Evil Dead Review
THE MOST TERRIFYING FILM YOU WILL EVER EXPERIENCE... was released back in 1981!
So I'd advise you to go and watch Sam Raimi's delirious original Evil Dead instead of this pale and gormless retread.
The funny thing about fanboys and their reaction to remakes of cherished movies is that as much as they despise the very notion of someone attempting to re-do something that they love with a passion, they can go equally overboard when the result is deemed quite effective.
But the lavish praise heaped upon this Raimi sanctioned reboot of his immortal full-feature debut is, I’m immensely sorry to say, way, way off the mark. As previous reviews for The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II will attest, you won’t find a more devoted fan of cabin-based Candarian chaos than myself, and to say that my expectations and hopes for this uncompromising adaptation of five hapless young folks encountering a twisted tsunami of demonic possession and bodily dismemberment in the middle of a deep, dark wood were sky-high would be something of a gross understatement. I not only dreamed that Fede Alvarez's re-imagining would live up to its ferocious forebear’s still-giddy reputation, but due to its critical response and its makers’ full-throttle and well-publicised intentions I positively demanded it.
Of course it is a cinch that it wouldn’t live up to such lofty expectations, but the fact that it falls so depressingly short of them is a miserable gut-punch that I simply hadn’t anticipated. Some reviewers relish the opportunity to lambast a film, but I am most definitely not one of them. I genuinely believe that nobody sets out to make a poor movie and, by and large, most directors reveal plenty that I can respect and admire within their chosen genre. (No, not you, Uwe Boll.) But Horror films are my most revered bag o’ bones in this whole damned game, and also the productions that I am most innately forgiving towards. So, even if my coverage seems biased, which I can assure you is not my intention, I take absolutely no pleasure in pouring scorn over something that I had been championing for quite some time, and now feel resolutely let down by.
I originally awarded this a 5 out of 10 on its theatrical run – which is actually a poor score coming from me, as many of you will already know. But, having endured this woeful mess a couple more times on Blu, I am actually going to downgrade it further. This is a 4 out of 10 movie, folks, and those marks are for the music and the practical makeup FX. Nothing else. This well and truly drops the bloody ball.
If you are going to tackle a film as visceral, as visually and as aurally inventive, as downright imaginative and as terrifyingly boundary-pushing as Sam Raimi’s ultra low-budget The Evil Dead then you really better be prepared to bring something very special to the table. And, at least initially, it seemed that Alvarez, who came up with the story and gained Raimi’s blessing after wowing him with his ambitious SF short, Panic Attack, had found that unique angle with which to springboard us into the maelstrom. First and foremost would be the eschewing of the gallows humour that regularly flavoured the bloody broth of the first film and especially the second and third, meaning that this saga would be deadly serious and down to freshly-turned earth. It would treat the characters and the situation as grittily and realistically as possible, and it would forge a blistering new path for the genre whilst still remaining true to the original.
Gone, too, is series poster-boy, Ash, replaced by the dubious combo of brother and drug-addicted sister David (Shiloh Fernandez) and Mia (Jane Levy) who, along with three friends make the journey to the old family cabin out in the back of beyond so that they can all keep the junkie safe until she comes through an enforced period of cold turkey. A pre-credits sequence – which is actually the most effective chapter in the film – establishes the cabin as being something of a black magic headquarters and place of ritual exorcism, and sets the grim tone of what will follow once the group discovers in its basement an arcane book of incantations and, foolishly, read aloud a demon resurrection passage. Pretty soon, Mia’s hallucinations become altogether more substantial, and blood begins to flow. With a tremendous downpour swelling the bordering stream into a raging and impassable torrent, the friends find themselves trapped in the cabin. And with tensions running high and people rapidly becoming hosts to violently nasty demons, they are all soon at each others’ throats. Literally.
It’s going to be a long night, but a mercifully short film.
Although it should be regarded upon its own merits, it is impossible to consider this film without comparing it to the original … and it is also important to note that it just wouldn’t pass muster even without such a powerfully overshadowing relation. In fact, without the connection, this film would make very little sense at all, and would be regarded as marginally more bravura than the likes of Sinister and Mama, the audiences for which it is squarely aimed at.
