Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Evil Dead (2013) – Review

Review: Evil Dead is a very gory but not particularly scary horror film. The film is a remake of Sam Raimi’s cult classic The Evil Dead. It is about five friends (two of whom are brother and sister) who get together to help one kick junk at a remote cabin in the woods. On site, they discover a strange book of witchcraft and (for some unknown reason) receipt words from it out loud (despite the many warnings written onto the pages of the book) awakening an evil spirit in the woods. The evil descends upon the five young people, and they must fight for their very survival.

It is difficult to not compare this film to the original The Evil Dead, but I am going to try and leave that alone. Basically, this film tries to do its own thing, while still paying some measure of homage to its source material. Another aspect of the film that is hard not to discuss is: how do you make a cabin in the woods film after The Cabin in the Woods? That film completely dismantles all the sub-genre troupes in a very smart and funny manner, seemingly making the genre somewhat moot – at least for a few years (or so I thought). However, I will try and leave that alone too and just look at this film as a stand-alone entity.

The plot of Evil Dead is incredibly stupid – but given the sheer terribleness of horror films (in general) at present, it does not really matter. This film’s goal is to entertaining its target audience – and to that regard, the target audience wanting to see young people brutally tortured and murdered in a graphically violent manner, it is fairly successful. Still, the plot is very, very, very stupid. And, the dialogue is laughably terrible. But, the film is not campy, making the awful dialogue just play as bad and not funny – thus it is laughably terrible in a cringe-inducing, eye-rolling sort of way instead of actually causing laughter. I also somewhat wonder what the pleasure in seeing people eviscerated is (in the absence of strong characters and dramatic tension) – or is it that the pleasure arises from being shocked by how much gore, blood, and all other manner of grotesque material can be stuffed into one film, the enjoyment coming from the physical reaction the viewer has to what is happening on screen (similar to thrill seekers enjoying the adrenaline that comes from their exploits).

Co-writer and director Fede Alvarez does try to put a story and character moments on top of the reason anyone is seeing the film, as unnecessary as a story and characters might seem. The thought is a good one – if the film has characters the audience cares about, then the torment that they suffer will be all the more impactful on the viewers. Yet, Alvarez does not really have a dynamic enough set up, and the performances are all sort of bland. In an effort to get away from the genre stereotypes, Alvarez writes the characters to feel more like realistic normal people (and not fall easily into the typical roles of jock, nerd, slut, virgin, and nice guy). But, this has sort of a negative effect too. The characters are boring. The first act which focuses almost solely on developing the characters drags – the hyper-violence cannot come soon enough (the charm of the original is that it unapologetically is just about evil things killing and psychologically torturing young people in a graphically gory manner – and it jumps right in, because that is the whole point). The prologue here also only serves to slow down the narrative and is completely unnecessary.

Once the character mutilation finally begins, Alvarez presents the violence in a very boring structured way. Basically, a character is possessed and inflicts carnage upon themself (or others in their immediate surrounding). Like most horror films, the characters are dealt with one at a time. However, Alvarez seems to not be as interested with the psychological impact of what is happening to the characters. Most of the story is told from the perspective of David (whose sister Mia is trying to get clean). He sees his friends corrupted around him (including his sister), which would have a devastating psychological impact, but Alvarez focuses his efforts mostly on the gore and blood – not the corrosion of David’s psyche (which might have been more interesting – given the character work done in the first act).

In fact, Alvarez seems to abandon his characters completely. What was the point of trying to develop characters in the first place if they are going to be dramatically abandoned in act two? But again, the point of this film is not its character drama, so does it really matter? But, then why waste the time in act one in the first place? Just jump right in. In the third act, Alvarez does bring back some character drama though with the brother-sister narrative, which works decently (but I still think the first act could have been managed in a much more efficient manner from a storytelling perspective).

The third act is structured in an interesting way. Often in horror films there is an epilogue – an extra scene after everything seems alright and the hero has won that brings the evil back proclaiming ‘it’s not over yet!’ (the end of Drag Me to Hell is an example). With Evil Dead, Alvarez has an epilogue that plays more like a second third act and it is by far the best part of the film. This scene alone elevates the film considerably, making up for the boring first act and dramatically uninteresting second act.

While the gore and blood is handled fairly well, as there are a number of gruesome moments that should please fans, a major flaw of the film is that it is not scary at all. Alvarez seems to have no idea how to use suspense and tension, because there is none (I found the trailer for The Conjuring that played before to be much more effective at creeping me out than the entirety of Evil Dead). Rather, he just lets things play out, hoping the audience reacts to the gore and blood. I get the sense that this is the kind of film that this was meant to be, but infusing it with suspense and dramatic tension would have made it much more powerful and wholly impactful – a more rewarding overall experience.

Evil Dead is, however, a very well made horror film from an aesthetics and production quality standpoint. The photography is particularly good (especially in the third act part two). Everything looks great. Visually, Alvarez has the film feeling very much separate from the original, but he also includes the shots for the evil flying through the woods from a first person perspective which is an iconic stylized shot from the original. Here, it feels a bit out of place and does not mesh with the rest of Alvarez’s style, but I guess it is needed to pay homage to the original. There are also a few other references to the original that work their way in seamlessly.

Overall, Evil Dead works well for its intended audience, and in a genre that has fallen on tough times quality wise it is a decent film (and better than most others in the genre lately). It accomplishes what it sets out to do and be – and what else can one really ask from a remake. That said, I am not sure anyone will choose to watch this over the original once the novelty of it wears off.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Fede Alvarez makes his feature film debut with Evil Dead, and does a good job with the material (in terms of making a horror film full of gore and blood). He certainly has talent and could be among the new generation of horror filmmakers’ best directors. Should a sequel to this remake be made and Alvarez returns as director, I am interested to see where he will take the narrative. Will he keep it straight horror (The Evil Dead series goes like this for those new to it: The Evil Dead is a straight horror film, Evil Dead II is a horror comedy and very campy, and Army of Darkness is an adventure comedy with not much true horror elements left – personally I like the second two films much more than the first) or will he pursue the comedy route?

It is also interesting to note that Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, and Bruce Campbell (the creators of the original series) produced this film, yet their typical campy style is nowhere to be found in this version. Roque Banos’s score works okay, but it is not among the best horror film scores (a genre that often lends itself to great musical accompaniment). However, as said above, the film is visually impressive. Aaron Morton’s cinematography is fantastic (I could see the style of the Spartacus series, which Morton has served as a D.P. on, having an influence on his lighting in this film). While this is just a small cabin in the woods narrative, his photography (especially in the third act) gives the action a much grander feel, like the fate of the world is in the balance. Robert Gillies’s production design is also very good. The cabin both feels creepy and like a place people would actually choose to come and stay. The basement set is fantastically off-putting as well.

The performances in the film are rather forgettable, but that is not so much on the actors as it is on the genre and writing. Newcomer Elizabeth Blackmore, Jessica Lucas, and Lou Taylor Pucci are all good enough in support – they get across the point that they are terrified to the audience, and they can scream (what else is needed). Shiloh Fernandez is fine as the co-lead, though his character is awfully boring. Again the writing does not do him any favors. Jane Levy is probably the best among the actors. She genuinely seems freaked out in act one and is great at the end of the film.

Summary & score: If the point of Evil Dead is to round up five young people and gruesomely torture and/or murder them to the delight of fans of that sort of nonsense, then yes it achieves its goal. It is a better entry in the horror genre than fans have come to expect from the filmmaking community, but does not quite live up to the charm of the original and lacks strong characters. 6/10

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