Platinum Dunes polished horror's past for a new generation 1
Jessica Biel looks terrified in a car.
Jessica Biel in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre New Line / New Line

Horror buffs are not a monolith. Broach the topic of Rob Zombie or A24 with a group of them and you’ll see how widely opinions can vary. But in the early 2000s, there was something on which every card-carrying fright fan seemed to agree — a new trend that united the whole genre against a common enemy, like the monster of The Architects of Fear. If you fancied yourself a true horror fan back then, there was a very good chance that you despised Platinum Dunes and its line of slick, profitable horror remakes with every fiber of your being.

Founded in 2001, Platinum Dunes was a production company by Michael Bay, director of bombastic action blockbusters like Armageddon, The Rockand Bad Boys. The business plan was to finance Hollywood movies on lower budgets, with a specific focus on horror. Though the company greenlit a few original projects in its early days (and eventually found new success with The Purge and A Quiet Place series), most of its resources were devoted to vacuuming up the rights to ’70s and ’80s classics and giving them a 21st-century spit shine.

Platinum Dunes remade five movies in eight years, beginning with Tobe Hooper’s timeless slaughterhouse nightmare The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. After its cover version of that milestone did big business in October of 2003, Bay turned his attentions to the bastardization of other enduringly popular video-store staples: the dubiously fact-based haunted-house chiller The Amityville Horror; the cult ’80s stranger-danger thriller The Hitcher; and two of the most milked-dry slasher franchises of them all, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dunes also found room for a Leatherface origin story, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.

Right from the start, these movies were reviled, critically and in fan circles. Their reputation has not improved. The Chain Saw remake, which just turned 20, remains the easiest target, thanks to what it precipitated: Much of the larger 2000s horror remake trend — a decade of regurgitated scares, a ruthless raiding of the genre vaults — can be traced back to that movie’s robust box-office performance. Likewise, the new Chain Saw set the template for the Platinum Dunes do-overs to come. The crisp, air-brushed aesthetic. The mercenary repetition of key shots and scenes and jolts. The sanding down of everything gritty and outsider-art weird about the originals. It all started with Marcus Nispel’s redundant trip to the Texas boonies.

The color-corrected look of Platinum Dunes — a more atmospheric variation on the sweat-coated, magic-hour glow of Bay’s own movies — had an ironic architect: It was cinematographer Daniel Pearl, who shot the original Chain Saw and was brought back for the remake, who proposed that they tack far away from the raw, snuff-film graininess of Hooper’s film. “There’s no point in making the exact same film with the exact same look,” Pearl would say before the remake’s release, and he had a point. Why trace over a masterpiece? Of course, remaking one at all poses something close to the same question.

The Dunes remakes don’t exactly soften their recycled material. Most of them are every bit as violent as the grimier movies they splash in a new coat of paint. If anything, some of them are actually more explicit. The 2003 Chainsaw is in many ways the assaultive gorefest the title implies, replacing the disturbing but not especially bloody torment of the original with lots of sharply photographed carnage. The real thing about the remakes is that they give all that violence a mall-friendly polish, shooting B-movie thrills like fashion spreads.

You could call it the Bayification of horror, except with very little of the abstract, kinetic, frankly lunatic kaleidoscope qualities of his headache-inducing work — the stuff that’s earned the director a following among connoisseurs of mainstream trash-art. Most of the films’ directors, like Nispel and David Meyers and Samuel Bayer, cut their teeth on commercials and music videos, just as Bay had. They seemed similarly obsessed with surface effect but without Bay’s signature quick-cut freneticism. They made movies like they were still trying to sell the audience something.

A woman confronts a man in The Hitcher.
Rogue Pictures

Narratively, the Dunes remakes feel a little focus-grouped, too. They cut their slick brutality with weirdly sentimental revisions — little plot points intended to appease a hypothetical multiplex audience. You can almost hear the studio notes. “Can the Sawyer family have a cute, mutant kid, too, like a little brother for Leatherface? What if Jason kidnapped pretty women instead of just butchering them? What if the beleaguered hero of The Hitcher also had a hot girlfriend along for the ride?”

The last of those films, by the way, is probably the worst of the bunch. It takes a nasty oddball road movie and flattens its personality, emerging with a generic pod-person take on The Hitcher. Any comparison at all to the original — the most left-field of the Dunes acquisitions — does it no favors. Likewise, the Chainsaw remake would probably look like watchable designer junk — it’s plenty intense at least — were it viewed in a void. But it can’t escape the shadow of the eternal gauntlet of terror it’s poorly imitating; there’s a ’70s cosplay quality to it, like watching models throw a costume party. Same with the prequel.

By contrast, the generic Amityville Horror — starring an unconvincingly serious Ryan Reynolds — benefits from rehashing a movie that was no classic to begin with. And though the Friday the 13th remake lacks some of the flavor of the more endearingly dopey installments, it really isn’t much better, worse, or even different than what came before. The F13 movies have always been unabashedly lizard-brained. At the very least, one can point to a few good kills in the remake (pity the pretty coed who gets a blade through the top of her noggin), and isn’t that all we really ask of Friday the 13th?

At the risk of inciting a mob like the one that barbecues Freddy Krueger, let it be said that the Elm Street remake is the most interesting of the Dunes cycle. Yes, it lifts shamelessly from Wes Craven’s original, settling for the stolen valor of copy-and-pasted scares — the bedroom massacre, the gloved hand in the bathwater, etc. — over doing much new in the dream-kill department. But it also makes explicit the implication that Krueger is a child molester, a queasy twist that supplies a new kind of dread that’s not in Craven’s movie: Here, Freddy becomes a literal return of the repressed, a monster rising from the traumatized recesses of the teens’ minds. That’s a provocative tweak and one that rescues this widely maligned film from charges of purely lazy plagiarism.

Not-Elm Street‘s intriguing edits aside, all of these movies are creatively dubious. They bring to mind tasteless remodelers, snatching up historic properties and painting over their original molding. Or modern apparel companies selling phony “vintage” T-shirts. They make gleaming multiplex products from another era’s rougher entertainment. They are monuments to Hollywood’s lack of new ideas and prime examples of commodified nostalgia.

Freddy bursts out of the wall in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
New Line Cinema

There’s also something very 2000s about ultra-slick popcorn movies this unpleasantly violent. Several of the films Platinum Dunes remade felt unmistakably touched by Vietnam. The war is certainly there in Texas Chain Saw Massacrewith its grainy celluloid vision of madness and senseless death, and in Friday the 13tha portrait of teen slaughter with viscerally anatomical gore effects by a former war photographer. In updating those movies for the aughts, Platinum Dunes abstractly captured the spirit of a different wartime, a bloodthirsty modern America watching mass death and destruction on crisp video feeds. The remakes are like processed food for the War on Terror age.

There are many reasons to dislike them, even the ones interesting in their flaws. What dooms the Dunes canon is what dooms all remakes of classics: There’s no real reason for them to exist beyond pure studio cannibalism. Most of them are simply needless, which is arguably worse than bad. Hatred for them no longer seems necessary. They now look more like relics than the films they remake. They will be forgotten. Fanbases will forever elude them.

Most of the Platinum Dunes remakes are streaming on Max, if you’re into that sort of thing. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.