08 April 2013

DEAD BY DAWN

How much easier life would be - or at least, the composition of this essay - if Evil Dead was as consistently bad as it has every reason to be. It is, after all the remake of a truly iconic original, Sam Raimi's 1981 debut feature, and horror remakes as a class are not terribly impressive. Moreover, it's rather overt about its intentions to replace the campfire story creepiness of that film with over-the-top gore effects and a truly unfortunate reliance on jump scares, and I, for one, have not yet hit the point where I'm willing to allow that the fundamental shift in cinematic horror over the last 30+ years from "the thing that gives me the creeps" to "the thing that throws a cat at me and makes me jump" is good in any way whatsoever.

But for all that, Evil Dead managed to have me on board for at least half of its 91 minutes, and even after it starts to go to shit - rather, even after it hits a point where it becomes very clear that it will not be rising above a certain level of gores-over-scares that seemed, initially, like it just might be part of the wind-up - there are flashes of the great movie that this could have been; the great movie that this, strictly speaking, was, back when Raimi was a desperate, hungry young indie filmmaker with some twisted ideas, and not a brand name and genre film icon whose work as a producer - for he did indeed produce this movie, and has been very excited about it all throughout the promotional tour - has largely consisted of one variety or another of unmitigated dreck (even taking into account every single thing that goes wrong, Evil Dead is the best of his producer-only credits that I have personally seen).

The basic concept is pretty much the same, with wrinkles: five young people have all arrived at a remote cabin in the woods, for the purposes of sobering up one of their number, Mia (Jane Levy), a heroin addict working on her last chance after a recent overdose left her clinically dead for a few minutes. Her two very good friends, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas) are certain that only several days of isolation hours away from the nearest fix will help her; her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) just wants to reconnect and rebuild; David's girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) is there only out of what I can describe only as a fathomless lack of class. While puttering around, trying to find the source of a barely-noticable reek that's driving Mia up the walls, the boys find a basement full of mutilated cat corpses hanging from the ceiling, and a book tied up in thick cloth and heavy barbed wire; seeing absolutely nothing suspicious about any of these details, Eric opens up the book, the Naturom Demonto, with an eye to translating its several gruesomely-illustrated pages. What the characters do not know, and we do, having seen the opening scene of the movie, is that the Naturom Demonto - which, I'm sorry, isn't a patch on the ass of Necronomicon Ex-Mortis as far as creepy titles for unspeakable books of ancient evil go - is a book which can summon of the spirit of an unfathomably evil demon, and Eric's dicking around succeeds only in getting Mia possessed by the figure of a grey-skinned girl with yellow eyes (Randal Wilson). None of her friends perceive in Mia's horrifying subsequent behaviors, especially the one where she tries to burn her flesh off in a scalding shower, anything but the madness of a junkie in withdrawals, which sucks for them as she starts to turn them into particularly vicious let's-just-call-them-zombies, one at a time.

Points for motivation: the whole kicking heroin angle is ingenious, absolutely the best thing that Evil Dead '13 has to put a leg up on its predecessor, particularly as it relates to the new film's increased emphasis on the emotional toll of all its goings-on; if The Evil Dead '81 was above all else about surviving an indescribable nightmare at whatever cost, the remake saves most of its strength for making the nightmare particularly tangible and fleshy. It is, not to belabor the point, a movie about the horror of being helpless when a loved one is spinning out of control. The opening scene is all about a father being forced to shoot something that looks and sounds awfully like his daughter in the head; the remake's first climax (yeah, it has a false climax; 21st Century horror film, what do you expect?) is a much more drawn-out and discomfiting variation on the same idea, and at the heart of its new hook, relative to the original, is the question of how you're supposed to help somebody when you can't even tell what's wrong with them. Some potent stuff in there, much deeper character-wise than anything in the first movie (the vaunted Evil Dead sense of character personality, much like its puckish black humor that so many reviewers are missing from this new movie, date to the 1987 Evil Dead II rather than to the first film), and only slightly ruined by the mostly crappy acting from everybody but Levy and Wilson as the two faces of Mia.

