Monday, April 22, 2013 

Film review: Evil Dead.


(Spoilers ahead, although I doubt anyone who hasn't already seen the original Evil Dead is likely to go see this.  Also, those familiar with the original and my ravings about remakes can happily skip to the sixth paragraph for the start of the actual review.)

If, on stepping out of the cinema after seeing Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead back in 2004 you'd been told that what you'd just watched would be pretty much the high point of the Hollywood "updating" of almost the entire catalogue of classic 70 and 80s horror/exploitation films, chances are that you would either snorted with incredulity at the idea or been thoroughly appalled.  Snyder's reworking of the seminal original isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination: sure, it has running zombies, something George Romero himself poked fun at in Diary of the Dead, and there is absolutely no subtext or social comment on how the survivors hole themselves up in a mall, but it has some finely drawn, sympathetic characters (especially Sarah Polley, who is superb as the nurse Ana), doesn't skimp on the gore and even goes beyond the original in the bleakness of its finale.  Seen in its own right, it's a decent late entry in the increasingly overblown and dare I say it, boring and overplayed zombie genre.  Beyond that though, it's fairly unremarkable.

Compared to what's come since, it's close to being a masterpiece.  With the exception of Alexandre Aje's Hills Have Eyes remake, almost all the other attempts to recreate the magic of the originals have been either exceptionally poor or outright failures, with those produced by Michael Bay the utter nadir.  Their production values can't be faulted, yet they are mere facsimiles of what went before.  In almost all cases the amount of gore is increased, regardless of how little or how much was in the original, while the palette is invariably washed out, not to monochrome but to one where greens and browns predominate.  This is especially odd when the originals were often so vibrant regardless of their subject matter; the reds in Dawn of the Dead are vivid and lurid, while the woods in Last House on the Left are naturally green, not this dismal mixture of green, grey and brown that is meant to evoke the darkness occurring.

And so we come to the long awaited by some remake of Evil Dead.  It's easy to forget now, but when Stephen King described Sam Raimi's debut as the "most ferociously original horror film of the year" he wasn't being hyperbolic or forgetting numerous other examples of films where teenagers go off to an isolated place and get picked off one by one, it genuinely was innovative.  Yes, the slasher genre was just about up and running, and the gialli that did so much to inspire the stalking killer trope had been pumped out by the Italians for over a decade, yet prior to Evil Dead there hadn't been something so completely over the top, both funny and unintentionally funny, while also being in places absolutely petrifying.

Also easily forgotten is that Evil Dead was at the very centre of the video nasty panic in this country.  Despite receiving an X certificate for cinema distribution from the BBFC after 49 seconds of cuts, the pre-cut video was among those seized from dealers and members of the public, many of whom pleaded guilty to possessing material deemed illegal under the Obscene Publications Act, rather than challenge in court that the films really were liable to "deprave and corrupt".  It was only after the video's distributors themselves were acquitted that Evil Dead was removed from the DPP's list of banned "nasties", although it still took until 1999 for the film to be released fully uncut.

As in many other cases, Evil Dead is the film it is precisely because those making it did didn't properly know what they were doing.  Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell had raised the funds to get started by going round local businessmen, showing their past short efforts and promising them they'd double their money.  The entire crew were friends of theirs, the blood was karo syrup, in one shot you can clearly see the pipe through which the grue was pumped, the contact lenses were so primitive they could only be worn for a matter of minutes lest they cause permanent damage to the eyes, and the script is barely there, yet everything works because of the charisma of Campbell as Ash, the superb special effects considering the circumstances, and most of all, the virtuosity of Raimi as a director.  Every other shot in the film is one which an older, supposedly wiser director would reject; Raimi poured scorn on such conservatism with takes such as the ones that open and close the film, the camera pitching and yawing and then seemingly zooming through the woods and the cabin, achieved simply by attaching it to a plank of wood and then having two people carrying it while running at breakneck speed.

Almost all of this is gone from Fede Alvarez's remake, despite Raimi being involved.  A truly global picture, directed by a Uruguayan and filmed in New Zealand, it nonetheless fits completely into the same niche as the updates that have gone before it.  In the only real major twist on the original, our intrepid five "heroes" have gone to the cabin in the woods not for time away from college but with the intention of helping the lead, Mia played by Jane Levy, kick her heroin habit.  She intends to do this by going cold turkey, a plan apparently approved by nurse Olivia, played by Jessica Lucas.  


