Friday, April 5, 2013

Evil Dead: Utterly lifeless

Evil Dead (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, for profanity, strong bloody violence and relentless gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.5.13

Teaser posters for Evil Dead insist that it’s “the most terrifying film you will ever experience.”

Bold words, and an audacious claim.

When their attempt at do-it-yourself drug rehab goes awry, our gaggle of nitwits — from
left, David (Shiloh Fernandez), Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) — can't
understand how their off-camera patient, Mia, suddenly seems able to contort her face
and body in decidedly inhuman ways. As the saying goes, characters this clueless
deserve whatever awaits them ... which, in each case, ain't pretty.
And complete nonsense, as well. This pallid remake isn’t the slightest bit scary. It is, instead, little more than a gross, predictable and thoroughly derivative splatter-fest in a horror sub-category that needs to be retired, for at least a decade, in the wake of last year’s vastly superior The Cabin in the Woods.

It’s hard to believe that the idiots populating this storyline — five clueless twentysomethings who obviously don’t share a single brain cell between them — were co-concocted by Diablo Cody, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for scripting 2007’s smart, sassy and savvy Juno.

Then again, Cody similarly insulted viewer intelligence with 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, so it would seem she has a blind spot when it comes to well-executed horror. As in, she couldn’t write the genre to save her career.

But getting back to that boast about “terrifying.”

No less an authority than Stephen King — who knows a thing or two about scary stuff — made the following astute observation in his 1981 nonfiction book, Danse Macabre:

I recognize terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.

It’s an important distinction. A truly “scary” movie is one that lingers: that sends you home as a quivering mass of goose-flesh, unwilling to turn off the lights and go to bed, unwilling even to hide beneath the covers, for fear of what might stare back when you finally surface to peer around the room. that's “scary.”

King may settle for gross-out, but he always tries for genuine terror; as a longtime reader, I can attest to this.

Far too many of today’s horror filmmakers, in stark contrast, obviously can’t be bothered to try for anything as noble as terror. It’s much too easy to sever limbs, spew bile and toss buckets of blood at the camera lens. As for character development or logical behavior, they’re obviously inconsequential distractions.

Fede Alvarez is a truly lazy director. He’s also a hack writer, as co-scripter of this mess with Cody and Rodo Sayagues. Evil Dead marks Alvarez’s feature debut, an opportunity the young Uruguayan filmmaker apparently “earned” on the basis of shorts such as Panic Attack and El cojonudo.

Based on the results, he squandered the opportunity.

Evil Dead has nothing to recommend it: no fresh ideas, no impudently original methods of debasing a human body, no inventive camera moves. Indeed, cinematographer Aaron Morton’s lone stylish visual — a pell-mell “shaky-cam” charge through a dark forest — is stolen shamelessly from 1981’s original Evil Dead.

Back then, newbie writer/director Sam Raimi and cinematographer Tim Philo achieved that vertigo-inducing effect by bolting a camera to a 2-by-4 held by two production assistants, who then ran like hell to get the desired “crazed pursuit” motion. Raimi and Philo concocted the technique out of desperation, lacking the budget for anything else. The irony, of course, is that he wound up with a gonzo effect that contributed greatly to his film’s manic intensity. And has been imitated ever since.

Raimi also delivered a cheeky script that gained additional dark humor from a career-making performance by Bruce Campbell, as that film’s hapless hero, Ash Williams. Ash’s increasing agitation is hilariously handled by Campbell, who also delivers the necessary vigor to Raimi’s dialogue. Even when matters finally go over-the-top crazy, we’re always firmly on Campbell’s side; he’s a plucky, cheeky, desperate-enough-to-try-anything protagonist who deserves to survive.

The five losers in Alvarez’s remake, on the other hand, can’t be dispatched quickly enough. They’re lifeless and soulless: little more than dialogue mannequins who woodenly intone their scripted lines with no passion — or credibility — whatsoever. We couldn’t care less about them as people; they actually become more interesting when, one by one, they morph into deranged, demon-infested killing machines.

Anyway. The story, such as it is:

Longtime drug addict Mia (Jane Levy, well known from TV’s Suburgatory and Shameless), determined to kick the habit, orchestrates her own intervention by dragging some friends to — all together now — a deserted cabin in the woods. To her surprise, the group includes her brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), who has distanced himself from the family, under circumstances that this script clumsily tries — and fails — to explain with any conviction.

The rest of the gang comprises David’s willowy blond girlfriend, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore); and another couple, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas). Eric has some unresolved issues with David — yet another under-developed plot point — while Olivia, with nursing training, expects to handle any medical issues erupting from Mia’s attempt at cold-turkey sobriety.

