Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Evil Dead: No "the," lots of "uggh"

The list of films I've seen twice in theaters is fairly exclusive. As late as last year, it wasn't a list at all -- I hadn't ever gone back for seconds of a film. The combination of "The Avengers" and the cost of movie tickets in Jakarta topping out at $6 changed all that, and now Marvel's mega-hit has company on my list of double dips in the surprising form of the remake of "Evil Dead." I'm going to spoil parts the movie while giving my thoughts on it, so go beyond the jump at your own peril.

I say "surprising" because given my usual movie-viewing habits, I probably shouldn't like "Evil Dead." I am far from a prude, but neither am I a gorehound. When it comes to horror movies, I prefer films more in line with the J-horror realm -- more atmospheric and creepy than violent and gory. So-called "torture porn" titles such as "Saw" and "Hostel" don't really do much for me, and "Evil Dead" brings the pain (physical and psychological) for a steady 90 minutes without so much as a wink or a nudge.

Why go back for more "Evil Dead?" For starters, the gang at Now Playing -- one of the best movie review podcasts on the Internet -- is covering the three Sam Raimi-directed "Evil Dead" films leading up to the reboot as part of their spring donation drive. After years of coming back to things they've already reviewed them, it's nice to be ahead of the curve for once. (If you're at all a fan of movies, give them a listen. They do deep dives into a wide variety of films, and I'm always happy to kick in a few Andrew Jacksons to keep the podcast humming.)

Also, I wanted to go back a second time to see if my conclusions about the reboot were well-founded. I went into the first viewing -- about a week after its release, joining about a dozen others (two of whom walked out) on a Sunday afternoon; this time, it was just me and the projectionist at 3 p.m. on a Friday -- not having read any reviews. I came away from it calling the movie a tough watch that earned every bit of its R rating, but I was still happy for having seen it. Looking back at the reviews, though, the verdicts from the critics were decidedly mixed. My usual triangulation of Roger Ebert, Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post and L. Kent Wolgamott of the Lincoln Journal-Star was thrown off by cancer depriving us of Mr. Ebert's presence, but nonetheless the primary themes that came from the reviews I read were "Evil Dead" being gory, unrelenting and bereft of humor. The first charge is hardly debatable and the second only slightly less so, but the third? In a movie produced by Raimi and Bruce Campbell? Was I too preoccupied by trying to wedge the characters into their Cabin in the Woods roles to notice the underlying humor? Might as well take another peek.

If you haven't seen the movie and don't plan to, here's the severely abbreviated run-down. Five long-time friends gather at a cabin deep in the woods in what is presumably Michigan in an attempt to help Mia kick her drug habit. The group includes Mia's brother David (our earnest, if none-too-bright, male lead), Olivia (a registered nurse), Eric (a high school teacher) and David's girlfriend Natalie, as well as family dog Grandpa. The intervention gets off to a shaky start, and Olivia reveals to David that a similar effort the previous summer proved fruitless and Mia went on to overdose and had to be resuscitated after being declared clinically dead. Steeled by this revelation, the friends agree to keep Mia at the cabin no matter what. Grandpa soon discovers a cellar with animal corpses suspended from the ceiling and a book covered in a trash bag and wrapped with barbed wire. The book is the Naturom Demonto and, in true horror movie fashion, Eric ignores several warnings scrawled in the book and recites a passage that unleashes a demon that ends up possessing Mia. Writing off Mia's warnings and pleas to leave as the rantings of a junkie going cold turkey ends poorly for the group as Olivia and Natalie are also possessed and Eric suffers an almost comedic amount of physical abuse. With his friends and dog dead and his sister all but a memory, David can't bring himself to burn the cabin (and Mia with it), instead choosing another of the book's prescriptions for purifying the possessed -- a live burial. His plan to revive his sister post-burial succeeds and the reunited siblings prepare to head home, but Zombie Eric spoils the touching moment by mortally wounding David, who tells Mia to flee before igniting the cabin. His death signals the return of the Abomination -- a demon, prophesied by the Naturom Demonto, that conveniently requires five souls to be reborn -- and the final fight ensues, with a blood-soaked Mia losing a hand but killing the demon with a chainsaw, thus preventing the Dark Lord's return to Earth.

As I said before, this film was difficult to watch at times, and not necessarily because of the grim, unrelenting stream of gore. One of the main sources of tension among the group is David's absenteeism -- both as a friend and a big brother. Our would-be protagonist has been away working at a garage in Chicago and missed several important events, not only his sister's overdose but also his mother's agonizing final days and eventual death in a mental institution. Mia -- who lied to her mother that David was on his way and at times pretended to be her brother, such was the mother's dementia -- drove home the point, saying, "Maybe it's better you didn't see her like I did."

That line, and indeed the whole thread of the absentee brother, really stung me. Missing family events is among the biggest drawbacks of my time as a globe-trotting expat journalist. I've missed birthdays, weddings, births, reunions, holidays, hospitalizations and more during my quasi-vagabonding, and the fact I can't get anyone in the States (newspaper or otherwise) to hire me means such absences are going to start piling up again. I often blithely say I'm fortunate to have two well-adjusted, conveniently-located younger siblings who can take care of things like getting married and having kids, thus providing me cover to continue wandering, but my gallivanting is far from carefree. One benefit of my extended spell of Funemployment is being able to look after my mom, who is dealing with a chronic health problem, and grandma, who is starting to feel her age and will need surgery soon. That ends if I get a job any distance away and, while this side of the family all lives near Omaha, I'm not sure who will step into the breach should a family emergency arise. I want to be there for my family, yet at the same time it seems inevitable that doing what I do best (and what a fair few people believe is the only thing I can do) will require me moving far away again. Maybe not completely analogous to David, but close enough for me to empathize with the character.