Where this solid, if hardly revolutionary treatment of a redoubtable old scenario goes wrong is largely a matter of tone and therefore entirely subjective: simply put, Evil Dead isn't scary in the remotest sense. The Evil Dead '81 is, itself, not as scary as its reputation, I have found, but it generally strives for a sense of decayed Gothic ghost-story atmosphere that is awesomely unsettling and creepy, and largely absent from contemporary filmmaking (even in '81, it was anomalous). But from my vantage point, Evil Dead '13 isn't even making the attempt: oh, it has jump scares out the ass, mirrors that swing shut to show figures who aren't there, and pans around the room that light on a shadowy figure with a screech from the strings on the soundtrack, but Christ, if we're going to start calling those kinds of jump scares genuinely frighting cinema, then Mirrors is a great horror masterpiece.

The new Evil Dead, instead, is a freak show: a panoply of tremendously effective gore scenes, done solely with practical effects as much as writer-director Fede Alvarez (Diablo Cody is credited as co-writer, but that just can't be true: nothing typical of any of her previous work is even marginally detectable) could possibly manage it. I'll say this, the gore is of a particularly fine level of craftsmanship and enthusiasm and vigor; the movie is, if not the most violent thing I can recall having seen, certainly one of the grossest (it also makes the always dubious MPAA even stupider than usual: if this isn't an NC-17, then the rating has absolutely no real meaning besides "warning! cunnilingus!"). I would not describe them; the gore is either the main reason to see the movie and thus not worth spoiling, or sufficiently lusty that I can imagine it genuinely bothering some people just to hear what happens.

Great gore, then, but kind of pointless gore, and frequently nasty in ways it oughtn't be (this films tree-rape scene is sickeningly tactile and specific in ways that the same part of the original - clearly the most suspect moment in that film - can't even dream about). And it's all the film has up its sleeve. Alvarez is a perfect satisfactory director, but not a graceful one; and no matter how much gloom he and cinematographer Aaron Morton dump on the interiors, it's never enough to make the film seem anything special (meanwhile, the big "rain of blood" climax has the effect only of flattening the palette and thus making the movie look even less distinct). The reason the film exists is solely to disgust: perhaps in an enthusiastic "ew, gross, cool!" way, and perhaps in a moralistic "ew, awful, evil!" way, but that's pretty much the limit. It is a film that explores even more than the most graphic torture porn film ever did the idea that visceral violence is scary, rather than an augment to scares, and even as a fairly well-established fan of imaginative viscera - I'm a Fulci defender, for God's sake - I can't pretend that this idea doesn't depress me at least a little bit.

6/10

Reviews in this series
The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981)
Evil Dead II (Raimi, 1987)
Army of Darkness (Raimi, 1992)
Evil Dead (Alvarez, 2013)

10 comments:

Cody Rice said...

At the risk of sounding like an utter fanboy douchebag, I do believe that Naturom Demonto was the name of the book in the original, retconned to the Necronomicon in Evil Dead II. But yeah, this was pretty much what I expected; no story, no characters, and no real scares, just a shitload of sickening practical gore effects. Which, admittedly, is enough to make me go see it.

On the P.S. side, a great big internet hug from me if you review the original trilogy. :)

Damian Oakes said...

The tree-rape scene does not work at all. In the original, that scene was played with a certain absurdity to it that gave it a kind of perverse hilarity, here it's just nasty and empty. Also, in the original, you got the sense that the dead-ites were having fun torturing their victims, which gave that film a more oppressive, and therefore scarier vibe. Whereas in the remake it feels like they're just trying to kill them.

On the positive side, I basically had the "ew, gross, cool!" reaction to the gore in the film - I was the first person in my theatre to start laughing at the "slip of the tongue" scene - and I loved the use of the Necronomicon as a foreshadowing device to get us pumped for what's next. And the movie is fucking well shot: it perfectly blends the look of modern horror movies with the classic Evil Dead look; mondo kudos to cinematographer Aaron Morton.

