Thursday 15 August 2013

Evil Dead (2013) – an all-out stream of fan thoughts...

As a huge fan of the original 1981 movie – it is one of my most cherished formative cinematic experiences – I was frustrated to hear that it was going to receive the remake treatment. However, the news that the original producers – Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell – were going to be involved softened the punch. If the progenitors were offering hands-on guidance, then perhaps this remake could steer clear of offensive trash like the 2010 remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street, and aim for worthwhile and respectful endeavours like the 2010 remake of The Crazies.

Well, I've finally been able to check it out (on Blu-Ray) and here's the essential meat of my view – I like it, but I don't love it. Mercifully it avoids the ANOES2010-like level of abusive suckage, but there are a few too many awkward quirks and overly-slick problems for it to match my respect (perhaps, even, love) for the likes of The Hills Have Eyes 2006, or Maniac2013 (admittedly, the 'worthy remakes' club is a rather exclusive one).

Rather than a straight review, I'm going to dive into the film from an obsessed fan's perspective, picking through the movie – my loves, my likes, and my hates – piece-by-piece – and go for some horror nerd analysis.

Click “READ MORE” below for a blow-by-blow, slice-by-gouge, hack-by-slash run-down of Evil Dead 2013...

Long Live the Love:
Like all remakes, Evil Dead 2013 could never carry with it thirty years of cultural impact – it could never become Mary Whitehouse's “number one nasty”, it could never be held up in a British court's obscenity trial, and it could never contain that same sense of a merry band of unknown filmmakers running off into the woods to make a movie - long before the days of Smart Phones and YouTube.

Similarly, because those behind the original really were out in the woods in the middle of the night in an actual derelict cabin (which they had to refurbish themselves), you always got a sense that this experience was real. Even though it was all fictional, there was still a sense of danger – you could feel the sense of remoteness, that in the dark of those windows lay genuine, actual, dangerous, foreboding woodland. However, with the remake, this is a full-scale film production with hundreds of crew – the close-knit behind-the-scenes 'mucking in together' friendship-in-adversity is all-but lost, and it's a shame. The 2013 version very much feels like a movie – the 1981 version felt like an experience in all regards.

The Characters:
It's fair to say that the five characters in the original movie didn't have a lot of motivation, or characterisation, or too many personal traits that really made them stand out – but what they did have was a genuine sense of friendship. The original's actors were unknowns, but their actual friendship – birthed from them all having to survive this down-and-dirty film production together – is totally evident on-screen and you believe it.

Simply-drawn characters were never going to cut it thirty years later, and so I like that they've put some effort into upping their personal demons and conflicts – but because of the 'friends get together to help their junkie chum get clean in a cabin' plot, there's not many laughs; naturally everyone's mood is rather dour … but this is also supposed to be a riotous horror experience, surely?

Wisely the new blood filmmakers didn't include Ash - you'll never beat Bruce Campbell, so why try? Also, Bruce Campbell and Ash are at the core of the original trilogy, and you don't want to 'cross your streams' - better to create a new lead to take a battering, than chuck in an inevitably inferior version of a beloved - and I mean adored by the fanbase like a God - character from the original.

Physically, Jane Levy doesn't really convince as a heroin addict – she looks too healthy – but Mia's inner demons, and her conflict-strewn back story with her brother David, while not the most original, does provide some pleasing meat to the story. Although, the promise of the established conflict never gets the chance to really go as far as it could have, nor get quite enough exploration. Natalie (David's girlfriend) and Olivia are mostly fodder and are generally a bit neglected until it comes to their elaborately gruesome demise – the latter even coming off as annoyingly pious – but bearded, long-haired teacher Eric works very well indeed.

Sweet Jane:
One of the stand-out highlights of the entire movie is Jane Levy – she goes all-out in this movie, and looks positively terrified in numerous scenes. There was one look in particular – when her brother comes to talk to her as she cowers on the bunk bed – that perfectly captured that sense of fear and possession, and that nobody around you believes that there's something in the woods. She's battered, doused, buried, stabbed, sliced, menaced, bound, possessed and generally brutalised by the evil that lurks in the dark, and her performance is absolutely superb.

