Sunday, April 7, 2013

Dead Again: EVIL DEAD

You’d think evil spirits would get tired of doing the same things over and over for all eternity, but I guess that’s not the case. Where would horror franchises be if that were true? Here’s Evil Dead, a quasi-remake and implied sequel to Sam Raimi’s cult favorite horror film The Evil Dead (filmed on a shoestring budget in the late 70s, released in 1981) and his own quasi-remake/sequel Evil Dead II. The new picture, like those previous ones, takes place at a creaky cabin deep in a Michigan woods. Once again, a group of young people end up there for one reason or another and end up reading from the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, a creepy book with text helpful for activating a demonic spirit which then sets out possessing and/or dismembering the characters one by one in a frenzy of horror violence.

This new film doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but director Fede Alvarez brings the expected in fine fashion. It plays like the work of a superfan of the original turned giddy with the knowledge that he’s been let loose to make his own version. In a sharply drawn screenplay by Alvarez and Diablo Cody (in what represents her most restrained barbs), the young adults gather for an intervention. On a break from her studies at Michigan State, a sweet addict (Jane Levy) dumps her drugs down the well and swears to her brother (Shiloh Fernandez) and friends (Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, and Elizabeth Blackmore) that this time she’s quitting for real. Cold turkey. What follows can then be seen as a bloody metaphor for the violence of withdrawal symptoms.

With great visual nods to its predecessors, the film proceeds along its path of narrative escalation. It creeps forward, finding ever gooey, grosser, more violent scenarios with which to shred your nerves. Rare is the horror film of any kind that finds enough inventive terror to fill even a sequence or two. Rarer still is the horror film that climbs higher with every scene, a unity of grueling disturbances that squirms ever tighter. It’s predictable in its rhythms, but uncompromising in its commitment to playing those rhythms as intensely as possible. It’s a film full of creaking floorboards, mirrored medicine cabinets, chances to scream “Don’t go in there!” and seemingly defeated enemies suddenly snapping back into action. But in each case, there’s a satisfying go for broke attitude. If a new Evil Dead had to be made, it may as well be something this satisfying. Even sans Raimi’s deranged slapstick energy, it might as well look this slick and bloody.

Polished cinematography and confident performances stand in the place of the appealing amateurish edges in Raimi’s original film. This new effort is overflowing with practical effects that grow gooier as we near the climax. The characters sustain cringe-worthy injuries and tend to the wounds in ways that made the audience I saw it with squirm in unison. One gnarly scene that puts an electric carving knife to use in an impromptu emergency self-surgery is a particular over-the-top work of prosthetics that one may need to watch through half-closed eyes. Ditto a needle that punctures skin, comes perilously close to an eyeball, and then, inevitably, must be pulled back out. I won’t even being to hint to you what happens to one girl’s tongue. That you will have to brave for yourself.

The film is gory, gross, and unrelentingly suspenseful, scary, even. But it doesn’t get under the skin in the way the best horror movies do. There’s a sense that it’s all happening because that’s what happens in movies like this. That it’s well made and an impressive feat of effects work is undeniable. What ultimately elevates the experience from a shined-up homage is Jane Levy. Stretching acting muscles slightly different from the ones she uses on her ABC sitcom Suburgatory, she gives the kind of horror hero performance that should get more acclaim than it will. It’s a slippery piece of work, slipping in and out of demonic possession, alternating creepily between growling, giggling antagonist and terrified young victim, begging for it all to be over. Without giving it away, the transformation that she goes through in the film’s final sequence is hugely satisfying and indicative of the ways Alvarez has found to work within a standard formula, reference the films from which he draws inspiration, and still find memorable moments all his own.

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