Saturday, April 6, 2013

You're Gonna Die

So that's pretty scary, right?  With the eyes and the blood and the teeth?  It's an image from Evil Dead, the new remake of the Sam Raimi classic (or, really, classics), directed by Fede Alvarez and written by Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues, and Diablo Cody, that just opened after a rather surprisingly large wave of goodwill among horror fans, who are not typically known for their ready embrace of quite possibly cynical rejiggerings of their beloved favorites, and, indeed, why should they be?  I've said before, and will say now again, that I'm not ideologically opposed to remakes as a concept, and I'm pretty sure I'm still not, but boy, theoreticals aside, I feel like I'm becoming, practically speaking, actually bone-numbingly sick of the whole deal.  "Enough already," is I think a phrase that is sometimes used. There have only been a small handful of really great ones, a slightly larger handful of good ones, and a big heaping pantful of acceptable-through-useless horror remakes that justify the bitching, while nodding distractedly and walking away from us as we cry "And another thing!", with a giant sack of the money we've handed them slung over their shoulders. 

But again, Evil Dead was somehow able to circumvent all that to simply become a horror film that people were really looking forward to.  Supposedly, it was going to be terrifying, which is always nice.  Still, this was a remake of Sam Raimi's 1981 film, which, in case you don't know, is adored by horror fans the world over.  It is also a remake of Raimi's Evil Dead 2 from 1987, which itself is essentially a remake of the original, but more wild and inventive and goofy and funny, and which is, if anything, even more adored by horror fans the world over.  This in turn would lead to Army of Darkness, the third film in the trilogy, from 1992, and in the spirit of full disclosure I will admit here that neither the 1981 film nor Army of Darkness are particularly strong in my memory, having seen each only once a long time ago, and my interest in any of it, when it perks up, tends to be satisfied by Evil Dead 2, and after watching that one I generally go about my business.  I say all this only by way of explaining that very little of what I'm about to say about Alvarez's remake has anything to do with Sam Raimi-related baggage I hauled into the theater with me.  The only thing about the Raimi films, or rather in this case the making, and existence, of the Raimi films, that I thought much about while watching this new version, outside of the obvious recreation of certain famous moments, was that what made those earlier movies special was that Raimi and his crew were not so much forced by their meager budgets to be especially inventive as much as they understood the potential for inventiveness within those limited means.  Alvarez and Co., meanwhile, were granted a considerably more expansive budget, a fact I'm not holding against them, but managed to not be quite so inventive.  While filming their remake.  I suspect there is a lesson here.

All of which I'll loop back around to.  The plot here is simplicity itself, though Alvarez and his cowriters admirably refused to flagrantly produce something quite like what Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon so surgically deconstructed in last year's The Cabin in the Woods.  After a prologue involving a group of what at first appear to be hideous redneck marauders violently kidnapping a young woman found wondering in the woods, but are then revealed to be forces of good who are working to eradicate the vile demonic force within her, we are then transported some years -- how many is not made clear, or anyway I didn't catch it if it was -- into the present, where a group of young people are gathering not for a weekend of debauchery, but rather what might be considered the exact opposite.  Mia (Jane Levy) is a heroin addict, and her friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) are waiting with her at an old, secluded family cabin for her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) to arrive, so that an intense period of getting Mia through her cold-turkey battle against her addiction can begin.  The relationship between David and Mia -- and with David and Eric and Olivia -- shows some potential once we learn that Mia was left to tend to their mother during what seems to have been the particularly horrible end of her life, while David's excuses for his absence paint him as quite possibly a coward at best, a selfish dick at worst.  Not so bad as that, but not unnoticed by Eric and Olivia, who have already stuck by Mia through an overdose and a previous failed attempt to kick her habit, is David's apparently casual turning of his back on everybody else in his life as well, as he left town to pursue work and whatever else in Chicago.

