Remaking any beloved horror property presents a sizeable challenge for the filmmaker. However, the challenges faced by Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake — which premiered last night at SXSW — were absolutely Herculean. We’re not just talking about remaking a classic here: we’re talking about redefining a standard. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead was a watershed feat of low-budget magic and ghastly effects wizardry. It represents a turning point for the entire genre, and its name is hallowed as much as, if not more than, the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th. On top of that, Evil Dead has already ostensibly received the remake treatment in its own 1987 sequel.
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The timing of its release also places the remake at tremendous disadvantage. We now exist in a post-modern, post-cabin-in-the-woods age of horror wherein the significance of Evil Dead has provided the centerpiece of the most self-aware horror film of all time. The titular cabin from Drew Goddard’s loving genre send-up The Cabin in the Woods (which also played to anxious audiences at SXSW last year) is in fact a near exact replica of the central setting of Raimi’s masterpiece. How then does Alvarez find fertile new ground to till, while still genuflecting to source enough to please fans?
Alvarez, who incidentally is a rookie feature film director, and the marketing behind the new Evil Dead, didn’t shy away from this seemingly insurmountable challenge; point of fact, they faced it head-on. The tagline on the poster reads, with considerable swagger: "The most terrifying film you will ever experience". Was their boast justified?
Yes and no.
Alvarez’s Evil Dead absolutely excels both as a remake and as a standalone horror thrill ride. It tips its hat in all the right places — the shell of a yellow Oldsmobile and a prominent Michigan State sweatshirt — and even utilizes, reservedly, a few of Raimi’s patented camera tricks. Surprisingly, it even includes references to Evil Dead II, but only where those references function in service of establishing the remake’s own identity.
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However, the diversions from its predecessor are where the remake is strongest. Part of the problem with a great many contemporary horror films is that believable character motivation often takes a back seat to contrived convenience. Evil Dead casts aside the now standard setup of young people escaping to a secluded location for unsupervised debauchery and gives the group a more substantial reason not only for venturing to the cabin, but for choosing to remain there as long as they do. This outwardly simple change keeps our characters grounded and amiable…where appropriate. There is also an interesting gender reversal at play in the remake, though to say more would court spoilers.
But is it the most terrifying film ever you'll ever experience? Probably not. However, were adjectives altered, it may well be in the running for the most intense and/or most gruesome. The tendency with remakes is to make everything sexier: younger casts, slighter apparel, etc. This is one area in which Evil Dead cannot be called a conventional remake. If Alvarez’s film is anything, it is not sexy. It is a dirty, savage gauntlet of pain and suffering. This thing is so grisly as to hearken in equal measure to the genre greats of the 80s and The Grand Guignol. These gory displays, constructed in overwhelming majority by practical effects, are as wickedly entertaining as they are disturbing; lending the film the levity of dark comedy and steering tone away from the less attractive “torture porn” distinction.
Evil Dead jumps and bumps, but rarely do the scares feel cheap. Eerie static images share screen time with pop-up frights, and even the grossest of gross-outs have a certain charm, which is again testament to the practical effects. Where we should be writing off these moments as exploitation, the magnitude of the violence becomes positively absurd and keeps the atmosphere light enough for the audience to enjoy the ride. The opening moments, just prior to the appearance of the title card, wonderfully encapsulate the crowd-pleasing spectacle that is Evil Dead.
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The young cast assembled is solid, but leading lady Jane Levy (Suburgatory) is the clear standout of the bunch, and carries even the ghastliest, gut-twisting moments with poise. The cinematography is rather impressive; often succeeding in making the cabin feel like a lived-in setting as opposed to a mere callback prop. Providing an undercurrent for the scares, Roque Banos’ score is outstanding and artfully incorporates sound design elements from the original film. By the film's end, with all elements impeccably combined, it is clear that there is still plenty of room for fresh ink in the Necronomicon.
