Tuesday, April 9, 2013

EVIL DEAD Hails to the Kings of Horror, But Must Also Live In Their Shadows


- Way back when, Sam Raimi made THE EVIL DEAD - on a shoestring budget and with a cast of unknowns - and it was pretty awesome. The film won a cult following for its visual imagination, over-the-top gore, and harrowing cinematography. At the same time, there was a do-it-yourself quality to the film that inspired horror fans. If Raimi could do so much with so little, then maybe they, too, could create low-budget scares with a little ingenuity and imagination. Still, the low-budget cult classic seemed ripe for a remake. And it got one - EVIL DEAD 2. This second installment essentially re-told the story of the original, but in a way that heightened everything that made the original so cool. The second film took advantage of star Bruce Campbell's natural charisma and made his character, Ash, into a bonafide monster-slaying, one-liner-spouting, chainsaw-wielding action hero. Evil Dead 2 birthed the modern-day cult of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell - it took the gore of the first film to Looney Tunes extremes, and pitted a crazy-eyed Ash against all manner of nightmarish undead creatures (including an army of evil miniature Ash clones). Eventually, Raimi and Campbell made a third film - ARMY OF DARKNESS - that shifted from horror/comedy to action/comedy - making the time-displaced Ash an epic hero, leading an army of medieval warriors against an army of skeletal demons.

As I said, the original EVIL DEAD was, really, already remade by its own director and star. But now, with the film series' fandom at an all-time high - cultivated over multiple generations of fanboys and fangirls - and a new generation of Evil Dead n00bs poised to discover the franchise a-fresh, the original is once again being mined for a remake. I don't know all the backstage politics behind the remake, but ultimately, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell signed on as producers (along with original producer Robert Taipi), hired newcomer Fede Alvarez to direct, and here we are - a new Evil Dead that yes, is a reboot of sorts - but also a film with definite creative ties to the original cult classics.

Before I go further, let me just say that in and of itself, it's sort of mind-blowing that an EVIL DEAD film was #1 at the box office this past weekend. While I had slightly mixed feelings about the movie, and mixed feelings about its existence in general, if the end result is a true booster shot for the franchise that helps shine the spotlight on the originals (and maybe even lead to a true fourth film, or a crossover with this version) - then, hey - awesome!

But even just based on its own merits, I am happy for this film's box office success. After seeing the film, I can say it was deserved. While I don't think it has the same spark of holy-crap awesomeness that the originals (and for me, EVIL DEAD II, in particular) possessed, there is enough coolness, enough ingenuity, enough fun to place this new Evil Dead above most of its horror competition.

I saw Fede Alvarez speak at WonderCon in Anaheim a few weeks ago, and he made a great point. What separates Evil Dead from other horror franchises is this: Evil Dead films have a hero. This is why Army of Darkness was a natural extension of Evil Dead 2 ... Evil Dead 2 wasn't just a movie about monsters preying on people. It took the next step, and eventually became about those people - one in particular (Ash) - fighting back. The same is true of this new Evil Dead, and in that respect, it honors the spirit of the originals, and leads to a scenario in which the monsters do their damage, but then, well, they get theirs.

I have mixed feelings about Alvarez's direction. On one hand, the guy is clearly uber-talented. He does some great stuff here - and the film is positively stacked with horror-movie money shots. The guy knows how to do the sorts of big, jaw-dropping, can-you-believe-this-is-happening moments that are a trademark of the franchise. He also never fails to pay homage to Sam Raimi, utilizing Raimi's (and the series') trademark "unseen evil force zooming through the woods" shot at key moments - marking this instantly as an heir to the Evil Dead empire. To his credit, he also insists on using practical f/x for most of the film, and it really pays off - giving the gore a visceral, tangible quality that is a nice call-back to the original's home-made aesthetic. What is lacking in Alvarez's direction is a little harder to quantify. I guess I'd say it's "atmosphere." Sam Raimi is the master of creating fantastic, left-of-center worlds that have a quirky, fantastical, surreal quality to them - whether you're talking the fog-filled nightmare-scape of Evil Dead or the Marvel Comics-verse of Spiderman. This new Evil Dead ... it feels too generic, too slick, too same-y as compared to other modern horror flicks. The gore and action is there, but where was the mood, the imagination? It's funny, because during the end credits of the film, the spooky narration from the original plays, describing the Necronomicon and the mythology of the series ... and it was one of the few times when the movie felt a little less in-your-face and self-consciously gritty, and a little more creepy and atmospheric.

