FILM REVIEW: Evil Dead

Evil Dead

Now, I’m a bit of an Evil Dead fan. If anyone asks what my favourite film is, my go-to answer is usually Evil Dead II (or Battle Royale). When we were learning HTML in IT at school, my first website was an Evil Dead fanpage. I once spent an entire day at a Xena: Warrior Princess convention just to meet Bruce Campbell and get his autograph. Yeah, I’m a dork. But when news of an Evil Dead remake was announced, I was perfectly okay with it. Unlike horror icons such as Freddy, Jason, Leatherface and Michael Myers, the ‘villain’ in the Evil Dead films is ostensibly the Necronomicon itself and whoever is possessed by the forces of darkness it unleashes. If you remove Ash from the equation, there’s nothing wrong with another bunch of kids driving to a cabin in the middle of nowhere and tangling with deadites for 90 minutes. And it’s not like there’s no room for improvement with The Evil Dead, which isn’t so much rough round the edges as positively dog-eared.

So this time around, we have another first time feature director (Fede Alvarez) but with a lot more money to play with, the benefit of a producing team who have been there and done that, and over 30 years of hindsight. As such, there are some clear plus points it has over the original. For starters, the backstory is a lot more cohesive. Having Mia (Jane Levy) a junkie trying to go cold turkey by retreating to an old family cabin with friends and family to support her is a neat idea, solving such genre problems as having no one believe her when she wants to leave, and letting her increasing craziness slide as side effects of her comedown (plus the whole possession/evil drugs angle). Levy plunges herself completely into something of a dual, even triple, role – though spending most of her time as possessee, giving an impressively manic, threatening and unhinged performance. It’s gutsy and horrible and brilliant and hard to shake. More coherent too are the “rules” of the book and the evil dead themselves, but still not being too explicit with it. Effective music too from Roque Baños, mixing shrieking strings, twitchy rattles and percussion, and even the sound of an air raid siren (at least, I think that’s what it was) to complement the carnage.

It’s a testament to the relentless pace of Evil Dead that, once all the set-up is out of the way in an exposition-heavy opening (but a fair enough exchange in that we don’t then have it peppered throughout, breaking up the action), I didn’t think once about The Cabin in the Woods. Instead, what I thought about a lot where the original films, and that’s because if there is one major problem with the film, it is not that it is necessarily too reverential, but too referential. The biggest misstep is in bringing back The Evil Dead’s most infamous scene, something Raimi himself quickly came to regret. It was unnecessary then, unnecessary now, and only reminds you of the leery torture porn feel that has since become the norm and this film, for the most part, manages to avoid. There are other obvious beats and scenes that mirror those in The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II that are more welcome and expected, but on top there are repeated lines of dialogue, framing of shots lifted directly, and tiny visual details. Of course, to someone who hasn’t seen these films tonnes o’times, these little touches will pass you by, but the problem with being a fan is that such fan service takes you out of the film, the incessant winking sabotaging everything that’s original, a shame when otherwise it is doing a pretty damn good job of carving its own path. The film is most successful when it is deviating from all that’s come before, trying new things and taking the story and characters in unexpected directions. Alvarez makes enough of his own mark in terms of style (there are few attempts to ape Raimi’s trademark crazy camera tricks, beyond the classic ‘force’ perspective) and tone elsewhere, you wouldn’t miss these references if they weren’t there.

However, it seems the hang-up most people have about things missing from Evil Dead is “where all the jokes at?”. But those who saw The Evil Dead as a deliberate horror-comedy, and expect the new version to replicate the tone they think the film struck perhaps don’t quite realise what they are getting themselves in for. Sure, Raimi’s first love was the slapstick buffoonery of The Three Stooges, which informed many of his early skits. There is nervous laughter to be had in its excess, in a “I can’t believe that just happened” way, there is a gleeful knowingness in a “just when you thought things couldn’t get worse” way, and there is a creepy playfulness in the torture the dead put the living through – but watching The Evil Dead, divorced from its deliberately goofier sequels, it’s clear that the comedy comes largely from its endearing amateurness (see also original short Within the Woods that is definitely played for shock and gore). In Evil Dead’s case, all the above is present and correct, but just without the cheap wigs, hosepipe blood pumps, and disregard for health and safety. Some of the inherent grottiness is lost when filmed anew, but Alvarez compensates by challenging himself to forego CGI in favour of practical effects at their most effective and gruesome. Coupled with disturbing sound design and a cast seemingly game for any dissing of memberments, Evil Dead may be one of the most disgusting mainstream releases in recent memory, and stories of audience members fainting and throwing up can, in this instance, be justified. It’s not overly reliant on jumps and traditional lazy frights, more concerned with playing with tension and expectations, and delivering the nastiest gore possible – maybe not reaching Braindead quantities (this being filmed in New Zealand and featuring effects by Weta lends something of a satisfying full circle to Peter Jackson: The Early Years), but the objective here is sheer brutality rather than comic splatstick. It’s impressive in a time where the horror box office is dominated by films that primarily rely on slamming doors, kids saying innocent/spooky things and contortionism for scares that something this upfront and graphic can get such a wide release, but kudos for doing so.

Though unlikely to displace the affection for the original trilogy, Evil Dead does its utmost to deliver “the ultimate experience in gruelling horror” promised first time round. And, you know what, it largely succeeds. It’s a thrill ride, pure and simple, though just like the best kind of roller-coaster, it will likely leave you a little nauseous. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up to you.

