Capcom’s remake of Resident Evil 4 is a masterful reimagining of a classic horror video game. Its release could not come at a more pertinent time for the horror genre as a whole. Remakes have drawn some ire by those who see them as the capitalization of nostalgia. However, Resident Evil 4’s remake brings to light the ways horror has developed since the original in 2005. And while Resident Evil 4’s remake feels like the more mature older sibling to the original, they still bear the same campy DNA that boldly rejects the recent trend of prestige horror.
Resident Evil 4 chronicles Leon S. Kennedy six years after the events of Resident Evil 2. Now a battle-hardened secret service agent, Leon travels to Spain on a mission. In order to rescue the President’s daughter, Ashley Graham, he has to fight a cult called Los Illuminados. The original Resident Evil 4 introduced a more action-oriented feel to the Resident Evil franchise. Beyond just the game’s third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective that departed from the earlier games’ fixed camera angles, Leon S. Kennedy’s swaggering action man bravado and emo pretty boy looks brought a new type of masculinity to the franchise. The game is as committed to campiness and B-movie aesthetics as it is to its terrifying scares.
Over the past ten years, people have used prestige horror to describe cerebral, arthouse horror films. These include movies like The VVitch, Hereditary, Annihilation, and The Lighthouse. The term largely exists to differentiate these films from the genre’s perceived “lowbrow” fare. For some, prestige horror films address serious human topics like grief, trauma, and alienation, making them worthy of critical attention. While many prestige horror films are great, the term itself is both condescending and ignorant of the genre’s history. Horror cinema has always addressed heavy human subjects; films like Get Out have just made it impossible for mass audiences to ignore it.
Another facet that differentiates prestige horror from “regular horror” is the effect that it has on the audience. While films like Scream, Halloween, and Malignant all have an element of fun to their scariness, devotees of prestige horror are drawn to films that are traumatizing because of their “grown-up” subject matter. This isn’t to say that traumatizing horror is lesser than any other type of horror. There’s room at the table for everyone, and this diversity within the genre is why fans like myself are so passionate about it. But prestige horror has made it more difficult than ever for “fun horror” to get the critical recognition that it deserves.
Resident Evil 4’s remake is here to change that. While the graphics, gameplay, and sound design have all been reimagined, Capcom has largely left the campy but terrifying tone of the original game intact. Leon Kennedy still delivers delightfully schlocky one-liners such as:
“Where’s everybody going? Bingo?”
“Adios, you son of a bitch.”
Resident Evil fans know that the game is ridiculous–it’s why it’s the preeminent video game horror franchise in the first place. And Capcom’s embrace of its shameless fun seems at once charmingly retro and a defiant rejection of prestige horror. As wonderful as it was to see a game like The Last of Us get its due with a faithful HBO adaptation, the silliness of Resident Evil 4 is a reminder that horror should always leave room for laughter and artifice.
It’s the humor of Resident Evil that gets at a larger truth about how fear works in horror. Fear is perhaps one of the oldest part of our brains, something that reminds us that we are animals. In some ways, we are also ashamed of this fact, because of how intrinsically connected fear is to our baser instincts. The way that we talk about fear, and the types of fear we privilege over others, is indicative of this fact. Perhaps one of the most frustrating parts about prestige horror is that it often doesn’t give space for accepting fear as a recurrent part of existence, just like humor. Fear doesn’t always need to make us feel bad. Sometimes we need to say something silly like, “Whoa! Goddamn, you’re a big boy!” to get through the horrors of everyday life.
Still, this isn’t to say that Resident Evil 4’s remake is completely devoid of human topics – quite the opposite. The player comes across a diary entry written by a foreman unknowingly infected by Los Illuminados’ parasite. In just a few words, the game sets up the humanity of this character as he slowly loses his own autonomy. He apologizes to his daughter for not having been a better father. The game succinctly makes Los Illuminados’ leader, Saddler, all the more evil when the player finally reads the foreman’s last diary entry. It’s a mindless, dateless profession of how much of an honor it is to serve Saddler. Like any other Resident Evil game, RE4 remake chronicles how capitalism turns people into monsters, literally. But it doesn’t stop the game from being fun.
One of the most satisfying parts of the remake is its new vision of Leon S. Kennedy. He looks and feels every bit as exhausted and traumatized as he would. He survived the zombie apocalypse on his first day of work! Instead of feeling like an action figure like in the original game, actor Nick Apostolides’ Leon is emotionally intelligent (when he chooses to be) and empathetic to those who are at their most vulnerable. He’s a badass softie without the emotional constipation of The Last of Us’ Joel or God of War’s Kratos. Leon’s openness with both his own fear and his strategies for pushing through is an encouraging sight. In 2023, that feels, frankly, incredibly necessary.
The remake’s impeccable gameplay, gripping sound design, gorgeous visuals, stellar performances, and perfect pacing has once again made Resident Evil 4 one of the greatest games of all time. But beyond the satisfying synthesis of its parts, the game is a triumph because of how it reframes what makes a piece of horror media “good” in 2023. As terrifying as the game’s Regeneradors are, Resident Evil 4’s remake doesn’t leave the player speechlessly traumatized. By definition, video games provide us with the opportunity to safely immerse ourselves in dangerous situations. The same has been said about horror as a genre. In an increasingly uncertain and terrifying world, games like Resident Evil 4’s remake provides us with an outlet to safely scream our heads off. And that’s exactly the type of energy I need right now.