How many grails are left now, in American horror? I mean, untouched, un-remade. Exorcist, Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, American Werewolf in London. Surely there’s another iconic one or two I’m missing, but, I mean, Jason and Freddy and Michael and Leatherface have all been updated, a new Carrie’s on the way soon, and I guess the only reason Ghostface has missed that treatment lo these seventeen years later is that the franchise is still alive.
The Evil Dead, though, man. There’s rabid fan bases, there’s cult followings, and then there’s everybody who knows all of Ash’s lines by heart. If any movie was going to be allowed to stand, you’d think it’d be this one.
It was likely the loyalty of Ash’s army that finally guaranteed this remake would happen, though. Loved or hated, the box office is going to be there for this one, as possibly portended by the second installment (1987) being considered already some strange species of remake (even though it’s not, in spite of that it kind of is, a little).
And, of course we all know the formula for remakes by now: you redeliver all the key scenes while injecting enough strange into the proceedings that we feel like we’re on slightly unfamiliar ground. The movie doesn’t get so much ‘fixed’—nobody would ever say Sam Raimi’s hilarious and goretastic 1981 original (or the sequel) was broken—so much as repackaged with slicker production values, to appeal to a new audience. Maybe there’s just something more horrifying if the characters on-screen have haircuts and jeans and cars that don’t look ripped from a seventh-grade life science film. Could be it puts the horror just past the theater doors instead of safely buried in the past, when potential victims hadn’t been trained by movies to survive just this sort of ordeal. However, if you stray too far from the source material—Rob Zombie’s Halloweens, say—the audience tends to kind of groan. Correct the other way, though, in the direction of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, say, and there’s even louder groan. Every remake, it’s a balancing act. Like with the recent Texas Chainsaw: those red shorts and meat hook, they’ve got to be there. But move the story elements around some, please. Surprise us. Give us a good Sorority Row do-over, a second My Bloody Valentine. Don’t just do an homage, but do pay your respects.
Evil Dead does just that, I think.
And of course the trailers and hype all bill this as “the most terrifying film you will ever experience”—maybe a bit of an overstatement?—but, really, what the marketing’s trying to do, I think, is tell us that this one’ll be played less for laughs. Which isn’t to say the original or the sequel were pure comedy; they definitely had their jump-scares, it’s sticky imagery. But the remakers here (director Fede Alvarez, Cody Diablo making the dialogue pop) seem to have realized that the comedy in The Evil Dead story (note the remake loses the article) is built into the developments, leaving them plenty of room to spook things up at the scene-level. And they do, effectively. And they also have some flat-out wonderful gore, like they’re vying with Peter Jackson for that much-coveted Most Blood Used in a Single Scene trophy. Seriously, there’s a chainsaw scene that you wish you had four hands for: two to cover your eyes, two to clap with. Eli Roth digs it, I’d bet.
What Evil Dead doesn’t have, of course, it’s Bruce Campbell. And, really, there’s nobody on the scene—this movie or elsewhere—who could really do what he did in The Evil Dead franchise, and it’s a wise decision to not even try, as that would invite comparisons.
Still, there’s fun, there’s camp, there’s Samara-ish girl-demons, and, most refreshingly, what’s preserved is the narrative velocity. Too many horror films, I think, spend too much time establishing that calm baseline before spiking the horror up. Not Evil Dead. Or, never Sam Raimi. More storytellers should be as insecure, I think; you can almost see him back there, biting his lip, saying to himself that he’s going to lose the audience, that there’s hasn’t been an amputation in, what? Four minutes? In Evil Dead, and in 81 and 87 as well, things accelerate and escalate so quickly that you’re gripping the armrests, half-sure that this movie’s only going to be sixty-five minutes, what with the way its screeching toward the big battle scene.
In Evil Dead, though, there’s no rest, there’s none of that boring reflection. And that’s a compliment. And this isn’t a mode that’s always effective, either. Check American Horror Story, say. Doesn’t it try to use the same feel, like you’re floating on a log in a haunted tunnel at the amusement park, and what you’ve paid for is a new ‘horror’ around each and every corner? Never mind logic or any of that. Evil Dead has the same approximate rate of horror, I’d say, and it’s logic is from the same incubator anyway, but there’s enough leftover Bruce Campbell tone that, instead of becoming desensitized and bored, we roll with each new turn, and even get that combination of dread/anticipation that really pulls us through.
What’s really cool about catching this Evil Dead is that it actually feels so timely. Not on the remake-scene, but just taking into account what we’ve seen lately: Paranormal Activity and The Cabin in the Woods. Evil Dead is like those two went into the closet for their seven seconds of heaven; it’s got the feature-set of each; it shares their characteristics, takes equally from their gene-pool. But, then, once you see that, you realize that Paranormal Activity and The Cabin in the Woods were of course just unpacking what Raimi was doing thirty years ago. It’s cool. You kind of get aware of how cyclical horror is.
And, because I don’t want to spoil this Evil Dead for you, I’ll resist talking about the plot, about the changes and updates, the similarities and nods. You’ll see them yourself. And, if you’ve read this far, then I can’t imagine you’re not already committed to seeing this Evil Dead, either. Really, you probably knew you were from that first trailer, from that first internet rumor. And, sure, a lot of people will be paying their money just to confirm what they already think they know, about remakes. A lot of people are going to be pleasantly surprised, though. Seriously, if you don’t find yourself grinning for that chainsaw scene, then, I don’t know. Something’s broken, then. And it’s not the movie.