Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
April 2013

Evil Dead

The blood runs cold

'Evil Dead' is a well-executed and supremely bloody affair, but lacks energy and purpose

Evil Dead
TriStar Pictures
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenplay: Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, based on a 1981 screenplay by Sam Raimi
Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes
Opened April 5, 2013
(out of four)

I guess you could say Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead delivers the proverbial goods. And by goods, I'm referring to the scientific term meaning an extraordinary amount of blood, guts, flesh, carnage, disfigurement, disembodiment and all manner of spraying fluids. Yes indeed, this is a well-oiled goods-delivery system.

And yet, as far as well-crafted exercises in horror go, this one feels like empty calories. Now, if you'll forgive me while I deliberately ignore anyone who's about to ignorantly claim that "empty" is an inherent trapping of the genre itself, what I mean by empty calories is that, while I was impressed by the lengths Alvarez went with his visuals and violence, the final result has a strange lack of purpose. Or perhaps too limited a purpose. More than anything else - more than a horror movie, more than an homage to the original - it is a 90-minute showcase for its own special effects and makeup. It's impressive up to a point, but ultimately it plays like a horror equivalent of one of those impersonal Stephen Sommers/Michael Bay effects-driven movies - though with practical effects substituting for CGI.

But Evil Dead warrants polite applause for the sheer skill with which Alvarez and his technical wizards pull off a series of increasingly brutal setpieces. It seems intent on replicating the over-the-top shock value pulled off by Sam Raimi's original The Evil Dead, which was extreme enough to earn an X rating (back in 1981 when that was still a thing) - a designation that seems quaint now, especially for audiences weaned on the Saw franchise (among others). As evidenced by this remake's initial NC-17 rating (before it was trimmed to secure an R), it's clear the filmmakers are trying to test their boundaries in the same way Raimi did. And so the result is gorier and more extreme, with its sexual horror imagery even more pronounced. (It is to chainsaws what Killer Joe is to drumsticks.) Once this thing gets going, the blood oozes, bursts, sprays, splashes, rains . . . OK fine, enough beating around the bush - this movie ejaculates blood, if you'll pardon the expression. (I'm pretty sure the filmmakers would relish the word choice there.)

But in a strange way, the degree to which Alvarez is attempting to be faithful to the spirit of the original - to be its envelope-pushing equivalent - is part of why it doesn't totally work. Simply, the technological and budgetary differences* between the original and its successor create a substantial separation between the visceral impact each version achieves.

* The budget of the 1981 film is listed as $375,000, while the remake is listed at $17 million. I'm not sure exactly what the original budget would be if adjusted to today's dollars, but it would have been interesting to see a remake attempted with the same kind of limitations as the original, if only to see what the filmmakers would have been able to come up with under similar circumstances to what Raimi faced with his $375K three decades ago.

Let me be clear - and I realize I'm walking a fine line here - that I have no desire to "compare" the two films side-by-side. I'd simply like to illustrate how each one operates, by the standards of their respective eras, given their largely equal intentions. Even by 1981 standards, the original film can't help but be viewed with a certain detachment, given that much of the gore was accomplished through stop-motion animation and obvious effects work. But that was (and remains) part of what made the movie work - many of the most extreme sequences aren't necessarily scary, but they sure are great to watch, just for the macabre sense of artistry and the inventiveness of the imagery. The climactic 20 minutes or so is a flat-out terrific display of filmmaking that rides on pure energy and imagination. There's a shared feeling of awe and disgust as we watch what Raimi can pull off with his limited resources.

In the 2013 version, imagination is less an element of the equation, in part because Alvarez has the capability to make pretty much everything look entirely realistic. He pulls off the gore with savagery and style, but with an almost clinical sensibility that gives the film an attitude of grim nihilism more than anything else.

However, I still feel a lot of admiration for what Alvarez and Co. have done here. The staging of some of their key sequences is superb, and Alvarez gets more mileage out of his main character - Mia, a heroin junkie detoxing at a cabin in the woods with the help of her close friends - than he could have gotten away with. Jane Levy's performance in the role is of particular note, as she injects some real creativity and wit into her interpretation, especially during the scenes when she's become possessed and begins wreaking havoc (or, when she's locked up in the cellar, threatening to wreak havoc).

Sadly, those are among the film's only moments of levity. Unlike the original Evil Dead's two sequels, it was not a comedy, but it did possess a great sense of wit, primarily in the editing and camerawork (my favorite example: the two rhyming "eye contact" scenes between Ash and Linda). This Evil Dead doesn't offer much tonal dexterity at all. It's a spirited and skilled attempt to do right by its namesake, but ultimately its intentions are too narrow, and executed too relentlessly, for its own good.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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