And then later on evil deads attack and blood goes everywhere.  Alvarez gets there pretty quickly, just as I was wondering if this was the kind of film that would take its time, and if the people with whom we would be spending that time before the horror is let off its leash could carry such a load.  We'll never find out, but Eric and Olivia's prior experience with Mia could have yielded something, and Lucas and Pucci appeared to be equal to the task, had it been given to them, and the film even makes a successful, though very brief, stab at making Mia's situation feel reasonably harrowing.  David's ignorance and fear makes him a rather weak-seeming hero, which I find interesting, and Levy plays Mia's hanging-by-her-nails sobriety in such a way that the line between that and the supernatural horror that's about to overwhelm her feel very fine.  This is of course the point, because this is a metaphor, you see, which will quite soon ennoble all the splatter.  But anyway, that's where we are when the characters follow a nasty odor down into the cellar of the by-no-means-suitable-for-a-freshly-recovering-heroin-addict cabin in the woods and discover mummified cats and skin-bound books of evil spells, which one way or another will unleash an ancient evil that infects (but doesn't actually addict, so that metaphor doesn't carry through all the way), and the whole reason for Evil Dead's existence gets rolling.

Which is?  Well, look.  Raimi's film took classic horror ideas, the kind that go back to the campfire, and brought to them his own particular and wild imagination and sense of humor (the latter of which, of almost any kind, is absent from the remake, but I don't mind that; I don't need my horror movies to function as undercover comedies).  Alvarez, Sayagues, and Cody approach Raimi's expansion of the oldest of horror ideas and add other horror movies they saw and liked to it.  It's a sporadically effective, occasionally bizarre, and ultimately tedious way to go about this.  While I doubt this was the goal, though with things as they are in horror these days who can say, this new Evil Dead is almost as postmodern, if not more so, in its take on the genre as The Cabin in the Woods was, and being postmodern about this exact stuff is the whole reason The Cabin in the Woods exists in the first place.  But Alvarez's film starts with Raimi, then adds The Exorcist, then dumps in a plate of that "New French Extremity" horror movie stuff, you got your The Descent in there (which itself had some The Shining and etc. in it), you got all the infection horror, you got your zombie horror, because when you're infected you're not unlike the fast zombies that they got now, and so on and so forth.  Once the horror begins, there isn't a moment that isn't meant to remind the horror fan of something else.  Evil Dead refuses to wink during any of it, but it would like you to notice it winking at you anyway.  Which, if you're into this sort of thing, the movies that have been cobbled together here, and I am, you will.  If you didn't notice, then this would all just be stealing.

So, but, how good is Evil Dead at doing any of this?  At first, reasonably good.  After Mia becomes demonic and is locked in the cellar, it is inevitable that another character must soon fall, rise, and attack, and this -- along with a scene involving a scalding shower -- is probably the single most effective sequence in the whole film, not least because at this point Alvarez hasn't yet had the opportunity to become boring.  But give him a minute.  The gore becomes relentless and ridiculously extreme, in precisely the style of French films like Inside and Frontier(s) and Martyrs and Sheitan, and just as impossible to feel anything about, because as stupid as it all is, it's somehow not a joke -- when stepped back from and looked at objectively, this is like being shown a Bugs Bunny cartoon and told you're supposed to be frightened by it.  (I exempt from all this, by the way, Martyrs, an extraordinarily violent film that nevertheless has some flesh and bone you can actually bruise and break, and I realize that I must further clarify that in no way do I find Bugs Bunny cartoons to be stupid.) Sam Raimi, of course, played his splatter for laughs, in a way that was, among other things, satirizing the horror violence that was in 1981 beginning to become popular in horror, and by 1987, when he made his first Evil Dead sequel, had more or less taken over.  And again, it's not that I prefer, or even usually want, horror films to contain some central joke to ease me through the nasty bits.  I just wonder when contemporary horror filmmakers will realize that there is, in fact, a difference between "ridiculous" and "not ridiculous."

