(Warning: contains some spoilers, even though most of us already know what happens)
Attention Hollywood: THIS is how you do a horror remake. Since I've made peace with the fact that anything over five years old is now eligible for a remake/reboot/reimagining/rehashing, and you know that assholes like me will continue to spend money on whatever insipid piece of garbage you puke out onto the screen, please refer to Evil Dead 2013 as a reference point for all future entries in the genre.
In most cases I'm the go-to guy for horror related things, but I've always had a sore spot that not even repeated visits to urgent care could fix -- I've never cared for Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead trilogy. This makes me somewhat of a pariah in the horror community. I don't dislike it, I just.... don't really like it, which I swear is not the same thing. Most frustrating of all is that I can't quite tell you WHY I don't like it, and I'm usually very good at that. I'm sure part of it is that, while almost all horror (fuck, almost the whole WORLD, but horror is my area of expertise) has an obnoxious misogynistic undertone, most of my favorite movies at least have strong women to route for -- Bruce Campbell is great, but sometimes I wish his first name was Neve. This movie lacks a Marilyn Burns outsmarting her pursuer in a great chase scene, a Heather Langenkamp fighting back against Freddy, or... okay, I really wanted to write my first review ever without mentioning her, but it lacks Jamie Lee Curtis. Part of it is that, unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, which had similar budget constraints, it manages to look really shitty and sloppy. But mostly, every time I re-watch it, I'm always just kind of bored. I don't even bother bitchily correcting people when they call it a zombie movie.
So, as with most things, I approached the remake last night with a horrible stank face. It had been so long since I had seen a horror film in the theater that I didn't despise (an acrid taste still lingers on my palate from the terrible Texas Chainsaw sequel -- literally one of the worst things I've ever seen: http://geeksout.org/blogs/ranerdin/review-texas-chainsaw-3d ). About ten minutes into this I realized, with some degree of shock, that I was loving it.
The joy in watching any film of this kind that achieves any degree of success isn't in the originality of the story, but observing how the story can be told in a way that still feels fresh. The original film basically created an entire sub-genre of horror, and by now this plot has been done, redone, mocked, re-mocked, and copied: a group of (usually five) teenagers rent a cabin in the woods, and we sit back for 90 minutes and watch them die. Generally the pretense for establishing the reason why these young people go to the cabin doesn't stretch further than "let's have fun!" , and the reasons that keep them in the cabin after things start to go horribly wrong are even flimsier (actually, filmmakers usually don't even try to explain this). Here is where the film achieves its first surprising success, and the thing that hooked me. After its opening sequence -- starting with a well shot classic girl-running-through-the-woods scene, which establishes a potential interesting link to the original film, we are introduced to the cast and given the first real and believable reason in film history why these characters would stay in this horrible place.
Mia (Jane Levy) is battling addiction and her friends go with her to the cabin to support her as she attempts to quit cold turkey. This premise worked for me for several reasons. Right away it humanizes the group of friends and makes them more sympathetic than the usual group of idiots that you want to see brutally butchered. It adds a layer of nuance to her relationship with her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), who is battling his own feelings of guilt for abandoning his sister during the death of their mother and during her subsequent substance abuse problems. You want to like these people because they're there for the right reasons, and although it may have been a questionable choice for Mia to dump all of her drugs in the cabin's well, you want her to beat her addiction. The fact that the friends are expecting her to experience horrible withdrawal symptoms helps explain why they don't immediately realize something out of the ordinary is happening, and the fact that they're all sworn to keep her there even if she starts begging to leave makes their reluctance to leave the cabin a lot more believable than in other films of this kind. Her rantings and ravings about the monsters trying to get her are almost expected by her friends, and for once we're not yelling at the screen and hating them for being so stupid that they don't see what is going on. We don't get a whole lot of time with the characters before the insane stuff starts going down, but we get enough to make them feel slightly more like real people than the usual cannon fodder. All very well done, in my opinion.
The cast ranges from good to very good, which in itself is another victory for films of this kind. Jane Levy is great as Mia, and surprised me with the range she displayed considering the somewhat limited nature of what she was given (she does spend half the film locked in the cellar, but she does a good job of creeping you out even then). There are no real missteps here, with the exception being some awkward line delivery from Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore).
Everything looks consistently beautiful, in its own fucked up way. Often a larger budget is more of a hindrance than an asset to a good genre film in terms of creativity, but it's actually surprisingly nice to see the cabin and the surrounding woods in well shot and well framed scenes.
