Friday, April 12, 2013

Cult Movie Review: The Evil Dead (2013)

“My visual sense -- and having talked with Sam a little bit when we were shooting -- I said, ‘Basically we’re shooting a nightmare – that’s the visual style I’m going for.’  …In relation to the film being shot in a nightmare way, the appropriateness of it,  is [that the film is] a kind of paranoid fantasy of friends…It’s Bruce’s paranoid fantasy of his friends all turning against him as they turn, one-by-one, into zombies and throttle him.”

-Cinematographer Tim Philo in my book The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi (2004), page 67, describes the underpinnings of the original Evil Dead.

In some weird and wholly clever, under-the-surface fashion, Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead (1983) concerns Ashley’s (Bruce Campbell) worst social fears come to life, the personal apocalypse noted so cannily by Mr. Philo above.

In this incarnation of the character, Ash is not cool, he’s not tough, and all of his friends turn against him.  They taunt him, mock him, humiliate him, and abuse him.  Accordingly, the whole movie plays like his deep-seated inferiority-complex come to violent, demonic life.  Ash is not man enough, not brother enough, not friend enough, not even boyfriend enough to help anyone.  Finally, he must rally if he hopes to survive the night…

The new Evil Dead (2013) from director Fede Alvarez understands and develops the psychological underpinnings of the original horror film, and builds upon it in intelligent and faithful fashion.  It too is a story of interpersonal frissons made manifest as monsters

But Alvarez contextualizes those frissons and makes them specific, rather than merely generalized.   In particular, his horror film is about an intervention gone very, very wrong, and the ways that one “monster” (drug addiction) allows another monster (Deadite) to thrive.  The film also concerns the idea of how easy it is to go with the flow or deny the reality of a crisis, until finally it is too late to stop it.

Like its predecessor, this 2013 remake is also gory and intense, so be warned.

Some reviewers may claim that the new Evil Dead lacks the same sense of wacky humor as demonstrated by Raimi’s original 1980s films, but I suspect it is probably wise that Alvarez does not attempt to out-Raimi Sam Raimi. As Peter Jackson’s horror films often attest, that’s plainly an impossible task.  Raimi is tops at cinematic sight-gags and Three Stooges-meets-the-supernatural antics.  His damsel-in-distress-gagging-on-a-flying-eyeball shot is still a high-water, low-brow achievement in the genre.

Instead, Alvarez is actually restrained in terms of his style.  He doesn’t push the material over-the-edge of realism, recognizing perhaps that there’s sufficient spiritual consistency between original and remake to refrain from actively aping Raimi’s sense of humor.   His intelligent approach boasts both benefits and pitfalls, as I’ll describe below.

That spiritual consistency emerges not only in terms of the “personal apocalypse” theme enumerated above but in the gore’s visceral impact upon audiences.  Laughter arises readily enough in the remake -- nervous laughter -- without the flying eyeballs or “Farewell to Arms” antics.  Indeed, it wasn’t until Evil Dead II (1987) that Raimi truly began tipping the franchise’s balance towards outrageous humor.  The new franchise may eventually get there, but I think it’s a good decision not to start there.

As a director and writer, Alvarez pays appropriate homage to the imagery and events of the original film but never rehashes for the sake of regurgitation.  The result is a scarifying, thematically-consistent film that can appropriately be viewed side-by-side with the original Evil Dead, or enjoyed on its own terms.

In other words, The Evil Dead (2013) is a damned solid horror remake.

“This thing is attached to Mia's soul like a leech. If we want to help Mia... we're gonna have to kill her.

The Evil Dead sees a group of friends staging an intervention for a troubled friend. 

A nurse, Olivia (Jessica Lucas), and a teacher, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) attempt to help their friend, Mia (Levy) kick the drug habit cold turkey once-and for-all at an old cabin in the woods owned by her family.

Mia has attempted cold-turkey before and failed.  But this time is decidedly different because her diffident brother David (Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) are going to be involved as well.  In the past, David has been a disappointment to Mia, and his presence now means a lot to her.

