#2. Anything Based on Lovecraft
20th Century Fox
Examples: Event Horizon, In the Mouth of Madness, From Beyond, Prometheus
For about 150 years now, Guillermo del Toro has been trying to make a movie version of H.P. Lovecraft's 1931 novella, At the Mountains of Madness. At the risk of getting lynched by a bunch of very pale people in Cthulhu T-shirts, I'll admit that I'm among the few people who wouldn't mind if this story of Antarctic exploration and giant penguins was never brought to the screen. Why? Because any visual medium that tries to imitate Lovecraftian horror usually ends up about as successful as trying to get through a Lovecraft story without finding the words "eldritch abomination."
Via Providence Athenaeum
The man probably used those words to describe cake that tasted funny.
Why It Doesn't Work:
If you're unfamiliar with Lovecraft's horror stories, most of them go like this: man discovers evidence of an ancient monster. Man is too dumb to run away. Man comes face to face with monster and goes insane. Now, you'll probably read the "ancient monster" part and think "Wow! That would make a great del Toro film!" You'd be wrong, though, you wrong person. Even Dan O'Bannon, the co-creator of one of the only successful Lovecraft-themed movies ever, is on record as saying that it would be difficult for anyone to repeat his success.
See, Lovecraft's stories haven't remained popular so long just because his monsters are scary. They endure because his monsters are metaphors for existential alienation. It's not the appearance of the monsters in his stories, it's the reality of them, the fact that they exist. Their existence alone proves that humanity is doomed and that all our hopes and dreams are stupid. Running into one of Lovecraft's Elder Gods is like finding a strange pair of underwear in your bed and realizing that your spouse is cheating on you. It's not the underwear itself that's stabbing you in the heart; it's the betrayal it represents. Lovecraft's monsters are proof to the protagonist that the universe is not benevolent. Finding strange underwear might mean that your spouse never loved you; stumbling upon a Lovecraft creature means that God never loved you.
John Howard/Photodisc/Getty Images
If you don't want to summon Cthulhu, a similar feeling can be achieved by reading YouTube comments.
But this kind of slow-building existential terror is almost impossible to do in visual form. Most of the movies that have attempted it, like Prometheus and Event Horizon, have ended up with characters who run around yelling about how bleak the universe is and how insane they're feeling, as if we can absorb cosmic terror through actors on screen telling us how scared they are. And that's actually the preferable option in a Lovecraft adaptation: Other films, like 1994's In the Mouth of Madness, simply skip past the cosmic-horror aspect altogether and act as if the whole point of Lovecraft's stories was "Hey, guys! Giant things with tentacles are scary!" Which I guess is technically right, but I don't think it was exactly what H.P. was going for.
Every picture in the Necronomicon is just this, apparently.
#1. Anything That Worked Because of Past Limitations
Examples: Post-1980s Star Wars, Alien vs. Predator, Alien 3, The Hobbit Trilogy, Sherlock, King Kong, Superman Returns
We tend to believe that creativity flourishes in an atmosphere of openness and freedom. More options? More creativity! If a director makes a good movie with $10 million and a set made out of lumberyard scraps, this must mean that if we give him a bigger budget and technological improvements, he'll produce something even better. So many old movies were hampered by low budgets and shoddy special effects, and we have a duty to remake those movies. We have the technology.
Why It Doesn't Work:
Creative works don't always succeed because the person who made them had the most talent. Sometimes they succeed because of sheer, dumb luck. And sometimes that luck consists of a creator not being able to make movies the way he wanted to, whether it's because he was an unproven young artist or because he was born in a time before computer graphics allowed every one of his "genius" creations to come to life.
This is one reason that remakes of '80s monster movies are usually so terrible. It was so much harder to screw up monsters in the pre-CGI era: You didn't want people to laugh at your dumb puppets, so you kept them off the screen, where they stayed mysterious and scary. New versions show them off like they're product placement. Maybe we should paraphrase everyone's childhood mentor, Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, and ask ourselves: Just because technological advances mean we can show a monster, does that mean we should?
This guy was the Yoda of the '90s.
Then there's the censorship issue. Say what you will about restrictions on sex and violence in films, censoring movies did have at least one positive effect: It meant that writers and directors had to work harder to keep the audience's interest. This can be painfully obvious when it comes to female characters. Irene Adler, for example, was a complex, clever antagonist who outsmarted Sherlock Holmes in the 1891 story she appeared in. In the 2012 television adaptation, Irene has morphed into a one-dimensional seductress who first appears on screen in the nude and who flummoxes Sherlock with her boobies. And why not? A good chunk of the viewing audience is going to be satisfied with having a naked lady on the screen, so there's no need to waste energy giving her a personality.
"Your lines? Hell, I don't know. Just make some grunting noises or something."
Am I saying that I think we should fix this by banning all nudity in movies and use Iran's method of digitally editing in large objects to hide women's onscreen cleavage? Well ... yes, actually. That would be hilarious.