloody Valentine, a marketable mix of teen drama and thriller in Prom Night, updated social satire in Black Christmas and Slumber Party Massacre…for titles which tend to be seen as similar or formulaic or ‘just another copy’, there’s a lot of variety there. It’s easy to lump together slashers and remakes and criticise them as these kind of derivative, uncreative boogeymen of horror – but it’s much more interesting to think about what the individual films have to offer the genre more broadly.
As an intertextual property, by presenting both the familiar and the unfamiliar to its audience, I feel as though the remake may contain notes of the uncanny. Do you think there is an uncanny element to remakes and is this something you have considered exploring?
That’s a really good question; I haven’t explored it through this lens but I definitely will keep it in mind now! There’s definitely an uncanniness in revisiting familiar stories and characters, and having them be not quite the same – it’s quite an unnerving concept.
Reflecting on the remakes discussed in your book, I was struck by the pervasiveness of male directors. Where do you think the female voice lies in the world of remakes and are there any notable examples that you came across in your research?
There’s a dominance of male directors in those key remakes in the 2000s for sure, though there were of course women working across these productions as writers, producers, and in a whole range of above and below the line roles. There are a number of women writers and directors who have revisited horror films about women and transformed those stories in interesting ways in the last decade – Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie offered a different take on female friendship and isolation to De Palma’s adaptation; I loved Danishka Esterhazy and Suzanne Keilly’s Slumber Party Massacre, which apes the slasher’s gender politics in ways just as great as the original film; and April Wolfe and Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas does what lots of good remakes do, in addressing head-on some shortcomings of the genre and its cultural commentary, and should have been held in much higher regard for doing so. Nia DaCosta’s Candyman also offers a corrective to the original film’s issues with representation, while emerging as an effective, significant (and gorgeous – that opening shot!) horror film in its own right.
In your chapter on rape revenge remakes, you highlight how while an oppositional reaction to remakes is always present, the response to rape revenge films in particular was even more visible. Can you talk about some of the reasons why you think this might be?
1970s rape revenge films like I Spit on your Grave or The Last House on the Left perhaps tend to be thought of as quite marginal to horror or on the periphery of the genre, more akin to exploitation film, and certainly with a more niche audience. They’re also obviously controversial, explicit and (although I’d disagree) often seen as particularly misogynistic. I think for that reason they weren’t necessarily seen as being particularly ripe for remaking in the way that something like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween were. Further than that, lots of reviewers saw something actively distasteful in revisiting and retelling those stories, and I think the way the remakes of I Spit and Last House in particular were aligned with torture porn tropes that had been roundly derided (but were still prevalent in the genre) by the end of the decade wouldn’t have helped with that.
There has and always will be contention around issues of originality and authenticity with regards to the remake. As remakes are intrinsically (if not always explicitly) connected within the wider context of a franchise or series, should we consider them both as individual, stand-alone works and part of a wider picture? And if so, how?
One of the key aims of my book was to try and consider remakes as films in their own rights. This didn’t necessarily mean as stand alone films, as that’s quite tricky if we’re familiar with their source – though of course it’s possible if we’re not familiar with an original film or a franchise! Looking at remakes critically, for me, was about trying to understand these films in relation to their originals, for sure, but also trying to recontextualise them in the moment of their release, to understand what contribution they make to the contemporary horror genre, or to appreciate their own aesthetics, themes and stories. When we directly compare versions, it’s only natural we’ll think about what’s lost or gained by a remake, because there’s always that point of reference. And sure, there’s some value to that, but it’s just as (sometimes more) interesting to think about them on their own merits. There’s lots of remakes that I prefer to the originals, but there’s also lots I don’t tend to think about as remakes any more because they’ve carved their own little space in horror cinema.
Now that the book is complete and released, what’s next for you? Can you also tell us about any up-and-coming projects or previous work to look out for?
Various forms of horror adaptation and seriality has been my thing – I wrote a book on The Shining for the Devil’s Advocates series with Liverpool University Press a few years back, and have also written on the fantastic documentary Room 237, American Psycho, and the Conjuring franchise, as well as this book on remakes. I’m thinking a lot about requels at the minute, and looking forward to chatting about the likes of Scream, Candyman and Halloween at various conferences. I’m also working on a new project with my lovely colleague Shellie McMurdo on analogue horror, and on girls and VHS horror in the 1980s and 1990s – very reflective of the stuff that shaped my interests!
© Rebecca McCallum
Enjoyed this article? Check our Rebecca’s five-star review of Reanimated, and you can hear Rebecca on our podcast talking about remakes/requels such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream and The Invisible Man.