I don’t want to say that without Evil Dead me and my friends wouldn’t be friends, but before we got to the stage of life when the only excuse we needed to hang out and have fun doing so was a case or two of beer, we did it through movies. Of those movies, Evil Dead was probably the only one of consequence.
In darkened rec rooms and cabins we chugged off-brand colas and shouted at the screen with each weird homicide. At school in the days after, we’d make inside jokes about it all, as though it was something we had actually done. As though we had actually had an adventure and not just stayed up late and watched a weird movie.
And so when Evil Dead’s second coming was announced, we agreed to do something that premium cable, Netflix and Roku have rendered almost completely obsolete: go to a theater.
When the night finally came, when we got together, though, half the group opted out. If Bruce Cambell wasn’t in it, they had decided, it just made more sense to stay home and drink beer.
There are worse arguments.
Go ahead and try to make the case that Sam Raimi was the franchise auteur, that the whole thing was his baby, but if we’re honest with ourselves, out of Evil Dead I, II and Army of Darkness, the only thing that mattered was Bruce Campbell.
And yes he is missing from the remake and yes his orange-sized chin could benefit any motion picture, but if I have a problem with this Evil Dead resurrection, and I may have a few minor ones, it’s with the elements that actually were carried over from the original.
But let’s not get off on the wrong foot here. Let’s not get too negative too quickly. There’s a still a cabin. There’s still a chainsaw. The bones of the thing are still there.
The gore, for example. You can’t put the words Evil and Dead that close together without ramping up the human destruction to the point that it’s comic. For example, in this new Evil Dead, one character vomits out more blood in one continuous geyser than you could ring out of a bag of humans. Which for anyone who has seen the original is an obligatory, yet flattering nod to the source material.
But, to be sure, the gore has changed. If you look at the original franchise (and I think it makes more sense to talk about the original franchise as a whole than to dedicate the time to compare the remake to each of the three original films individually) the blood and dismemberment was frequently shone through a filter of camp and comedy. This iteration, though, is straight-ahead, no-nonsense horror. Although the volume of gore is somewhat comic, it’s delivered in a way that Eli Roth would do it, or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake would (two references used only to provide context for the film’s approach and not necessarily for its overall success). That is to say, it may be comic at points, but it doesn’t put a lot of effort into trying to shift gears. There’s little comedy and less romance. It conserves that energy instead and redirects it toward a clean, focused march toward violence. Which not only changes the gore, but escalates it to a level that I don’t think Raimi or Campbell have or ever will consider. To what level? Young co-ed Olivia finds herself a knife-sized shard of broken mirror, puts it in her mouth and saws with it to carve away her face the way you would draw your jack o’lantern’s grin deeper and wider toward its ears. And the chainsaw. When the chainsaw comes, because you know it must, the way it’s used, the way it struggles and the volume of blood that it causes, squeezed out of our audience a groan that would turn Roth green.
Like the vomiting of blood, the chainsaw is an obvious and obligatory nod. And do not be mistaken, these references are obligatory. The only way Evil Dead Jr. gets the greenlight is if the built-in audience, the army of fans that adores the original, is guaranteed to come in tow.
And although they are obligatory, and although the chainsaw is obvious, these references work. As do all the rest in the film, but for different reasons. Where the chainsaw is obvious, the other nods are in direct contrast with the gore – they’re relatively subtle.
For example, I’m thinking of the film’s throw-away character (I can’t remember her name and the character is so inconsequential that I’m not going to waste the time at IMDB to find it. Because there’s only a half-dozen characters in the thing, that may be a problem). After Ms. Throw-away gets bit on the hand by a zombie-demon-banshee hybrid, we watch the poison, the bad slowly curdle up her arm. And as the pink flesh slowly turns black-green I couldn’t help but think of Cambell’s Ash, what happened to him and what he said of the evil: “It got into my hand and it went bad. So I lopped it off at the wrist.” As if silently directed by Ash, Ms. Throw-away promptly does this. The big difference, not that it matters: Instead of sawing at the wrist, which because it’s at a joint, is a much easier job, she uses an electric meat carver to saw through her bicep, which obviously isn’t possible. But nonetheless.
Here’s another example: as their friends drop off in increasingly demented ways, our dummie of a protagonist, David (and we can talk about him more later) tries to be optimistic. He starts muttering about how things will probably turn out fine.
“OK. We’re all going a little crazy right now,” David says. “It’ll stop raining in a couple hours the bridge will be clear, and we’re gonna go look for help. Everything’s going be fine.”