To that end, the other place where this movie lacks is in the imagination department. Now, it's clear the film is going more for an Evil Dead 1 vibe and less Evil Dead 2. It's not trying to be quite so cartoonish. Or is it? The movie is a bit schizo in that department. Because really, the big applause-worthy moments are all either a.) call-backs to the original, or else b.) super over-the-top moments that veer towards the comedic. But the movie *also* seems to want to be sort of gritty, sort of serious. More serious, certainly, than Evil Dead II or Army of Darkness. You get the sense though, that there's a bit of an internal battle there. After all, none other than Diablo Cody was brought in to do script punch-ups. But back to the imagination thing ... when I think of Evil Dead as a franchise, for better or worse, I think of mini-Bruce Campbell's, horrifying demons, armies of skeletons. The monsters here are never all that engaging - just your usual undead-types. It goes back to that lack of Raimi's eye for characters and creature design.

Who knows though - maybe that's what this is, in some ways - a mirror of the original franchise. Maybe this film is supposed to be mostly dark, mostly played-straight, but hint at the humorous, cartoonish possibilities that could color a second or third entry in the series. The movie's post-credits tag certainly hints at a more fun direction to come. As it stands though, I think many will debate just how "funny" this movie is supposed to be. I detected an undercurrent of dark humor throughout. But I think some might label this as a mostly "serious" take on Evil Dead. Alvarez tries to have it both ways. It works, mostly. But it also feels like a movie that - even over the course of its own running time - is struggling a bit to figure out what kind of movie it is. Even many of the film's big, gory moments are walking a very fine line between hardcore/gritty and over-the-top/funny. At times, it's almost hard to know how the movie wants us to react.

Alvarez does add a very clever twist to the story though, making it about Jane Levy's Mia, and her struggle to recover from drug addiction. In the original movies - hell, in many of these kinds of movies - the characters end up going to the proverbial cabin in the woods ... just because (a cliche that was brilliantly satirized in last year's Cabin in the Woods). But Alvarez mostly avoids making "Cabin in the Woods: The Serious Version" by using Mia's story as a metaphor and framing device. In order to overcome the demons in her head, she's got to literally battle through an army of honest-to-god demons.

Luckily, Jane Levy kills it in the film. I was already a fan from Suburgatory, but man, this film demonstrates she's got the chops to be a new horror movie icon. Levy has no easy task - she's got to play drug-addicted Mia, demon-possessed Evil Mia, and then badass horror hero in the Ash mold Mia. And she does all three with aplomb. In particular, I loved Levy's evil demon-possessed stuff - seeing the sweet-faced TV star say horrible and filthy things as she taunts and torments her friends is a lot of fun.

The other actors in the film? Much more "meh." Lou Taylor Pucci is decent as the geeky English teacher who reads "the words" from the Necronomicon and accidentally dooms his friends, but post-Cabin in the Woods, he does feel a bit like a wannabe Fran Kranz. The rest of the cast is okay, but there are no real standouts. Luckily though, MVP Jane Levy is there to carry the film. During the segments where she's out of the picture though ... there is a lot of lost momentum.

What really upped my opinion of the movie though was its balls-to-the-wall third act. Once Levy gets to let loose and kick ass, I sat up in my seat and began to smile. Alvarez said it, Evil Dead is about a hero taking on the armies of darkness. And while this new one takes its sweet time establishing its hero, the payoff is pretty damn entertaining. The film finds its gory groove towards the end, and with Levy at the helm, really takes off. I'm not saying that I don't appreciate a good slow build. Only that the middle section of the film feels a little too "dumb characters making dumb decisions," and I began to lose interest.

There is a lot to like in this new Evil Dead. It pays a ton of homage to the originals, while delivering to us a new horror hero - a damaged-but-determined girl named Mia - who makes an interesting counterpoint to the square-jawed S-Mart employee Ash. Will we get to see their universes collide one day? We can hope. And it's to this film's credit that, despite its flaws, it still left me eager for more Evil Dead, and excited about the directions that the franchise could go from here.

My Grade: B

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