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For the Love (and the Hate) of the Horror Remake

The 2015 Austrian psychological horror film, “Goodnight Mommy,” is an eerie little gem. I went into the recent remake with apprehension but determined to keep an open mind, primarily because of Naomi Watts. I remembered feeling similarly territorial over my bootleg VHS copy of the 1998 film “Ringu” before seeing Watts in its nightmarish 2002 American remake “The Ring.” Michael Haneke’s 2008 retelling of his own 1998 home invasion film “Funny Games” was just as terrifying the second time around with Watts in the lead.

As the end credits rolled on the new “Goodnight Mommy,” I decided the mournful 1970s tune, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” would have made a better title. No fault of Watts; my issues with Matt Sobel’s film stem from a cloying emphasis on the redemptive power of motherhood, a theme extremely at odds with the original, and how this version bafflingly seems determined to spoil its own twist ending from the start.

But I don’t regret watching the movie. I’m passionate about horror; if offered a choice between seeing a critically adored drama or a poorly reviewed slasher, I’ll choose the latter almost every time. There’s only so much time in a week, and as I’m constantly reminded, a masked man could behead me at any moment.

Susanne Wuest and Lukas Schwarz in the 2015 Austrian film “Goodnight Mommy,” directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala.Credit…Radius

Horror remakes surged in the 2000s. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Friday the 13th,” “The Hills Have Eyes” and other seminal 1970s and ’80s classics were dusted off, recast and rewritten. In their podcast “Aughtsterion,” the hosts Sam Wineman and Jordan Crucchiola gleefully cover horror from this era in-depth and point out that many of these remakes were crueler than their originals, both in kills and dialogue, and reflected the decade’s cultural sleaze — everything from TMZ to American Apparel ads to “Girls Gone Wild.”

The rise of torture porn films, like the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises, during the same period are now widely seen as allegoric reactions to Sept. 11 and the American-led invasion in Iraq, but a grim failure at attempting this theme arrived with a remake of the 1976 film “The Omen,” 30 years after the original played to its decade’s fascination with religion and cults. The rehash had no interest in disguising its intent and showed footage of the burning World Trade Center to signal the impending end of days. Stephen Holden’s Times review noted that particular choice “sharpens this remake’s sour tang of exploitation.”

And yet, even after reading that review, I was at the theater later that night. I needed to witness the mess myself, a sort of cinematic rubbernecking, so I could talk about it with authority among friends. I’ll even admit that I couldn’t resist the studio’s marketing gimmick of releasing the film on June 6, 2006.

Dakota Johnson in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of “Suspiria.”Credit…Amazon Studios

It’s thrilling when my devotion to the genre pays off and a remake works, like Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 take on “Suspiria.” Rather than try to replicate Dario Argento’s 1977 gorgeous, color-soaked tale of a witchy dance academy, Guadagnino went with a muted palette, allowing his character-centric story to shine. Here were real women operating a coven, not just the minions of a villainous asthmatic ghoul.

On the flip side of classy, but equally cherished in my eyes, is “Piranha 3D” (2010), which transformed a tame “Jaws” rip-off from 1978 into an over-the-top judgment on sordid topless reality TV content. The director Alexandre Aja served up phallus chomping, a Sapphic underwater ballet set to “The Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’s opera “Lakmé,” even a cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, a.k.a. Hooper from “Jaws.”

I find as much value in a horror remake with a large budget for entrails as I do in one that’s a moody meditation on the transformative power of dance. I treasure this genre because it allows me to define horror however I want.

Jerry O’Connell in “Piranha 3D,” directed by Alexandre Aja.Credit…Gene Page/Dimension Films

Of course I don’t speak for every horror fan. Despite #horrorcommunity being a popular Instagram and Twitter hashtag, the better term for us is horror crowd, as explained by Phil Nobile Jr., the editor in chief of Fangoria magazine.

“Horror — as an interest, passion, or profession — has fandoms and sub-fandoms; it has cliques; it has little fiefdoms,” Nobile Jr. wrote in a newsletter last April. “A community is an idea (or maybe an ideal), a crowd is a mathematical reality.” He made this distinction while ruminating on homophobia and political differences among fans, but the phrasing is comprehensive. Put simply, our opinions are all over the place, and that’s often on display when a remake gets released.

The new “Goodnight Mommy” left me cold instead of giving me chills, and I’m OK with that. A horror remake sparks discourse, lights up social media, fuels podcasts, spurs think pieces. When this happens, for a brief and lovely moment, I soak it all in and naïvely do feel part of a horror community before slipping back into the crowd.

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