Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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WARNING: The following posts contains major spoilers for Evil Dead.
Evil Dead fans have been gobbling up every tidbit of information about the 2013 remake of Sam Raimi’s 1981 camp thriller, including the biggest twist on the theme: replacing Bruce Campbell’s Ash as the star of the movie with Jane Levy’s possessed Mia. The shift in focus was an easy peg for celebration on the part of women seeking a more level gender playing field in horror. Mia is giving us a potentially feminist alternative to Ash, but the change could also be a simple refresh button choice on the part of director Fede Alvarez. It’s Mia blood-drenched moments in the final half hour of the film that truly makes the role far more prominent and begs the question, does Mia’s powerful role change things for women in horror?
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The answer is slightly more complicated than a straight “yes.” At the end of the film, Mia is buried by her brother as a means of killing the demon inside of her and when she comes back as herself, she’s eventually the only living member of her group of friends, forced to defeat the demon herself. Mia not only takes Ash’s role as the star, she takes his role as the movie’s central badass, and one who eventually sends the demon back to hell with a blood-covered chainsaw as blood rains from the sky. She’s resourceful, smart, and when she’s backed into a corner, she’s the one with the last minute surprise that saves the day: She rips off her own hand when she’s trapped (also an homage to Ash) instead of being rescued by a miraculously surviving friend with the element of surprise (like the spectacled buddy who saves her brother David earlier in the film). Basically, Mia not only survives: she absolutely pummels evil.
Still, she’s not the shining beacon of feminism, exactly. This last-ditch effort could be categorized somewhat broadly as the classic horror trope of the "final girl." She’s the last one standing, she’s rarely the blonde, and she steps up to defend herself in the face of death. It’s a story we’ve seen again and again, but up until characters Buffy Summers won our hearts on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the final girl was generally the mousy brunette whose purity was her main trait. Buffy (as well as characters like Sidney from the Scream movies) was very sexually active, dispelling the notion that the final girl had to be chaste. Like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s heroine before her, Levy’s character takes it a step further.
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Mia, whose trip to the ill-fated cabin where she will spend the worst night of her life was inspired by her recent near fatal overdose of cocaine, is somewhat of a degenerate. She's not a sweet babysitter or a straight-A student or some pure being about to be corrupted, like Cheryl who served as the devil’s vessel in the original The Evil Dead. And with that, she's opening the definition of the final girl even further. It's something horror expert and Women in Horror Month founder Hannah Neurotica (Forman to the non-horror community) says is happening more and more in the genre, "One of the things about the final girl, back then, was that she didn’t do drugs, she didn't have sex, she didn't do anything immoral. Now we're seeing more of a shift that girls aren't actually going to be punished for engaging in those activities."
And that's just it. Generally, the more free-spirited, sexual girls generally go down first or at least earlier in the hierarchy of horror movie slayings, while the good girl is the one who triumphs. To some extent, Evil Dead doesn't abolish that tendency. Take Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) in Evil Dead: the ditzy, blonde girlfriend of Mia’s brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) is scoffed at by nurse and know-it-all Olivia (Jessica Lucas) as yet another of David’s many girls. She’s primed for falling prey to the villain (or devil taking possession of anyone he can get his hands on, in this case). She's not a prime candidate to be the final girl and that's still the case. That being said, she's certainly more of a "good girl" than drug-addled Mia, who isn't exactly set up for the final girl slot either.
For Levy's heroine, the places at which she breaks the conventions of the final girl aren't limited to her nasty little habit. Unlike final girls before her, including Jamie Lee Curtis' classic Laurie from the Halloween series, Mia isn't a babysitter with no need for depth or a backstory. She is full of rage, built on the notion that her brother abandoned her when their mother was dying in the hospital. We sort of connect the bridge between her anger over her past and her life-threatening dependence on drugs, and suddenly, she's not just a vessel for the spirits awakened by the book of the dead. She's a full character who comes into the film with her own agenda, acting out motivations and demons of her own. In many ways, she's introducing that side of horror to a mainstream audience thanks to a wave that has been building and continues to build in the genre.
Of course, it must be stated that Mia isn't some heroine gleaming in the face of a misogynistic genre. She’s a member of a growing group — and a sign that the shift that began with final girls like Alien’s Ripley is not so much a trend (which implies that it’s a temporary wave), but a permanent change in the fabric of mainstream horror. "A lot of horror films now are taking the character of the final girl and experimenting with it and taking it in different directions and that is a feminist act regardless of whether or not it was intended because it's allowing women to have more to them and a role in the genre and that alone is progress," says Neurotica.
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It's something that touches all areas of the genre, not just Evil Dead’s slasher category. In television we're seeing characters like The Walking Dead's Michonne and any character Jessica Lange plays on American Horror Story acting as not only formidable presences on screen, but as actual draws for audiences. Entire movie franchises like Underworld and Resident Evil are built on the shoulders of women fighting the forces of horror. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that, well, Kate Beckinsale looks pretty hot fighting vampires. The other factor is that the base of horror fans is diversifying, and fast.
