When the tortured and bloodied bodies of adolescents strewn willy-nilly across a widescreen isn’t the thing making you uncomfortable in a theater, you know something, somewhere has gone wrong. Based on the camp classic original, (more about that in a moment) the new Evil Dead, in a surprising homage to the film that ‘inspired’ it, is a movie that isn’t aware that it’s bad. A tonal slog that’s a bare-faced unpleasant time (and in not the way it’s intended), Evil Dead has some good cringe-worthy moments, and some things about it that just made me cringe. Read on for a chilling tale of guts, gore, false advertising, VFX lauding, and how the tired trope of casual sexism can be a real bore.
Contains spoilers, as well as some specific mentions of R-rated gory violence. Chances are, if you weren’t going to watch the films for the sake of your tastes or stomach, you might not want to read this.
I’m not usually one for modern movie “homework:” the internet-popular belief that an audience need be pre-informed about their entertainment choice at a level that either makes or breaks a film. Understanding the genre you’re walking into is one thing, but if a movie relies too heavily on tie-in materials, viral web campaigns, or a previous release, that’s usually a very bad sign indeed. But this case – and not all remakes fit the bill – requires a little foreknowledge of the brand to understand how out of joint this redux really seems. For those who are well acquainted, feel free to skip ahead.
Way, way back in the 1980s, Evil Dead Mach 1.0 was lowbrow supernatural element/cabin-in-the-woods fare done by now-famous director Sam Raimi. Filmed on location in Tennessee, the arduous, low-budget shoot resulted in a debatably scary, if original and enjoyable flick. Raimi & Co., realizing they had an unintentionally amusing hit on their hands, conspired to make the subsequent two remainders in the Evil Dead Trilogy into slapdash pieces of self-parody. From cheesy gore effects to the infamous chainsaw hand and time travel, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness ramped up the over-the-top, the nonsensical, and the reenactment-ready badass. The movies are cult classics, not for their fine cinematic form, but for their ability to unabashedly revel in all that is, really, pretty bad. Self-conscious bad taste has its own legacy, especially in horror, and the original Evil Dead’s sequels stand out proudly in B-horror history.
Sadly, nowadays, there’s barely a shred of self-consciousness to be found. It’s a real shame, because the result of top-notch visual effects against wooden acting, bad writing, and strange directorial choices is a blend that does not go down smoothly. As per the original, five teenagers – here a troupe of fresh -faced, bland young things plucked from the CW casting offices -head out to a remote cabin. This time, it’s to help the apparent protagonist’s little sister, an addict, through her Cold Turkey. Also along are an inquisitive hipster, a registered nurse with questionable bedside manner, and the near-mute girlfriend of character number one (who, to my recollection, doesn’t even get a line until halfway through the movie). It’s hard to remember any of their names, save for drug addict Mia, and it’s mostly because her name is the one being yelled for the duration by nearly everyone else. None are so particularly sinful that we root for their demise, yet none so virtuous or brave that we care about their fate.
One might even be able to make a case for the film as satire given just the performances. But once the grist mill gets churning but good, it’s clear beyond any chance that this is a straight-faced play. The practical effects, including a possessed woman sawing off her own arm, another ripping her hand off from where it is trapped under an overturned Jeep, the fountain-like vomiting of every fluid imaginable, so on, so forth, etc. are so visceral, so gross, frightening in their evocation of natural body horror, that it’s almost a shame they’re not put in service of a better vehicle than this. Gore may be the main point, but it isn’t the lasting impression. The natural disgust we’re meant to feel, and do, is only proof that the movie misunderstands its own legacy.
Nowadays, Evil Dead’s formula has plenty working against it. As the fellow reviewer I saw it with remarked, it’s hard to inject anything original into the worn body of the cabin-in-the-woods construction, to the point that we’ve even gone ahead and made a film of that name. That doesn’t mean, however, that a little innovation is impossible. To a degree, viewers know what’s going to happen in every horror movie they queue up to see, especially of the ilk where ancient, Satanic evils come around to smear bits of teenager across the rough wooden walls. It’s why the movie is there to start, its raison d’splatter, if you will. That something original could well have been that female protagonist rumored early on. But instead of a female hero or even a laudable female co-lead, for the first hour and forty-five minutes (out of two hours) the one keeping his head, calling the shots, and taping up wounds with duct tape is the white, male, straight brother. This is a writing situation where literally any other choice would have been a marked difference. Instead, it’s business as usual, and that’s just the problem.
So-called trope tradition is no excuse for the overt level of misogyny presented in that first hour and 45 minutes. As a viewer of horror films, I find myself perpetually bored by the casual, implicit, and explicit sexism of your average scarefest. Misogyny is not a requirement of the genre. Yet, we all act like it should be expected, and any ticketholder would be a fool to think otherwise. It’s easy to lay into a flick as tepid and mediocre as this unnecessary re-envisioning of Evil Dead, but these complaints could be slipped into a review of more than 80% of contemporary horror. As in the new Evil Dead, viewers take it as granted that women’s bodies will be the primary targets to be violated, invaded, and mutilated for our…pleasure? Here, we have a prolonged scene of demonic rape-by-slimey-vine, and the implication of another scene later on to match that gets interrupted by the male hero. (This is without mentioning that the film contains more upskirt shots than a porn parody.) The women are easily taken over by the demonic foe, seemingly prone to infection where their male counterparts are not. The men are injured, but until the very end, both remain autonomously themselves, their bodies hurt but uncorrupted. While Secondary Hipster Guy does succumb in the very last instant, it is after his body is clinically dead, and after it has withstood more damage without breaking or bending than any other present onscreen.
Then, in the last fifteen or twenty minutes, something strange happens. The brother, barely harmed by the standards of the rest of the cast, dies, completing the required number of sacrifices to raise the final boss, the great, naked Big Bad who’s caused so much trouble. Who could be left to stop this great evil tromping out into the world? Why it’s little sis, freshly resurrected after being raped, burned, having her tongue split by a boxcutter, vomiting more blood than the human body likely holds, and now as smooth and without blemish as the ‘after’ picture in an acne commercial. Having been rebirthed by her brother-the-martyred-protagonist-thus-far, our suddenly elected representative in the film must battle it out in a literal rain of blood. This over-the-top end, not to mention the abrupt change in main character, might be symptoms of the original franchise, but they don’t serve much purpose but to muddy the waters. If Mia is meant to be reborn as an asskicking survivor, the movie does not present this as a likely, or satisfying, takeway. In fact, both the turning up of absurdity from the torture-porn grit of the previous hour-and-forty-five, as well the shift in character focus, smell like panic more than anything else. It’s as though those responsible had looked at what they had made, and realized they’d better change things, or they’d have a different kind of dead body to deal with. This is speculation. But that’s what it seemed like.
Confusing, last-minute choices continue to the end of the credits, where a familiar face has a message for us. Bruce Campbell shows up for a head-scratching, lighthearted stinger that adds insult to injury, rather than a balm. It continues to force a connection between old and new films that, beyond subject matter and some shot compositions, have little in common in their voice, or, ultimately, their purpose.
Not groovy, Bruce. Not groovy at all.
Zoe Chevat is a comic book artist, writer, and animator. She has an MFA in Film and Animation from CalArts, where she was part of the Experimental Animation program. Catch her work in the upcoming The Reason for Dragons, by Chris Northrop and Jeff Stokely, and in Moon Lake Vol. 2, both from Archaia Entertainment, or follow her on Twitter @ZChevat