The Evil Dead (2013) – Art 3/5 Ent 6/5 Worth 5/5
“Fellas, no matter what, just keep the blood running.” Theater owner Andy Grainger, the first primary investor in Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert’s 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead, had that advice for the young filmmakers who were investigating earning potential for their low budget flick. They would first pay a winking homage to Grainger by showing a film projector flipping blood out of the reel, and later follow the studied advice closely through all three films in the original Evil Dead trilogy, where our old hero Ash battles demons unleashed by the book of the dead both in a cabin and in medieval England(-ish). Signature star Bruce Campbell would push his inspired performance as series lead Ash into the realm of film and cultural icons, as they embellished his ability to take care of business with a chainsaw and a double barrel shotgun (“boomstick”), and with one-liners that rival Arnold’s.
When Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell felt the urge to return to produce more of the series, they left the heavy lifting from the director’s chair to newcomer Fede Alvarez, who co-wrote the 2013 film’s screenplay with writing partner Rodo Sayagues, and Diablo Cody pinching in for aid (ostensibly to aid the Uruguayan duo in its Americanization). With Bruce Campbell deciding to bow out (for now), Alvarez and Sayagues looked beyond Ash’s hammy mythology to the iconic items: cabin, Necronomicon, rape tree, chainsaw, boomstick. Replacing the mythology of the original trilogy -and competing with a very self-aware horror universe that includes last year’s Evil Dead meta riff Cabin in the Woods- is a subtler narrative of addiction that’s critical to differentiate this from needless horror remakes. Most importantly, and critical to forcing the association with the predecessors, is how Alvarez and Sayagues follow Grainger’s 3-decade-plus-old advice. And sweet merciful christ do they ever keep the blood running.
In the short film Within the Woods, Raimi’s ancestral late ‘70s trial run for this oft-repeated story, the logic of the demonry stemmed from the Indian burial ground cliche resonant with Stephen King fans. King coincidentally shares some of the credit for popularizing the series after seeing the original Evil Dead when it was shuffled out of competition at Cannes. In the original, Raimi’s deep influence from H.P. Lovecraft turns in the Indian burial ground for the Necronomicon, the book of the dead, a Lovecraftian invention used through many media long after he died. Raimi builds it into a Sumerian artifact that acts as a gateway for Deadites, evil demons of a non-specific religion, who combine the zombie genre with the demonic possession genre into what I like to call Zemons (also seen in the Night of the Demons series). With this latest installment, the innovation departs Lovecraft for the most part, leaving only the chitin of his influence in the physical objects and mood, and instead centers in on the most classic theme of all horror, and furthermore Western fiction: Satan.
I can’t personally confirm that Alvarez and Sayagues led to this more Christian of themes because of their Hispanic Catholic cultural heritage; nor can I confirm that they alternatively might have been influenced by Antichrist, Catholic Lars von Trier’s splendid spectacle of an art film that uses some of the tropes from Evil Dead. However, either explanation for this change certainly would make sense. The most direct evidence for a connection to Antichrist is the encompassing chthonic nature of the powerful visuals and the audience outbursts of “OH MY FUCKING GOD” in pitched moments of sadism that both films share in common (the later, notably, also shared with Bruno). Moments throughout the film reminded me of the (socially irresponsible but w/e, YOLO) Christian horror trope of the dumb disbelievers who aren’t prepared to mutilate and murder people because they’re possessed by the Devil / demons (such as in Bill Paxton’s otherwise excellent Frailty).
Like the original, there is no clear protagonist until the very end. That role is surreptitiously given to the character of Mia, played outstandingly by Jane Levy of Suburgatory fame, whose acting ordeal here was nearly as rough as in a Jackie Chan film. I say surreptitious because (SPOILER ALERT BEGIN) in the original the victim of the rape tree is Ash’s (expendable) sister, whereas in the 2013 sequel-redux, despite the narrative misleading us with Mia’s brother handling the boomstick, and her brother’s girlfriend going to town on her own arm with a turkey cutter like Ash did in the second film, it’s Mia who is in the end the center of gravity, if partially by fate of being the last survivor like Ellen Ripley. (SPOILER ALERT END) Wonderfully, instead of this concept descending into a sad attempt at making Mia a female Ash and having done with it, Alvarez and Sayagues use her heroin addiction as the overriding metaphor, giving a soul to be stolen in the first place, a thing so delicious that frankly none of the originals even had.
