For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
Watching horror movies age is one of the joys of revisiting them. Like fall leaves, they give off an air of sweetness as they wane. The films that horrified us as kids often seem relatively innocent compared to the real-life horrors we face as adults. But parts of those films are still burrowed under our skin.
To examine aging on multiple sides, I’m going to look back at two horror remakes celebrating anniversaries this year — 1998’s Psycho with its 25th and 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which turned 20 earlier this month.
I vividly remember the buildup to both remakes. It was a chilly October afternoon in Willowbrook, Illinois, when the teaser poster for Psycho left me shivering in the lobby of Grove Cinema. I was 7 years old, and my dad was taking me to see the computer-animated comedy Antz. But throughout the movie, I couldn’t stop thinking about that Psycho poster with its silhouette of a woman in a shower flooded with bright red blood. I knew about the original 1960 film’s infamous shower scene, but the jarring switch from black-and-white to color resensitized me to it.
I wasn’t ready for that stark contrast because when the teaser-trailer played before a different movie earlier that year, I ran out of the theater midway through it. As the black-and-white letters of the title swirled onscreen like a hypnosis spiral, I couldn’t handle the looming dread leading up to the flashes of color.
Trailers in the ’80s and ’90s, especially for horror films, were true teasers. Unlike today’s trailers that seem to give away the entire film, they offered quick and unsettling peeks, often without using any footage from the final cut. For instance, take this teaser for 1986’s Poltergeist II. Or the notorious Alien 3 trailer, which promised an ultimately abandoned concept of aliens on Earth. Watching this teaser for 1999’s The Haunting felt like being inside a nightmare that inspired the film.
The final trailer for Psycho was the most disturbing, as it seemed like the original film was physically degenerating into something far more depraved. It appears to be a projectionist’s prank at first, as if someone is switching a reel of the original with the remake. The trailer opens with the Universal logo seemingly burning off the screen as we enter the mind of the film’s villain, Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn). When I was a kid, this felt like an overwhelmingly scary peek inside a killer’s subconscious. As an adult, I look back and smile at the snippet of a Rob Zombie music video in this “mind’s eye montage.”
When I finally saw the film itself, it didn’t live up to the mystique surrounding its release. But I still find it fascinating to watch as an experiment. As most know, it’s a largely shot-for-shot recreation of the original film, only in color and with a few new images spliced in seemingly to make a subliminal impression. It plays out like your neighborhood’s Halloween haunted house tour, inducing anxiety by promising the most terrifying experience possible only to serve up the same old scares. With the marketing campaign and the final product, director Gus Van Sant seemed to be toying with the audience, building tension completely in our anticipation before delivering the punchline that you can’t catch lightning in a bottle a second time with a remake. In that sense, the film is the ticking time bomb under a table that the original’s director, Alfred Hitchcock, described as a metaphor for suspense.
In terms of what it does differently, the Psycho remake simply makes parts of the original more overt, showing blood in color and suggesting through sound that Norman is masturbating when he peeps in on Marion’s motel room before she takes the fateful shower. As Roger Ebert wrote, “That’s appropriate, because this new Psycho evokes the real thing in an attempt to recreate remembered passion.”
Through its ineffectiveness, 1998’s Psycho proves it’s what we don’t see that scares us. Remember that I ran out of the theater during the teaser-trailer. My memory of cowering from this sneak peek at the film is what haunts my dreams at night.
From the murky, monstrous poster to the trailer that eerily mixes the sound of camera flashes with screams, the marketing campaign for 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre stayed under my skin for months.
I hadn’t seen the 1974 original, so like the Psycho remake, this one haunted me with the notion of making one of the supposedly scariest movies ever made even scarier.
I remember seeing the trailer in the theater made me feel dirty and all the more aware of the sticky floor. Like the original, this film makes you feel the grime of its countryside setting under your fingernails. It creates fear in the idea of rural wrongdoing left to rot under farmhouses’ rickety floorboards and in their flooded basements. The farmhouse in the film is much like the home of serial killer Ed Gein — the inspiration behind the bogeymen of both films explored in this essay.
The original film feels like home-movie footage found somewhere in the depths of hell. The 2003 remake is a much more mainstream riff, foreshadowing the grungy MTV aesthetic of Saw and Hostel. It has some tense, memorable sequences, including a chase through drying bedsheets and a scene of star Jessica Biel hiding in the locker room of a meat plant. But it lacks the immersive you-are-there immediacy of its predecessor, the moment-to-moment sense that you may be uncovering video evidence of actual crimes.
R. Lee Ermey overstays his welcome as the crooked sheriff, and the film leans too heavily on gore for scares. But it has some scuzzy charm.
The original Psycho was 38 years old when the remake was released, and Texas Chainsaw was 29 when the 2003 film came out. Now, even these remakes are getting long in their sharp, bloody teeth. And I maintain vivid memories of my dread before seeing them, which was ultimately scarier than the films themselves. Did my parents feel the same about the originals? Will I laugh at myself for finding the popular, original horror releases of my generation — such as Saw or The Conjuring — scary when they are remade 20 years from now?
I suppose that’s how we process the horrors of life and movies, tensing up in anticipation and letting out a chuckle or sigh of relief in hindsight. At first, we might cower and retreat from them. But then we return to what we feared, and it often seems much smaller than the initial dread that loomed over us. A creepy teaser-trailer that swallowed us up in the theater becomes a little square on a laptop screen. And the big questions of life turn into little words on a page, allowing us to sleep better at night. Sweet dreams for the rest of October.