Saturday, 4 May 2013

Evil Dead (2013) Review

This particular Deadite is feeling a (16)bit off today...
Evil Dead 
Directed By: Federico Alvarez
Written By: Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues, Diablo Cody (Uncredited), Sam Raimi (1981 Screenplay)
Distributed: TriStar Pictures
Released: 19th April 2013
Genre: Horror
Rated: 18 

Remakes and reboots are often treated by movie-goers with as much suspicion as a Middle Eastern family moving into American Suburbia. Many see them as sloppily handled, cynical cash grabs by a creatively bankrupt Hollywood; though why Hollywood would even attempt to appeal to an entitled fan base of a beloved IP in the first place, I do not know. Interestingly enough, many fan favourites ARE adaptations of foreign films, shorts, or older, lesser known flicks. Take for example: Scarface, The Thing, Ocean's Eleven, Twelve Monkeys, The Departed and Let Me In.

Even Nosferatu - the most legendary vampire film in the history of the medium - was a direct (and illegal) adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel.

It's hardly surprising that a lot of people were against the idea of remaking The Evil Dead. I can certainly see why: the trilogy couldn't be more cult without slapping Charles Manson's face on it. So why would anyone risk being crushed to death by the millions of angrily thrown Cheetos, by remaking it? Well, for one, it's guaranteed to put arses on seats as the legions of fans clamour to see it out of sheer curiosity; as well as the inevitable Bruce bleedin' Campbell cameo. Secondly, troubled production and crap effects aside, the film is mostly remembered for two things: being considered ultra-violent in era of ultra-violent movies, and Campbell's Ash Williams. But since Ash Williams isn't exactly as mandatory as the internet would have you believe - this isn't Army of Darkness 2, you know - the only thing a successful Evil Dead film actually needs is more blood than a 'my first period' meeting taking place in that elevator from The Shining. And by Jove, the new Evil Dead certainly has blood.

Told ya.
So, five friends go to a secluded cabin and before you can say, 'cliché is derived from the French word for the noise a printing plate makes,' they manage to unleash a primordial evil which mutilates both body and soul. It's essentially the same basic premise as the original (and a myriad of slashers), but with several crafty differences; preventing it from becoming entirely predictable. Surprisingly, the group actually has a halfway decent excuse for descending on an abandoned ramshackle cabin faster than Hitler breaking an Anti-Emo Fringe treaty: detox.

It seems our decoy protagonist/actual protagonist/antagonist - still with me? - Mia is higher than the glass ceiling in Mad Men. Determined to kick her drug habit - after her destructive behaviour leads to her legally dying- she enlists the help of her estranged brother (David), his girlfriend (Natalie) and friends Olivia and Eric. This makes for an interesting starting point: the obligatory "ooh, creepy noise," build up is interlaced with Mia's feverish paranoia and the ill feeling dynamic of the group. Not that the writers really capitalised on this idea; whilst it would have been effective to see Mia attempt to grapple with her increasing disassociation from reality, she actually remains the more logical among her number.

Because naturally, the events of the movie are carried by almost entirely by the stupidity and poor decisions of the characters. Even more insulting is the fact that their intelligence - or lack thereof - is entirely inconsistent and plot dependable: they have enough foresight to bring a nurse (Olivia), but not a single mobile phone; David (Shiloh Fernandez) is able quickly MacGyver together defibrillators, whilst failing to take any reasonable action against his now (clearly) psychotic friends. Hell, even Eric - the group's know-it-all straight man - is indirectly responsible for each and every death. I understand that the standard slasher formula inherently demands a certain level of disbelief for the entire process to work, but there was no reason why the writers simply couldn't have used the Taker of Soul's presence as a giant diabolus ex machina - especially since the flooded road is evidence that it does indeed interfere.

You may think that I'm expecting too much from the remake of a film that ended with gallons of guts, gunk and entrails exploding over Bruce Campbell; but I'm less inclined to be forgiving since Alvarez, Cody and Sayagues have actively tried to create a much more coherent story - building upon the actual Naturom Demonto itself. It's not exactly The King in Yellow, but the attempts to establish a proper Lovecraftian lore certainly are appreciated. The more focused backstory also allows Alvarez to include elements of the original that are more questionable than a Findus lasagne produced in Cheltenham, and present them in a much more meaningful and impacting way; the 'tree rape' sequence makes for an excellent example.

As mentioned previously, the story sets up the same scenarios from the original and takes them down a completely different route. The most glaring example is Alvarez setting David up to be a sort of Ash substitute - remember, Ash was a blundering coward in the original - only to later subvert our expectations as the film reaches its bloody, bittersweet climax.

The King in Yellow: Making H.P. Lovecraft shit his pants since 1927.
I found the film devoted far too much of its time character establishing: Mia and David are bonded by their mother's tragic mental decline, Eric feels dejected by David's prior abandonment of the group, whilst Olivia is frustrated by Mia's destructive behaviour. The whole group is bounded by desperation, but fractured by life. Ultimately it proves pointless to characterise and build up relationships between the characters; they're largely stereotypes, devoid of any real personality - mere conduits for the film's brutal violence. Raimi's Evil Dead worked because of its stripped down approach: the movie abandoned meaningful character development - unless you count Ash's ascension to badassery - and engaging plot to deliver the cathartic gorn we paid to see. Conversely, it's as though the remake's writers spent more time sat willing us to like these characters than actually giving us cause to; a bit like an X-Factor contestant with a sob story, I suppose.

