Beyond the grave: what's next for the horror reboot?

After Halloween’s record-breaking haul, Hollywood is set to look to the past to bring back horror’s most feared villains

Back from the dead: Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th.
Back from the dead: Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. Composite: Rex/Alamy

Horror movies are having a cultural moment, and it’s one that may fill older audiences with a sense of deja vu thanks to the preponderance of familiar titles and faces.

This past weekend saw the latest entry in the Halloween series, a rebooted assembly product ignoring previous sequels and bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis, bag a franchise best opening haul of $77m, while also breaking a number of other records.

The trend isn’t a new one, but it was solidified last year with the massive success of It, the second adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel. Not only did the film’s box office – it culled a worldwide total of $700m, making it the highest-grossing horror film of all time – kick off a renewed interest in King’s oeuvre, it also bestowed an air of prestige upon his onscreen horror output not seen since 1990’s Misery.

Obviously, this guaranteed that the next several years would feature a number of new King adaptations, many of which would probably cover material previously brought to screen. Sure enough, a new Pet Sematary (previously adapted in 1989) is due in April next year, while It: Chapter II is scheduled to finish principal production soon. A host of other King properties are currently in various stages of development, including new iterations of Creepshow, Firestarter, The Tommyknockers, The Stand and even The Dark Tower (the first version having bombed in theaters only a month before It’s release last summer).

The likelihood that any of these might match the success of It is a long shot (a properly epic version of The Stand probably stands the best chance), and post-Halloween, there are similar doubts over lightning striking twice.

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All too predictably, studios have begun scrambling to resurrect their own dormant slasher franchises in the hopes of riding its coattails. Fittingly, the first such property to be rumored for an imminent return is the original Halloween rip-off, Friday the 13th. This time, the summer camp zombie slasher will be reportedly summoned back to life by none other than newly arrived Los Angeles transplant LeBron James.

Meanwhile, the Halloween producer (and reigning king of horror) Jason Blum has expressed interest in relaunching late-90s horror properties Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Along those same lines, we can probably expect a number of IPs from the original Halloween writer-director John Carpenter to see some traction, including the long-gestating remakes of Escape From New York, They Live and Big Trouble in Little China (which, last we had heard, had Dwayne Johnson attached to star). Carpenter himself is certainly welcoming of the prospect.

To many observers, both within the horror fan community and without, this latest emphasis on revitalizing properties with strong brand-name recognition is an annoying prospect, considering how little removed we are from the last time the trend was in full swing.

Retreaded properties have flooded the market for years, and they were especially pervasive during the mid-aughts, which saw Rob Zombie’s pair of controversial Halloween remakes; four new Texas Chainsaw Massacre films; one attempt each at relaunching the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street brands; and a host of other examples, including Dawn of the Dead, The Evil Dead, The Thing, My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, The Stepfather, Carrie and more. So much more. (This doesn’t even take into account the various American remakes of foreign horror films during that same period.)

The deluge hasn’t been limited to horror, nor has it been restricted to the multiplexes. From Robocop to Roseanne, the tide of nostalgia has flowed unbroken since the start of the millennium. It’s not as though there was ever a time this wasn’t par for the course – many beloved Hollywood classics, including The Wizard of Oz, Ben Hur and The Maltese Falcon, could be considered remakes – but they’re more prevalent now than at any previous point throughout cinema history.

Jamie Lee Curtis in a publicity still for Halloween
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Jamie Lee Curtis in a publicity still for Halloween. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The question in the wake of Halloween 2018 (the 10th film in the franchise and its fourth – arguably fifth – attempt at rebooting itself) isn’t will we see a ton of franchise remakes and reboots, but what should we expect from them? Much like the Stephen King adaptations set to follow It, it is doubtful that Halloween’s particular success can be fully replicated. To pretend otherwise is to discount the specific alchemy of the film – a long enough gestation time since the last go-round, the highly anticipated return of its original star, a ready-made holiday tie-in date, and an emphasis on timely sociopolitical themes all helped the film capture the current zeitgeist, to say nothing of the box office.

Any film might find some small measure of success by copying one or two of those elements – a new Nightmare on Elm Street with Robert England back in the role of Freddy Krueger might bring out more people than the last reboot (which saw Jackie Earle Haley step into the stripped sweatshirt, brown fedora, and knife glove), but the there’s nothing to suggest that it would make for a record-setting opening weekend. The same can be safely assumed for the return of any of his fellow slashers – Leatherface, Pinhead, even Jason (unless perhaps LeBron James were to put on the hockey mask himself). The recent failure of the Predator reboot proved that monsters alone won’t bring out the audience. When it comes to a true crossover horror success, we require a human element. Just look at the horror films that find mainstream respectability – Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie, Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Get Out – they all focused as much on the vulnerable people at their center as they did the monsters in their shadows. When it comes to Halloween, both the original (which was the highest-grossing independent film of its time) and the new one, the most human element to its shared success is Jamie Lee Curtis.

Sigourney Weaver in Aliens
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Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Photograph: Allstar/20 CENTURY FOX/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Along those lines, if, say, Jodie Foster were to star alongside Anthony Hopkins in a new Hannibal Lecter movie, that might match (or even exceed) Halloween’s triumph. Likewise, a returning Sigourney Weaver could help steer the Alien franchise back on course after the recent disappointment of Prometheus and Covenant. Neither example is likely to happen at this point (until earlier this year, Weaver actually had been attached to star in an Alien reboot, which would have seen District 9 director Neill Blomkamp take the reins and which, like the new Halloween, would have jettisoned almost the entirety of the preceding sequels from the official canon), although both seem more plausible now than they did a week ago. Next year’s forthcoming Terminator reboot, which will bring back original stars Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, should make for a good yardstick to test this specific template.

Regardless of the individual success or failure of any of these examples – both hypothetical and forthcoming – the future of horror is going to be rife with remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, sequels, prequels, second (or third, or fourth) adaptations and, of course, rip-offs galore.

While in-and-of itself that’s lamentable, not least of all because it will only make it harder for original ideas to get produced and seen, it isn’t entirely cause for despair. As shown by recent reboots such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed and Twin Peaks: The Return, any one has the potential to show us exceed our expectations, and even to show us something original.

Horror fans have been well aware of this for decades, as a handful of the all-time great films within the genre – James Whale’s Frankenstein, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and dare I say Luca Guadagnino’s excellent new Suspiria – are themselves remakes of one sort or another.

Such artistic successes are few and far between, and they are always impossible to predict. What’s not impossible to predict is how the majority of horror remakes and reboots will turn out: several will play well with the general public, and make decent enough coin to warrant a direct sequel or two. Diehard horror fans will keep an open mind and catch everything that comes their way, while casual fans and critics will lament the lack of smart, original horror offerings, despite the numerous examples that come out on the regular (this year’s batch – Annihilation, A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Apostle and Mandy – has proven especially strong).

Eventually, the most persistent franchises will wear out their welcome and be put to rest … at least until someone new comes along a few years down the line to once again resurrect Michael Myers or one of his murderous ilk, at which point the cycle, much like the mayhem that follows these tried-and-true monsters from film to film, will begin all over.