With the astronomical $76.2M opening weekend debut of Blumhouse’s Halloween (2018) fresh in everyone’s mind, horror fans and Hollywood suits alike are now pondering what this could mean for the other two long dormant 80s horror franchises.
There’s already a glimmer of hope on the horizon for the Friday the 13th franchise: on Monday Bloody Disgusting broke the news that LeBron James (!) is producing a new Jason film in the wake of a court decision that reverted the rights to the original film’s characters back to screenwriter Victor Miller. The same day Freddy Krueger actor Robert Englund teased his willingness to revisit the character for one final film while promoting his guest appearance on the ABC family comedy The Goldbergs. In the space of 72 hours, there’s been big news for all three of the 80s most prolific horror franchises.
And yet…we’ve been in this position before.
Flashback to February 2009. Rob Zombie had already debuted the Dimension-backed first installment of his polarizing revisionist take on Michael Myers in 2007 and he was preparing to shoot the August 2009 sequel. At this point, Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller’s production company Platinum Dunes was three films into their remake frenzy, including 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2005’s The Amityville Horror and 2007’s The Hitcher. On February 13, Friday the 13th was released in theatres; a little over a year later on April 30, Platinum Dunes released the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.
The situation we find ourselves in 2018 is not new: we’re on the cusp of another cycle of remakes. The question is not whether we will see Jason or Freddy again; it is when and in what form? As industry insiders closely follow Halloween’s box office, however, they would do well to consider history. If new installments of our favorite 80s monsters are on the horizon, now is the time to investigate where the previous attempts to reboot Jason and Freddy back in 2009/2010 went wrong in order to ensure the same mistakes aren’t made.
Let’s dig in…
By 2009 it had been six years since horror audiences saw the two icons butt heads in the oft-delayed cross-over film Freddy vs Jason. While this was not the longest time gap in between films for either franchise (there were nine years between 1993’s Jason Goes To Hell and 2002’s Jason X, and nine between 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and 2003’s Freddy vs Jason), 2009’s Friday would attempt something new: it was the first attempt to reboot the franchise as an origin story.
Platinum Dunes was clearly taking a page from their successful Texas Chainsaw Massacre playbook, which revitalized that long-dormant franchise. The TCM remake adopted a desaturated yellow colour scheme, a gritty aesthetic and a liberal dose of gory violence. Bay, Form and Fuller had the good sense to bring back Tobe Hooper and writer Kim Henkel as co-producers; Daniel Pearl as cinematographer; and John Larroquette reprised his role as the film’s ominous narrator.
Friday 2009 shares the same director as TCM – Marcus Nispel – and brings back Freddy vs Jason writers Damian Shannon & Mark Swift (despite near universal disdain for FvJ‘s script). It also repurposes part of the iconic Friday the 13th score. The yellow colour filter is swapped out for blue, but TCM’s lean/mean mentality towards kills and gore remains intact. Example A: that sleeping bag kill in the early section of the film is still brutal nearly a decade later.
NOES 2010 leans even further into these ideas. The most substantial difference is that Friday’s script is an amalgamation of what Shannon and Swift consider the best parts of the first four films of the franchise (which explains why the film plays like three films spread across different time periods). NOES’ script was initially going to follow suit, but eventually, the decision was made to focus exclusively on Wes Craven’s original film, shifting the film into explicit remake territory. Importantly, while the film had Englund’s support for recasting the role of Freddy, Craven was publicly vocal about his lack of consultation on the new film.
Horror is arguably one of the genres that is most immune to reviews. As sweeping generalizations go, there is a perception that horror fans are less discerning about the quality of the films that they will support, including films with poor reviews. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, there is a long and storied history of horror films with low critical aggregate scores that have done well and over-performed at the box office.
It is important to raise this point because it highlights a disconnect between the way horror fans engage with films, which is particularly relevant for the Friday and Nightmare franchises. Consider that by the time of the 2009/2010 remakes, these franchises had a combined 18 films between them over 29 years, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars of box office revenue (to say nothing of lucrative licensing and merchandising deals).
We can consider two points of entry when examining the “success” (or lack thereof) of 2009’s Friday and 2010’s NOES: critic reviews and audience scores/box office. On Rotten Tomatoes, Friday is rated 25% Rotten, while NOES fares even worse at 15% Rotten (for comparison TCM sits at 36%, Freddy vs Jason is 41%, and Zombie’s Halloween is 26%). Critics from traditional (read: non-horror) outlets criticized both films for failing to distinguish themselves from their predecessors, for replicating sequences from the original source material and for relying too heavily on “shock” cuts (ie: jump scares). One obvious distinguishing factor that made Friday go over a little better with critics is the inclusion of humour, while NOES is criticized for being unnecessarily dark and gloomy.
