Evil Dead

Image

 

No one expected “The Evil Dead” or its wunderkind director Sam Rami to explode in popularity the way they did when they first burst onto the horror movie circuit in 1981. Rami, along with childhood friends Robert Tapert (producer) and Bruce Campbell (star), gave audiences a paranormal scare-fest whose genuine fun-house horror thrills curtailed in by Rami’s raw filmmaking prowess that existed on a plane somewhere between terror and fun that established “Dead” as a modern horror cult classic while catapulting Rami and Campbell to stardom. Its legacy looming large 32 years later, the horror genre has gone through some vast changes, favoring psychological terror and extremely graphic and serious-minded “splatterporn” over tongue-in-cheek blood and guts. “Evil Dead”, the 2013 re-imagining directed by neophyte Fede Alvarez, seeks to have its blood-splattered cake and eat it too, attempting to re-tell the original story with more modern sensibilities while retaining the gleeful sense of dread the series is known for. With Rami, Tapert, and Campbell all serving as guiding lights in producer’s chairs, “Evil Dead” is a worthy, if not exactly excellent, successor to the original, a stylish and blood-soaked horror fun-house that revels in its silliness while maintaining its contemporary horror composure.

          Friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas), Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and David (Shiloh Fernandez)  take a trip to a cabin in the woods in order to help their mutual friend and David’s sister Mia (Jane Levy) go cold turkey and kick a smack addiction. As they begin to explore the cabin, the group comes across a basement filled with disemboweled cats carcasses hanging on hooks and the good ol’ Necronomicon, the Book of The Dead, which Eric proceeds to un-wrap from its barbed wire bindings and read from, resulting in the possession of Mia and the eventual summoning of a demonic Abomination if she isn’t “cured” before the Necronomicon claims 4 extra souls.  

           It all smacks very much of Rami’s original story of demons in the woods, and Alvarez’s film does share many similarities with its precursor; the characters are just as intrepidly moronic, deliberately walking into problems that are unavoidable when you recite a passage from a book bound in human flesh marked with “DO NOT READ THIS” in blood; the basic story beats are still here, though the film plays fast and loose with who the next Ash Williams analogue will be, toying with your expectations of who the real Deadite killer is at the end. The film also occupies (to a less successful degree) the same tonal space that Rami’s “Dead” did, the plane of existence right between carnival fun-house spooks and a macabre walk through abandoned woods; a morose and utterly pointless story involving insanity and familial trust issues immediately interrupted by gleefully graphic acts of facial disfigurement, loss of limbs, and exchanged bodily fluids not seen on screen since Rami’s own “Drag Me To Hell” back in 2009. Because Alvarez’s “Dead” is bathed in the modern super serious-minded “gore-nography” affect, as some call it, it’s difficult to tell when the movie’s tongue is piercing through its cheek or simply suffering from a schizophrenic identity crisis. 

          Alvarez and the producing dream-team he’s working with are smart enough to know that contemporary horror, forever affixed to the grimy gloss of “torture-porn” brought about by the “Saw” and “Hostel” films, is steeped in an affect that doesn’t leave much room for the same kind of gonzo wackiness seen in the 1981 “Dead”; they’re also smart enough (and see their audience as such) to simply play into the conventions, both old and new, that modern horror has saddled on its back, minus the meta acknowledgment; think of it as an antithesis to Drew Goddard’s meta masterpiece “The Cabin In The Woods” from last year, essentially a joke premise that isn’t in on the joke  and is all the more fun for it. By nature, this makes “Evil Dead” an incredibly divisive film; people are either going to love or hate this one, and the film doesn’t really care which side you choose.  