Ah, yes; the quintet actually is a sextet, thanks to the added presence of David’s beloved dog, oddly named Grandpa. You’d think the pooch would be on hand to do something important, perhaps even heroic. You’d be wrong.

The gang discovers that the cabin has been trashed by parties unknown: a group we’ve already seen in the film’s prologue, when a distraught father helps destroy his demon-infested daughter, with the help of a mojo woman and a truly weird group of redneck bystanders. What’s up with them, you may wonder. Beats the heck out of me.

Although this exorcism is successful, the mojo woman rather inexplicably leaves The Nasty Spell Book in the cabin’s basement, where it waits to be found by somebody stupid enough to open it. Honestly, you’d think the mojo woman wanted the demon revived.

Back to the present...

Naturally, our group finds the book; naturally, Eric unwisely reads its incantations aloud, despite numerous scrawled warnings against doing so. Mia, meanwhile, has descended into an advanced case of the nasty shakes, which is the first of this script’s two reasonably clever touches. Since she’s already acting deranged, nobody believes Mia when she returns from an ill-advised outing in the woods, babbling about something “out there” that’s coming to get everybody.

Oh, and by now we’ve already seen Mia trapped by thorny trees and unpalatably raped by a black, slimy, barbed, snaky thing vomited into life by the resurrected demon. (Give this sequence credit for serious ookiness.)

Despite Mia’s new-found ability to twist her body into bone-splintering contortions, not to mention a sudden fondness for dangerously violent behavior, the other four merrily ignore this blindingly obvious monster in their midst ... until Bad Stuff starts to happen to everybody else. At which point, each time, the remaining survivors ignore the blindingly obvious menace of the fresh monster in their midst. And so forth.

As Mia further morphs, she begins to resemble Linda Blair at her most possessed: a bad make-up decision, since it reminds us of how much smarter — and more wary — the characters in The Exorcist were.

So, things get grotty. Rapidly. Stray items such as glass shards, box-cutters, hammers, crowbars, nail guns, electric carving knives and shotguns are employed, with predictable results. Gore-hounds with fond memories of Raimi’s original film will be waiting for the chainsaw to make its appearance; they won’t be disappointed.

A point about these various objects of limb-shredding mayhem:

It seems a bit odd, particularly after the events depicted in the story’s prologue, that this cabin would continue to have electric power. The script makes no mention of a generator, and you’d expect that to be a significant plot point. But our five cretins enjoy bright lights and all other amenities ... until they don’t, once something — the storm? the demon? — cuts off the power.

Fair enough; things always are worse in the dark. But one wonders, then, why the nail gun functions. Or the electric carving knife. I guess this demon selectively grants 110 volts to all items of probable torture.

The chainsaw, at least, runs on gasoline; that detail is employed as a tension-laden plot point. Or, at least, it would be tension-laden, if we cared a whit by the time it gets fired up.

The so-called acting is laughable. Blackmore’s Natalie just stands around like a helpless twit, waiting to get attacked. Lucas’ Olivia, ostensibly a “resolute” woman, is merely cranky and bossy. As the apparent “smart one” who nonetheless reads the damned book, Pucci’s Eric is a complete cliché, down to the eyeglasses and obsessed, professorial manner.

The irony is that Eric is a tiresome archetype that Cabin in the Woods lampoons so well, with Fran Kranz’s Marty. The parody is so perfect that you’d think Kranz somehow knew he was making fun of Pucci, two years ahead of time.

As the ostensible hero, Fernandez’s David is a stoic block of granite: just another dim-bulb character forced, by scripted contrivance, to remain oblivious and bone-stupid to a degree that defies common sense ... and our patience.

Because the story spends the most time with Mia, Levy is able to inject some actual depth into her performance. But she can’t pull off a miracle; the script obviously wants us to view Mia as a sympathetic character, but under Alvarez’s weak excuse for direction, Levy overplays the bitchy card to too great an extreme.

As for the narrative’s second reasonably clever touch, Alvarez, Cody and Sayagues do deserve credit for a climactic reverse that kicks off an unexpected and genuinely taut final act: one that’s even gorier than anything that has come before. Which has been plenty gruesome.

Alas, too little, too late.

Bottom-line rule: Remakes are pointless if they can’t top, or at least match, their predecessors. This Evil Dead would have been a flop three decades ago; today, the genre having moved on, it’s nothing but moldy, maggot-infested leftovers.

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