Previously: Unconventional Indie Horror Games.
Note: This post was originally published on April 29, 2019; I’m dusting it off, reworking it somewhat, adding some new additions, and republishing it today, because it’s a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about and feel it deserves a little more attention. Enjoy this new, improved version!
I say often that while I can usually take or leave old things, I have a deep and abiding love of new things that are made out of old things. Typically, when I say this, I’m talking about physical objects — jewelry made out of old watches, battered furniture that’s been taken apart and put back together into something different, and so on — but today, I mean it in a different sense: Horror books, movies, games, and television shows that take existing, agéd source material and, rather than simply remake or reboot it, do something entirely new with it.
This isn’t to say that I don’t like old media; on the contrary, I’m fond of it in a way I’m not of, say, antique grandfather clocks. But what I don’t like is seeing new media tell the exact same story in more or less the exact same way as the old media previous told it. There’s no point to that, is there?
That’s why I tend to think of these pieces as riffs, rather than remakes, direct adaptions or translations, or rebooks. If you’re going to retell a story that’s already been told — especially if it’s already been told well — then why simply recreate what’s already been done? Or, if you’re going to tell a story that’s already been told in one medium — again, especially if it used that medium to great effect — why retell it in another medium?
A riff, meanwhile, may only bear a passing resemblance to the source material, but brings something new to the table: A new perspective on the ideas of the original, a re-examination of the facts we thought we knew, and so on and so forth. Also, a riff doesn’t just change things for the sake of changing them — it changes them to make a point, to bring out something that may have only been hovering in the background before, to change the lighting or focus, so to speak. It changes them for a reason. In a riff on a piece of storytelling, as in a piece of music, the themes and motifs are there if you dig for them; sometimes they’re even quite close to the surface. But there’s something new there, too. Something that wasn’t there before. Something that makes you look at the story in a way you never thought to before.
Obviously, the list I’ve put together here is far from an exhaustive list of horror riffs and re-imaginings; purely because of length, it’s limited to 17 notable, mostly recent examples (and by “mostly recent,” I mean that they were all released in the past 15 years or so). The options do, however, cover a range of media, including movies, television shows, literature, and video games — and, indeed, they frequently overlap.
They may not be to everyone’s taste. But whether or not you like them, there’s no denying that they’re interesting. And I’ll take interesting over “good” or “bad” any day of the week.
Wired’s review of Suspiria — initially positioned as a remake of Dario Argento’s riotous, color-saturated 1977 horror classic of the same name — bears a curious title: “Don’t See Suspiria Before Seeing Suspiria.” It’s good advice, because it turns out that 2018’s Suspiria, isn’t so much a remake as a new story told within a familiar framework.
The characters bear more of a resemblance to their original incarnations than they do in, say, Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting Of Hill House (more on that later); we’re still centered around Susie Bannion’s arrival at the Tanz Dance Academy in Germany, the mystery of what happened to previous Tanz student Patricia Hingle and why, and exactly what the coven of witches running the dance school are up to. The 2018 Suspiria is even set in 1977, the year the original Suspiria was released.
But where it goes from there is very different — and characters who might have previously been thought of as victims become something very different themselves, as well. As Angela Watercutter noted in her Wired review, “‘Witch,’ throughout history, has often been synonymous with ‘woman who has too much power,’ and in Guadagnino’s world they are feared and revered.”
Watch it at Amazon.
Nia DaCosta’s entry into the Candyman series ultimately functions as a sequel more than a reboot; set in 2019 and with direct ties to the original 1992 film of the same name, it does require prior knowledge in order to have its full punch. But it also makes some really fascinating observations about urban legends — specifically about how they evolve: As legends change over time, they can sometimes become something entirely new, as well.
I… honestly feel like I shouldn’t say much more than that; if I give away too much, I’ll spoil it. Watching how this one unspools, and examining how the past gets mythologized — both consciously and unconsciously — is essential to the first-time viewing experience.
