Ah, remakes. There seem to be more and more of them being released these days, and fans have very strong opinions about them. In the last few years we’ve seen slick 21st century “re-boots” of I Spit On Your Grave, Halloween, Dawn of The Dead, Total Recall, The Wicker Man (Oh God, if only I could wash out my mind with soap and water!). The list is endless. There is even a re-make of Robocop due out in cinemas next month. If I am totally honest, I may not have courage to go and see the theatrical release. I value my cherished memories of the Paul Verhoeven original to much to risk sullying them with a sub-par “re-imagining”. You just know the damned thing will be awash with slick editing and state-of-the-art CGI and totally devoid of the cult vibe that made the original so entertaining. If and by that I mean if I do go and see it, I will write up a comparison here, once I’ve recovered from the inevitable disappointment.
I suppose the real question I should be asking myself is how did I become so jaded and cynical? The truth is, I don’t know. There is just something about modern movie-making that leaves me cold. It’s no one thing, but a combination of factors. They just seem too slick somehow. Too… Polished. And above all, too dark. I know the whole point of remakes is to shed the kitsch, cheesy vibe of the originals and appeal to a hip young audience (who simply were not born when the originals came out). I can relate to that but at the same time, that was what made the originals so special. Classic cult films (of any genre, but particularly horror) have a special atmosphere, a vibe, that cannot be recreated in today’s modern, high definition era. Many have tried, and done a reasonable job at it. Robert Rodriguez largely succeeded with Planet Terror a few years back, and the Soska Sisters films have kicked ass so far. It’s definitely possible, but rarely happens. Another factor is budget. Studios are under pressure to deliver a production quality that will appeal to this generation of movie goers, not just thirty-something horror and heavy metal nerds with a chip on their shoulder (i.e. me!). This, for me is the key issue. Only a fan would make that conclusion but here it is anyway. They are too well made. The quality is so good and the picture is so clear that there is nothing left of that grind house vibe that made them special in the first place. I feel the same sense of anti-climax with most mainstream rock and metal albums. They’re OK, but they are really too clean. I prefer underground stuff with that special quality that, while they may not be as well produced in the technical sense of the word, keep me coming back for more literally years after I bought original disc.
So… On to Evil Dead…
First of all, let me start by saying that I love Jane Levy. She is one of my favourite actresses of the current generation – I have seen far too many episodes of Suburgatory than is appropriate for a thirty-four year-old man! So, when I heard that she was going to be starring in a remake of Sam Raimi’s classic movie, I was intrigued. Has she got it in her? Can an actress known primarily for teen-tv make the jump to grown-up horror? The short answer is yes. Levy suits the film perfectly and her time on camera never feels forced or contrived (think the polar opposite of Miley Cyrus’s attempts to shed her pre-teen image). I always get a kick out of seeing apparently sweet and innocent tv actors/actresses in these kind of gritty roles, like when Robert Rodriguez cast Alexis Bledel as a teen hooker in his classic 2005 version of Frank Millers Sin City comics.
Levy plays Mia, a troubled late teens/early twenty-something drug addict who has been taken to a cabin the woods with her brother David (the site of their childhood holidays) and their close-knit group of friends. They plan to keep Mia confined in the cabin for several days and nights to “dry-her out” and cure her drug addiction (presumably to heroin as evidenced by a baggy of brown powder in the opening exposition scenes). The withdrawal symptoms soon kick in and Mia dutifully begins to go mad. Her loyal friends resort to lashing her to a chair with ropes as she screams the place down. Poor Mia. She just wants to go home but her brother and friends will not let her leave for fear that she will relapse and possibly die of an overdose.
After a couple of relatively disturbing freak-outs, Mia (by now firmly lashed to a chair and going nowhere) starts whining about a weird smell. Her friends seem oblivious to it until Eric, a school teacher and the geek of the group, notices a bump under the rug. Pulling the heavy piece of carpet aside, the friends are shocked to find the wooden floorboards smeared with blood and a trapdoor leading down to God knows what horrors. In reality, it leads to a basement, which is filled with a couple of pretty gross sights that I will not spoil if you have not seen this yet. The most important thing they find down in the basement is a book. Wrapped in a black bin liner and bound with chains (for good measure!), this is no ordinary book. This is…
Necronomicon ex-mortis – The Book of The Dead! Written long ago when the seas ran red with blood. It was this blood that was used to ink the book…
Just let me stop for a second. The book is central to the premise behind the Evil Dead mythos, in both the original trio of films and the new version. If you have no idea what a Kandarian demon is and how they are invoked by the living, I suggest you ask your uncle or older brother (even sister if she likes cult horror) to lend you the DVD’s of The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn and The Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness. Don’t worry, they’ll have them. These films are like Star Wars. Everyone’s got them! Well, that wasn’t bad was it? Six hours passes quick when you’re enjoying yourself.