The film does a great job of highlighting some of the more iconic moments of the original -- the reveal of the cellar door is great, and yes, the plant scene is here -- without being slavishly locked into the same sequence. It's nice to see that the women in this film do more than get possessed and scream, and even though some frustrating genre tropes are still present (yes, there is a dumb blonde girl, yes, the character with the darkest skin dies first, even though she is the smartest) there are enough twists and surprises to keep it from being obnoxious and obvious. There is a great balance between the new and the old, and by the time the chainsaw makes its appearance, we are cheering, and we are cheering partially for the fact that they showed just the right amount of restraint in waiting to bring it out for when we truly needed it instead of bombarding us with "clever" nods to the original. There are several opportunities to tie this into the continuity of the trilogy, and I'm interested to see what they do next.
Horror films in the post-Saw generation have been mostly divided into either gratuitously violent, or the other extreme of safe, please-don't-give-me-an-R-rating banality. Evil Dead is definitely a gore-fest, don't get me wrong -- but the gore feels appropriate, and I have a huge appreciation for the creation of practical effects without an over reliance on CGI. Anyone who has read my past reviews know how much I hate the abuse of computers in creating these things -- I don't like my live action movies to look like they were made by Pixar -- and I love that everything here looks very real. It adds a degree of brutality that recent films in the genre have been lacking, and by end of the movie when it is literally raining blood, the whole thing feels particularly satisfying.
Speaking of the ending, it is, as with most horror films, the weakest part, and occasionally slips into bland melodrama and the stupidity of some of Hollywood's other recent remakes, but not enough to mar the overall effect of the film, and most of my complaints are nitpicking. The last shot of her fighting back with the chainsaw is poster-worthy.
I've always thought the Deadites themselves were kind of underwhelming villains. As I mentioned, Mia is fairly scary, but some of the lines they speak through her seem pretty lazy and arbitrary. There's a little bit of Linda Blair potty mouth going on, but the Deadites seem to lack the same insight and ability to peer into the hearts and minds of their victims that made Reagan's possession so terrifiying and memorable. Mia sometimes seems like she's possessed by the spirit of Reddit.
Waiting for the previews to end, I was asking myself if a film like this could still be relevant in the aftermath of 2011's Cabin in the Woods. Once the rules and structure of a genre are discussed out in the open, is that the death of the genre? I love Scream, but after its initial wave of copycat movies died down, did it actually put the final nail in the coffin of the mainstream slasher movie? While Cabin in the Woods was clever and fun, it wasn't particularly scary -- my own brain is so relentlessly mocking and hyper-aware of genre cliches that I like a little bit less self-consciousness in my horror. I like having to exercise a suspension of disbelief. Evil Dead is a pleasant throwback to a pre-Scream time when horror was less self conscious and self referential. And I think this is where Evil Dead achieves its greatest success -- It's slightly intelligent without being too meta or self-aware, and it takes itself seriously enough that it begs the audience to do the same. It was refreshing to see a horror movie know it is a horror movie and not feel like it backpedals or makes apologies for itself.
Horror audiences are smarter in the aftermath of Scream and Cabin in the Woods, and we expect the films we watch and the characters we observe to make better decisions than those of the 70's and 80's. One of the most interesting things about viewing this movie at midnight with a group of diehard fans was to see how smarter audiences react to smarter characters that are put in many of the same situations as in the original 30 year old film (spoiler: they react primarily in the same way, which suggests that either terror is the most timeless and primal emotion that will always override intellect, or that filmmakers are lazy and don't give a shit). Director Fede Alvarez (who is actually kind of cute, which always surprises me with directors for some reason) uses the audience's knowledge and expectations to the film's advantage. We know that when we are shown a character early on using an electric knife or a nail gun that these things will probably be used in horrible ways later in the film. Likewise, we as an audience collectively brace ourselves for heartbreak when we see a dog enter on screen in the early moments. These things actually help build a sense of dread and anticipation rather than a desire for my eyes to start rolling. We've seen the original and all of its imitators before, but we don't care -- Evil Dead makes them all somehow seem fresh again without being annoying and snarky about it, and when it doesn't quite put the fresh twist on things that we would like, it somehow manages to make it feel comforting and familiar rather than stale and repetitive.
And yes, it probably sounds bizarre that we can find someone cutting off their own hand to be a source of calming pleasure. But when we, as horror fans, watch a character do something like this, and we cheer, we are not only cheering for the fun and shock value of gratuitous violence. We are cheering, as I always have to point out to non-horror fans, for a character that has decided to stop being pushed around by forces out of her control and is determined to fight back and take death into her own hands, or lack thereof. We are cheering for the passive force transforming itself into an active force. We are not cheering for the idea of pain and death, but for the joy of watching a successful film in the genre we love, which has given us so many hours of fun, fear, laughs, and excitement, do what it does best: entertain, horrify, and through its obsession with death, allow us to leave the theater with a reaffirmed appreciation for life. Rating: B+
(I'm working on article about this for Next Magazine right now, and would love to hear from fans of the original. Please email me with thoughts/angry rage-filled rants at firstname.lastname@example.org)