Saturday, 12 April 2014

Evil Dead Vs. The Evil Dead

Fede Alvarez had some gigantic boots to fill when it was announced he was going to be directing the remake of Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic horror, ‘The Evil Dead’. Striking the balance between staying true to the sometimes ludicrous ‘Evil Dead’ repertoire and keeping modern audiences happy was always going to be a struggle. I have to make it clear that I am a massive ‘Evil Dead’ fan. I first saw ‘Evil Dead 2’ back in 1999 when I was twelve years old on my first television in my bedroom on Channel 4 as part of a zombie double bill alongside ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ complete with introduction from Mark Kermode and I loved it. It was gory, funny, scary and just insane; I had never seen anything like it and was enamoured by the whole franchise to the point which I have read Bruce Campbell’s autobiography ‘If Chins Could Kill’ and seen all the films in all different incarnations with numerous commentaries.

I am still in a good place to look at this new incarnation with fresh eyes though. It wasn’t until eighteen years after its first release that I saw any of the original franchise and it’s been fourteen years since then that they’ve unleashed a remake, so I’m sat pretty much in the middle. I love the originals for the ingenuity and personality but I’ve grown up watching horror, demanding ever increasingly extreme cinematic experiences. I was bouncing off the walls anticipating the remake and after seeing the red-band trailer I couldn’t hold back my excitement about the possibility of two hours of shit-your-pants gore to add my ‘Evil Dead’ collection.

Whether a re-make, a re-birth, re-think or sequel it is unavoidable to compare the newest incarnation to its predecessor and there is one scene in particular which sums up the two different approaches.

Fede chose to have the re-make tred a much darker path than Raimi’s Ash wielding creation ever set foot upon. Focusing on main character Mia’s (Jane Levy) drug addiction and pending cold turkey trauma rather than the horror staple of a light hearted trip to the woods. Whether intentional or not, Raimi and friends’ use of the latter settles the viewer into very familiar territory in order to take them on a twisted and maniacal journey like no other. Given the comic edge which the pairing of Raimi and Campbell so naturally bring to anything they do, I’d say that Fede made the right choice. Trying to keep up with his elder’s effortlessly dark sense of humour would set the film on a losing streak from the very start.

The true starting point of the madness in both cases is the infamous tree scene. Mia and her earlier equivalent; Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) are both put through a thorny sexual experience in the hands of the foliage that surrounds the cabin. The original scene is lurid and voyeuristic with a real gut-wrenching feeling of violation and sexual torment. The struggle of Cheryl against the trees is one moment where the humour, no matter how dark, is dropped and the viewer is made to sit through something truly uncomfortable. Cheryl struggles with the branches even to keep her modesty and is overpowered. The demon seems to be performing this act for the sheer thrill, Cheryl is humiliated as well as violated. Mia’s experience seems less overtly sexual. There is a much less violent nature to the whole scene it is instead reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s ‘Shivers’ - sans bath tub. There is the passing of a physical entity, a creepy crawly twig slug which is literally and physically the demon entering Mia. It finds an orifice to enter but not for the pleasure of the torment but convenience. It could be argued that Cheryl’s ordeal was for the same purpose but it seems a pretty flimsy argument given the rest of the films anarchy. Mia is also accompanied by the demon in the form of the girl we see in the prologue. Her expressionless face gives a physical presence and more importantly a gender to the demonic forces. This drags the demon’s emotions and intentions out of the audience’s imaginations and presented them up on the screen.

This scene was apparently left out of Fede and co-writer Rodo Sayagues’ script but placed back in on the insistence of 1981 original producer Rob Tapert. Whether that was a right decision or not is difficult to answer but it does sum up what gives the original film it’s charm and appeal and what lacks in the re-make. Raimi has been quoted calling that scene “...the product of an immature mind.” which may well be true, it is shock for the sake of shock and it doesn’t hold back. Sam Raimi and friends created ‘The Evil Dead’ as a labour of love. They were free from all studio restrictions and control; there was no consideration to political correctness, gender politics or messages, they sourced all the finance from local business owners and worked to their own artistic standards. Horror has always been at the heart of progression when it comes to what is deemed acceptable to show on screen and films such as Gaspar Noe’s ‘Irreversible’, although not a horror, have pushed the boundaries much farther still. The immature minds that created such a disturbing scene also created an inventive, iconic and irreplaceable milestone of film making. It was a triumph of low-budget creativity and proved that determination and ingenuity in the right hands can create something incredible, even if it is a bit ragged round the edges.  

As a stand-alone work Fede Alvarez’s ‘Evil Dead’ is not a bad film, especially from a debut director. Whether it deserved or even needed the ‘Evil Dead’ branding I’d say not and it is impossible for a huge section of the audience to watch it without the constant cross comparisons. With a sky raining blood setting the scene for a chainsaw spinning ending, there is potential for the all-out insanity of the original but it’s unfortunately too little too late. With torture taking over from traditional creepy horror frights the really quite unpleasant focus on tendon ripping, bone scraping ordeals managed to make my toes curl but not my skin crawl. If you want a modern cabin in the woods story that can really get in your head I’d recommend Lars Von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’. It has physical torment in bucket loads but is also a wonderfully constructed study of grief and mental anguish that will creep you out more than any supernatural demon ever could.

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