Now that you’re up to speed, I can carry on explaining the few plot differences and key details that separate this version from the originals. Mia’s brother, David, played by Shiloh Fernandez, is the equivalent of Ash (originally played by Bruce Campbell), the original movies’ central character. What struck me watching this version was how much less of a role he plays than Mia. It is Levy’s Mia that is the centre of attention, with all the major plot developments revolving around her. This brought to mind Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Fine by me as I love strong female characters and prefer them over the weepy and hysterical “love interests” that populate many male-driven horror movies. The reasoning behind this seems to have been to surprise fans of the original. I’m sure they were expecting a young actor to play a guy called Ash, complete with “Who’s laughing now” one-liners. This hasn’t happened. Writers Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues have opted for a female lead. Mia and David are also brother and sister, with the guy and his cute girlfriend characters pushed to the side and given supporting roles (which basically translates as victim roles!). This gives the film a touch of realism and lessens the Hollywood gloss somewhat, making the film a little more watchable than it might have been. There is also no mention of a boyfriend for Mia, reinforcing the idea that she is a screwed up junkie. It works, because there is no way I could believe a girl as cute as Jane Levy would struggle to attract a member of the opposite sex without being in such a condition. Normally, there’s always some jock douche bag with a convertible waiting to pick them up. Something else that doesn’t happen here.
There are many similarities between this and the original movie (see images, above). These will either make fans of the original nod and smile knowingly (as they did me) or completely turn them off (as happened to most people who sat through Rob Zombie’s Halloween remakes. I liked them by the way). What is weird about the new version is the almost complete lack of humour. So far, I’ve only watched the first of the special features on the DVD. In it, director Fede Alvarez asks what would the characters do if the situation was real? How would they react, how would you react? An admirable film-making technique that will no doubt serve him well in the future. Here, it left me feeling cold. For one simple reason – I am a fan of the original movies. And it didn’t scare me, not in the way a Ti West film can scare me. I squirmed at some gross moments that I won’t spoil, but I wasn’t really scared in the Bates Motel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre sense of the word. Then again, I wasn’t scared watching the originals. They’re just too silly and kitsch!
In the originals, the humour and charisma of Bruce Campbell as Ash formed a surreal, yet perfectly balanced contrast to the scenes of gruesome gore and Satanic horror. In fact Sam Raimi felt that the comic element was strong enough to warrant a complete remake of the original in the shape of 1987’s The Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn. Essentially a remake of the original with a more interesting plot, this film serves as both a vehicle for Campbell and a showcase for the special effects that Raimi and crew were able to make a reality given a much larger budget than the original. Raimi tried again in 1991 with the much weaker (though technically impressive) Army of Darkness, which tells the story of what happens to Ash after the original movies end.
With this in mind, it’s not a massive shock that Evil Dead serves as a vehicle for the talents of Jane Levy, which are considerable. I’d like to see her mature into some more challenging roles as she gets older and more famous. The only thing that soured the film for me was the lack of laughs. There are none! This film is grim from start to finish. It seems weird because Levy and the other participants have a very keen sense of humour, which can be seen in the making-of featurette on the DVD. Alvarez and co. knew Levy was a comic actress from her previous work, so why did they not play on that? I’m even baffled by the fact that both Raimi and Campbell are listed as co-producers in the credits. Did they just invest in the project then go off and play golf somewhere until it was finished? “You kids go nuts. Enjoy yourselves.” We may never know, but I’m inclined to go with my cynical, black-hearted hunch.
I’ll end on a positive note. By the time the end credits roll, you really get the sense of having watched a cinematic film, rather than a cheap video. This was a novelty for me, as I tend to spend the lion’s share of my viewing time watching old VIPCO tapes and DVD’s (rest assured I’ll cover a good few of these in future posts).
Evil Dead is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Copyright © Steve Wilson and The Third Realm, 2014