On the whole, I enjoyed the film: I don't regret spending money on it, but it's not a hair on the ass of any of the original three, and I'm not in any rush to see it again, except to see the post-credits sequence, which I missed.

Slash Prower said...

Personally, I enjoyed the movie a lot- of course, it was just a glorified series of gore setpieces, but it was so over the top that I couldn't help but enjoy it. It was a breath of fresh air to see Sam Raimi running around and throwing blood everywhere because "isn't this gross? it's so gross and cool, right?". At its most ridiculous (save for the finale, which was so much that it had little impact on me) it reminded me of Re-Animator and that is definitely a wonderful thing to be reminded of.

Besides, I feel like something like this needed to come out in between iterations of Some Paranormal Ghost Movie Or Whatever. It's such a nice counterpoint to the bloodless, excruciatingly boring formula of "sit around, sit around, JUMP SCARE, okay everyone calm down for a few" or, God help us, the old formula of a Saw or a Hostel (which I never could classify as gore films because there is little of it and what could be called gore is presented in a grimy and "realistic" way just to suck any fun out of the movie). Nah, this movie was just fun for me and I enjoyed it for what it was.

That's just my take on it, though. I went to see it with about 7 of my friends, and we were split evenly on who was happy and who was disappointed.

It certainly was better than any of the movies in its previews are going to be. The Purge, anyone?

@Damian: I'd agree with the observation on the dead-ites up to a point; none of the ones besides Mia have any sort of personality, but Mia is very clearly enjoying herself throughout the entire movie and her exaggerated reactions were one of my favorite parts.

Thrash Til' Death said...

"It is a film that explores even more than the most graphic torture porn film ever did the idea that visceral violence is scary, rather than an augment to scares..."

Isn't visceral violence potentially scary in its own right though? I'm speaking theoretically here; I haven't seen the movie yet, it isn't out here until the 18th. But still, don't violence and gore convey an infraction upon and violation of one's person that is disturbing to contemplate?

Maybe I'm just a gorehound looking to rationalise my own baser instincts. But at the very least, the impression I got from the trailer was that the magnitude of the violence the characters were inflicting and having inflicted on them did a good job of conveying the desperation of their circumstances. I'd like to know your thoughts on this Tim: why can't visceral gore be effectively horrific on its own terms?

As to the film more generally: I was trepidatious at first, but I've grown more interested as time's gone on. I'm a fan of the originals, obviously (especially Evil Dead 2), but Alvarez seems interested in distinguishing himself in a different way from Raimi and co. back in the 80's. After The Raid last year, I've come around to the of wall-to-wall-set-pieces genre filmmaking. If a director can pick one point of appeal and give the audience more and better than any other single film on the market (in this case, imaginative gore set-pieces), then that's worth paying for in my mind.

Surly Duff said...

Not that I ever doubt you, but I just took a look at Raimi's producer credits and my god were you right about it being awful. The Grudge movies, the Messengers, 30 Days of Night, and holy fuck, Boogeyman! That is a panoply of awfulness (I don't care if I even used panoply in appropriate context). What in the world is Raimi, someone who is seen as having style in horror films, doing associating himself with such duds? Was he hoping to help revive the genre? Was he assisting others that he felt could tell a strong story that would otherwise not have a chance? Just so many strange, bad choices.

At least this film came from a place of enthusiasm. And it looks fantastic, but I felt it was trying to hard to be disturbing from making everything unbearably gory and disgusting. It generated a more visceral response to the gore(in my viewing partner it resulted in nausea and an inability to look at the images on the screen), which wasn't the case in the first movie. Frankly, that made it less effective for me.

Eugene said...

I've said this type of thing before on this blog; while continuing to agree with most of what you say, I feel like your idea of what counts as 'scary' is probably just as idiosyncratic as your idea as what counts as surprising. Short version: you're jaded. I know plenty of perfectly normal adults who find jump scares and squeeing strings so frightening they literally can't watch large portions of pretty run of the mill horror movies.