Immediately, the problems are obvious.  Any nurse who recommends the cold turkey "cure" in the first place is either an imbecile or a sadist, let alone when it turns out later that Mia has already tried the approach before and failed.  Even if one did, they certainly wouldn't suggest doing it in the middle of nowhere away from easily reachable hospitals, someone medically trained present or not.  It also almost goes without saying that Mia is a junkie only in the Hollywood sense: she looks perfectly healthy apart from having slight bags under her eyes.

From the very off then you don't believe that these people were ever friends, and the script at least nods at this by how annoyed Olivia's boyfriend Eric is at the late arrival of Mia's long absent brother David.  He brings along his girlfriend Natalie, who unless I missed it is never even properly introduced.  Regardless of the wooden acting that occurs occasionally in the original, you believe that all five characters were and are friends.  This time round it's difficult to make any such allowances.

Which brings us to the other problems evident from the outset.  The palette is that horrible grungy green and brown one discussed above, which never feels right.  It's not as distracting however as just how unbelievably stupid our five friends are.  The cast in the original were daft, as those in horror films often are and need to be, going off into the woods alone or seemingly unable to lift themselves up from under shelves that have collapsed on top of them; here they're positively certifiable.  


Whereas in the original the discovery of the book of the dead happened when the "wind" blew open the hatch leading to the cellar, here they find it after the dog paws at the hatch concealed under the carpet.  In the cellar are over a dozen dead cats hung from the ceiling; rather than immediately leave, not only does Eric take the book and proceed to read from it (the book is incidentally bound with barbed wire and all but says DO NOT READ THIS OUT LOUD), although not to the rest of the group as happens in the original but unfathomably to himself, out loud, David then proceeds to cut the cats down and throw them away.  There's playing with conventions and making the audience feel knowledgeable and superior, and then there's just crass bad writing.

In the biggest single nod to the original, the notorious tree rape scene is reimagined, and just as problematically.  While this time the character isn't drawn into the woods simply by the trees seemingly whispering to her, as Mia instead tries to escape as her withdrawal symptoms begin to kick in, it makes almost no sense whatsoever why the detached branch, meant to represent the spirit that possesses her enters through her vagina.  Mark Kermode quotes Raimi as saying that the original rape scene was conceived "by an immature mind, his" and as something he's not proud of, so why on earth would you repeat it when there is no reason whatsoever why the branch couldn't instead be forced down her throat, even if it was then deemed a cop-out by the more ardent fans?  Is there some greater significance I'm missing, rather than just referring back to the original?  If there is, it certainly isn't hinted at more starkly than very tenuously through the illustrations we see in the book of the dead.

The greatest fault of all though is the tone.  Evil Dead was as said above, both funny and unintentionally funny.  Alvarez's remake is played completely straight, and yet repeatedly I was laughing and sniggering, both at the dreadfulness of some of the acting and also sadly at some points that were clearly meant to be scary.  Jane Levy is mostly very good, both as the demon and herself, and yet when she begins to be possessed she intolerably overacts, her neck muscles tautening to the point at which you feel like copying her.  Throughout the actors strain to imitate the demon from the Exorcist and inevitably, fail miserably.  


Likewise, the occasional flashes of what's about to happen to the other characters also invoke mirth; the image Olivia sees in the mirror of half her jaw hacked away and yellow eyes was meant I presume to be a jump point, whereas I couldn't help but laugh at how silly she looked.  When this taste of what's to come is then played out, Eric backs away from his deformed girlfriend and slips on the piece of skin she's cut away, whacking his head on the toilet bowl.  I howled with laughter, except again it couldn't have been meant to be funny as there isn't a single other moment of humour in the entire film.

The one thing Alvarez doesn't scrimp on is the gore, as evidenced by the number of cuts that had to be made to get the film an R rating in the US.  It's very much an 18 over here, yet there still seems to be something missing.  There are limbs that are loped off, and one scene in particular that is very much of the torture-porn aesthetic, but there isn't anything as outre as in the original.  The famous decapitation scene isn't emulated, nor is the eye-gouging, or the complete dismemberment with the axe that left the parts quivering.  What is there is all pulled off very adequately, the only disappointment perhaps being the completely unreal looking contact lenses/CGI used on the eyes, which are bright yellow rather than the glassy, glazed over look that worked so well in the original.  