After a truly awful introductory scene that reunites these estranged “buddies” and establishes their peculiar issues with one another, the slow seeping aura of something “not quite right” almost gets the juices flowing. Unsettling things in the basement – dead cats strung up like so much grisly linen, a stake with some horrible scorch marks all over it – and Mia’s steadily worsening condition conspire to produce some early jitters. With heady anticipation of cackling witches and unsavoury stabbings, a supernatural cavalcade seems on the cards. But, before you know it, Deadite-lore collides clumsily with The Exorcist as blasphemously obscene bile spews forth from salacious lips, and the raw randomness of Raimi gives-in to tepidly edited attacks and a growing awareness of the law of diminishing returns.
Well, this more serious tone was supposed to be the real clincher on making a redux work. People are wont to forget that Raimi’s original was also predominantly played with a straight face – albeit one that was prone to sticking out a putrid and rotten tongue at you when it thought you weren’t looking. But, by and large, Raimi’s splatstick-slapstick was held in-check for the inaugural outing. Alvarez, wisely, wanted to jettison the perhaps playful nature of the possessed and to posit the scenario as if it was really happening and by not going OTT with the madness. His approach is certainly different, and therein lies the inevitable divide that fans of the original may find.
Everyone argues with everyone else, and you don’t know who to bother rooting for. Nobody is sympathetic and in fact you’ll probably wish they all died a helluva lot sooner. Once corpses pile-up, the sense of realism ceases to work because the cast seem to forget their prior affections with unfeasibly swift aplomb, thus negating any and all emotional context. The script struggles to maintain the bruised umbilical cord linking Mia with dawdling David, though this is clearly supposed to be the gravitational core of the drama.
But top of the shop of complaints is that the crew, this time out, are just not likeable. In fact, they are a grumbling, argumentative mixture of slackers, do-gooders and guilt-ridden partisans and, as such, they do not make for a convincing bunch of “friends” in the least. Lou Taylor Pucci’s Eric, in particular, is a dreadful itch that you can’t scratch – so be thankful that events really do conspire to make him suffer. The dialogue, wretchedly vomited like so much expositional ectoplasm by the odious Diablo Cody (Juno/Jennifer’s Body), who was brought onboard to give the screenplay a spicy and more youthful veneer, is just terrible. Grit your teeth when an absconding Mia tries to drive away from her “protectors” and just screams “F- ... F- ... F- ...!” over and over. Actually, I find myself screaming it too ... at the screen and followed by a resounding “Off!” Listen to how the name “Mia” is uttered as though it is some totemic lynchpin around which we should all revolve. There is no reason why any of these idiots would come together for such a task. THEY CLEARLY DON’T LIKE EACH OTHER AND CANNOT GET ALONG. We can’t associate with a single bloody one of them.
However, one scene I liked was a melancholy moment shared between the strained siblings when Mia leans in close with warped-out eyes and whispers tensely and with hushed urgency, “You have to get me out of here.” This bit works and, for once, and probably the only time, we feel a trace of compassion and fear. But the level of in-character commitment shown here does not have the energy to travel any deeper into the film, leaving us marooned without a hero or a heroine to pin our salvation upon.
And the problem with not liking any of them naturally means that we do not care what happens to them either. Mia’s plight is desperate and tragic and Levy does her best to nail the dark dementia and rage that embodies drastic withdrawal in the middle of nowhere with only a bunch of meddlesome guardians for company, but she is so thoroughly irritating that she fails to gain a personality even when inhabited by demons. You certainly can’t say that about the fiendish femme fatales under Raimi’s shepherding, who all gain an enormously wicked sense of humour, post-possession. Anyone Necronomicon-affiliated in this neck of the woods becomes nothing more than an emotionless husk devoid of persona ... meaning that there is no worrying penchant for mischief about them, and no sense of loss that they have gone over to the dark side.
This wouldn’t be a problem with the vast majority of horror films, of course. We basically have our scenario and our assembly-line of hapless victims set-up, and we just settle back to watch them getting hacked and chopped and sliced to pieces for our cathartic delectation. We would have been excellent spectators in the mob at the Coliseum, wouldn’t we? But, with all the hype surrounding it, Evil Dead should have been more considerate with regards to the characters. We all love Ash, of course. But let’s not neglect Scotty, Shelly, Linda and Cheryl. They were composed out of thumbnail script sketching, but they had an appeal that meant even though we couldn’t wait to see what abysmal fate would befall them we still gave a damn about their suffering. This clutch of Candarian cuisine are a cantankerous and irritating conglomeration of angsty dullards whose squirming relationships to one-another are carelessly trotted with zero chemistry or introspection. Remember when a shocked Ash is trying to comfort the clearly deceased Scotty about how they are all going to get out of there? “No, not Shelly … she’s, ahhh … we’ll all be going home together. Guess you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” It is actually a beautifully weird and queasily upsetting moment that provides excellent layer-peeling of a character struggling through something exceptional that has scarred him forever. There is nothing like that here … other than some hysterical laughter that is supposed to signify a breach in the character’s last wall of psychological defence.