Our buddy the blonde bearded Eric, though, turns to him and sets him straight. Let’s say he says, “You don’t freaking get it, do you?”
What Eric and David are offering us is a useful paraphrase of what our original Ash says. Ash though didn’t need a sounding board. He delivered all the lines himself, to his own reflection in a mirror.
“I’m fine,” he says. “I’m fine.” Only to have his reflection come back at him: “We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw, does that seem fine?”
When I thought of the worst-case scenarios of this remake, I pictured Ace Ventura in the woods or a shot-by-shot remake starring the Twilight cast. But what this remake did — and I want to do this using language that is far too elevated for a movie that demands a tree do what this movie demands a tree do – is it evokes the original without plagiarizing it. It doesn’t merely quote the original. It doesn’t dress up some handsome young jerk in flannel and have him spew forth with Evil Dead quotes like some knobby chinned parrot. These makers of horror movies (and I say it like that because it’s probably an epithet in some circles) have somehow realized something relatively sophisticated about their fans. To engage their core audience, they don’t need to pepper the script with “boomsticks” and “S-Marts.” They’d look needy, too eager to please. Instead, by just dropping clues and eliciting the Bruce Campbell memories, they instead make the viewer feel like they’ve solved something, like they’ve picked up and decoded the hints.
Writer/director Fede Alvarez seems to give his viewers credit, at least the franchise’s fans. And it works. Where the film struggles, on the other hand, is where it gets lazy, where it fails to challenge itself and its viewers.
And unfortunately one of the central example of this lies within one of its major plot devices.
In the remake, a band of friends has retreated to a remote cabin to help their friend Mia kick a heroin habit. (Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a pretty solid premise) Unfortunately the cabin previously played host to an exorcism and one of the friends, Eric, stumbles upon the leftover Necronimicon and starts reading some passages, which kicks up some bad spirit that lodges itself deeply in Mia.
Along with them is Mia’s brother David, whom I’ve mentioned is just a straight dummy, but nonetheless the brother-sister combo set ups a conflict that has become obligatory in the zombie genre. It’s the conflict of one loved one being forced to put another loved one down. It’s obligatory, but I would argue it’s not cliché.
The evidence to support this?
Exhibit A: Daryl, in the Walking Dead, who has to stab out the brains of his beloved brother Merle after Merle gets the bug.
Exhibit B: To bring some unearned gravitas into this: Othello, the protagonist of his own Shakespearean tragedy, smothers the life out of his wife, Desdemona, after he believes he can’t trust her anymore. He thinks she’s cheating, which isn’t exactly the same as worrying that she’s going to eat his brains out, but it’s roughly within the same realm, and Shakespeare just isn’t that bold.
It’s a conflict that challenges us to ask questions about our humanity, such as, at what point are we willing to kill someone we love? Would we do it to relieve them from pain or torture? Would we do it to protect the greater good? Do we wait to the last second, or do we pull the trigger as soon as we know it’s the right thing to do? And this conflict does presuppose it is the right thing to do. It implies that only a coward would let their wife or brother or favorite Caddyshack star wander the wilds of Beverly Hills with a hunger for brains than put them out of their misery.
The conflict is usually effective enough in and of itself, but if you feel like you need to complicate it, just make it less clear that a well-placed 12-gauge round is the right decision. It’s what the original Evil Dead franchise did. At some point after Ash’s girlfriend goes bad, her demon subsides or at least tricks Ash into thinking that the throws of possession have passed. It’s a trick, a ploy, to draw Ash in so the demon can get at him. To be fair it’s not until “Army of Darkness” that Ash truly learns his lesson. In Army, after Ash knocks a banshee out of the air, she plays dead. Instead of falling prey to the old movie cliché, instead of leaning in, tapping her on the shoulder and asking if she’s OK, he drops a historic one-liner: “It’s a trick. Get an ax.”
David, our stand-in for Ash in the remake doesn’t learn though. He’s maybe incapable of learning. A better journalist would put a solid, objective count on the number of times that David falls for the trick. But objectivity matters little to the viewer. It feels like a hundred times. It feels like Groundhog Day. I wanted to beg him to stop.
He knows his sister is possessed, but every scene or so, she shakes the raspy demon vocals and calls out to him in her calm, innocent former voice, begging for help. It’s chronic, almost rhythmic, but that connotation is too generous. It’s repetitive.