Putting my insecurities aside, I am glad I saw "Evil Dead" again as it allowed me to catch much of the foreshadowing and eventual callbacks set up early in the film. There were at least a half-dozen points (the necklace, rickety steps leading to the cellar, Mia dying and being shocked back to life, David saying "hope to die" after promising he'd stay with Mia to the end, Natalie using an electric knife to carve up dinner, the mother's lullaby, etc.) that set up events later in the film. Whether you chalk that up to clever writing or just a competent script, I appreciate that kind of attention to detail after years of watching horror films play fast and loose with the rules of the worlds they build. There were also a handful of callbacks to famous lines from the original "Evil Dead" that tickled me but drew little reaction from my fellow viewers.

I will cop to trying to fit the characters into the archetypes (Whore, Athlete, Scholar, Fool, Virgin) set forth by "Cabin in the Woods." David is pretty clearly the Athlete, but he's the only one who neatly fits his role. I went with Olivia instead of Eric as the Scholar as she's the one with the medical know-how who keeps Mia medicated early in the intervention. Eric's behavior marks him as more of a Fool -- after all, what could be more foolish than ignoring repeated warnings and reading out of a book that shows how to summon demons? That said, while Eric may be a Fool, he is far from a wimp. During the course of the film, he gets stabbed in the chest with a mirror shard and just below the eye with a syringe, shot several times with a nail gun and bashed in the head with a crowbar before a retractable knife to the gut puts him down for the count. Wile E. Coyote would be proud.

That leaves Mia and Natalie to duke it out over who is the Virgin and who is the Whore. Going by conventional horror movie logic, Natalie (the bland, inoffensive blonde) would be the Virgin and the female lead while Mia (the slightly goth-y junkie) would be the Whore and the first to die. Instead, Mia rises above her frailties to emerge as the star of the show while Natalie amounts to little more than cannon fodder. Was this a clever subversion of the usual horror archetypes or just a pleasant coincidence? It's hard to tell. This series does have previous in producing unlikely heroes. It's probably safe to say "Cabin in the Woods" didn't play a role, even though it finished shooting almost four years prior to the release of "Evil Dead," as it was stuck in limbo following MGM's bankruptcy. The two films ended up being released a year or so apart, and their similarities will inevitably lead to comparisons between them, including the ham-handed one you just read.

Some other brief thoughts on the film:
  • For all the departures from the original, the "Evil Dead" reboot keeps faithfully to one aspect of Raimi's work -- the malevolence of the demons. These are no mindless beasts; they revel in toying with their victims' emotions almost as much as inflicting physical harm. Consider possessed Mia's reminding David of his shortcomings as a brother just as he's burying her or the demons releasing Natalie from their thrall long enough for her to ask "Why does my face hurt?" before dying whimpering in her boyfriend's arms.
  • Possession via vomit was a new approach, though certainly fitting for a film that doesn't skimp on blood, guts or other bodily fluids.
  • There is good product placement, and there is bad product placement. What Converse gets in "Evil Dead" is most likely the latter. Duct tape, on the other hand, only further cements its reputation as the Handyman's Secret Weapon.
  • For a high school science teacher, Eric knows a lot about the occult. Did he just happen to have an Ancient Sumerian-English dictionary in his bag when he left for the cabin? He certainly does his job of serving up expository dialogue and moving the plot along by reading the Naturom Demonto, but it all seems a bit convenient.
  • David, meanwhile, has some serious chops for a humble mechanic. Not only does he demonstrate a remarkable talent for first aid while tending to Eric and Natalie's battered bodies, but he knocks together a defibrillator to revive Mia out of parts in the shed. Pity a moment of humanity ended up costing this budding MacGyver his life.
  • Speaking of which, the first casualty of the film is actually Grandpa. The book says the Abomination needs five souls before it can rise, but it doesn't do so until David checks out in a blaze of glory. Do we infer, then, that dogs lack souls? If so, how is it that all dogs go to heaven?
So, after all that, do I recommend "Evil Dead?" There are obvious departures from the original that could leave fans of the Raimi-directed film cold. Viewers hoping for wry or humorous interludes will be disappointed -- this film is as grim and unrelenting as it is gory. Any laughter to help break the tension must come from the viewers themselves. Also, aside from two or three good jump scares, I don't know if I was really scared at any point. That said, just because the film lacks the laughs you might normally expect from a work with Raimi's name on it doesn't mean it similarly lacks cleverness. It has a sharpness to it, and I like the angle of Mia trying to quit drugs as a basis for the misunderstanding that ultimately dooms the cast. Director Fede Alvarez's decision not to use CGI is laudable -- the strings on the practical effects only showed once, when it was clear David was dragging a dummy, not a person, out of a grave.

In short, "Evil Dead" works for me. It's a straightforward, unpretentious horror reboot that acknowledges its roots yet doesn't feel the need to slavishly hew to what came before it. It's not for the squeamish or those who can't bear to see a horror classic receive an updated treatment, but horror fans who are on the fence should give it a shot. It does have Raimi and Campbell's seal of approval, and there is talk that the Raimi and Alvarez storylines could merge one day. If you offered most horror fans another three "Evil Dead" films with Raimi either directing or producing, I imagine they'd bite your hand off.

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