Friday, April 26, 2013

Bad Vs. Evil

Twenty-two years ago, a new kind of movie experience was born. For the horror genre, it was an era of popular characters, and monsters like Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Michael  Myers (Halloween) and the monstrous Aliens (Alien) were ruling the box office. But young director Sam Raimi wanted to make something different. An amateur filmmaker from Royal Oak, Michigan, Raimi wanted to create the scariest movie ever, in the vein of renowned author H.P. Lovecraft, “The gorier the merrier.” After struggles in securing funding and a location, Raimi – alongside his cohorts, producer Rob Tappert and actor Bruce Campbell – descended upon Morristown, Tennessee to create their film, eventually known as The Evil Dead. The cringingly bloody film became a rallying point of sorts, easily becoming the basis for every “cabin in the woods” style horror flick that followed (a trend parodied by last year’s excellent Cabin in the Woods). Though it garnered some very positive word-of-mouth (and even received a shout-out from master of horror Stephen King), its success at the box office at the time can only be described as “sufficient.” But while instant gratification was not forthcoming, The Evil Dead eventually translated into a popular cult film, supporting two sequels (Evil Dead 2 is oftentimes more applauded than the original and Army of Darkness introduced several catchphrases that are still fondly repeated today) and the seemingly limitless popularity for Ashley “Ash” Williams (Campbell), whose character has gone on to adventures in video games and comic books in the years since his “retirement” from feature films.

Sure, this place looks FINE.
Now, Raimi faces a new challenge. In producing a remake of his beloved classic, he’s not only attempting to start a new Evil Dead franchise, but also trying to prove that a remake can be just as beloved as its progenitor. A lot of fans were against this, if for no other reason than the 1981 classic’s level of camp was so popular and the 2013 version appeared far more serious. For the new Evil Dead, Urunguyan director Fede Alvarez was tapped to take the helm, making his feature film debut after almost a decade of short films. But even with the holy trinity of Raimi, Campbell and Tappert producing, and an excellent response from the crowds at this year’s South By Southwest film festival, was this new Evil Dead really worth watching?
This movie would have been shorter if young people ever followed instructions.
The answer to that is a resounding “Yes”, for a good number of reasons. One is Alvarez’ and his crew’s determination to make Evil Dead almost completely with practical effects. In a world where Hollywood uses computer generated imagery to create not just the impossible, but what they’re too lazy to do themselves (look at the average episode of The Walking Dead, for instance), the filmmakers’ use of real fake blood and gore is a refreshing (if occasionally nauseating) change. And when the story is that of a bunch of teens trapped in a cabin with a vengeful spirit, CGI would just make the whole experience corny and sad. Practical effects have grown in quality and variety in the past two decades to the point where they are more realistic than ever, making each skull-crushing, limb-disfiguring, soul-swallowing moment is a thousand times more engrossing than it was in the original. Some scenes are particularly difficult to watch, and while that might affect some people’s enjoyment, horror fans ought to be on the edge of their seat at any given moment. And the things they put poor Lou Taylor Pucci through!

This will not end well.
Speaking of the actors, the cast is definitely stronger than it was back in the day. Especially strong is Jane Levy, who some people are familiar with from ABC’s Suburgatory or last year's Nickelodeon comedy Fun Size. In her first horror role, Levy not only proves her Scream Queen chops, she also is an excellent central focus around which the movie can revolve. Her transition between drug-addled youngster and possessed half-demon is frightening in its volatility. She's definitely a stand-out, with a real chance for a future in Hollywood. The rest of the cast is quite good, full of young if not necessarily unknown actors. Shiloh Fernandez and Pucci help Levy in providing much-needed emotion and intelligence to make the story flow. Though their characters are perhaps a little cliched (which has to be intentional at this point), they don’t let the script hamper their natural talents. Only the tertiary ladies, played by Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore, bring little more to the table than raw emotion, which again is mostly script injustice. Overall this is a talented group of young actors, with Levy definitely deserving to be front and center.

Ah, chainsaws. S-Mart, aisle 6.
But while those are excellent reasons for horror fans to plunk down their money and purchase tickets, there’s one very valid reason NOT to… and that’s a small-budget picture from 1981 called Evil Dead. Raimi’s original was a classic, and try as Alvarez might to pay homage to his mentor's art, there’s absolutely nothing new here to justify seeing the remake over what came before. The movie is chock full of references for fans to enjoy, but the director isn’t brave enough to add his own spin, or perhaps he was dissuaded from doing so by Raimi and company. And while this might be a decent start to a whole new franchise (a sequel is already in the works), there is no standout character to match the charm and cult heroism of an Ash Williams, and so no reason to watch a sequel. Combine that with some unexplained plot holes (No mention of cell phones or calling for help, and apparently the rickety old cabin is so soundproof you can't hear what's happening in the next room), and this is a still-great, but not particularly necessary motion picture.

You aren't quite so lovely anymore...
While making it big as a director of major motion pictures, Sam Raimi has been a bit disappointing of late. Nobody liked Spider-Man 3, and Oz the Great and Powerful was all self-indulgence and special effects. Meanwhile, he drags his early projects out of the ground and give them a heavy layer of shoe polish, just to validate his own career. Not that it was ever needed; Evil Dead was his earliest success, and one for which he is still both well-known and cheered. While his effort here is scary, gory and more than a little successful, I can’t help but feel a little cheated. I can get largely the same experience sitting at home with a DVD, and while the new Evil Dead is well-acted, well-directed and well-produced, it just isn’t well-imagined. Horror fans have seen all this before, and only those most fondly nostalgic will get anything new out of seeing this in the theater.

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