A quick look at TV ratings for horror hits proves that. According to Ad Week, Walking Dead draws more women than supposedly lady-friendly shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta or New Girl, and Fox's bloody serial killer drama The Following ranks high among women as well. And of course, there's the Resident Evil series, which is a billion dollar franchise and has plenty of female fans of its own. Horror that pleases both sexes by delivering full characters with depth as well as guts on both sides of the gender divide isn’t just a step for leveling the playing field and raising the bar on quality horror, it's a necessary way to make sure a film appeals to the full breadth of horror fans.
Evil Dead's Mia may not be breaking ground, but she's performing the very important task of keeping the progression of strong women in horror moving forward. The more opportunities we have to see a woman so badass she'll rip off her own hand to kill the devil, the better.
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[Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures; 20th Century Fox Television]
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There's something to be said for a movie that can trigger lightheadedness more than 12 hours after you leave the theater. An orchestra of voluminous shrieks and a bounty of armrest clutches and eye shieldings are what Evil Dead sets out for, and — through its ceaseless tension and overwhelming gore — what it achieves.
A remake of the early '80s cult classic was a risky endeavor — Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead stands as a horror staple, with a charmingly low budget, a banquet of pitch black camp, and an eerie anxiety that has earned it the idolization of horror fans worldwide. Flirting subtly with the idea of self-awareness, The Evil Dead can be attributed with an edging in of a new breed of horror: its follow-ups Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness maintained fear alongside self-parody, inspiring later self-sendups like the Scream movies, Drag Me to Hell, and the grand master of the lot, The Cabin in the Woods.
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The new Evil Dead, three decades and a fully evolved genre later, could not hope for this fresh voice, and as such could never have wished to become what its Bruce Campbell-led predecessor was. Putting this expectation out of mind and simply heading to the theater for a hard-hitting gross-out slasher flick (as was the original intention of those who bought tickets to Raimi's Evil Dead in '83) is the only way you'll enjoy a remake. And this remake lives well up to that promise.
In many ways, the new Evil Dead surpasses its source material. Instead of entrusting our investment in a group of teens who just head out into a wooded wasteland on an unspecified whim, we have reason to care about this new bunch and why they need to be where they are at this time: at the center of the horror is Mia (Jane Levy), a recovering junkie who has rallied her two closest friends Olivia and Eric (Jessica Lucas and Lou Taylor Pucci), her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), and his new girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) to the old family cabin to kick her habit once and for all. Sibling tensions are high after the death of Mia and David's mother and David's extended evasion of all family matters — meanwhile, Olivia and Eric are hell bent on seeing Mia through this latest cold turkey expedition, demanding that they confine her to the perimeter until the storms of her cravings have passed.
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That's the most interesting facet of Evil Dead, in fact: it is the group itself that is keeping the group from leaving the cursed grounds. Their will to see themselves through an important episode is what stops them from fleeing to freedom, even in the presence of otherworldly happenings. Flying far and beyond that of its predecessor is the new Evil Dead's emotionality. Beyond just hoping they make it to safety, we want to see Mia overcome her addiction, and the grief over her mother's death. We want to see the siblings, hurt by one another but whose mutual love is palpable, reconcile. Some of us, of course, want to see a bunch of blood and bodily harm and trees coming alive and committing sexual assault. Those people will not be disappointed, either.
After setting up its heavier premise, Evil Dead piles on the disgusting. The scares are limited to a few jumps here and there — which some horror fans might find disappointing — but the tension maintains throughout over the thought of what new piece of grotesque imagery is waiting in the next scene. The shudder- and cringe-inducing exploits shoot out from a bottomless supply, raising hairs and turning stomachs. For some, this overwrought recipe will be nothing but fun. For others, a masochistic, frightening delight. For many, just plain unpleasant — and that community (you know who you are) should avoid Evil Dead at all costs. The mutilation does not come sparingly; you will be challenged.
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And though living corpses popping out from the mud might launch you from your seat, Evil Dead doesn't offer many surprises. The film operates under the traditional formula lain out by the horrors of past. Even marginally well-versed fans of the genre can anticipate the plot points before they happen. It's the emotional turns, the character work, that actually separates this movie from the lot. That and the lengths it will go to in order to make you retch and curl up in a fetal position.
These bodily reactions, while perhaps not the efforts of "high art cinema," are what Evil Dead wants from you. At New York Comic Con, Evil Dead producer Bruce Campbell told Hollywood.com that he hoped the film will "have a few walkouts," calling this "the sign of a good horror movie." While Evil Dead might not live up to the phenomenon of its predecessor, we don't imagine it will have any trouble living up to this expectation.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
[Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures]
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