Then of course they have to drag The Exorcist into it all.  When Mia becomes full-on possessed, the references and nods and all that shit to Friedkin and Blatty's 1973 masterpiece come pretty fast and furious, and, well, put it like this:  lines like "You're gonna die, you bitch!" and "I'll tear your soul out, you pathetic fuck!" don't carry with them quite the same chilling, transgressive, bizarre quality as "Do you know what she did?  Your cunting daughter?"  Just as a for instance.  Nor is a voice that sounds like the fancy new state of the art 2013 update of Dr. Sbaitso really able to match the ingenious vocal performance by Mercedes McCambridge as the demon in The Exorcist.  But of course all that matters is that you know they're doing The Exorcist stuff here!  That is all the fuck that matters! If something else is meant to be taken from the shot of Mia in the cellar crouched and giggling like Linda Blair's Regan after the death of Father Merrin, then please, enlighten me.  Yeah, I've seen The Exorcist.  It's a great film.  You're nowhere near as good as it.  Now what?


John said...

The original Evil Dead got a little goofy at times, but I figured it was more or less playing it straight. The comedy really took over in the sequels, as far as I recall, along with the rise of the "Ash" character as something people apparently wanted to see more of.

The attempt to inject a little more drama in this one sounds more than a little cynical to me, as if the whole point of the addiction/intervention business is to suggest that, boy, that dumb old movie was dumb, today's horror movies have wayyyy more sophisticated motivations and nuance! Before leaping headfirst into the splat.

Anyway, a fine review. I wouldn't be surprised if it's more entertaining than its subject.

Jonathan Stover said...

Great review. Army of Darkness is much more like a parody of things like the Harryhausen Sinbad movies, though it also retroactively looks like a parody/speeding up of Lord of the Rings films by way of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It almost buries the fact that the king is Arthur and the magician is Merlin by never making a big deal out of this fact, which is odd but weirdly endearing.

bill r. said...

Thanks, fellows. John, the addiction stuff does feel cynical now that I have a good night's sleep behind me. I still appreciate that it's not just another "Woooo! Party!" set up, it's pretty clear it was just a means to an end.

And Jonathan, I haven't seen ARMY OF DARKNESS since it was in theaters. I tried watching it a few years ago and was perhaps not in the right frame of mind, because I kind of recoiled by the cartoonishness in the first several minutes. I'll check it out again soon.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill... you wrote "cunting." Tsk-tsk...

My resistance, I'm afraid, began when I entered a theater a couple of months ago and was confronted by a gigantic poster for this EVIL DEAD remake that stated, in no uncertain terms, it would be "THE MOST TERRIFYING FILM YOU WILL EVER EXPERIENCE." I like to think of myself, and I'm sure you do too, as not so easily impressed by such declarations, not because I pride myself on being the toughest guy in the room when it comes to horror-- hardly-- but because I don't appreciate my experience being defined for me before I've experienced it, especially by a studio marketing department. Never mind that such a claim is a pretty tall order to fill after 110 years or so of horror film history from which to draw comparisons.

I'm glad to hear this movie isn't another wise-ass deconstruction a la The Cabin in the Woods, which I found close to insufferable in its smug assurance that the knowledge it had about how all this shit works was pretty complete and clever. I found myself muttering to myself while watching it, "Just make the goddamn thing scary. Why isn't anyone interested in simply making a scary movie?" But, admittedly, with so much chest thumping going on in the genre, from fans and filmmakers alike, this may not even be such an easy thing to do anymore. Though it does sound like there's something to recommend this new movie beyond the wink-wink-nudge-nudge masturbation of CITW, extremity of gore and technology isn't going to do it any more than turning your film into a deadpan version of one of those recognize-the-source sub-MAD-magazine movie parodies would. (Scary Movie Movie, anyone?)

