Monday, April 8, 2013

Evil Dead (2013)

Hollywood these days is obsessed with remakes and reboots. You've probably seen the depressing info-graphics charting the decline of original work over the course of the past two decades or so, and I'm certainly not one to occasionally bemoan the lack of originality coming out of our film industry. Having said that, I enjoy a good remake when they come along. It takes a different kind of creativity to successfully update and reproduce an older work, especially when the original has already made a name for itself.

So when news broke that Evil Dead - Sam Raimi's 1981 horror classic - was getting the reboot treatment I was fairly ambivalent. But as I heard more about the project, specifically that Raimi and Bruce Campbell (who played the iconic lead character, Ash, of the original Evil Dead trilogy) had both signed off on the project and given it their official blessing, my interest was piqued. Their direct involvement with the project only further fueled my excitement to see the film and after all the mounting hype I was downright thrilled to sit down and finally see it this past weekend.

The setup should be familiar even to those who haven't seen the original: a group of teenagers go off to an isolated cabin in the woods (the original Evil Dead essentially began the whole "cabin in the woods" horror subgenre) and find themselves under attack from demonic forces. One by one, each of the characters meets a grisly end until only one of them is left. That about sums up the plot of both gallons and gallons of fake blood and gore. But we'll get to that...


As a fan of the original films (Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and Army of Darkness) I was keen to discern where the remake would decide to adhere to the original and where it would diverge. I'm happy to say that both categories - the things that stayed the same and the things that changed - mostly work in the film's favor, which is no easy trick.

To begin with, the character setup is a bit different. There's still the 3-girls-and-2-guys lineup, though the character's names are changed. On top of this, the motivations behind the individual characters serve to flesh out details absent from the original. For example, in the original - our leads make the trek up to their lonely cabin with the intent of spending their Spring Break there. It's a totally plausible premise, but there's no underlying conflict within - a difference where I think the remake is a bit stronger. In the remake, the youths are gathered at the cabin to help their friend Mia (Jane Levy) kick her drug habit. As part of this, her brother David has decided to join, though we find out through expositional dialogue that the death of their mentally unstable mother has left them estranged. In their mother's final days, David abandoned the family and left Mia to tend her. I personally thought this was a much stronger subplot for a couple of reasons. First, it underscores the events of the film with some narrative tension right off the bat. Secondly, once things start veering into more horror movie territory, it was much more plausible for Mia's friends and her brother to wave off her ramblings about "something in the woods" as symptoms of her opposed to saying she was just attacked by an animal.

Most of the acting in this film was fairly subpar, which made Jane Levy's fantastic performance a saving grace. Her transformation from estranged sister, to tweaking junkie, to full-on possessed by demons and vomiting blood or self-mutilating was fantastically convincing. Evil Dead owes a great deal of its success to the strength of her performance, given how relatively underwhelming - even for a horror film - the rest of the performances were.

On the flip side, a number of details from the original were kept almost exactly the same. The layout of the cabin and the woodshed nearby is almost a carbon copy, which lent the project a kind of welcome nostalgia amidst the bloodshed. A handful of events from the original film(s) also see a reappearance, with minor changes. For example, one of the more memorable moments from Evil Dead 2 saw Bruce Campbell's hand possessed, which forced him to remove the appendage himself with his trusty chainsaw. In this Evil Dead, a similar hand-possession scene occurs that forces Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) to remove her hand with an oscillating electric kitchen knife. Already gory, the film offers up one of its more grisly morsels when the power to the cabin suddenly goes out, leaving Natalie's arm dangling from a few remaining unsevered strands of flesh.

Which brings me to my next point: the gore. Evil Dead is touting itself as "one of the most terrifying films you'll ever experience." While it isn't that so much, it's definitely one of more gory films you'll ever experience. If you're into the gratuitous violence and excessive gore of genres such as this (like me!), Evil Dead will most definitely satisfy in that department. I've been unable to officially confirm or disconfirm the rumor that this film exceeded the record set for most gallons of fake blood used in a film (previously held by Peter Jackson's zombie gorefest Dead Alive), but it's seems like a reasonable claim - though it does so through a bit of a loophole.


Where Evil Dead falters is in the problems intrinsic to the genre. In 1981, audiences weren't quite as widely wise to the rules of horror movies and as such, Raimi could get away with characters doing some of the "stupid" things we as the audience have come to know as dangerous behavior. In 2013, while it's necessary for the story to carry forward, there was a collective groan in the theater when Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) flips through the Book of the Dead and reads aloud an incantation from it - despite numerous admonitions scrawled in the pages against doing so. Or another classic horror movie moment finds Eric (again, gah!) dramatically opening a door that clearly should not be opened, his hand trembling in the foreground as he inevitably brings something terrible upon himself for "going to investigate." Elsewhere, David assumes one of the demon-possessed bodies of his friends is dead, though he clearly has no reason to do so. Seriously, has no one in this movie heard of the double-tap!?!?

Sometimes these late-breaking reversals of fate work in a film's favor; other times they simply feel like forced attempts at a twist ending. Evil Dead skirts the line between these two just too close for comfort one too many times, and the major turning point late in the third act of the film left me feeling a little underwhelmed, but...


...I still enjoyed the hell outta this movie, despite its flaws. Gone is the black comedy and campy humor that defined the original series, but in its place is a just-as-gleeful reveling in the over-the-top-ness of the whole affair. I felt like young Tim in Jurassic Park, watching the T-Rex devour a gallimimus from the safety of the large log with my mouth agape..."Look at how much blood..."

Again, Evil Dead wasn't that terrifying to me - though perhaps it's just because I'm desensitized to these kinds of films by now. It was gruesome and grisly, undoubtedly, but it never engendered the same kinds of terror that movies such as Alien, The Shining, or even the original Evil Dead still can to this day. I was more than happy, however, to forego a feeling of genuine dread to just relish the intensity of moments like Jane Levy standing in a downpour of blood-rain and silhouetted against a fire in the background as she rams a chainsaw into the face of a demon, spraying ever-increasing amounts of the vermillion fluid all over literally everything in frame.

I'm generally turned off by ad campaigns that promise a "new vision" of this film or that franchise, because such wording is usually code for "We're trying to cash in on an old favorite by hiring one of our interns to rewrite this film so that it will be hip and fresh! Youth catchphrases!" But Evil Dead is truly a new vision; almost like a second draft of the original script with a few things reworked and retooled. That goes for the actual production too, which - true to the precedent set by the original - opted to perform almost all of the visual effects practically and in-camera. And in spite of its handful of hangups, Evil Dead delivered exactly what I expected. If the rumors of a sequel to this entry - as well as a potential Army of Darkness 2 - are true, my hope is that they can continue this solid blend of fan service and new material.  

Evil Dead is far from the perfect movie; but it's a near-perfect remake.