We all know that no classic horror film is safe from the remake treatment. From the rehashing of 80s slasher classics that defined early 2000s horror, to the current rush to remake every possible Stephen King adaptation, horror is a genre packed with reboots, for better or for worse. Yet contemporary filmmakers don’t just dive into the 70s and 80s for remake material.
Horror is one of the rare genres in which films from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s are iconic enough to be frequently mined for remakes as well. If anyone were ever to doubt the enduring power of black and white, classic horror films, I would simply direct them to the realm of remakes. The timeless stories of early horror cinema have been regularly revisited and rehashed for contemporary movie-goers, to varying degrees of success. From one-off remakes to the many attempts at rebooting the Universal Monsters, let’s take a look at ten black and white horror remakes, from worst to best.
10. The Mummy (2017)
Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. This 2017 flick was an attempt to jump-start the Dark Universe, Universal Studio’s try at replicating the franchise juggernaut of the MCU using its storied monster properties. While the film diverges from the 1932 original significantly, the lack of deference to the source material wasn’t the reason The Mummy flopped. Instead, Universal demonstrated a lack of trust in its own properties by abandoning both horror and fun, the two signatures of their classic monsters. Instead, they opted for a soulless action film packed with stars like Tom Cruise, too distracted by its attempt to introduce characters from other properties, like Dr. Jekyll (Russel Crow) and set up spin-offs, failing to tell a compelling story. It all worked out for the best, as the film’s reception lead to the cancellation of the interconnected and star-studded blockbuster version of the Dark Universe. The next chapter in the saga took a different direction, earning a far higher spot on this list (stay tuned). It would have been nice to see a quality remake of The Mummy featuring a female mummy, however. Reimagining the titular monster as a vengeful princess was the film’s sole good idea, and could have been great if handled with more artistry and care.
9. Dracula Untold (2014)
The Mummy (2017) was not the first attempt to reboot the Universal Classic Monsters into a Superhero inspired blockbuster franchise. That process began in 2014 with the release of the relatively forgotten Dracula Untold. While an official reboot of the classic Dracula (1931) from the studio who created the franchise, Dracula Untold was as far from the spirit of the original as was The Mummy (2017). Instead of a horror film, Universal reimagined the story as an effects-heavy historical epic, with the noble 15th-century hero Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans) using his powers to battle the evil forces of the Ottoman Empire. Yikes. Without even touching the clearly Islamophobic bending of historical reality, the film was panned for transforming a classic horror story into a bland, overly serious action film. Dracula Untold was originally intended to begin the planned Dark Universe, but after its failure at the box office, Universal re-rebooted the franchise with The Mummy as the new kick-off film. We already know how that turned out.
8. The Wolfman (2010)
Universal attempted to reboot their classic feature The Wolfman (1941) into a new horror franchise in 2010 with The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro and directed by Joe Johnston. Unlike The Mummy (2017) and Dracula Untold (2014), The Wolfman was at least a horror film. And not only was it squarely within the genre that built Universal in the 1930s, but it was also reimagined as a late 19th-century gothic horror film, complete with misty moors, a medical amphitheater-set transformation, and a dark score by Danny Elfman. That gives the remake some instant bonus points. It’s always a little disheartening to see horror remakes try to switch genres in order to be more appealing. It sends the message to horror fans that their favorite films are somehow second tier in the eyes of Hollywood. Thankfully, that trend has begun to change, but The Wolfman was a welcome early example of embracing the signature gothic style and the horror of the original. The end result was still shadowed by the original and was another horror reboot flop, but this classic horror fan at least appreciates the effort.
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7. Van Helsing (2004)
In our number seven spot, we have yet another attempt by Universal Studios to reboot the classic monsters as an action franchise. This one is certainly a reboot over a remake, but it earns a slightly higher spot on our list than some more recent reboots, despite its overwhelmingly negative critical reception. Why? First, it actually demonstrates a love for the classic, black and white films it’s rebooting. It opens with a black and white sequence shot in the style of the 1930s, and although it quickly abandons the style for full color and CGI heavy action set pieces, the desire to pay loving homage is clearly there. Along with its opening, the film packs as many Universal Classic monsters as it can into its fairly bloated run time. As a movie, Van Helsing is certainly not good. But it is cheesy fun and at least infused with a genuine appreciation of its sources. Director Stephen Sommers clearly has a serious passion for Universal Horror, and we’ll meet him again down the road with a far more successful classic horror remake. But until then we’ll let Van Helsing guide us toward some more creative reimaginings of black and white horror.
6. Psycho (1998)
Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho was reviled on its release and is probably the most controversial film included on this list. The sticking point for many critics of the film is the perceived cinematic blasphemy of even daring to remake an Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece. Many critics and audiences assumed it was some sort of bizarre money grab like some of the earlier entries in this list. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Van Sant’s remake is a shot for shot redo of the original, reusing the script and even the score . The only major changes are the cast, the contemporary setting, and the fact it’s shot in color. The result seemed pointless and did nothing but lay bare the superiority of Hitchcock’s 1960 proto-slasher. Yet the film has its defenders, who highlight that the film’s negative reception was in fact the point. Van Sant’s remake was a cinematic experiment in what makes a film, and the director intended to demonstrate that carbon copying a masterpiece does not make another masterpiece. By using his remake to examine the intangible soul of a film, Van Sant at least tried something different with his remake. 1998’s Pyscho isn’t good, but its intention as a wider examination of remakes and what makes a classic film a classic is why it sits a little higher on this list.