Naturally, a lot of visual and physical ground is re-raked. Possessed hands are summarily dealt with, whilst innocent hands reach out to pull back shower curtains that could mask something very unpleasant. Something unseen hurtles through the woods surrounding the cabin. The images in the book – inked in human blood and bound in human flesh and, here, sealed with barbed-wire – are excellently cruel, though lacking in anything truly otherworldly. Raimi’s Oldsmobile appears in the moist forest mist. A possessee is flung down into the basement, whereupon she raises the trapdoor and mocks the living. There is a nice image of found artefacts – the book, a tape recorder, a shotgun and a box of shells. A necklace/talisman inadvertently makes a skull when dropped on the floor. There is an A-Team-style tooling-up that, to be honest, doesn’t really fit the tone of the film and, worse still, actually leads to an utterly preposterous, though thematically poetic, amateur medical procedure that wouldn’t work in a million years. And the bloody stump/chainsaw combo is in full effect come the splattery climax.
For the real Deadites, there are a multitude of nods and winks paying homage to the original series and, to be blunt, I actually found ticking them off, one by one, to be more entertaining than the story of new take, itself. I won’t list them all, but listen out for the phrases “Truly amazing” and “Does that sound fine to you?” and the inquiry, “What’s happened to her eyes?” that was equally unusual in the original. I say unusual because in both cases the transformation of the eyes is the least worrying aspect of what the speaker has just witnessed occurring to the owner of the “eyes” in question.
Remember the dizzying verve of Sam’s Ram-o-Cam photography? All that frenetic whirligig action that had you ducking and diving and weaving as though you were strapped into a D-Box Motion Controlled Chair at the whim of an epileptic devil? DOP Aaron Morton, who lensed the awesome Spartacus TV show, tries to capture some of that … and, unbelievably, even given the advanced technology at his disposal, fails to evoke the arabesque and kaleidoscopic verve of the original. Even his arboreal run-throughs are pedestrian and boring. The camera angles that twisted and contorted the frame back in 1981 are conspicuous by their absence. All we get that is suggestive of visual invention is the fish-eye zoom that we saw in Jaws and Jackson’s LOTR. Oh, that said, there is a great upside down aerial view of the car travelling through the vast countryside (of what is actually New Zealand, although the setting of the cabin looks perfectly acclimatised to the Tennessee woods), even if this does appear like it has been cribbed from the opening of The Shining.
By providing a set of rules for the demons, and something of an endgame for their crusade, Alvarez restricts his story by removing any semblance of unpredictability or chance. The essence of the Necronomicon was that it unleashed chaos. You couldn’t tell who was going to become possessed and quite what they would do when they did. This time around, you are given plenty of warning as to who is next to succumb to the curse, and the shock element of somebody suddenly turning around with a fright-mask on is painfully ignored. The pages of the book inform us what is going to happen next, and what needs to be done in order to combat it. This is literally by-the-numbers plotting, and it loses that essential rollercoaster thrill-ride dynamism that is such a vital ingredient for an Evil Dead film. That sense of anything goes and flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants is eradicated, and the liberation of unstoppable supernatural ferocity has a lid banged down on top of it and nailed shut by these unfortunately rigid parameters.
Gore! What is it good for?
Well, it’s really all this adaptation has going for it. And even here it is a sad truth that fans of AMC’s outstanding series The Walking Dead have been regularly enjoying much more intense and outrageous carnage than that served-up by Patrick Baxter and Kevin Carter, who, at least, have the decency to keep the majority of their FX practical and lovingly smothered in icky prosthetics. There is some creative DIY surgery performed with an electric carving knife, some “cheeky” shenanigans with another blade (although you’ll possibly find the sound effects far more wince-inducing than the actual visuals), a tongue slicing that, strangely enough, is nowhere near as uncomfortable as the image of a razorblade lodged in a boy’s mouth seen in John Carpenter’s Halloween II back in 1981, and assorted odds and ends with a nail-gun, a shotgun and the ubiquitous chainsaw. There is a great effect that sees one character losing the last of their arms and slowly turning around to reveal that, unlike Carl Weathers in that famous shot from Predator, we simply cannot see where the real ones have gone. (Yup – that is a bit of CG, but it still looks incredible.) I also like the way that each of the “tools of mutilation” is introduced up close and emphatically in early non-threatening ways just to let the genre-aware know what’s coming up on the to-do list. And yet there really isn’t any memorable mutilation to speak of during a post-movie dissection, even if publicity blurb and frothy forum-fawning would insist otherwise. We will have to wait and see just how much footage was excised to get the film into theatres if and when an unrated cut arrives on Blu-ray – and that isn’t this release, folks - but the director insists that it was only a matter of a few frames, and mainly from the tongue-slicing. Bear in mind, though, this theatrical cut it is NOT as nasty or as gory as the original movie. Not by a long way. Although I have seen some very Hellraiser-like imagery of one cast member being horribly eviscerated with hooks and chains, but I have no idea how this will actually fit into the film.
