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rochefort [Celluloid 03.10.13] horror

This week's remake is here, but we can thankfully breathe a sigh of relief that it's not another Red Dawnor Total Recall. Evil Deadis directed by newcomer Fede Alvarez, whose short film Panic Attack so impressed the creators of the original Evil Dead films Sam Raimi (who directed them), Robert Tapert (who produced them), and Bruce Campbell (who starred in all three as Ash), that they entrusted him with a modern take on one of horror's best film series. It's a move that's paid off, for the most part, and the grisly, deadly serious, almost completely cgi-free result is probably going to make Alvarez a major player in the genre film world. And no, this new version doesn't surpass the original, but it doesn't embarrass it, either.

I honestly don't think the original Evil Dead films get nearly as much love as they deserve, despite their massive cult following and success on the home market (the first film had a hugely profitable theatrical run, but its two sequels only made their real money in VHS and DVD sales). The original trilogy follows a trajectory very similar to that of both George Miller's Mad Max films and Romero's first three entries in the Living Dead series: really good first films, damn-near-perfect second films, and ambitious but troubled third entries. And like those other series, the trilogy had a massive impact on both its genre and independent filmmaking as a whole. These days it's easy to forget that Raimi was one of the first true DIY success stories, and was a pioneer in no-budget filmmaking long before guys like Robert Rodriguez and Peter Jackson, both of whom he clearly inspired and influenced. So if Raimi signs off on a new version of his groundbreaking original, then okay, I'm gonna walk into the theater giving it at least some benefit of the doubt.

In this version, five young friends meet at that famous cabin in the woods once again, but this time they're not here to drink and bone, but rather to have an intervention for two-strike junkie Mia (Jane Levy). Her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) joins estranged pal Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), nurse Olivia (Jessica Lucas), and David's ladyfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) in a pact to help Mia quit cold turkey by keeping her in the family's old cabin until the worst of her withdrawals have passed. Once Mia's first cold sweats kick in, she starts to complain about a nasty smell under the house, and at first the group understandably dismisses this as junkie hysteria, but on closer inspection they discover a basement full of rotted animal carcasses and a leather-bound tome. Eric, the egghead of the group, opens the book and finds a series of incantations that, once read aloud, summon a demonic entity from the forest that has lain dormant for decades. Mia, still only in the first stage of withdrawal, is an easy first target for the demonic force, and it infects her via tree-assisted rape. Her initial pleas for help go largely unheeded as just more drug ramblings, and by the time David and the others realize she's telling the truth the possessions have already begun to spread throughout the group. Cue gore. Lots of freakin' gore. And blood. And severed limbs. And swimming pools of blood.

You have to hand it to all involved: the script, by Alvarez, Diablo Cody and Rodo Sayagues, injects a really good premise into the Evil Dead universe, and this dour setup makes it nicely consistent with the tone of the first film, the darkest and bleakest of the original trilogy. There are thankfully no douchebag characters, all of them are at least likable, Levy and Pucci particularly compelling, and once the hacking and vomiting gets sufficiently underway Alvarez keeps things moving at freight-train speed and subjects each of his actors to the maximum level of abuse. You may have heard through the grapevine that Alvarez chose to do a vast amount of in-camera practical fx work; the quality of the effects is truly breathtaking at times, and I can't recall the last time cgi gore provoked this amount of winces, grit teeth, averted eyes and shudders from an audience. And there's canny attention paid to what makes horror classics like the original film and Texas Chainsaw work so well structurally: unlike a lot of modern films, horror or otherwise, we the audience aren't overly aware of a three-act structure, and I believe this is key for this type of movie. If the goal is to be relentless, and that's definitely the goal here, it pays to not remind the audience that they're watching a constructed thing. The demon attacks need to come one after the other and exhaust us, just like Leatherface needs to always be chasing that last survivor. We need to lose our sense of where things are headed in order to believe that things can go anywhere, and this update wisely and refreshingly adopts the same level of chaotic pacing. It starts on a dime, puts its characters (and us) through a meat grinder, and ends almost as abruptly.

And yet, despite all this praise, I'd rather the film weren't called Evil Dead. The bits of fan service, from the look of the cabin, to the chainsaw, to all that talk of swallowing souls, are the weakest and/or most clearly obligatory parts of the film. It's obvious that the filmmakers see the Evil Dead universe as a place that can accommodate a new and maybe even constantly rotating roster of main characters, and I'm fine with that, but the multiple throwbacks to the original films simply aren't necessary, not when the director is already doing such a fine job of making a state-of-the-art throwback. And no matter what, the original films don't revolve around a once-in-a-lifetime premise; they borrowed extensively from The Exorcist and Romero's zombie pictures, and didn't really introduce any new monsters or scenarios into horror cinema. No,Evil Dead just isn't Evil Dead without Ash. He's as vital to the series as John McClane is to the Die Hard films or Captain Jack to the Pirates of the Caribbean series. And I'm not just being bratty here; Ash is one of horror cinema's most unique characters. He's the face of the franchise, and he's the protagonist, not the monster. How many horror properties can you say that about? How many other horror franchises will you watch on the strength of the good guy? You better believe that if Mister Campbell weren't involved with this one, the current fanboy reaction would be a whole lot different. So I hope we don't collectively lose sight of the fact that the biggest challenge in remaking a movie like this one is in creating a character (and finding the right actor to play him or her) that can have the kind of cultural weight, and just be as freakin' cool, as Ash. Until then, let's not get too carried away with the accolades.

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