Once at the cabin, however, the group of five uncovers a room in the basement where several dead cats are strung-up.  They also find a book called Naturon Demonto, which Eric proceeds to read aloud.  His incantation of demon resurrection words brings back a terrible evil that consumes Mia first, and then spreads to the others, one-by-one.

In a long night of terror, David attempts to restore Mia’s humanity, even as Eric warns him that an Abomination will rise if the Deadites take five souls. 

At first, David just wants to avoid the crisis, but he soon realizes this is one moment in his life in which he can’t get by on denial or running away…

 “Everything's gonna be fine? I don't know if you noticed this, but everything's been getting worse... every second.

The Evil Dead remake features a different set of young adults, to be certain -- with Ash nowhere to be found (well, almost nowhere…) -- but the original film’s thematic conceit is held over to strong effect. 

In this case, the lead character, Mia (Jane Levy) is a drug-addict attempting to survive “cold turkey” withdrawal symptoms.  She comes to view all of her friends and even her brother as enemies while she undergoes the torturous process of reclaiming her soul. 

The reclaiming-her-soul bit works on two levels as you’ve likely guessed from my description.  Mia has a demon riding her back long before she has a demon riding her back, if you get my drift.  And those dedicated “friends” do, in fact, become monsters trying to kill her before she kicks the habit.

Similarly Mia’s brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) is decidedly the most Ash-like character in the remake (if we are talking about original Ash and not the butt-kicking, sequel Ash).

David is slow to action, cowardly, and unable to come to terms with the difficult steps that must be broached if he wants his sister back.  David can’t quite rally to the “tough-love” standard that his friends demand of him, and the result is that evil thrives for too long.  His inaction is -- at least partially -- the cause of so many deaths.  David’s cowardice is also part of the drug abuse parallel.  Abusers continue to act badly because, often-times, those around them enable that behavior.  That’s what David does here.  He enables Mia to stay a “monster” and consequently harm others.

Given this drug abuse/Deadite parallelism, the new Evil Dead, treads beyond the general “inferiority complex”-styled paranoid nightmare of the original and concerns the idea of facing responsibility when you really, really don’t want to.  There are no easy ways out from that cabin, and indeed, that’s the lesson both David and Mia learn.   David must see Mia suffer in order to save her, yet he has spent his whole adult life avoiding the suffering of those he loves, like his now-deceased mother who died in an insane asylum.  He ran away then, and he wants to run away now. 

Similarly, Mia -- who has learned the lesson not to need or believe in anyone -- must come to accept the “grace” that David’s sacrifice affords her.  Someone finally goes the distance for her, at great personal cost, and now she has to “earn” that sacrifice…and live.  In a way, this is the very reason to live that has eluded Mia for so long, and accounted for her failure to kick drugs.  No one has ever really believed in her.

Ashley and Cheryl are siblings in the original film, but we never learn this much about their relationship.  The remake, by contrast, delves deeply into family-of-origin issues and reveals the connection and dysfunction in the brother-sister relationship.  David and Mia are intimately connected, with their foibles and mistakes impacting one another and creating a kind of vicious circle of recriminations and failure.

For me, this works.  Alvarez has taken a general relationship or idea from the first film (siblings and personal apocalypse) and deepened these qualities in a way that feels significant and fresh.

The great arc of movie history is away from artifice and theatricality towards ever-increasing naturalism and realism.  We are some ways further down that long continuum than we were in the early 1980s, when Raimi’s film premiered.   The fact that Alvarez is working now, in some sense, shapes the material here.

Thus, there’s a nice, realistic balance at work in The Evil Dead.  David is alternatively weak and then strong, and so is Mia…but never both at the same time.  I realize some horror films go into these productions seeking another butt-kicking Ash or, oppositely another stereotypically “strong woman,” like Alien’s Ripley. I tend to go in just looking for characters I can identify with; real people with flaws who, ultimately, try to do their best in impossible circumstances.  

So I suppose I admire the fact that Evil Dead doesn’t turn Mia into Milla Jovovich or David into a Bruce Campbell wannabe.  It’s nice to see a spin on the material that doesn’t require two-dimensional characterizations.