           From a purely cinematic perspective, however, “Evil Dead” is much more solid and assured. Aaron Morton’s sepia-toned cinematography is a once both grimy and crisp, the gore (all accomplished through makeup, inspired camerawork, and buckets of blood with minimal CG touch-ups) is hilarious and shocking in that how-will-they-top-themselves-next? kind of way, the performers all all fine, conveying the right amount of schlock terror and stupid decision making that is the heartbeat of splatterporn like this (see above) and the contemporary horror roadmap is put to inspired use (Mia’s initial possession being looked over by her friends as just another withdrawal freakout escalates tension in a truly unnerving way). Where will the horror genre go next? It may not have the answer, but “Fede Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” is a flawed yet shamefully enjoyable minor treat of contemporary gore-nography that, for better or worse, channels the spirit of Rami’s cinematic staple.

Reboot your expectations

I don’t subscribe to the school of condemning a remake just because it’s a remake, especially if it’s horror. Directors have taken to the remake because it’s easier than coming up with an original concept, yes, but the notion work the other way, too, which people seem to neglect.

There are some horror remakes that stand to this day as balls-out classics of the genre…

David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1984)

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

Phillip Kaufman’s Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1978)

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

while others stand as minor entertaining pieces of work

Zach Snyder’s Dawn of The Dead (2004)

Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Fede Alvarez’ Evil Dead (2013)

etc.

I get the fact that Hollywood’s insistence to keep releasing re-tread after re-tread every single year is a sign of Hollywood’s lack of direction, and I don’t appreciate that not only is that all that Hollywood is doing, but it seems to be all that consumers want. I understand the concern that the vast majority of moviegoers are perfectly willing to line up for so much processed cheese. I share those concerns.

That said, in my eyes this doesn’t give anyone the right to simply condemn a film just because of its affiliation with a previous IP.

As lovers of cinema, we’re entitled to latch onto the movies of our youth or the movies of yesteryear as shining examples of the medium, but it is also our duty to wade through the cheese and find the movies that are worth watching.

The new Evil Dead is a great example. It’s a more modern re-imagining of Sam Rami’s original accidental classic that treats its characters the same way yet throws in modern horror splatter sensibilities. Take it for what it’s worth, but it’s a fun and entertaining gore-filled ride that lovers of the original and new-age gore hounds alike can enjoy, if you adjust your expectations.

Never lose your appreciation for the originators, but don’t let those stars blind you to the potential beauty that surrounds you.

– CineMasai

P.S. There is a difference between the terms “remake”, “reboot”, “re-imagining”, and just plain different take on a particular novel, play, or television show. IPs work that way.

P.P.S. “Evil Dead” write-up coming soon.

Side Effects

Pharmaceutical drugs have had a constantly shifting public persona. One minute, an entire generation of children with ADD transform into complacent Ritalin zombies, and the next they’re sleep-walking and putting hands in the proverbial cookie jar while the public decides who to blame. Do we blame the drug itself or the doctor who prescribed it? Versatile director Stephen Soderbergh doesn’t have an answer for us (at least not a clear one), but crafts some good ol‘ fashioned suspense with conspiracy, mind games, and plenty of Rx into his new thriller Side Effects in slow burning yet briskly paced fashion.

 

    Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after a four year sentence for insider trading, and depressed wife Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) sees his return as her new lease on life. After an apparent suicide attempt proves otherwise, Emily begins seeing maverick psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes her an experimental antidepressant called Ablixa at the request of her previous shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones). When said medication brings about sleep-walking episodes, Emily stabs her husband to death in her sleep, compromising herself and Dr. Banks and setting a wicked conspiracy in motion.

 

       Effects exudes a very old school style of suspense that would make Hitchcock blush, thanks to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, fooling us with what appears to be a medical drama before pulling the rug out from underneath the audience and going into twist-filled taut suspense thriller mode in ways that will even surprise seasoned cinema sleuths. Soderbergh’s directorial eye has always had a knack for bringing out the best in genre films such as these, as he proved with last year’s Haywire, and his slick yet steady hand proves once again to be a winning combination with Peter Andrews‘ matte focus-based cinematography.