Even if the pervading look is that of Linda Blair, the visages of the possessed girls, especially that of Mia, are terrific. Those contact lenses are breathtakingly vile, and the rotten complexion is truly unpleasant.
But despite all the hullabaloo about this being the “most terrifying film you will ever experience” and being the hardest R-rating awarded, I’m afraid only those completely new to the genre will find any sort of value in such ridiculous and downright embarrassing hyperbole. This outing simply isn’t scary. At all. Which is an apocryphal crime, if you ask me. Yes, there is a level of sustained tension and the more bravura sequences are delivered with intensity and vigour. But there are no satisfying heart-lurchers whatsoever, and no skin-crawling suspense. Alvarez may have passion for the genre, but he is purely following a cross-stitch template and revealing absolutely no personal panache for his set-pieces, and zero intuition with audience manipulation. We have all seen this sort of thing done far better. Even Army of Darkness had a more palpable sense of mischievous unease about it, and that was a comic fantasy! We don’t fear what lurks outside in the woods. We don’t fear the possessed. We don’t fear what may be summoned from the hellish soil during a prophesied rain of blood. It all seems so run-of-the-mill. And it shouldn’t be like this, dammit! This is the Evil Dead, for God’s sake!
And now … for the Gore-Score.
Besides the liberal quantities of claret, the film’s strongest element comes courtesy of the phenomenal score from Spanish composer Roque Banos. This was the man who seemingly brought the great Bernard Herrmann back to life with his tremendously moody and ominous music for Brad Anderson’s psychological thriller The Machinist, as well as providing terrific orchestrations for Intruders and Sexy Beast. But, for my money, he has come up with something so infernally insidious and downright terrifying for Alvarez that he may well have accomplished one of the best out-and-out horror scores of the last ten years or so. I will be taking an in-depth look at his work for Evil Dead in another review but, for now, it remains to say that he carries on the ripe and atmospheric tradition that Christopher Young (still the reigning champ of modern horror scores) ladled-on in spades with Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, vigorously aiding and abetting the intense carnage on show here, and amping-up the residual tension throughout with considerable aplomb. His greatest ingredient, however, is the skin-crawling use of a police siren. Not a chainsaw, or an air raid siren, as some people have maintained – but the wailing cry of a Madrid police vehicle heard and captured in a recording made during the wee small hours when Banos, who had just begun work on the score for the film, kept on awakening from nightmares of demons and bodily dismemberment.
It becomes a fitting klaxon-call for when things get really nasty – both an alarm and a taunt at the same time.
He employs the chanting, anguished voices of the BTG Chapel Choir as well, which is something that admittedly sounds as though it has been pilfered from Jerry Goldsmith’s Omen scores, but cannot fail to raise the hackles, even so. There is a melancholic piano refrain that reminds of Jo LoDuca’s splendid score for the original, and some very tender cues that serve to reinforce the fragile relationship between David and Mia so much more than either actor can convey. And the mysterious and sweetly mournful solo violin motif is beautifully eerie.
But, once again, I find something lacking even in this department. The actual soundmix that I encountered theatrically was no great shakes, lacking impact during the action and just bereft of energy. Whereas certain critics took umbrage with Raimi’s original for its “unbearable sound”, the fact is that his film was incredibly audacious with its audio design. Although restricted in dimensionality, it was buoyed and goaded-on by nightmarish effects, infernal vocals – “Join usssss!” - and memorable ambience, such as the thudding of the swing-bench outside the cabin, the spine-jolting clasp and rattle of chains in the workshed, the footsteps on the roof and the severity of the clock’s pendulum and the cellar-dweller’s cackle. But the new film has no such flair. Okay, there is the familiar sound of the buzzing fly, and the quieter moments occasionally offer up the same creepy wind-warble echoing around the dilapidated structure, which I concede was a nice touch, but given the spectral potential by the addition of surround channels, ED ’13 sounds as dull as it looks. That fabulous siren I mentioned? On the soundtrack CD and download, you can clearly hear this in several cues. In the finished film, I think I counted it twice … and I was listening out for it. Apart from the final sequence, in which it is given a vigorous workout, the score seems a touch neglected. It may be merely the result of a poor sound system at the cinema but, somehow, I doubt it. Like so much of this movie, Banos’ feverish music seems to be a casualty of wimped-out, dumbed-down banality.