It’s all the more appropriate then, that Mia is victim to her own doppelganger who pursues her into the rape tree (now more of a rape thicket), and acts as the primary vessel with which the demonry commences. The sanguine ending is further appropriate: with the return of her doppelganger in a literally chthonic rise, Mia has to face herself, her ‘demon’, who is pointedly calling her a “junkie”. The descent into monsterhood serving as a metaphor to addiction was also explored in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, where Lili Taylor experiences vampirism as would a person’s descent into drug abuse, speaking to the intertwining psychological origins of horror stories and the horror stories of real life. Mia’s labors through hell offer a more direct connection to the pain. A poorer sequel-redux would have rested its laurels on using the addiction as an ace in the hole, maybe just a tool with which the Deadites manipulate other characters, as they typically do, in their ‘poor ol’ me’ sweet nothings used to disarm. If Alvarez and Sayagues deserve meager praise for the easy stuff ( buckets of gore and blood that somehow won an R rating for content obviously bannable in many countries) they deserve high praise for sneaking this metaphor in on us.
Right now, the question being asked by many critics is: will anybody even care about this film in 30 years, like many now feel for the original. It’s a reasonable question, and I think thoughtful people will be justified in thinking “nah, it’s a feast for the senses without any substance”. I’ve seen some decry the lack of slapstick comedy that came to define the series. Many are just downright horrified by the film, with reports of a person fainting in Arizona, a woman movie-goer peeing her pants (though this sounds like dubious twitter rumor monging, considering a character does this in the film), and there are widespread accounts of walkouts, including journalists paid to cover the film, all opting to exit quickly over the gore more than it being a bore. Some might see shallowness to that, and I’m even tempted to recall the silly exhibitionism of the Hostel and Saw movies (Saw’s darkly misguided take on purposefulness mirroring the addiction metaphor).
But let’s be real here. Putting meat in seats by following Grainger’s advice is no sin. If anything, that cheapness should be applauded, as this looks to be a box office smash unlike any of the previous three, suspending the “cult” status. The wit in the originals barely stands up today. Seriously, go back and watch the original trilogy. The most yucks you’ll get is from the ribald skeletons (patterned after Harryhausen’s claymation figures in Jason and the Argonauts) yelling about wenches and storming a castle. If the addiction metaphor didn’t either slip by unnoticed or fail to edify in your account, then I don’t know what will convince you. To each their preferences.
It wasn’t just Stephen King hocking the original that made it a success. It was filling a void of imagination. We don’t have that void today. So in a relative comparison the original’s greatness speaks more to the lack of competition pounded with the ingenuity of the young Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. Yet in an absolute comparison, the reboot wins hands down, albeit in an environment so wonderfully rich in horror films inspired in part or largely by the original. On a practical level, the amplified 2013 film is a devilish delight that throws Lars von Trier into a meatgrinder, while the original is a nostalgic and dusty haunted house routine. The truly macabre films of today that didn’t slide into an R rating put this one to shame (see: Film, Serbian; or rather don’t see). The sheen, professional acting, and polish of this film are only discreditable attributes insofar as the audience is frequently exasperated by modernity. It’s almost as if people would prefer youtube beheadings from Syria today to a glossy dismemberment on screen.
So I’m personally not too concerned with answering the question. Yes, I will watch this in 30 years. Or no, maybe I’ll be dead or possessed by demons. Or whatever. The more important question is whether Army of Darkness 2, confirmed to be on the near horizon, will be a rotten and staid concept compared to this film. I think maybe Raimi and Campbell were right to inject new blood to run with the story, and they chose very wisely.