The Haunting Of Hill House (2018) and The Haunting Of Bly Manor (2020)
The Mike Flannagan-helmed Netflix series The Haunting Of Hill House exemplifies what I mean when I talk about riffs vs. direct adaptations and translations: It takes all the elements of Shirley Jackson’s novel, puts them in a bag, shakes them up quite a bit, and spills out the pieces, allowing them to be reorganized and reassembled in ways that tell a story that’s both new and familiar at the same. The Netflix Hill House examines many of the same themes as the original source material does — family, loss, grief, agency — but it does it in a new way; similarly, the many of the characters are people we’ve seen before — Theo, Nell, Luke, the Cranes, the Dudleys — but… sort of rearranged, with different relationships that somehow still get at a lot of what’s addressed in the novel.
The biggest reason I appreciated this take on Hill House so much is this: We already have a terrific direct page-to-screen translation of The Haunting Of Hill House — and no, I don’t mean the 1999 Hollywood-driven disaster. The 1963 film The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise, captures everything that’s great about Jackson’s novel in a visually visceral way — that is, the plot is pretty much the same, but the experience of the story is completely different due to the change in medium. We didn’t need another one of those retellings, so in that respect, the riff-style angle on the story seen in the Netflix version makes perfect sense.
I’ll be honest: I don’t think that Hill House’s follow-up, The Haunting Of Bly Manor, is quite as successful as its predecessor. Part of that is because the Henry James novella that serves as the source material, The Turn Of The Screw, doesn’t feel substantial enough to fill out an entire series. (Not that The Turn Of The Screw isn’t terrific; on the contrary — but in this case, I would argue that it works better when adapted to film than television. And again, there are numerous film adaptations, several of which are quite good, indeed.) Bly Manor actually seems to have understood this about itself — it’s why the mythology of both the house itself and the series as a whole draw inspiration from a variety of other Henry James stories and tales — but somewhat ironically, I also feel that, in expanding itself in this way, it also sort of… lost sight of itself, somewhat. It’s still an interesting watch, though.
Both of these series have proven to be somewhat divisive; people seem to either love them or hate them. But that, too, I find interesting: They both illicit strong reactions on both ends of the spectrum — and that, to me, says that they’re worth thinking about, even if they turn out not to be your cup of tea.
Hannibal is how you make a Silence Of The Lambs television series without making a Silence Of The Lambs television series. Like Suspiria, the characters here are immediately recognizable from their source material; Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter both made their first appearances in Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon, which chronologically occurred after Graham originally caught Lecter. Red Dragon was later adapted into two films, 1986’s Manhunter and 2002’s Red Dragon. But what Hannibal does that neither of those two films did — nor, for that matter, what the film adaptations of both Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal did — is pull elements from the entire Lecter mythos and build a new story out of them.
Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller excels at this kind of storytelling; prior to Hannibal itself, the pilot of Mockingbird Lane displayed this talent, offering a spin on The Munsters that was honestly one of the most uniquely brilliant things I’ve ever seen. (I’m not even a Munsters fan — I watched reruns fairly frequently as a kid, but that’s about as far as my engagement with the material goes— and I’m still mad Mockingbird Lane wasn’t picked up for a full series.) So when Hannibal was greenlit, it’s unsurprising that Fuller took it and ran with it, knitting together something out of the choicest bits from the wealth of Lecter-related source material available that’s truly remarkable.
Watch it on Hulu.
Fear Street: 1994, 1978, and 1666 (2021)
I was actually less a Fear Street kid than I was a Goosebumps kid, but, like many other spooky people who grew up during the last few decades of the 20th century, I still have a certain fondness for R.L. Stine’s more teen-oriented franchise. The covers of the editions I grew up with in particular elicit an extremely particular reaction in me even now — one of stomach-churning dread.
