Not only did Evil Dead
screen after WW
press deadlines, but it kept critic Jay Horton shaking all weekend long, unable to file his review until Monday afternoon.
Critic’s Grade: C
Should there be any doubt, we’re not speaking about The Evil Dead. Sam Raimi, godhead of the series and producer of this latest iteration (alongside old cohorts Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert), must have thought about throwing An Evil Dead at the madding fan base—as suspicious a cult as you’re likely to find, ravenous and finicky in equal measures—before finding the streamlined branding more than appropriate. For a souped-up model supplanting nervy, kinetic, desperate inventiveness and warts-and-all charm with an unrelenting motor, the title Evil Dead makes a certain sense.
The new movie is undeniably effective, and one can’t simply laugh away the contrivances or distance through abstraction. But the response it provokes has less to do with traditional notions of fear than with autonomic revulsion from the cavalcade of brutality, together with that numbed quality of existential dread brought about by perpetual exposure to the worst outpourings of our shared societal imaginings. I’d be very surprised if anyone already familiar with the genre suffered a single night’s distress after viewing, but their days might be the slightest bit less pleasant.
It should be said, as well, that I’m far from the target demographic the creators meant to address when selecting Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez (reportedly on the basis of a Youtube clip) to helm his first feature. My companion, a devotee of the genre, took the sensory pummeling as intrusive-though-ineffably-rewarding massage and waxed triumphant about how Raimi’s successor stayed true to both spirit and text of source material, which seemed an odd interpretation. Though the central construct is unchanged—twentysomethings travel deep into the woods to spend an evening in a despoiled cabin, reading aloud from whatever ancient tomes may be lying around (apparently, it’s more of a midwestern thing)—the motivating impulse has been reversed.
Rather than indulge a far-flung debauch, these kids want only to help a junkie kick her habit. Along the way, they veer past those gaping plot holes left from the original: Why didn’t folks just jump ship at the first whiff of the macabre? Why didn’t they bring a suddenly pale, newly shaking, differently-voiced friend to the Emergency Room? There’s a delicious sliver of horror to be explored by conflating demonic possession and the throes of heroin addiction. We shiver when the original film’s arboreal assault is revisited via tarred limbs penetrating our heroine, but it was evidently beneath the attention of the filmmakers—or beyond their ability—to spend more than a moment or two on the characters.
Alternatively, considering all that was invested in orchestrating the creepiest Easter Egg hunt that ever was, the characters were always intended to serve as blank slates for the slaughter. Where the franchise forerunner showed promise by shaking that Ash, the current cast of non-entities disables any concerted attempt to guess which might manage to survive. Can that be accidental when so much of the film’s energy derives from teasing expectations? The resurrection of any beloved popular entertainment must account for anticipatory instincts, but Evil Dead has a mission beyond just delaying or subverting the viewers’ reflex.
Audiences reared on the gore-fests that followed the first Evil Dead have spent lifetimes steeling themselves against every sort of cinematic trickery concocted through production budgets large and small, and the film gleefully uses fans’ experience against them. Approximating the illusion of more expensive effects has by necessity become a craft unto itself, and even fairweather fans intuitively understand the cinematic language involved. Visuals are either weirdly constricted or uncomfortably distant to minimize bad makeup or effects, which itself creates a disorienting atmosphere. The terrible beauty of Evil Dead lies in the way Alvarez approximates the diffused angles of yore only to continue advancing, in ever-tightening focus, upon carnage impossibly realistic.
End of the day, Evil Dead has the smack of a film made to satisfy a bet, albeit one forced upon the creators by a fanbase seemingly unwilling to acknowledge that the diabolical allure wielded by the 1981 incarnation has everything to do with the serendipitous grouping of rarefied talent (a Coen brother was only assistant editor, for chrissakes), and nothing whatsoever to do with the Naturom Demonto or the mythology that would grow up and around the film.
Faced with the patently impossible task of assuaging a marketplace sure to revolt against too similar an approach or too great a break—and hypersensitive about condescending to the genre strictures that so enlivened the source—it’s more than a little impressive that Raimi and team manufactured a cinematic creature the clear descendant of their dearly departed creation yet essentially unaware of its lineage.
It’s impressive, engineering this leviathan, but unbeing The Evil Dead isn’t being alive. Or good.