Unfortunately, despite all this spam being thrown at the screen, the film simply isn't frightening.  Indeed, the amount of grue is in part the problem.  Where Raimi was advised to have the blood running down the screen and duly did, he also knew how to build tension between delivering the goods.  Alvarez doesn't, and so you're just waiting for the next attack to take place.  It doesn't help that rather than pencils forced into ankles, or the bottoms of legs scratched to pieces by instantly sharp nails, Alvarez instead opts to have Natalie wield a nail gun, another point when I couldn't help but laugh at the silliness of something intended to be serious.

And yet, and yet.  Despite all of the above and more besides, Evil Dead is still one of the better of the remakes.  Yes, it's utter rubbish and can't even begin to hold a candle to the original, but it's polished and made with the best of intentions, which is more than can be said for a lot of the others.  It's also much better than Cabin in the Woods, purely down to whether intentional or not, it's far more amusing than that cloyingly smarmy and insincere film.  Please though, let's not have a sequel.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013 

On horror remakes and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.

Ever since the beginning of the 00s (noughties?) those of us who for whatever reason fell in love with the old, grimy exploitation fare of the 70s and at least have a certain affection for the slasher boom of the early 80s have had to put up with seeing those old films remade by some of the worst directors and financiers Hollywood has to offer.  There have admittedly been a few decent attempts amongst the dreck: Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake is fine as a straight zombie film, as long as you ignore that it credits Romero's script, as the film does absolutely nothing with its mall locations, and Alexandre Aja's update of The Hills Have Eyes is similarly workmanlike.

Neither though has followed up properly on these efforts.  Snyder's 300 was hysterically awful, Watchmen completely failed to capture the depth or the nuance of the graphic novel, and then there was Sucker Punch. Coming soon is his take on Superman, and the heart frankly sinks (even if the script is co-written by Chris Nolan).  Aja's trajectory is different as his breakthrough was the brilliant Haute Tension, about as good a modern take on the slasher template is likely to get. Since THHE he's sadly gone backwards, making the little seen Mirrors, directing the update of Piranha, starring Kelly Brook and an ex-porn actress, and most recently co-wrote the script for the remake of Maniac. To which you can only say: what? Why? The remakes of Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave weren't exactly well received, so why update another of the scuzziest and most disreputable films of that era? How can you possibly out-do Tom Savini's ramshackle but wonderful effects, or even attempt to emulate Joe Spinell's performance as the titular maniac?  

Nonetheless, in spite of the critical response and the increasing disdain of the fans, the machine keeps churning the retreads out.  As well as the forthcoming Maniac, this year will also see the release of the long delayed remake of Evil Dead, and a couple of weeks back the second attempt at redoing the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre opened, this time with added 3D. 

Perhaps though there's a case for reassessing the impact of the glut of remakes, a notion that came to me last night as I was very belatedly watching All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, a slasher that came out here in 2008.  At least with the remakes there's the possibility that having come first to Michael Bay's traducing of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Rob Zombie's fouling up of Halloween, some are bound to think, well that was awful, and then go and watch the original to see why the makers bothered to "update" the film in the first place.

  
If instead all we'd had over the last decade were "original" productions, the overall picture if anything would be even bleaker.  There would have been the remakes of the J-Horrors, almost all of which are uniformly terrible, the whole "torture-porn" sub-genre, which with the very odd exception of the first Saw and the second Hostel are even ghastlier in retrospect, and then there's Paranormal Activity and all its knock-offs.  Sure, there's the occasional Slither, Wolf Creek or Descent, but the good or better are very few and far between amongst the rehashes, misfires and downright dreadful flicks that have piled up.  Imagine a world where Rob Zombie's Devil's Rejects (which I have to admit to liking at first), a film in which Mansonites without the charm are turned into anti-heroes suddenly isn't as despicable or retrograde as it seems now, and you almost want his remake of Halloween to exist. 


