When It Comes To Classic Horror Films, Is It Better to Remake or Re-Canon?

Two high-profile horror adaptations get their first trailers this week. Will ‘Suspiria’ or ‘Halloween’ be the one to beat in 2018?
By  · Published on June 5th, 2018

Two high-profile horror adaptations get their first trailers this week. Will ‘Suspiria’ or ‘Halloween’ be the one to beat in 2018?

With SplitGet OutIt, and A Quiet Place all dominating the global box office, it seems every new month has also featured a new article on the bright future for the horror genre. While most horror fans have been aware of the health of the genre for more than a decade, major studios are finding reasons to invest in horror films and first-time filmmakers, and horror has quietly become the go-to filler for studios looking for a solid return on a modest investment. With the success of the genre comes horror remakes, sequels, and passion projects from filmmakers who normally operate outside the genre. It seems oddly appropriate the the trailers for Luca Guadagnino‘s Suspiria remake and David Gordon Green‘s Halloween sequel should both drop in the same week; both men are horror neophytes with critical acclaim to their name and an undying love for the movies they’re set to adapt.

And sure, while we can hopefully all agree that the future of the horror genre lies in original storytelling and not retreats of classics, these two films do raise an interesting question. When tackling a beloved horror film, is it better to build upon the original or remake the film entirely?

Thanks to the programming at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City, I was well-versed in Argento films before I ever sat down to watch the original SuspiriaThe Bird With the Crystal PlummageFour Flies on Grey Velvet, and Deep Red – always Deep Red – remain some of the finest entries of the Italian giallo movement, but Suspiria is held by many as the purest possible distillation of Argento’s ethos as a filmmaker. Last year, in celebration of the film’s 40th anniversary, published a piece celebrating Argento’s “go-for-baroque approach” that eschewed narrative in favor of dynamic visuals and unforgettable colors. Much like Argento’s other films, Suspiria hangs a loose plot atop a series of unparalleled horror set pieces, but the combination of color, characters, and production design put Argento’s film in a class of its own. Argento’s Suspiria could only have been made as a horror film in the Italian film industry of the 1970s, and any attempt to recreate the film according to its strengths would only highlight their weaknesses.

So why not take these filmic elements and give them to someone to remake wholesale? The irony of Argento’s work is that his very skillset – a stunning visual director working with one of the best soundtrack artists in movie history – also makes his work ripe for adaptation. Stories that exist only in cinema make for dicey adaptations; films that focus on narrative or performance are often less ripe for adaptation than movies that tell their story through light and sound. Many horror fans have expressed dismay that Guadagnino removed much of Argento’s signature color palette from his adaptation, but why repeat what has already been done? I think horror critic Stephanie Crawford said it best: this version of Suspiria seems to be angling for an “earthy, Wicker Man” aesthetic, and that will allow it to serve alongside – not in competition with – the original film. Go digging through the Vulture or Thrillist list of horror remakes, and it’s easy to see what happens when filmmakers understand the essence of a classic movie but filter it through their own sensibilities. Both remake and original can be simultaneously good in different ways.

It’s also interesting to note the conversations surrounding Suspiria with David Gordon Green’s Halloween trailer set to debut later this week. The latter, a continuation of John Carpenter’s first two Halloween films that aims to retcon a half-dozen subsequent Halloween films out of existence, will likely face its own criticisms as the exhumation of something sacred, but fans have already had a few mediocre sequels – and a handful of very controversial Rob Zombie remakes – to accept the current state of the franchise. What makes Halloween different is the importance of canon: unlike Suspiria, fans here will judge the film by the quality of its storytelling, and as long as the visuals remain in the general ballpark of Carpenter’s original film, most people will likely give the film a pass. Here the story is what matters, not necessarily the visuals; the film’s biggest controversy thus far has been Danny McBride’s quote about getting rid of the “supernatural” Michael Myers.

Here the idea of canon seemingly works against the franchise. Studios weren’t releasing horror sequels in the ’80s and ’90s with an eye towards establishing a holistic cinematic universe of horror movies; they were taking beloved characters and putting them through entertaining paces, often recasting actors on the fly or killing off characters in the film’s version of a horror cold open. A sequel that follows in those footsteps would be one thing, but a sequel that reorganizes or even removes other films from the established canon is calling attention to its story above all. McBride and Green are suggesting that the cohesion of their film with Carpenter’s movies should be the primary metric by which they are judged, and if the two deliver a film with incredible and lurid kills but a halfhearted arc for Laurie Strode, fans will probably be unhappy.

Two different films, one a straight remake of a horror classic, the other a canonical sequel with the blessing of the master himself. In the end, success for each movie will be measured by their proximity to the original. If Guadagnino veers too close to the visuals and the concepts of Argento’s film while not measuring up to the murder sequences of the Italian master, then horror fans will be disappointed. If McBride and Green botch the liberties they’ve taken with the franchise chronology, horror fans will, again, be disappointed. Still, what matters most for fans of Suspiria and Halloween is that the filmmakers attached to these projects posses an artistic pedigree not often found with horror directors. Good or bad, faithful or unfaithful, Suspiria and Halloween will take their swings and leave behind a unique entry in the horror canon. That’s something we can all muster a little excitement over.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)