Time and time again, opportunities are squandered. The vine-attack is incredibly poor, and the new “take” on tree-rape is just a sloppy attempt to doff the cap to something Raimi and Co. have always confessed to being an element of pure bad taste that they regret filming. It is unpleasant, certainly, but it has no inherent shock value. There is a dog (implausibly monikered Grandpa) that has been added to the ensemble, but you could be forgiven for forgetting that it ever existed, so swift is its departure from the proceedings. The whole junkie angle should have been better exploited. The way it is handled, it feels as though it was added just to give them all a reason to go to the cabin in the first place. There is no sense of a greater, far-reaching evil. It all seems very self-contained and, come the end, all rather redundant. Ash’s plight felt personal and remorseless. We didn’t think beyond the cabin, because the events that happened there were epic enough. This seems keen to inspire a larger world and yet because we couldn’t care less about who survives and who doesn’t … the whole farrago is for nothing.
Caution … abomination ahead!
And just what the hell is that final apparition supposed to be? I mean … come on, guys. If we want to see the big bad demonic entity, then we want to see it done properly. Like we haven’t seen enough J-Horror female harridan witches to last us a lifetime. Give me a break. That is your so-called Abomination that we are all supposed to dread? Jesus wept. What a cack-handed insult. Raimi gave us monsters and a real glimpse of some Lovecraftian menace from beyond. You give us a spindly, bedraggled girl with trademark black hair obscuring half the face. I gaped at the sight of it, all right … but only because I couldn’t believe that we’d been handed such a pathetic finale. If anything, this risible element shows the lack of creativity and inspiration that resides at the heart of this ineptly told tale. What a dismal conclusion to a thoroughly mean-spirited and bone-headed redux.
Because of its marketing, the false hype surrounding it and the downright unfeasible critical plaudits from the easily-pleased and certainly not down to anything resembling quality, Evil Dead has been very successful so far, and the legacy is that Alvarez will get a sequel out of it. Plus, and this is the really good news, Sam Raimi will give us some sugar with a groovy fourth instalment to the original series with a welcome Brucie Bonus, too. Rumour has it that the two franchises will then coalesce with a crossover movie further down the line. I would once have thought any new Deadite material most welcome – I even love the musical version – but I’m not so sure about Alvarez’s involvement. Hopefully, he will hone his skills a lot further and actually bash out another entry that either does what it says on the tin and actually scares the bejeezus out of us, or successfully combines the gore with the giggles a la Dead By Dawn.
Personally, I believe that Raimi’s masterplan was to inject new blood into the brand in such a way that it would immediately appeal to the generation weaned on PG13 horrors and hungry to move on, and would then lead to a resurgence of interest in the original series, thus paving the way for, and fuelling his own return to the Tennessee woods with an even vaster fan-base just waiting to welcome him back. Ahh, strategy, then. But this tactic still leaves a horrendous taste in the mouth that only sours further when the film is viewed again on home video.
But whatever happens next, this film is a crushing disappointment that fails to deliver upon its promise, and is instantly forgettable. The two best “nasty” remakes as far as I am concerned are Franck Khalfoun’s superb of Bill Lustig’s Maniac and Alexandre Aja’s macabre and bloody take on The Hills Have Eyes, which was brilliantly made, powerfully brutal and a clever adaptation of Wes Craven’s still stunning original. If only Aja had been the one to have helmed this … he even co-wrote the screenplay for the new Maniac.
And for those who do decide to take the plunge, at least heed this one last piece of advice. DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME WITH THE POST-CREDITS SNIPPET. IT LASTS ALL OF TWO SECONDS AND HAS ABSOLUTELY NO BEARING UPON THE FILM. AND IT MAY JUST TARNISH YOUR OPINION OF A CERTAIN MIGHTY-CHINNED DEADITE-BASHER, TO BOOT.
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