5. Cat People (1982)
Halfway through our countdown and we’ve officially entered the realm of the good! Despite being a remake of one of the best horror films of the 1940s, Paul Schrader’s Cat People manages to hold its own as something entirely different yet artistically worthwhile. The original Cat People (1942) was the first of Val Lewton’s low budget, groundbreaking horror films for RKO. Lewton was brought on to help RKO compete with Universal’s horror film empire, which adds an ironic angle to the remake, released by none other than Universal Studios. Schrader co-wrote the screenplays of the Scorsese masterpieces Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and worked as a film critic, bringing a unique confluence of style and vision to the loose remake. Some character names and the basic concept of a group of people who transform into cats when aroused is the only true holdover from the noirish, understated original. Shrader’s New Orleans-set film is a dreamlike, erotic thriller with a title song by David Bowie. The film takes the present but understated sexual themes of the original and rolls with them, but the result is much more than exploitation. An entrancing lead performance by Nastassja Kinski as Irena and Schrader’s unique cinematic eye are a huge reason why. The film does pay homage to the iconic stalking sequence and swimming pool scenes from the original, but beyond that, it carves its own, memorable path.
4. Drag Me to Hell (2009)
I know what you’re thinking, Drag Me to Hell is a remake? While Sam Raimi’s 2009 horror flick might not share a title with Night of the Demon (1957), much of its premise and even its finale is inspired by the black and white Jacques Tourneur film. Like Night of the Demon, Drag Me to Hell features a character who has angered an occultist (Niall MacGinnis in ‘57 and Lorna Raver in ‘09). After being tormented by demonic visions and supernatural occurrences, a demon will arrive and kill the victim, or as in Raimi’s take, drag them alive into hell. The curse is dependent on the passing of a cursed object and in both films, the climax occurs on train tracks after a fateful handoff. Drag Me to Hell is more of a reimagining than a remake, as Raimi’s stands out as a new horror classic in its own right. Few contemporary fans or critics noticed the homage, though Sam Raimi and his co-writer, brother Ivan Raimi, credited the inspiration. Drag Me to Hell is a different example of how to successfully remake a classic horror. By using some of the effective structure of a previous film, but by setting itself apart as far more than an imitation, Drag Me to Hell brought true originality to horror again.
3. The Mummy (1999)
I told you we’d be reuniting with Stephen Sommers further up our list! That’s because the reason he was even given the task of creating a Universal Monster Mashup action movie was due to the massive success of his first Universal Horror remake, 1999’s The Mummy. In many ways The Mummy embodies how to successfully remake a classic early horror film for a new era. It was so quintessentially a film of the late 1990s, yet rather than imitating blockbusters that came before, it laid the groundwork for the jovial, popcorn blockbusters of the next twenty years. The Mummy played fast and loose with the plot of the original, envisioning the story as an Indiana Jones inspired period action film with lavish digital special effects and charming performances from leads Brandon Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Before settling on the delightful action film approach that Stephen Sommers had in mind, Universal Studios envisioned that the remake would launch a low-budget horror franchise, and they considered darker approaches from Clive Barker, Joe Dante, and George A. Romero before Sommers sold them on his take. It was the right call. Despite the fact that The Mummy is far more action than horror, it has earned the love of wider audiences and horror fans alike, who love its embrace of the nostalgic charm of the original and the pure, enduring fun of the film. It’s an example of how to remake a classic without taking things too seriously, by respecting the original while offering a new, fresh approach.
2. The Invisible Man (2020)
Sometimes, a bad thing can lead to a good one, and that’s what happened with Leigh Whannell’s 2020 remake of The Invisible Man. After the failure of The Mummy (2017) (our bottom rung on this list), Universal scrapped their Marvel-inspired Dark Universe and reimagined their plans as a set of stand alone, lower budget, straight horror remakes. Based on the reception of The Invisible Man, it was the right move. Whannell used his talent for creative scares and blistering suspense to craft a tight little thriller with a fresh, tech bro and toxic masculinity angle. It was the perfect approach to the story, and its grim, nail biting plot offered a nice contrast to the far more playful 1933 original. Meanwhile, a great central performance from Elisabeth Moss anchored the story in real emotion and terror. The Invisible Man is how to do a classic horror remake right, and it ushers in a promising future of creative reboots from Universal.
1. Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
It turns out that sometimes cinematic lightning can strike twice. In 1979, Werner Herzog’s remake of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) was released to critical acclaim and eventually made it to Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” collection. No small feat, considering the silent original is considered one of the greatest, most influential horror films ever made. Herzog agreed, considering Nosferatu the greatest film to ever come out of Germany, but his own formidable talent ensured his homage would do the original justice. Herzog took advantage of Dracula’s recent entrance into the public domain and gave characters the original names from the novel, a luxury the famously copyright-infringing original did not have. But he expanded on the themes and characters of Murnau’s masterpiece brilliantly, with a visual style that both celebrated and separated from the iconic imagery of the original. A stunning performance by Klaus Kinski as Dracula seals the deal and places Nosferatu the Vampyre at the top of our list.
And there it is, our ranking of the least to most successful remakes of classic black and white horror. It goes to show that for every remake flop there’s a fresh and welcome take on even a true classic. So while us classic horror fans may cringe at the thought of reboots, we must admit that sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised when modern filmmakers revisit our old favorites. What are your favorite and least favorite classic horror remakes? Any big misses on our list? Let us know on our Nightmare on Film Street Twitter, Subreddit and of course, our Horror Movie Fiend page on Facebook.