Well, the buzz was 50,000 gallons of fake blood, and the surprise is that it’s well used. Even more strange, the buzz was a well-designed, not overly-derivative remake of a horror classic, and…it’s true! Evil Dead is good. It’s not in the same class as its source material, and that should be clear from the start. But it’s a unique, gore-drenched, soul-swallowing good time.
If the movie has flaws – and it does, many – the contemporary horror genre probably shares at least equal blame with director Fede Alvarez. Alvarez’ work is a bold attempt to create a thematically relevant horror film which is at once respectful of its source, a stand-alone work, and a reaction to the many stagnancies in today’s gore flicks. Unsurprisingly, it ends up a bit of a jack-of-all-trades deal.
But first, the good: Evil Dead is clever as hell, and the work of a remarkably tight storyteller. Like the original, Dead’s bare-bones plot is the basis for inventive and material-transcending camerawork, but in this case, the film is also an allegory about drug addiction which is closely and effectively plotted. The soul-possession, friend-against-friend horror, and even the infamous rape sequence of the original are presented to us not arbitrarily, but closely wound into an effective story.
(Or at least, what would be an effective story if its protagonist didn’t spend the majority of the second act as a ghoul, forcing her brother into an “interim protagonist” role à la Annie Knowby in Evil Dead 2 and ultimately muzzling the impact of the film’s climax. But I parenthesize this thought because this flaw actually signifies the film’s dedication to standout storytelling; Alvarez has chosen a device which is unique not just in relative to its genre, but also to traditional narrative, and if it doesn’t work, at least – in the genre perhaps most plagued by cliché – he tried.)
The film looks great. It really does. The climax, especially, is a relentless series of memorable, blood-soaked images (though one sequence may owe a bit much to Gareth Evans and his 2011 film The Raid: Redemption), but the entire film is well-lit, beautifully composed, and crawling with shadows.
It’s slick. But gosh darnit, it’s too slick.
It’s not that Evil Dead could have looked like the original. There’s a feeling of suspense that’s almost inherent in the unpolished grunge of Raimi’s 1981 film, that Texas Chainsaw verité that evokes Grandma’s 8mm home videos and becomes horrifying in the juxtaposition. Raimi’s Evil soared through dully coloured, chaotic trees, roaring, jittering unpredictably; Alvarez’ POV shots instead swoop gracefully down to screaming protagonists awash in picture-perfect colour and attractive composition. It’s horror not as an unseemly blemish on the artistic grace of film, but coupled with it, and it is too nice. We don’t cringe to look at it, feel a sense of trespass, share the guilt of brutal voyeurism with our fellow theatre-goers. We are carried along. We are safe.
Gone, too, are the unpredictable, kinetic horror sequences of the original. Horror in Alvarez’ Evil Dead happens slowly – we are meant to squirm, not shriek, as Mia runs a split-open, bloody tongue lasciviously up Natalie’s thigh. Natalie seems trapped in horrified stillness, but this should be the audience’s role, not hers; we should find terror in inability, not inaction. The film is nothing like torture porn, but the paralyzation of that sub-genre seems to have snuck into Evil Dead and dulled its characters’ responses. At times, the film verges on the nasty junk-food voyeurism of contemporary horror, the punishment of the passive.
Finally, we are safe in the film’s allegory. While the vine rape sequence did manage to push a few of the squeamish out of the screening, Alvarez has done a curious thing; incorporated into the story and made metaphor, the rape somehow becomes more palatable. The film’s joyfully bloody climax, too, repeatedly makes us aware that it is operating on the level of metaphor, and somewhat softens the sheer visceral impact of bodily destruction. Perhaps there is an insurmountable conflict between the two aims of enjoyable gore flick and effective emotional story. Laugier’s Martyrs, for instance, seemed to need to compartmentalize the two.
Still, much of the film’s horror displays incredible passion on Alvarez’ part, with a healthy dose of mean-spirited good fun to boot. The film doles carnage out gleefully, but fairly; the film wavers between outright brutality and gruesome black comedy, but it does so knowingly and carefully. The duct tape is funny. The Regan MacNeil-style demonic cursing is, too. My personal favourite, the Eric/Olivia bathroom showdown, is one of many scenes that strikes a perfect balance – the tooth-grinding viciousness of the scene’s climax is made all the more difficult by the ghoulish comedy of Eric slipping on…well, you’ll see.
Alvarez’ Evil Dead is a horror film with a unique story, outstanding practical gore effects, and an often successful merging of two eras of horror filmmaking. If it’s too slick, so is contemporary horror; Evil Dead is one of the best of right now and should stand the test of time, too.