So, naturally, when I heard that Fear Street was coming to Netflix in the form of a trilogy of films, all dropping within a week of each other in July of 2021, I was intrigued, if full of trepidation. Happily, though, writer/director Leigh Janiak absolutely delivered, presenting what was one of my favorite viewing experiences of 2021. I recommended them back in our 2021 “What To Do On Halloween” omnibuous; here’s what I had to say then:
“Part 1: 1994 looks like a ‘90s slasher in the Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Urban Legend vein. Part 2: 1978 looks like a late-‘70s/early-‘80s slasher — Friday The 13th in particular, given its summer camp setting. Part 3: 1666 throws us way back in time, giving us something more akin to The Witch, or even The Crucible. And yet, they’re all much more than that — and, taken as a trio, they’re also more than the sum of their already-terrific parts.
What’s so remarkable about them, I think, is they way they tell a totally new story — and build a full, complete, mostly new mythos — while still remaining true to the source material. It’s that rare combination of familiar and fresh, so it simultaneously hits your nostalgia buttons while giving you something novel at the same time.“
I stand by that now. They’re great fun, wonderfully cohesive, and very, very satisfying.
“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado
Well-trod, time-honored urban legends wend their way through this (somewhat NSFW) short story, which has been published both at Granta and in Machado’s collection Her Body and Other Parties: “The Big Toe,” “The Graveyard Wager,” “The Poisoned Dress,” “The Wolf Girl,” “The Vanishing Hotel Room,” and more all float up to the surface and then drift back down again, functioning as the lens through which the narrator processes the world — perhaps because, in this world, they might be true. But at the core of it all is one particular story — the one commonly known as “The Green Ribbon.”
As “The Green Ribbon” is typically told, the horror come from the husband’s realization that his wife has essentially been decapitated all the years they’ve been together — that he may have married and lived his entire life with a grotesque, a walking corpse, a monster.
But, asks “The Husband Stitch” (among many, many other questions), what if you flip the perspective? Then, the horror of the story changes.
The horror is that the woman ceases to become a person when her husband finally comes to understand — at his own insistence — what the ribbon is. The horror is that she becomes an object.
The horror is that he wants, and she gives, and he still wants more.
The horror is that she has given him everything she has to give, and it is not enough for him. This one thing — the one thing that was hers and hers alone — he wants that, too.
The horror is that she gives it to him, and she loses an essential part of herself in the process.
The horror is what he does next.
The horror is that she does all this for him, because he asked and wanted and wanted and asked — and he turns his back on her after he has gotten what he thought he wanted.
The Evil Dead (2013)
There was no need to remake The Evil Dead — or any of the Evil Dead franchise’s entries — with the same tone or style as Sam Raimi’s original (although the continuation of that particular universe was carried off with great aplomb by the Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead); it stands on its own, and nothing will ever be its equal. Accordingly, the 2013 version of The Evil Dead went much, much darker with everything, eschewing the horror-comedy that became the original franchise’s hallmark. Mia — this version’s equivalent of Ash — isn’t on a fun vacation that suddenly turns into a battle against the forces of darkness; she’s on a detox trip masterminded by her friends, where she finds herself fighting both metaphorical demons (in the form of her own addiction) and literal ones. Enough iconic moments from the original franchise make some type of appearance in 2013’s entry for it to pay homage to its past — severed arms and chainsaws still factor prominently — but it still manages to be its own thing.
Director Fede Alvarez has said that 2013’s The Evil Dead is a continuation of the original; indeed, the similarities between the two, Alvarez said, are “not coincidences, but more like dark fate created by the evil book.” I would argue that this little tidbit adds a whole new layer to the Evil Dead mythos — it implies that every time the book targets someone, the same general events will unfold.
The difference is in how the targets deal with it all.
Rent it at Amazon.
The Twilight Zone (2019-2020)
Several attempts have been made over the years to revive The Twilight Zone, which originally aired from 1959 to 1964; each time, they’ve included a mix of new teleplays — sometimes adapted from works by notable contemporaries of Rod Serling or other genre greats — and remakes of original stories, and each time, the results have been middling. But excitement was high when it was announced that Jordan Peele was developing another revival for CBS All Access (now Paramount+) — because Jordan Peele never simply does what everyone else has already done. He takes inspiration from the past… but then he takes those same premises and twists them in such a way as to turn them into something entirely novel.
