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Non-Review Review: Evil Dead (2013)

Evil Dead does has a bit of a quirky charm to it, serving as perhaps the best-made horror throwback I’ve seen in quite some time, much more effective than most of the recent splurge of exorcism movies. As far as competent execution of classic horror movie tropes go, complete with the sense of “something gruesome’s gonna happen” dread and a healthy amount of gore, Evil Dead succeeds admirably. There are some issues in the final act, but Evil Dead checks all the necessary boxes, and does so with a minimum amount of fuss or pretension, which makes it a surprising enjoyable watch for those looking to enjoy a good old-fashioned video nasty.

That said, it can’t help but feel a little awkward, through no fault of its own. Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead was a genre classic which worked in a large part because it eschewed all but the most basic tropes of horror storytelling, refusing to dress a video nasty in anything too fancy. The movie came to embody a particular subgenre of horror, and it wore its grotesqueness on its sleeve. Last year, Cabin in the Woods offered a fitting follow-up, a capstone to that approach to horror. As such, through no fault of its own, this version of Evil Dead feels like it arrived a little late.

Down the rabbit hole...

Down the rabbit hole…

Again, it’s hard to blame the film for that strange sense that it has missed the boat a little bit. Cabin in the Woods was an obvious deconstruction of films like this, but it’s still strange to see all the tropes that Cabin in the Woods played with wry awareness offered to the audience dead straight. This strange cabin looks lovely! Let’s go in the creepy basement! Let’s open that creepy book! Let’s repeatedly split up and not call for help when terrible things happen! These are all standard ingredients of a conventional horror film, but Cabin in the Woods played with them so skilfully and so shrewdly that’s is strange to see them delivered so earnestly.

Of course, there are problems even if you discount the deconstruction of the genre. Not every film can channel the anarchic energy of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, let alone the sequel. Some of the weakest moments in this remake come when director Fede Alvarez tries to channel Raimi directly. While the remake includes any number of shoutouts to the original (gee… I wonder if that chainsaw might come in handy), the most jarring come towards the end as Alvarez tries too hard to emulate Raimi’s quick cutting “ready of battle” montage sequences.

Cabin in the... what?

Cabin in the… what?

Raimi used these sequences to infuse the film with a certain sense of madness. Here, they seem a lot rote, as if Alvarez is really only employing them because they are expected at this point. Alvarez works much better when he sticks to his own style, filming scenes from low angles with lots of negative space, creating the impression that (at any moment) Alvarez could adjust the angle of the camera to a more normal level and reveal some lurking monstrosity.

The film also suffers from the decision to include a homage to a rather infamous scene that even Raimi himself seems to regret, describing it as “unnecessarily gratuitous and a little too brutal.” You could argue that including the sequence, one that Raimi clearly isn’t overly proud of, is a way for the remake to distinguish itself, but it feels as ill-advised here as it did in the original film. Perhaps even moreso.

Doing things by the book...

Doing things by the book…

Raimi’s film was the work of a bunch of friends made on a tiny budget. The remake is a sleek studio production. That such a scene slipped into Raimi’s film shows a little bit of bad judgement, while the inclusion of the scene here reflects a more systemic problem. I’m wary of spoiling too much, so I won’t go into it in too much depth. However, reducing what had been an ill-judged gratuitous scene into little more than an in-joke reference without any real consideration of the implications feels like a mistake.

Still, this year’s version of Evil Dead works quite well for most of its runtime. It does try a little too hard at points. It invites comparisons to Raimi’s film, and so the decision to try to include a credible plot as an excuse for the mayhem and destruction feels a little weird. Raimi’s film had a bunch of teenagers heading into the woods, for little reason beyond the fact that teenagers seem to do that sort of stuff in horror films. There was a self-awareness to it all.

Why so serious?

Why so serious?

Here, the film tries to convince us that there’s a story, that there’s a reason for these characters to be here, beyond the desire to slaughter them, that the characters are more developed than mere cyphers. So we get a plot about a botched detox attempt in the middle of the woods, and an awkward family reunion for two siblings still dealing with their unresolved issues. None of these points are ever given any more depth than they would be given in any other horror film, and it’s to the credit of the screenplay that it never overplays its hand. Still, the remake lacks some of the brutal honesty of the original.

That said, once bad things start happening, Alvarez is in his element. The deadites are suitably sinister and grotesque, even if the film insists on giving them a plot to conquer the world. They make a suitably unpleasant creepy-crawly adversary. The monsters’ preoccupation with female genitals is a little unnerving and perhaps speaks to certain genre-wide difficulties when it comes to dealing with female sexuality. It is telling that neither of the male members of the cast have their private parts so assaulted, barring one brief allusion that is clearly intended to unnerve rather than directly threaten.

Gender politics...

Gender politics…

Also notable is the fact that nobody questions a male member of the cast when he rather brutally deals with a female deadite, despite the fact that they only have his word for what happened, she’d shown no previous sign of infection and the group hadn’t yet accepted a supernatural explanation for what was happening. I won’t dwell too much on the gender politics of it all, but it is a little bit uncomfortable. Then again, these tend to be systemic problems with a great many horror films.

Still, the deadites have a nice creepy fixation on faces, and particularly eyes, making them seem especially unsettling. While the movie makes it clear that the infestation is supernatural, I do like the idea that evil still spreads through infectious physical contact. The characters repeatedly point out that this isn’t science, that it can’t be a disease, that isn’t insanity. While the movie makes the most of that flexibility, there is something quite fascinating about the idea that pure evil can be spread through bodily fluids.

The sharpest blade in the drawer...

The sharpest blade in the drawer…

Alvarez does get top marks for adhering to the rules of genre fair play. A lot of the mayhem is foreshadowed, and in a way that doesn’t feel clumsy. Instead, the fact that we’ve just seen an object that will likely come into play later (inevitably featuring sharp blades or pointy ends) adds to a sense of building dread as we recognise it’s inevitably going to be used. The short sequence at the start where the teens try to mend the cabin using DIY tools might as well be Chekov’s chainsaw.

The film still runs into some difficulties towards the end. In particular, it suffers from trying to give the story what might be described as a “video game” ending, with the big boss only emerging towards the climax of the film. Part of what was so unnerving about Raimi’s original film was the sense that the monsters were so ethereal. While chainsaws and shotguns might ward them away, there was no chance of truly vanquishing them. Instead, the remake tries to build to an epic finalé that feels strangely out of place here.

They've got him dead to rights...

They’ve got him dead to rights…

I do feel like I’m being a little harsh here. After all, Evil Dead is one of the most iconic and recognisable horror films ever made, despite being produced on a tiny budget. To compare a studio horror film from 2013 to Raimi’s madcap youthful effort seems a tad unfair. Evil Dead measures up remarkably well to a lot of mainstream horrors competing in its weight category. However, it lacks the extra skill or nuance that made the original such a classic.

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