Indeed, films such as Cabin in the Woods (2012) have effectively reduced the core Evil Dead dramatis personae to signifiers, symbols, or place-holders for post-modern meta-storylines about horror conventions: the jock, the whore, the druggie, the final girl.  The new Evil Dead would have withered and died on the vine if it came out employing similar two-dimensional stereotypes.  Alvarez seems to have sensed this pitfall, and provided us abundantly human characters in response.  Good for him.

Alas, the quest to achieve naturalism and realism in this context also means that some truly inventive touches from the original films are missing.  I would have appreciated seeing more notice paid to the conceit of the Deadites suspending time, for instance, as they did in Raimi’s vision.  Part of the Deadite terror is the fact that it usurps consensus reality and lands the heroes in a mad house for all eternity, or at least until the monsters are defeated.  Here we get a climactic storm of bloody rain, but that’s as far the idea goes.  I suppose I was hoping for a little bit more “magic realism.”

Similarly, the camera in the Raimi Evil Dead films is a crucial participant in the action, whether hurtling through the woods at warp speed or slamming repeatedly into Bruce Campbell’s tortured visage.  Another symptom of our times is the fact that such expressive, formalistic techniques are not currently in favor. 

So it’s funny to read in mainstream reviews how extreme the new Evil Dead is when, in fact, the camera work does not engage us at the same, frenetic, immediate, personal level as the 1983 film. 

It’s one thing to be gory.  It’s quite another thing to pound us relentlessly with the gore until we go wobbly in the knees. 

Raimi’s film does both, while Alvarez’s film does only the former.  Yes, the movie is more intense and bloody than any I’ve seen in a while, but it still doesn’t bludgeon us in the way that Raimi’s Evil Dead did. 

Again, I feel that Alvarez is a strong thinker, and that he opted for originality and restraint here, which is, in the final analysis, a commendable selection for a responsible “re-maker.”  But the Raimi-fan in me longed to be battered around a bit more in this Evil Dead.

Despite such minor quibbles, I still award high-marks to this remake for not forsaking the Evil Dead’s subtext of personal apocalypse, and in fact, deepening it.  In the no-doubt inevitable sequel, I’d like to see Alvarez stretch his sense of visual style, and make the Deadites more of a non-corporeal threat.  These monsters are scary not only because they are violent and resilient, but because they control the forces of nature: the woods, the night, and so on. 

A real paranoid nightmare is one where even the woods are out to get you.  And just when you think the dawn is coming, the clock rolls back twelve hours and you have to fight the same night, all over again.   Though strongly vetted and peopled with three-dimensional characters, the new Evil Dead could use just a little bit more of that old black (Raimi) magic and mad artifice.


  1. I enjoyed this. Some nice homages and fun updates to the original, with a real star turn by Jane Levy as Mia. That said, I can’t give it anywhere near a ‘A+’ as some have. It’s a very solid remake that I’d still recommend. But I saw ‘The Evil Dead’ in ’83 (something I wrote up in a TMT, if you’re interested). First hand (that’s a pun), in one of the handful of theaters in the nation willing to run it, and this wasn’t exactly close to the Sam Raimi classic that put him on the map. Don’t get me wrong, Fede Alvarez’s film certainly has its moments. But, I knew they were coming and was not half as scary. Raimi’s still leaves an impression . Fine review, Fogs.

    1. Hi Le0pard13:

      I don't disagree with you.

      I enjoyed the movie a lot. I liked Jane Levy, and felt that Alvarez really worked hard to make an intelligent, worthwhile horror film. "Solid" is a great word for it.
      But Raimi's film is still a punch to the face, while this remake is more light slap! :)


    2. Sorry for the wrong name I dropped in my comment. 'Fogs' should have been 'John'. I had my friend on my brain as he and I disagree on how great this remake is. He believes Alvarez's update is superior -- the poor mistaken soul ;-). Thanks, John :-).

    3. No problem, my friend. Don't worry about it!

      I do like this remake, but I can't agree with your friend that it is better than ED.


  2. I'm glad you wrote about this today, as I just saw it last night. First, this is a great review that fleshes out some things that I've been thinking about it since last night.