Despite its ostentatious tagline, Evil Dead is not a scary film. At all. But don't despair, because this was always going to be the case: The Evil Dead films have always been nothing more than a total assault on the senses. They've never been particularly frightening, but rather, unrelenting to the point of being practically exhausting. The Deadites barrage their victims with vicious attack after vicious attack; all the while mocking, taunting and prattling on ceaselessly. Each encounter with them is an escalation from the previous bloody encounter. Raimi took the excessive violence depicted in the low budget horror movies of the era (the so called Video Nasties) to its logical conclusion, and managed to make it work - thanks to his inventiveness and skill as director. In that regard, the remake captures the ethos of the franchise perfectly.

What actually goes against the tradition of the series is how professional the whole affair feels. Most of the group are portrayed competently - not that much is actually required of them - but Jane Levy's multifaceted role as Mia/lead Deadite, and paranoid intellect Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) are the particular highlights. On a more movie nerdish note: the practical effects are simply incredible, and rank among some of the best I've seen since The Thing - seriously, that movie's a wet dream for stop motion fans. As you may expect, the violence depicted is effectively brutal (involving everything from hypodermic needles to nail guns), to the point of being almost uncomfortable; but the special effects team really excel in the body horror aspects, seemingly drawing inspiration from classic 80's flicks such as Videodrome (see Natalie's carving knife scene). If the 2013 Evil Dead is the equivalent a Cosmopolitan photo shoot, than the 1981 original is like having your picture taken down a dark alley by Gene Wilder.

Unfortunately, the squeaky clean production is also part of Evil Dead's main problem: it just feels rather ordinary. By 1981 the 'teens and a cabin in the woods' formula was a well-trodden staple of slashers and B grade horror flicks, but Raimi's back to basics approach - coupled with his eclectic and edgy style - is what helped it to feel unique. And for a film with such a simple structure and premise, The Evil Dead was wonderfully weird: from the delightfully strange Dutch angles, and wide angle shots, to the transmutation and sprite like behaviour of the Deadites. Alvarez's vision, however, plays like a far more conventional horror as written by someone who was once in the same room as a Clive Barker book.

See, whilst Mr Alvarez had a budget about forty times larger than Raimi - and probably didn't require the actors and crew to live in Colditz like conditions - his end result is distinctly lacking in charm. The cheap, makeshift vibe of the original helped augment the experience; yes, the practical effects may be cheesy and outdated; sure, the set may wobble, but it has been roughly thirty years since its release and the film's atmosphere is still unmatched. If you grew up with late eighties horror, then The Evil Dead is a love letter sent directly to your pants. First class.

You only need to look at the Deadites to notice the difference in approach. The Deadites of the original were deeply rooted in the outlandishly camp - coming across as some kind of evil clown-cum-zombie - and to me, their appearance remains iconic; matched only by their erratic, unpredictable and otherworldly behaviour. Whereas in the remake, they look like and act like something out of a film criminally derivative of the Exorcist. In essence this isn't entirely a bad thing, as they still manage to give forth a bizarre preternatural sensation; but being covered in scabs and blemishes and swearing with every alternative word doesn't make a character interesting - it just makes them Scottish.

Below I've a comparison of a scene that more or less plays out similarly in both versions. Now I don't know about you, but I find the bottom design far more effective.

"This week on Snog, Marry, Avoid"...
Whilst we are comparing the two versions, I'd like to point out that the film remains ambiguous as to whether or not it's an actual reboot or indirect sequel. Throughout there are several visual call-backs to the series as a whole - the double barrelled shotgun, the chainsaw, Raimi's Delta 88 - that serve as both non-intrusive references for fans and, also, implications of this movie's place in the series' canon. There's also a more solid connection during the credits that's followed by one of the worst cameos I've ever seen. I won't 'spoil' it though, since there are certainly those who will get a kick out of it - especially the Ash Williams fans, neglected like Lady Chatterley after The Great War.

Given that the long purposed Army of Darkness sequel (and fourth proper Evil Dead overall) has gained some momentum recently, I fully expected the post-credit scene to set things in motion. But alas. Though the links between the films are still an interesting subject: we could be up for a strange, loosely connected Tarantino/Smith-esque movieverse. If that's the case it would be a highly unusual situation, with both continuities existing (independently?) at the same time. But I'm confident if any series can pull off an inter-continuity, time and dimension spanning storyline, it's the Evil Dead franchise.

So ultimately Evil Dead is pretty underwhelming as an Evil Dead movie; it's neither intense nor camp enough to reach the lofty heights of the original three.  However, if we're to judge it purely on its own merits, and not by association, then it's a competent, gory shock-horror; one that has moments of being genuinely squeamish. And whilst the film does everything right, it is ultimately let down by the fact we've had thirty to forty years of filmmakers trying to shock audiences with increasingly bloody and torturous set pieces. The Saw and Hostel franchises paved the way for films that utilized extreme mutilation, simply for the sake of extreme mutilation. And honestly, it's a rather tired charade now, causing this reboot to feel somewhat redundant.

So, Should You See It?

I'd say yes. Despite being an ultimately pointless affair, Evil Dead is perfectly serviceable, and enjoyable enough; especially if you happen to have Founder of the Official H.H.Holmes Fan Club on your CV.

"Watching Evil Dead gave me a saw arm; if you know what I mean."
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