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.