The reason I took against Cabin in the Woods, which in the main was well reviewed and liked, was that there was so much potential there that went unmined.  The director and writer are talented, the cast are fine, and Evil Dead can still be parodied even if err, Sam Raimi did it himself first.  It was that there was just nothing there, or what was there was so perfunctory, so smug, so charmless and supercilious.  One of the key conceits was that we could all see what was coming, and yet the characters couldn't, as though they'd never seen a horror film and so didn't worry about going to a cabin in the woods even after being warned off by a creepy guy at a gas station.

  
With Mandy Lane, it's as though neither the writer or director have seen any horror movies.  Obviously, they have, it's just there's no evidence of this whatsoever in the film.  There's all the classic elements there, a young cast, a scene where they stop at a gas station, a great location in a ranch, it's just they do absolutely nothing with any of these things.  Imagine a film which is based on a faded facsimile, or decades old memories of other films and you're close to how it feels.

  
What is there is if anything even more problematic. Much has been written and discussed about the slasher genre and what it says that one of its key motifs is the characters are usually older teenagers drinking, using drugs and having sex who are then apparently killed for doing so, and how it's usually the more innocent female character uncomfortable amongst the debauchery that survives to the end.  In Mandy Lane it doesn't suggest the teenagers other than Mandy are being killed because they're doing these things, although in part they are, it's that all teenagers other than the few that don't fit in are like this.  It reminded me of Stewart Lee's take on Skins, or Mark Kermode's worries about Superbad, and how they thought both gave this utterly unrepresentative view of young people as self-obsessed narcissists who either have casual sex or think about nothing else, and are generally incredibly obnoxious and unpleasant at the same time.   


Essentially, the entire plot is the male characters are competing to be the one to deflower Mandy, something their female friends are complicit in, while they hate both themselves and each other, and then a killer enters the fray.  One of the female characters worries she isn't pretty when she is and so calls her friend fat, which she isn't.  The latter mocks the other for "having a forest down there", which leads to a scene later on where she duly corrects this with a pair of scissors.  Not that it's just the girls: one of the boys is mocked for having a "small package" and is so angered he flounces out, which in turn leads to the demise of his girlfriend when she rushes off to apologise, although only after she goes down on him and he fails to reciprocate.  The usual point of having unpleasant characters in a slasher is so you enjoy it when they meet an inventive end, and so still care about them despite disliking them; Mandy Lane doesn't even achieve that.
 

Note that I'm not naming any of the characters, as they're so poorly defined in the film other than Mandy and her very slightly geeky friend Emmet that they're just sketches not worth even dignifying with handles.  There's no tension, no scares, and there's not even any potential interest for the most ardent of gorehounds, as the violence itself is pathetic and the tiny amount of splatter on display is laughable.  The implication once you learn the identity of the killer is that there's something Columbine-esque going on, but it simply isn't developed or fleshed out in any way, which is a great shame.  There's massive potential for a horror film which does explore why and how children can be motivated to kill their classmates, something that Battle Royale and the Hunger Games have skirted around, just not approached head on.  There is one moment when Mandy tenderly ensures that one of the girls is OK and looks longingly at her, and you think for a moment that something radical is going to happen and it'll turn out the real reason Mandy's come on this weekend away is in fact she's in love with this girl, which would turn everything on its head.  Sure, it'd still be the male fantasy of two pulchritudinous young women getting along famously, but that's better than the film only existing because Amber Heard is staggeringly beautiful and she's pleasant to look at.  Naturally, it comes to nothing.

When the real twist does come, as every horror film now simply has to have one, you see it approaching from a mile off.  It of course doesn't make any sense whatsoever despite the fact you saw it coming, as it doesn't need to.  Suffice to say, it makes the twist in Haute Tension which many people have an understandable problem with seem perfectly reasonable.  There are two things you can praise, in that Amber Heard puts in a subtle performance as Mandy, and despite only costing $750,000 to make, the film does look quite good.  Other than that, it's stultifying, and I was bored within half an hour.  Not even wondering about how the film implies all "popular" young people are shagging each other senseless, snorting Ritalin and constantly smoking weed could relieve the air of crushing dullness that pervades it. 


The point is that while Mandy Lane and its contemporaries have been awful, it can't be said that they're popular.  It's possible that Saw could in time become a cult, if only because the later films aren't so much narratives as gore set-pieces slotted together, and if the plotless Guinea Pig series of movies can become so well known then almost anything can happen.  The likely course is that the remakes will be forgotten or disregarded while the originals will live on.  If only that was the case elsewhere.

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