 

       The performances of Soderbergh’s ensemble cast are what really help Side Effects transcend the sillier conventions of its genre; all four are hiding a part of themselves from us and playing their roles straight. The psychiatric calm of Law’s Dr. Banks veils a sheer determination and survival instinct that pushes him to the edge, while Mara’s dead-eyed and unaware Emily and Zeta-Jones‘ conniving Victoria dance their own respective death routines with Banks as truths become revealed. Tatum’s role as Martin is brief but dignified, playing a devoted husband who is ready to leave his dark past behind to create a brighter future.

 

While not a monumental success on the level of Soderbergh’s Traffic or even his Oceans 11/12, he still proves that he has the power to add style to a decades old formula and still make it work. Side Effects, while low-key and not showy, knows when to keep you guessing and when to floor you with a prescription of shock and awe.

Spring Breakers

The drug-induced hysteria of the all-singing-all-drinking super glamorous MTV spring break used to be a staple of the college experience. Kids would waste hundreds, even thousands of dollars to spend five days dancing, swimming, and drinking their cares away with people they’ve never even met, a proverbial Mecca for the university age group. Part faux-documentary, part glitter pop coming of age story and part crime thriller, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is not only a meditation on the light and dark sides of the somehow still relevant MTV spring break, it peels its neon-colored veneer away to reveal an intriguing character study in Korine’s typically pulpy and uncompromising fashion.

Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Faith (Selena Gomez), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) are four college girls taken by the spring break fantasy but lacking the cash to make their dreams come true; they resort to robbing a chicken shack to make ends meet and wind up on the next bus to Miami. Korine, notorious for his interest in youth culture that some consider borderline pedophilia, brings an almost documentarian approach to the joys of the archetypal spring break, blending glitz pop ambitions with grimy desperation; this first half of the film is more akin to the stories that Korine likes to tell of angst-ridden youth behind closed doors and the respective worlds that shape them (inner city in “Kids”, Midwestern wasteland in “Gummo”, the suburban nightmare in “Ken Park”).

Once the girls reach their paradise and begin to celebrate, “Spring Breakers” pulls a complete tonal 180; after a wrong-place-wrong-time arrest alludes to jail time for the quartet, amateur rapper and wanna-be gangster Alien (James Franco) becomes enamored of them, bails them out of jail, and attempts to use them as his own personal hit squad against fellow pusher Big Arch (Gucci Mane). In the character of Alien, James Franco has instilled a sense of tenderness and longing never explored in these kinds of films that gives “Breakers” a subversive edge; a man who is all at once laughably pathetic in his macho hustler posturing yet utterly sincere in his love for these adolescent bikini babes and the overall image he has created for himself. Franco steps outside of his ironic performance art bubble to expose the heart of this wannabe player.

“Spring Breakers” is being advertised as a film that seeks to “de-Disney-fy” starlets Gomez,  Hudgens and Benson, and even though Gomez as church girl Faith is the only one given a stand-alone personality, all four girls truly come into their own on screen, simultaneously plumbing the depths of and showing the growth of the archetypal party girl, even if he has to give his girls a Deus Ex Machina shoot-out in order to tie up the loose ends.

That’s the film’s main problem; as wonderful as the faux-documentarian/crime thriller aspect is, Korine resorts to Deus Ex machina shoot-outs to bring about what would’ve otherwise been a messy ending. I suppose this ties into the fantasy role-playing aspect for the girls’ Spring Break dreams, a sort of an excuse to force a coming of age out of them while mowing down gangsters by the dozens, but it strikes me as a little insincere, especially from a director so steeped in honesty as Korine.

Harmony Korine is a filmmaker who has made a career of examining the American adolescent in every aspect, from the deeply personal to the morally obscene, but with “Spring Breakers”, Korine has found his mainstream sound horn in the pertinent fad of Spring Break; he isn’t simply looking to change the image of some Disney Channel stars or drown the crime thriller in college girl exploitation. Korine has created a slideshow of American excess dotted with rhinestones, a glitter pop wave of parties, crime, and unicorn ski masks.