There are plenty of new stories in this newest revival, as well as takes on some classics — for instance, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” a version of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” for the current generation. There are no gremlins here — and sometimes, we’re our own worst enemy.
Watch it on Paramount+.
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
I have a hard time describing Helen Oyeyemi’s work; it’s so brilliant that a mere summary could never hope to do it justice. Accordingly, to describe Mr. Fox as a riff on the folk tale known variously as “The Robber Bridegroom,” “How The Devil Married Three Sisters,” “Fitcher’s Bird,” and simply “Bluebeard” (among many others) is to fail spectacularly to communicate what Mr. Fox really is. It’s that, yes, but it’s also much, much more.
Oyeyemi’s work often riffs on familiar tales; 2014’s Boy, Snow, Bird, for example, is a loose adaptation of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” told partially from the perspective of the “evil queen.” But again, describing that one as simply a take on “Snow White” is to fall far short of the mark.
Really, all I can say is that all of Oyeyemi’s books are worth reading. But if “The Robber Bridegroom” is one of those old fairy tales that’s always struck you as a horror story, then definitely check out Mr. Fox.
Just… just do it.
Get it at Amazon.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
I remember Shattered Memories getting a somewhat lukewarm reception when it was released back in late 2009 and early 2010 (depending on where you’re located), but looking back now, it seems to have been quite well-regarded on release; it was praised as “well-executed, eerily atmospheric, and at times downright chilling,” as well as noted for its “lovingly crafted story” and use of “everyday wickedness” to heighten the story’s tragedy. My sense is that the backlash I remember may have been from franchise fans who wanted more of what the series has historically been known for, when what Shattered Memories did was riff on the first Silent Hill game in some incredibly unique ways.
Like the original Silent Hill, which was first released for the PlayStation in 1999, Shattered Memories centers around Harry Mason’s search for his missing 7-year-old daughter, Cheryl, following a car crash. But unlike pretty much every other game in the Silent Hill franchise, there are no weapons. You can’t fight your way out of anything; you have to get sneaky, solve puzzles, and evade monsters. Additionally, interspersed scenes set in a psychiatrist’s office let us know that what we’re seeing when we’re actually searching for Cheryl has already happened — it’s in the past. What you do in these scenes also affects the world in the searching scenes.
And lastly, the main character isn’t who you think it is.
Get it at Amazon.
Scream 4 (2011)
Released in 1996, Scream was a watershed moment for both horror in general and the slasher subgenre: For the first time, we had self-aware characters — characters who knew they were in a horror movie. Without Scream, we wouldn’t have later had such glorious entries into the genre as Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon, Tucker And Dale vs. Evil, and The Cabin In The Woods.But although I love the Scream franchise — all of it — there’s no denying that the first film is really the standout; the second two are clever in their own ways, but nowhere near as solid as the original.
That didn’t stop me from seeing Scream 4 when it was released in cinemas in 2011 — and I walked away pleasantly surprised. It manages to be both a sequel and a reboot at the same time, and it has its finger right on the pulse of trends in both the horror world and the real world at the time.
Scream 4 is what might be termed a “legacyquel” — a portmanteau Bloody Disgusting noted in a 2019 discussion of the differences between remakes, reboots, and the like as having been coined by Screen Rant in 2015. A legacyquel, per Bloody Disgusting, is “an in-continuity, canonical sequel to the film or films in the series that precede it,” but with the twist being that “the plot of the new movie is strikingly, and often purposefully, similar to the first one.” And it’s not just a cash grab (although it obviously can be); when it’s done right, it’s truly delightful to behold.