For a script that apparently once involved Diablo Cody – well known for her snappy dialogue – some of the chat is mind-numbingly bad. Characters routinely speak their minds, rather than simply expressing what we all know they're thinking through their faces and actions – to say that the obvious is stated ad-nauseum throughout the movie, would be somewhat of an understatement. If only the dialogue tread a little lighter, and was a bit more sparse; it's certainly not all bad, but there's too much gear-crunching. Did Alvarez, Sayagues & Co not have enough confidence in their viewers, or in themselves, or both?

Decisions, Decisions:
While the simplistic characters we'd often see in horror movies of the 1980s have been sidestepped, their idiotic decisions have remained. We're told that Mia will do absolutely anything to leave the cabin before her withdrawal is over, and yet both sets of car keys are left totally out in the open. Olivia arrogantly claims that she's doing just what they'd do in a hospital, but Mia would be far better off in a hospital, because Olivia turns out to be the most useless Nurse known to man. Mia isn't supervised while in the shower, and more than once Olivia's actions just feel dunderheaded at best. I wouldn't want her to be looking after me!

The Gore:
We've seen some of the stand-out moments already in trailers – the tongue slicing, the amputation, the cheek scene etc – but there's many crimson-coloured, gleefully gruesome moments of brilliance on-screen that will make even hardcore horror fans wince. A painfully severed hand, a vicious facial attack with a hypodermic needle, a nail gun fight, and a machete slicing through a knee are just some of the gloriously horrific highlights. Suffice to say, everyone takes a hell of a beating.

Gore was never going to be a problem for this remake – it's hard to bugger up gore – and so there's an awful lot for gore hounds to enjoy. Gallon after gallon after gallon of practical blood is flung at everything and everyone, and use of CGI is minimal and generally well-used … although a burning victim, and disease spreading through someone's hands still look too-CG.

The Demons:
I was never keen on them ditching the all-white eyes, and I'm still disappointed by the direction they took with the eyes in this film. Demon-or-not, if you can see a normal-ish eye, it just looks too-human – the all-white eyes of the original got the idea of a soul-less body possessed by evil demons across just perfectly. Staring into the blank abyss of those all-white eyes was far more effective.

There's also perhaps a bit-too much of an influence from The Exorcist (and similar films) here – most explicitly seen in some moments of dialogue. Sometimes the direction that Alvarez takes works, but sometimes it doesn't – such as inconsistently used visions of phantom horror. This element needed some more work – that puppet-like feel of the original's possessed souls is missing.

The rough edges of the original worked to its advantage; 'Fake Shemps' stood in for missing actors, make-up changed from shot-to-shot, and improvised camera devices (the infamous 'camera on a plank of wood') all added to the low budget, small crew, endlessly inventive nature of The Evil Dead 1981. The remake on the other hand has three decades of filmmaking improvements and tools to play with, but that doesn't necessarily make for a better experience.

The key comparison would be the 'evil force vision' – in the remake it feels too smooth and, strangely, too slow. There was an immediacy to it in the original, and an unstable sense that made it feel like a force that couldn't be contained was running wild in those woods … it's too restrained in the remake … too slick.

The film looks wonderful – but it's every inch a film – it's so well produced that you feel safe. The low-fi danger of the original is lost, which is a real shame. Likewise, in spite of all the slickness available, Alvarez was never going to be able to bring Raimi-level originality to the visuals – the original looked (and still looks) unlike any other horror film of its time (or all time). Alvarez and DoP Aaron Morton have made a gorgeous-looking flick, but it feels somewhat anonymous – and the total slickness of it all, again, just feels too safe for the viewer.

