Fear may be universal, but horror has an abysmal reputation for getting lost in translation.
When movie-goers think of cross-border remakes within the horror genre, the prevalent image is that of Hollywood butchering yet another Japanese classic for a quick buck.
Though Asian filmmakers have not yet remade an American horror as far as I know, there is a healthy west-to-east flow of filmmaking stylistics. Even the unofficial mascot of Asian horror, Sadako from the Ringu series, has gone three-dimensional, starting with the umpteenth (and dreadful) sequel, Sadako 3D (2012). The 3D effects is just one of the slew of style points borrowed from Hollywood popcorn horror.
This bad rep of horror remakes isn’t without precedence. A remake essentially displaces the narrative from its original culture and era, running the risk of making scares come across more hollow.
For every well-received remake like The Ring (2002), there are a dozen duds. Pulse (2006) somehow managed to zap out the moody bleakness of the original for special effects and frantic hysteria, doing no justice to the original, Kairo (2001), a minimalist arthouse piece on loneliness.
But remakes aren’t always sourced from oceans away. Hollywood couldn’t even seem to nail the essence of source material much closer to home. Black Christmas (2006) was criticised for being too gratuitous and failing to live up to the 1974 Canadian slasher of the same name.
However, it cannot be overlooked that remakes are judged more harshly compared to their originals.
Despite having the same director at the helm, critics seemed far harsher on The Grudge (2004) for many of the same issues (a thin plot with ample mood but little substance) already prevalent in its acclaimed source material, Ju-On (2000).
Moreover, context is important. It would be unfair to watch episodes from Rod Serling’s horror/sci-fi television series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) free from lingering memories of WWII and without the spectre of the Cold War overhead, then criticise the series’ overemphasis on themes of nuclear apocalypse.
Similarly, remakes should be assessed on how well they’ve lived up to their unique intent rather than how they compare to the original, or whether they have overcome the stigma of being “pointless” from the start. Revisiting the Black Christmas debacle, though the 2006 Hollywood “bastardisation” certainly did not capture the same tone of unsettling violation of the 1974 Canadian original, that wasn’t its goal! The remake actually felt like loads of fun precisely because it shed all the gravitas of the original and delivered a “really twisted Christmas movie”.
Surely a film shouldn’t be evaluated for how much it lives up to the sombre mood of its source material when it clearly intends to go in a different direction. For example, by swapping out the side plot of a father’s heartbreak over his murdered daughter, with having the female killer played by a very masculine actor in drag. While the category of horror remakes has more than its fair share of bad apples, I personally welcome the free flow and reinterpretation of all ideas.