Horror critics weren’t much more favourable:
Friday the 13th:
- BC’s review praises the physicality and presence of Derek Mears as Jason, likens the violence to the “torture porn” trend that was popular with Saw films at the time, and struggles to engage with the opening sequence that functions too much like an extended prologue
A Nightmare On Elm Street:
- David Harley’s review suggests the new film moves briskly and follows the same story with some slight modern updates, but they (and the characters) don’t resonate. Harley’s verdict is that the film fails to offer anything innovative
- Jeff Otto’s review laments the lack of character development, the speed with which characters (and by proxy the audience) know everything and Jackie Earle Haley’s diminutive status, which hampers his ability to scare and intimidate
Cinemascores (exit polls collected over opening weekend) reinforced the audience preference for Friday (B-) over NOES (C+) although the final domestic grosses were nearly identical (approximately ~$65M). The gross, however, is extremely underwhelming when opening weekend figures are considered: Friday opened to $40M while NOES opened slightly lower with $32.9M. The incredibly small difference between opening weekend and final gross for both films indicates that they were both extremely front-loaded (hardcore fans rushed out), but neither film had legs (repeat viewers). Considering Friday’s $19M and NOES’ $35M budget (the latter is quite high for horror) and the subdued response from fans, New Line ultimately pulled the plug on sequel options.
A cursory glance at the key distinctions between Blumhouse’s Halloween, Friday 2009 and NOES 2010 reveal several lessons to be learned:
1) Sequels sell better than remakes: Halloween is a continuation of the original franchise, not a hard reboot (which is sometimes seen as a cynical cash grab by horror fans). Consider this: Zombie’s Halloween remake opened to $31M and ultimately earned $80M, which is slightly better than (but still in line with) Friday and NOES. It appears that there may be a financial ceiling on remakes/reboots.
2) Make the film an event: The fervor surrounding the release of Halloween has dominated horror water cooler talk for nearly the entire year. Not only does the film celebrate the 40th anniversary of John Carpenter‘s original film, it brought back original actress Jamie Lee Curtis to the franchise for the first time in 20 years (still not counting Resurrection). The same argument can be applied to two other franchise entries: 1998’s Halloween: H20 (which played to many of the same strengths to the tune of $55M) and Freddy vs Jason (which capitalized on years of pent-up demand to see the icons face off and ultimately grossed $114M). Even Halloween 2007 was able to capitalize on the odd and unusual choice of Rob Zombie’s involvement to help garner extra attention.
Compare this with Friday and NOES, both of which had much more muted, anxious, and trepidatious reactions from fans. Neither franchise brought back key players such as Kane Hodder or Robert Englund and, in NOES’ case, actually irked Craven, which did not sit well with loyal fans.
3) Reviews matter: Although there are plenty of horror films that have performed admirably without the benefit of strong reviews, Halloween has been able to appeal to a broader audience thanks to its 80% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and sparkling endorsement from horror critics. The B+ Cinemascore also indicates that audiences who see the film are mostly liking what they see.
4) Reputation matters: One intriguing new development that was not in play when the Friday and NOES remakes were made is the power of Blumhouse. The production company has been around since 2000, but didn’t break out until 2009 with the release of Paranormal Activity. Since then Blumhouse has developed a reputation for producing good to great films on small budgets, which ensures high profitability. Their association with well-liked genre auteurs such as James Wan, Leigh Whannell, and Oscar winner Jordan Peele has generated audience goodwill and faith in the brand, which undoubtedly helped to sell Halloween as a reverent property that fans could trust to deliver the goods.
5) Be selective with the homages: One of the consistent complaints in nearly all of the reviews for both Friday 2009 and NOES 2010 is their slavish devotion to previous installments. This is especially apparent in A Nightmare on Elm Street, which lifted whole sequences from Craven’s original film and then failed to differentiate, modernize or improve upon them. Friday the13th‘s cheeky playfulness — incorporating elements of the first four films — likely would have been better received if they were spread out throughout the film, rather than starting the film with a series of false starts. Compare this with the (mostly) appreciative response to the Blumhouse Halloween‘s visual references to its predecessors, even those it has disavowed in its retconned timeline; several reviews applaud its efforts to pay homage without literally recreating the original set pieces.
6) Make it timely: This lesson is apt to be the most controversial. Halloween has generated a fair amount of press due to its political and cultural relevancy in the era of #MeToo. The film’s focus on female trauma, recovery and (to a certain extent) vengeance against a male oppressor has been a persistent theme in reviews, media interviews and think piece articles published in the wake of the film’s release. This has undoubtedly helped to raise the film’s profile and may have encouraged audiences who were uninterested in seeing the film to make an effort to support it. Attempting to anticipate trends years in advance can be dangerous and films run the risk of being out of touch, overly topical, appearing disingenuous or turning off potential audiences.
Whether future iterations of Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street will heed these lessons is uncertain, but it is clear that horror audiences are less welcoming to remakes of their favourite franchises, particularly those that eschew the actors and creators that helped make the originals so memorable. Warner Bros and New Line would do well to consider their scripts, their release dates and keep Hodder, Englund, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Kevin Bacon, and Victor Miller on speed dial before they pull the trigger on a new film.
What are your thoughts? Do any of the lessons stated above stand out as reasons why Halloween succeeded where Friday 2009 and NOES 2010 failed?