Scene film writers Jason Shawhan and Jim Ridley recently ducked out of separate screenings of experimental films the same night, then met up where their common interests converge — at the remake of Sam Raimi's 1981 splatter milestone The Evil Dead. Below, their thoughts:
JS: It's funny to see how people react to things. The advance word on this film is that it was practically obscene in terms of its gore and violence.
JR: Which is exactly what people said about the original. Every generation likes to act as though some new boundary is being transgressed. Nobody wants to admit they're paying to see upgrades of stuff Herschell Gordon Lewis was doing in the '60s with cow tongues.
JS: It's now well known that Evil Dead '13 got an NC-17 on its first pass through the MPAA, and that seems to be what happens when you aim for any sort of realism in terms of violence. Of course, as long as you don't show any blood, you can have a body count in the millions and still get a PG-13. (Case in point, the odious G.I. Joe: Retaliation.)
JR: To me, the remake starts off with an immediate disadvantage: lack of novelty. I saw the original Evil Dead on a dusk-to-dawn drive-in bill when it first came out, and it absolutely terrorized me and my friends. It wasn't the gore, which was unprecedented in volume if not severity; it was more the assaultive virtuosity of Raimi's style. I've never forgotten that 90 mph tracking shot that zooms toward the window, where a lifetime of watching movies tells you it should stop. Instead, it smashes right on through, signaling you're not going to be able to look away. The creeping death is behind your very own eyes.
JS: There seems to be a very specific choice made here to keep things bound in flesh. The effects of the Kandarian demons mess with the mind and body, but they seem to be bound specifically in those places. There are none of the reality-deranging flourishes that enlivened things in the original (mirrorspace, mocking clock, etc.).
JR: Those are the best parts to ... wait a second. How in hell did you remember the names of those demons?
JS: Jim. Focus. The trade-off is there's too much backstory. With the cabin now tied to the childhood of two of our main characters — the kind of useless exposition the original dispensed with — there has to be some other way of bringing the accursed Book of the Dead into the hands of the movie's artisanal Spam.
JR: I found the backstory the most original thing about the movie. The setup is ingenious — the cabin trip is now an intervention, and the person seeing all the warning signs can't get anyone to listen because, well, it's her intervention. Her mounting desperation, and their infernal well-meaning earnestness in response, is horror-comedy gold. But having established that clever premise, the filmmakers just drop it a half-hour in. I bet that's where they chucked the rest of the Diablo Cody draft.
JS: I wonder. Early on in development there was a good deal of talk about Cody's involvement with the script. As it stands, she has no onscreen credit, which speaks to what could be fan service. Which doesn't make much sense, because Cody's Jennifer's Body is pretty exceptional. My guess is that it's something to do with the Writers Guild, speaking of another arcane system of binding things.
JR: It starts out great, and it's no desecration, like those awful Marcus Nispel remakes of classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The remake's director, Fede Alvarez, doesn't skimp on swampy malevolence.
JS: They generally aim to keep a serious tone here (barring one magnificent moment of gallows humor involving the phrase "No, I feel much better"), which is admirable. It is in keeping with the original's tone — though anyone who's viewed that Tennessee backwoods classic with a crowd in recent years knows that the presence of Bruce Campbell, even in a serious film, goofens up the proceedings to the point where initial intentions become meaningless. And without giving much away, the post-credits kicker almost destabilizes everything that has come before it. This isn't the same universe as the original Evil Dead trilogy, and the needless kicker is fan service at its absolute worst.
JR: The effects are the biggest improvement. The recent restoration of the original was a mixed blessing — all the process shots that scraped by on a drive-in screen now look like a kid's decoupage project.
JS: The gore here is exemplary. There's a chainsaw massacre in this film that serves as the best chainsaw massacre since 1986.
JR: There's the money quote.
JS: Better still, I'd say about 75-80 percent of the makeup effects are practical, and stuffed to the gills with vats of blood and guts. Oh, and tendons. Lots and lots of tendons.
JR: But it just points out to me how little the original's greatness has to do with gore effects. Effects are the easiest thing to upgrade, but often they're the most generic part of a movie. The key element missing from the remake is Raimi's let's-put-on-a-show exuberance. This just wasn't much fun after a while — the second half just cycles through the original's beats in a way that feels obligatory.
JS: There are moments when this film seems to be taking a page from the underrated Fright Night remake, making sure that the grand beats and setpieces known and loved from the original happen, just not necessarily in the order you expect or to the person you assume. And then there are moments that just feel like they got shoehorned in because they had to.
JR: Maybe after The Cabin in the Woods, it's just about impossible to watch this kind of movie without imagining a bunch of geeks posting survival bets on a dry-wipe board.