Again, this conflict is necessary. In the play between Eric and his sister Mia, we’re supposed to learn something about their bond, their relationship, and what kind of person Eric is by how long he is willing to hold off doing the unthinkable, removing her head.
Instead, though, it comes off as David being simple. If we’re being generous we could read his character as an attempt to evolve a horror cliché. It’s one that “Scream” did a lot of work combating. It’s the cliché of the good looking girl, who just as pretty as she is, is just as unwilling to make one good decision, even if it means saving her own life. She runs but inevitably trips and falls. As Scream points out, instead of running out the door, she runs upstairs and paints herself into a corner. Which is exactly the type of character David is. He’s brain-dead eye candy. The only difference is that instead of being a bumbling teenage girl, he’s a bumbling teenage boy. Which, again, I guess could be considered a step toward horror evolution.
But if the goal truly is to evolve the form, why not employ that old timey saying that George Bush II tried to roll out: “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice … shame on … shame on … fooled man can’t get fooled again.”
Eventually David’s dogged stupidity pays off. He saves his sister, even if it defies logic and physics and biology and all the other rules we’ve come to agree upon. But where the subtle Evil Dead references gave the audience credit, this took it way.
David shouldn’t have saved his sister. He’s being rewarded for repeated bad decisions. It’s as if David takes an exam drunk because he’s spent the last two weeks studying drunk. And the way Alvarez writes it, David aces the test.
David should have made the hard decision. He should have killed his sister. It keeps him alive and some of his friends. But worst of all, while David is waffling back and forth between killing his sister and not, the plot is stalled. The growth of the film is static and stunted.
See the thing is, he’s not battling his sister. He’s battling a demon. Which we’re led to believe through the mythology of most other movies, are conniving, calculating, charming and able to escalate along with a situation.
So if David, our poor-man’s Ash, launches a calculated offensive, it forces his demon adversary to make a move too. Evil Mia can no longer play the same note. She’s got to move out of her below-the-floor lair. She’s got to employ elevated demon powers and strategies.
I mean, for Bruce Campbell’s sake, at the end, the sky rains blood. Now this isn’t really a tactical advantage, but it does illustrate that through a bit of creativity our villain could have taken things to another level. Perhaps she takes hostages. Maybe she summons their dead mother from hell, or at least details to David the extent of her torture in the underworld. Perhaps she dissolves into blood, rises through the floor-boards, soaks into his skin, and murders him from the inside. Perhaps she summons more demons, or the apocalypse, or the evil guy that they allude to throughout the whole film but are probably saving for a sequel. By going this way, both David and the villain become bigger and greater than they were.
But this never happens. Our characters remain somewhat medium sized and in its goal of scaring, the film relies mostly on gore instead of creeping us out by making us think this demon will out think us and out scheme us.
Much of the problem is a result of the character David himself. The writers force him to make bad decisions. But what aggravates things is that not only is the character simple, but the actor who portrays him, Shiloh Fernandez, seems to be, too. Perhaps he was well cast. It’s easier to believe David is willing to make the same bad decision over and over again when it appears he can’t think of a better plan.
But he’s dull and one-dimensional. And what aggravates that situation further is that Mr. Fernandez is directly juxtaposed against two talented young actors in Jane Levy who plays Mia and Lou Taylor Pucci, who’s David. I’ve only caught a bit of her work on ABC’s “Suburgatory,” but it’d be an understatement to say that Levy has a sense of humor and a charm which take a specific kind of intelligence. She can emote. She can convey emotion and sell a joke with facial expressions.
And Pucci, I’ve seen a good deal of his work, most notably when his character in the Horsemen arranges his suicide in front of his father played by Dennis Quaid. I’m not James Lipton, but portraying something of that kind of emotional complexity is probably challenging. This isn’t illustrating my point at all, but what I would say is that Levy and Pucci appear to actually be making decisions about what they say and why they say it. Fernandez on the otherhand performs as though he’s trying to remember what someone who once saw Evil Dead told him about it. He can’t quite remember it and doesn’t have much of a connection to the story either. To be fair, David isn’t our hero, Mia is. But David probably gets the most screen time, which means something’s got to change.
The Evil Dead remake is a good movie. But it is not great, neither in the way that a B-level horror movie is or in the way that normal films are. What it needs is to give David a little more credit, the ability to think more complexly and feel more complexly, the ability to act on those thoughts and feelings, as well as an actor that is capable of doing the same.