    Definitely, the intervention imagery and metaphor was present throughout the film, and I really was drawn to how Mia, the addict, became a manipulative force that affected her friends horribly. I saw the characters other than Mia as representative of different approaches at helping an addict--medicine (the nurse), religion (the guy who read from the religious tome, had Jesus hair, and got nails in his hands), a friend (Natalie's downfall was really believing in Mia too much and not being critical in the least), and a family member who first, like you said, can't find his courage to stop enabling his sister's behavior, cut her off, and have her be "purified" by finally getting clean.

    My friend saw a religious interpretation alongside that, though I thought anything to do with exorcism was simply part of the Evil Dead set-up and not a claim that religious is necessary to overcome these demons. In fact, it seems like the religious book and the "type of prayer" caused the most harm. Still, the pagan ideas are still spiritual, and that necklace perhaps symbolized more than will.

    Watching the movie, I was disappointed with the brother's actions often, because he wasn't taking the action that would end the suffering of all his friends--killing his sister. However, they did indeed motivate his inaction by showing him as someone who finds it hard to do what's necessary if it's a difficult situation for him.

    I do feel this movie is more realistic than the prior films, but I still felt that the gore reached such absurd levels and the imagery was so nightmarish and unreal at times that ultimately it had that cartoonish-violence that I associate a little with Raimi... just with a different tone. The idea that people could survive most of these wounds (and lose the amount of blood that was spraying around) also takes this a little more into the realm of the fantastic.

    I felt the little tree demon and its method of possessing Mia to be very reminiscent of Jason Goes to Hell, which of course featured the Necronomicon in the same scene that the little Jason worm possesses Diana Voorhees. Though, I can't imagine it was intentional.

    This movie definitely gave me more to think about than I thought it would, and, though I thought at times it was actually a little slow, it has stuck with me, and I will definitely watch it again.

    One other thing--considering the after-the-credits bit, I started to realize that I didn't remember cell phones in the film. This led me to speculate on timeline. The cars seem late 80s/early 90s, the Evil Dead 2/Army of Darkness era. I'm curious if you noted anything that placed it in a particular era.

    1. Hi Matthew,

      Thank you for a great comment. I think your interpretation of the story, vis-a-vis Olivia (representing medicine) and Eric (representing religion) really tracks, and adds a lot to a discussion of the film. I wish I had thought of that!

      You also make an interesting point about the time period of the film. I would have to see it again and note the models/makes of the two cars (other than Raimi's Classic), but like you, I can't remember cell phones playing a role...

      Thank you for such an in-depth and thought-provoking comment.


  3. I never have liked the 'Evil Dead' or it's sequels, though I like Raimi as a filmmaker. I know it is considered a horror classic, and it is, but I personally have never cared for humor with my horror. It's oil and water for me, the two are just not compatible ('Shaun of the Dead' being the lone exception, i.m.o) I am relieved that the remake does not try to incorporate humor, because the isolated house in the woods is the classic horror premise, spoiled by the infusion of comic elements in the original.
    According to the review,for the first time since David Cronenberg's 'The Fly' remake, there might finally be a remake that is clearly superior to the original film.

  4. Hi John,

    It's been a long while since I've contributed here :-)

    I very much appreciated the well developed characterisations of Mia and her brother, I think the melancholy tone of their relationship really contrasted well with the intensity of the scares and gore. That moment where David is about to set the Cabin on fire only to hear Mia's voice as his sister again really struck a chord with me to the point that, even though common sense says he should have burned that place down hours earlier, I could sympathise with his inaction on that occassion.

    But I found common sense to be lacking with the remaining characters, and this really took me out of the experience. In particular, I am still failing to understand why Eric, apparently a school teacher, implying intelligence, reads aloud the incantations from the book which had in large red letters DO NOT SPEAK, DO NOT WRITE DO NOT HEAR, LEAVE THIS BOOK ALONE, or something to that effect. I know many have had issue wit this as well. But in my view it is a very lazy plot device and my admittedly inherent desire to like this movie was challenged immediately.

    Nevertheless, the visuals were stunning and there were a few moments setting a perfect tone of anxiety. But I'm not sure that the Antagonist becoming the Final Girl sits well with me...



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