(Pt. 2 next... goddamn Blogger character restrictions...)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

As for the original movies, I pretty much fall into line with your experience here too. By the time the theaters in the town where I was living in Southern Oregon in 1983 got around to showing the original THE EVIL DEAD (1981), there had been plenty of time to build up the anticipation level-- there was even a Stephen King quote attached to the ad in the paper declaring, not unlike the new studio-created rave, I guess, something about how it was the scariest movie he'd ever seen. When I finally got my chance, I admired the movie for its invention, but I didn't find it to be especially frightening or transporting. (You make an important distinction here between being forced by budgetary limitations into creativity as opposed to simply exploring what your resources applied to your imagination can yield.)

By the time 1987 rolled around, I had low expectations for EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, and those low expectations were greatly rewarded-- this is definitely Raimi's great homemade horror-comedy hybrid. (I think an awful lot of DRAG ME TO HELL too, which proves that a bigger budget doesn't have to equal homogenization.)

But then expectations seemed to work against me again when ARMY OF DARKNESS came out. I saw it again recently, and the movie's silliness quotient-- too much by half, for me at least-- doesn't seem to be backed up by the proper scale of wit. It's energetic, all right, and I appreciated its nod in the direction of Ray Harryhausen, but it's also very tiring-- those cackling hags with their rotten teeth and mouths full of goo that Raimi seems so fond of get a real workout here.

Anyway, sorry to ramble on so, but I wanted to say thanks for the spiffy Saturday morning read. I wish I had more to say about the new movie, but I doubt I'll be seeing it in a theater. I definitely appreciate your thoughts though. My own resistance to the latest remake may have been bolstered by the double bill I indulged in last night-- HORROR OF DRACULA and BRIDES OF DRACULA. Tonic, indeed, for our oversaturated age. And to answer my own question about just making 'em scary and leaving out all the self-congratulatory deconstructionism (just makes ya feel smart to even say that word, doesn't it, kids?), I'm sure you've probably already seen Nicholas McCarthy's The Pact. But if you haven't, it's a fine rejoinder to all the genre wisecrackery and extremist crowing going on, a well-made thriller that relies on mood and pace and craft to get to the genuine fear that seems to so easily elude most of the smart-asses making horror movies right now.

Jonathan Stover said...

Well, the best way to watch Army of Darkness is drunk with at least two other drunks. Your results may vary!

bill r. said...

I didn't pay much attention to the MOST TERRIFYING MOVIE stuff, just because it's marketing and has nothing really to do with the film. As for that film, Dennis, you say it sounds like EVIL DEAD has more to offer than references, but honestly, it doesn't. I grew to dislike it more as I wrote my post, and while there's a period of time where I did feel somewhat optimistic while watching it, I was tapped out of all interest about halfway through. It's just a reference machine. It thinks it isn't, but it is. It thinks it's the kind of serious horror movie that horror fans have been clamoring for, and maybe it is, but I guess I'm not that kind of horror fan. Which sounds snobby, but I share your general weariness over the current crop.

I did see THE PACT, some time ago actually, and I liked it, and hope McCarthy keeps going. I'd much rather follow his career than Alvarez's, God knows. Today I also watched THE AWAKENING with Rebecca Hall, and while it's nowhere near a masterpiece it's a pretty welcome antidote to EVIL DEAD.

But, also, you know...I loved CABIN IN THE WOODS. That may fly in the face of some of the stuff I said in my post, but when that kind of thing works, it works. You obviously don't think it does, but I I had a damn good time with it. It's not what I want horror movies to become, but I can't pretend I didn't agree with the smug filmmakers that it was really clever.

Taidan said...

I agree with you, Bill. I enjoyed Cabin in the Woods and felt the remake of Evil Dead was weak sauce pretending to be awesome sauce. said...

enough already with movie blogs, bro. I dont care what you say, Evil dead was sick as fuck and i saw it three times already. maybe you should watch some pussy french moive and stick to that.

oh and I dont know what to do with someone who doesnt like Army of Darkness. you must be a sad man.