But I have a separate and more theoretical question: why assume the goal of horror movies is to frighten? Why not say it's to horrify? These are distinct emotional states. I am rarely frightened by movies, but I'm not especially difficult to horrify, and it sounds like Evil Dead would do it for me. For me, being horrified is (in moderate doses and safe circumstances) as entertaining as being frightened, so I might like Evil Dead even if I don't (as I probably won't) find it scary.

Tim said...

Whole lot to talk about in all of this, but I'll hope you'll forgive me if I hone in on just one thing: "is gore scary" and/or "does horror need to be scary, anyway?" Because those are both fascinating questions, and I need to feel my way around them for a bit.

Writing the review, I was chiefly thinking in terms of how much it felt to me, in effect, like a geek show. It's a taste issue, for sure, but I find that I need something more than just that: humor, as in Peter Jackson, or a heightened sense of atmosphere and surreality, as in Italian zombie movies, or at least a genuine connection to the characters.

That's probably where Evil Dead falls down the most for me: I don't find it scary or horrifying, because other than Mia - and even then, mostly Abomination Mia - I don't feel like there's anything onscreen that's actually engaging or asking me to care. It just wants me to be grossed-out, and while I agree that it's a fun experience, for a certain type of viewer (and I am that kind of viewer), it's also basically insubstantial.

The question of "isn't it enough to be horrifying?" is even more fascinating, but I need to spend a lot of time with that one. I'll point out that a definition of terms might be in order: I mean, Night and Fog is more "horrifying" than any other movie I've ever seen, and it's damn well not enjoyable.

RickR said...

Stephen King took a stab (!) at defining "horrifying" and "terrifying" in (I think) Danse Macabre, his book-length essay on the horror genre.

Basically, "horrify" is pretty much what Tim says the "Evil Dead" remake is up to- lots and lots of the gooey red stuff. I haven't seen the movie, but if that's ALL it has going on, I could see myself being pretty "meh" on it.
I'm in a small camp that enjoyed "Hostel" because I tuned in on its humor and cultural commentary. It's not art, but if you took those things out of it, it would have nothing to offer but makeup effects. So yes, IMO being "horrifying" is not enough to get me on board for a movie.

"Terrifying", according to King, is much much harder to pull off, and is not related to gore and violence, but in how deep the movie gets its hooks into you before things go wildly wrong for the characters. The last time I can remember a movie getting under my skin enough to evoke the emotion of terror was 2002's "The Ring", which did a great job setting up its nasty, third act surprise, and that movie wasn't gory in the least. But it lays on the creepy atmosphere and mood galore, and pulled me in for the ride to such a degree that looking into a mirror and picturing Samara behind me gave me a low-grade freakout for days afterward.

Thrash Til' Death said...

I'm sure I remember reading somewhere that "terror" refers to anticipation, whereas "horror" refers to realisation. Simple as that.

Speaking for my own experience, the film I've seen that best capitalises on this dynamic is Inland Empire. Two and three-quarter hours of terror accumulating at a glacial pace to finally explode in a single thermonuclear bunker buster of horror. I still can't look at screencaps without flinching.

With that said, I think it still takes skill to make a film that emphasises the "horrify" side of the equation. Actually, I just recently re-watched the original Evil Dead in preparation for the remake, and I found it to be a pretty good example of this. The characters learn that something's way wrong early into the proceedings, but it remains compelling because of the oppressive atmosphere created by all the macabre nastiness.

alexf said...

As a youngster, one of the big horror films that got under my skin was Cronenberg's the Fly. It's an intelligent film and there's lots going on in it, but in terms of both terror AND horror, I palpably remember the feeling that I was afraid not because of the story as such (essentially a tragic romance), but because I was, every 15 minutes or so, made to watch something really horrible - such as the inside-out babboon, or the various stages of Brundlefly's metamorphosis, or, most horrifying of all, wandering what it would look like for the fly's acid vomit to eat away at a person's flesh knowing I was about to see that, and then actually seeing it happen...

So, basically, this is my exhibit A piece of evidence that yes, gore IS scary.