Along with the 2013 Evil Dead, Bloody Disgusting highlighted Scream 4 as an excellent example of a legacyquel that works. The meta nature of the film and the self-awareness of its world and characters “evokes the tone of the original” in a way that I’d argue neither Screams 2 or 3 did — and, writes Michael White, the effect is that “it properly shines a blinding light on remakes.” It’s not enough just to rehash what’s already been done; you’ve got to do something new with it to make it worth it.
And that’s exactly what Scream 4 does.
Rent it at Amazon.
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019)
When André Øvredal’s adaptation of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was announced, I found the idea intriguing for one very specific reason: It was to be a big screen adaptation of a beloved book series — a book series which is itself full of adaptations of classic urban legends, ghost stories, and other tales of the strange and unusual. Like Inception, but with urban legends instead of dreams.
And you know what? When it was finally released, it absolutely lived up to that thought.
Here’s the official synopsis of the film:
“It’s l968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind… but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time — stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying tome.”
Is it ultimately a flawed film? Sure — but the way it framed the whole thing, bringing each individual story in and connecting what had previously been unconnected tales of terror and fright, worked, and ended up being quite clever in execution.
Also, the monsters were by and large practical, not CGI. They were portrayed by actual performers doing amazing things in incredible costumes and makeup, which I just love. They really did bring Stephen Gammell’s iconic illustrations to life in a way I didn’t think was possible.
Watch it on Peacock (for free!).
The Exorcist (2016-2017)
I hesitated to include the somewhat short-lived TV series of The Exorcist on this list, because (spoiler alert) it was revealed five episodes into the first season that it’s actually a direct sequel to the 1973 film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel. But what’s so interesting about it to me is that for almost the first half of Season 1, we weren’t totally sure what it was. Was it a remake? A sequel? A prequel? A rebook? Simply capitalizing on The Exorcist name? Speculation ran swift — and although we did eventually receive an answer, the fact that we were questioning it for so long is, I think, notable. Furthermore, it’s now generally regarded as one of the best television riffs on a classic of horror cinema out there.
The series is an anthology, though, so Season 2, despite being quite strong on its own, doesn’t have that same connection to the source material. And sadly, we’ll never see where a third season may have gone; it was cancelled in 2017. It’s still worth catching, though, so if you’ve got access to a streaming service on which it’s available, give it a shot.
Watch it on Hulu.
Are You Afraid Of The Dark? (2019-2021)
I said I was a Goosebumps kid more than Fear Street kid earlier — but more than both of those, I was an Are You Afraid Of The Dark? kid. I devoured the show; I read the books; I even played, replayed, and played again the Are You Afraid Of The Dark? PC game, The Tale Of Orpheo’s Curse. (Heck, it was everything I loved in one package: Spooky stuff, the theatre, magic, weird and creepy wax museums, puzzles to solve and mysteries to unravel… yes, please.)
So, when the announcement came that the series was to see a revival in 2019, I couldn’t help but get excited — even remembering how poorly it went the last time they tried to bring it back. (The 1999-2000 iteration was… not good.) And you know what? The 2019 three-parter, Carnival Of Doom, actually has quite a bit to recommend it. What’s interesting to me about it this time ’round is that, unlike in 1999, the series doesn’t quite follow the same format: Yes, there’s a Midnight Society, and yes, there’s a spooky story told at a meeting — but Carnival Of Doom blends the two together in a way the original series did only rarely. Ultimately, Carnival Of Doom is about the Midnight Society itself — that is, it makes the framing device the actual narrative — which, although a departure from the series as we knew it back in the early ’90s, brings something new to the table.
I haven’t yet seen the second installment of this iteration, Curse Of The Shadows, but it looks like it similarly focuses on the Midnight Society — with an appearance from an old favorite. The first full episode of this season is on Nickelodeon’s YouTube channel.
Watch it on Netflix.
Old things, new things, old-new things… there’s plenty out there to find. Got any to add?
[Photo via igorovsyannykov/Pixabay; Netflix; Lionsgate]