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]
We are just a few days from the greatest holiday on the calendar. The tinsel on the Christmas tree and a finely roasted Thanksgiving turkey are nice, but little compares to the thrill of carving a pumpkin and the collective inclination toward the scary that comes with each October 31st. Halloween is a celebration of the dark and creepy things we aren’t always comfortable admitting that we love. The time of year everyone becomes a horror fan to some extent or another. However, there are those whose desire for the seasonally macabre is trumped either by crippling squeamishness or the desire to not give their children irrepressible nightmares.
So how does one scratch that Halloween movie itch and still be able to gather the kids around the TV before the twilight beckons them to begin the door-to-door pillaging for sweets? There are plenty of family-friendly films that are still firmly rooted in the tricks and treats, the howls and haunts, of the season.
It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Why is it so many kids grow up knowing and loving The Peanuts characters and their movies generations after their first appearance? It’s because The Peanuts have evolved from simple comic strip to an indelible part of American culture. In this particular Peanuts adventure, Linus opts to abstain from the typical Halloween festivities to wait for the mythical Great Pumpkin. The same way in which A Charlie Brown Christmas has become a staple of its holiday, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown gives Halloween a quaint, lived-in feel that is ultimately very sweet. There are even scores of hardcore horrorphiles that swear by the film as requisite Halloween viewing.
The Monster Squad
The Universal Monsters are the ghastly pillars of American horror, and their legacy is unquestioned. While it is true that the tame terror of the Universal monster movies, a function of the era in which they were made, renders them suitable for kids, it may be hard to get them excited about Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s creation. Enter Fred Dekker’s Monster Squad, a film that gives the kiddos a taste of the classic boogeymen while infusing them with the energy and spark of the 1980s — a decade that yielded the very best live-action family films. You may, however, have to have the uncomfortable conversation about the word “nards.”
Ernest Scared Stupid
This selection is a bit of a wild card. Moreso than any other film on this list, Ernest Scared Stupid plays directly and almost solely to the younger crowd. It also demands a prerequisite tolerance for Jim Varney’s hapless yokel shtick. However, there is something fascinatingly dark about this installment of the Ernest P. Worrel franchise. The movie's about an ancient troll who menaces children and transforms them into wooden dolls so that he may be inhabited by evil sprits to become more powerful. Yeah, and somehow it’s still a slapstick comedy. It’s a strange sort of cross-trainer for more grownup horror fare.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
By the pricking of my thumbs, your Halloween marathon needs this one. John Clayton’s filmic adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a bizarre and wonderful pseudo-horror experience. Jonathan Pryce gives a career-defining performance as carnival operator Mr. Dark whose mystical and ominous fair exposes the hidden desires of the corrupted human soul. Mr. Dark is a sci-fi take on the classic Faustian antagonist, the devil offering good people the chance to indulge their most lascivious cravings with a heavy price tag attached. It’s a morality play rolled up in an autumn-themed fantasy; one of Disney’s boldest films.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Speaking of Disney, another of their catalog that should be a mandatory component of any family’s Halloween night is the animated incarnation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Based on the classically spooky story by Washington Irving, Disney’s venture into the eerie little hamlet of Sleepy Hollow is a wondrous mix of the foreboding of the 19th century poem and the magic of late 40s Disney animation. The silly, waifish milquetoast Ichabod Crane is a nice juxtaposition to the terrifying black-clad rider with the flaming jack-o-lantern where his noggin should be. This short film will make the perfect post trick-or-treat bedtime story for your family’s Halloween night.
[Photo Credit: Lionsgate, Buena Vista]
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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