Aural Assault:
The score is a mixed bag: the downside is that there's too much of it. The original wisely avoids using too much music, perhaps because they couldn't afford enough to fill the movie, but just having that haunting, hollow, cold wind blowing through tense scenes really upped the creep-factor in the original. In the remake you are, at times, overwhelmed by the score when you'd prefer to not have any of it – again, this makes the film feel safer - “I'm hearing a movie score, this is just a movie, so I don't need to worry about what I'm seeing”, if you will.

However, at the same time there are inspired moments – one recurring audio motif of a warped air raid siren proves to be a genuinely disturbing master stroke. Finally, at times, there appear to be references to The Omen in the score which is in itself a mixed bag – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Not-So-Light Reading:
The Book of the Dead – you'll never beat the original, but they didn't bugger it up either. Wrapping it in black plastic and barbed wire is a cracking idea (it's just a shame we've already seen the book in full-use in the opening five minutes!), and it certainly looks the part … if a touch over-produced. It's used throughout the movie, and perhaps gets a tad too-much air-time; the idea of foreshadowing horrific landmarks in the 'sequence of possession' diffuses the surprises instead of adding to them.

Five Minutes:
The opening sequence is entirely unnecessary – again, perhaps this suggests Alvarez & Co's lack of confidence in the viewer. The emotional core of the scene is non-existent as these characters are completely unknown to us – the scene hasn't earned the audience's investment, so why should we care about anyone on-screen in this scene, or feel the impact of the shock violence? Tossing us into a possession scene with no preparation at all just doesn't work, and it undercuts the evil goings-on later in the film (also see above regarding The Book of the Dead). There is one extra in the scene though. who either has – or has been given via make-up – a great face … but even still we just don't need this scene whatsoever.

Dressed to Impress:
There's way too much set dressing – the basement filled with dead animals makes no sense: why are they there? Is it for any reason other than it just looks gross? Again, this makes the film feel too glossy, too over-produced – it feels like the set designer is showing off their skills and budget, rather than strictly doing what's right for the flick. Would a cabin in the woods really have so much stuff in it? In the original they couldn't afford to deck the place out, and it works better because of that. In this instance, less would have definitely been more.

A Nod, a Nudge, and a Wink:
Fans of the original will get a kick out of spotting references to Raimi's version – the same sound effect of a fly, that same haunting and hollow cold wind, Ellen Sandweiss' voice, Professor Knowby's tape recording (effectively played over the end credits), Sam Raimi's “classic” car, the necklace (and it's arrangement in one shot), and a fan-rousing glimpse at the very end of the credits are all very groovy indeed.

There's perhaps more gripes than cheers in that run-down. It's admirable that they've not just copied the original and tried to spruce it up for the 21st century in a way that isn't just an advert for a mobile phone company … but it's just so slick and over-produced …  a rougher, tougher, rawer edge would have been welcome. The violence and gore is inventive and waggles its balls right in your face – which is great for we horror fans – but for some of the reasons mentioned above, it feels oddly safe at times.

To be fair to Alvarez, as a first-timer (and one tackling a remake of an adored horror classic), he was always going to make a few mistakes here and there – and should be allowed to – and only a fool would have turned down the chance to make this movie (hell, I would have said yes in a nanosecond). Hopefully he'll be able to rectify what didn't quite work in this film with its inevitable sequel, and up-the-ante with more of what worked well.

As I said at the beginning, I didn't love this flick – and certain things (like some awful dialogue) really grated – but I was never checking my watch, and I was always entertained. It was never, ever, ever going to usurp my adoration of the original film (and trilogy), and it thankfully never did anything to destroy the Evil Dead franchise.

I suppose all remakes are always going to lack cultural impact and experience. I can't see a teenager discovering and loving this 2013 version like I did with the 1981 original … but surely no remake can manage that … well, except for the one in a million: John Carpenter's “The Thing” is arguably – but not entirely – a remake … although it was part of a totally different era of filmmaking and film viewing.

Of course, as a huge fan of the original Evil Dead trilogy, this remake does represent the possibility of getting Evil Dead 4 – or more accurately, Army of Darkness 2 – made, and who doesn't want that?

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