[Photo credit: Tristar]
Does hell exist or do we create our own? This is the larger question screenwriter Scott Kosar asks as we watch machinist Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) stumble through his disintegrating world in this psychological thriller inspired by introspective mindbenders like Roman Polanski's The Tenant and Wim Wenders's The American Friend. From the moment we glimpse Trevor's freakishly emaciated frame it's obvious that something is eating him away from the inside the same thing responsible for his chronic insomnia. With apparently no Nytol or sleep aids available in his zip code a strung-out Trevor continues working at a dangerous industrial facility until he causes an accident that costs a coworker his arm. When no one recalls the imposing bald man whom Trevor claims distracted him during the incident he is ostracized by his coworkers and ultimately fired. He tries to find comfort in a sympathetic hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has fallen in love with him and a kind waitress and single mom (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) who works at his favorite all-night diner but even they offer little solace as his paranoia mounts. What is real what is memory and what is imagined? Trevor clings to the last shreds of his sanity before he finally faces the truth about the only demon that matters--the one with the tortured face staring back at him in the mirror.
Christian Bale is one of the finest actors of his generation and as evidenced by his total immersion in this role the most committed. After having seen Bale's buff physique on display in movies like American Psycho and Equilibrium he is a fright to behold after losing 63 pounds with concave stomach protruding ribs and hipbones jutting out like handlebars. "I could make a whole other movie on the subject of guilt just from my experience of watching this man reduce himself to 120 pounds " says director Brad Anderson. Bale who claims he simply stopped eating for the role was attracted to the character because Trevor is a man stripped to his bare bones literally and otherwise. "Trevor is consumed with anxiety and lives with this intense fear that something awful is always just about to happen " says Bale. "He fears he's the butt of some great cosmic joke. We all know how powerful a combination sleep deprivation and suppressed emotion can be. It takes him to places that are terrifying and monstrous but also incredibly revealing." In supporting roles Jennifer Jason Leigh revisits the damaged-goods gal she does so expertly and Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon provides the only soothing visage in the film's grim landscape.
If you've seen Brad Anderson's creepy Session 9 you know the director has a talent for building a sense of quiet dread. The same can be said of The Machinist where everything from a ticking clock to a hangman game on Post-It notes starts to seem menacing. Inspired by the camera angles of Hitchcock the surrealism of German Expressionist films like Nosferatu as well as film noir Anderson constructs a muted washed-out shadowy world for his ghostly main man to haunt. "I wanted the movie to feel out of time other-worldly from a different era or place " says Anderson. "You never quite get a grip on where or when in time things are happening and that was intentional. It's a modern Kafkaesque world a nightmare dreamscape that draws horror from everyday existence."
It's 1828 and an 82-year-old Goya (Francisco Rabal) lives out his remaining days in Bordeaux France. Nursed by his strong-willed young daughter (Dafne Fernández) he relates tales of his many adventures in art politics and love - especially those concerning his stormy romance with the danger-loving Duchess of Alba (Maribel Verdú). And that's as much of a plot as this image-driven film cares to offer while meandering along with the logic of a melancholy dream.
Spanish screen veteran Rabal ("Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!") lends his titanic presence to a role that basically boils down to parading around in a nightshirt with a haunted look on his face. Jose Coronado ("La Mirada del Otro") has slightly more to work with as a younger Goya caught up in vague bits of court intrigue while he follows in Velázquez's footsteps as Spain's most famous artist of the period. He and the offbeatly foxy Verdú ("Belle Epoque") briefly threaten to jump-start the narrative with a torrid affair then Verd£'s Duchess character is unsatisfyingly written out of the picture.
Writer-director Carlos Saura's 30th film displays his usual flair for striking imagery but the innovative style he develops in his fourth outing with acclaimed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro could have used a bit more dramatic meat to hang on. In the film's intentionally nonrealistic world actors march in front of painted backdrops to form moving tableaux vivants. Semi-transparent fabric screens reveal people walking on the other side of walls and elements of Goya's artworks suddenly come to life - all of which is more interesting than what is happening to the characters.