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FILM REVIEW: Drag Me To Hell

I was fortunate to attend a special preview screening of Drag Me To Hell, presented by FrightFest at the ICA, with director Sam Raimi and stars Alison Lohman and Justin Long in attendence for a Q+A session afterwards.

While Drag Me To Hell is a homecoming of sorts for Sam Raimi to the horror genre, that is not to say he had given up on ‘terror pictures’ altogether. Through his production company Ghost House Pictures, he’s released a bunch of fright flicks, from the remake of The Grudge to 30 Days of Night, with varying degrees of success. As director though, there were clearly hints of his earlier work in the Doc Ock operating theatre scene in Spider-Man 2, but a full-blown Raimi horrorfest was not forthcoming while the webslinger was top priority. Having finally broken free of the money-spinning web-spinner, if only for a brief moment, it was time to get back to the genre that made his name, calling the shots on a self-penned script (with brother Ivan) originated circa Darkman. And not only does Drag Me To Hell mark the return of one of horror’s favourite sons, but the return of horror as just purely enjoyable entertainment.

When bank clerk Christine Brown (Lohman) turns down an extension on a home loan for Mrs. Ganush (an incredible Lorna Raver) in hope it will get her a promotion, she is confonted by the elderly lady and a curse is placed upon her: in three days time, she is going to hell. Tormented by demonic forces, she enlists the help of spiritualists and her cynical boyfriend (Long) to try and break the spell before its too late. Not an exactly original premise, and one that seems archaic in contemporary horror cinema, but with Raimi in charge it makes for exceptional entertainment.

First things first, this isn’t scary. There are plenty of jolts and jumps, and the central conceit of being literally dragged to hell isn’t exactly a pleasant one, but this is horror as thrill-ride. The screams are as much those of laughter as they are of fear. In fact, Drag Me To Hell may be one of the funniest films of the year. There are moments of pure hysteria on screen the likes of which haven’t been seen since Braindead (not that this is anywhere near as gory, but two scenes in particular, one involving a dead body and another a Meet the Parents-esque dinner date, owe something to Peter Jackson’s masterpiece), with lots of gross-out gags and splat-stick. Although some yuks don’t work as well as others (thanks to a couple of CG mis-fires, though this is largely, and thankfully, a practical effects showcase), Raimi’s gift of the funny remains in the film’s dark sense of humour, with the lengths Christine will go to save her soul, and some zingy dialogue.

But what really makes the film such a joy is just how much of a spiritual successor to the Evil Dead films it feels while remaining totally accessible to those introduced to Raimi through Spider-Man. References abound, but not in such a rib-diggingly obvious way that generate groans nor do they confuse or befuddle non-seasoned viewers. Certainly, the seance sequence is practically Evil Dead II taken out of the cabin and into a grand hall, Mrs. Ganush herself is every bit a malevolent she-bitch, and the classic Oldsmobile makes its customary return, but the little touches, be they intentional or just wired into Raimi’s film-making blood, speak volumes to fans. While Raimi’s trademark twirly camera tricks are not as wild or as prevalent as in the past, the content remains undeniably his work. Even the poster is reminiscient of the original poster for The Evil Dead.

Some may decry Drag Me To Hell as a little goofy and it’s not exactly going to give you any nightmares, but it was simply one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences I’ve had. Just as Star Trek reminded everyone that sci-fi blockbusters didn’t need to be plodding operas drained of all character (ahem, Star Wars prequels), so too does Drag Me To Hell remind you that horror needn’t always be gritty, torture-filled and excessively gory. Instead, they can simply be a hell of a lot of fun.

9/10

FILM REVIEW: Spider-Man 3

Sam Raimi’s love affair with the iconic web-slinger continues as the third installment in the mega-franchise arrives, with Peter Parker yet again beset with all his usual problems – love pentangles, super-villains and conflicting feelings. In fact, the film is so jam-packed that, despite it being one of the most expensive ever made, it looks like it was all put to good use. Spider-Man 3 delivers such a ludicrous amount of action, drama and goofy comedy, your brain rarely has time to stop spinning. There are so many plot threads that a synopsis would involve an unhealthy use of the word ‘meanwhile’, but Raimi does a fine job of holding it all together, joining the dots where applicable, a bit like a spider’s web if you think about it. Fnar.

With three separate baddies to contend with, there’s no denying that this is the most action-packed of the trilogy, and all the set-pieces are rather wonderful, each using their setting and the relationship between those involved to their fullest. Of course, there’s a certain amount of CG whizz-bang overload, and there are a few ‘seen-it-before’ moments, but there’s still a great energy to the fighting/rescuing that a superhero like Spider-Man allows. And, just as in the previous two, the core of the film is the emotional roller-coaster our protagonists ride, with love, loss, revenge, fear, happiness, sadness, and anger experienced by one or more characters at some point. Only the film tries to do too much, and while it all remains coherent, there are certainly a few casualties pushed to the side-lines.

Of course, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco do their usual thing. But James Cromwell is distracting being a well-known actor in a minor role, Dylan Baker is literally ignored, and Rosemary Harris only seems to pop up to offer self-help nuggets and worry a bit like some strange spiritual guide (to be honest though, a little Aunt May goes a long way). Where the film perhaps doesn’t go far enough is in exploring some of the more interesting ideas the themes hint at but little else. The supposed darkness that envelop’s Peter seems to manifest itself in little more than making him a bit cocky and giving him an emo fringe. And by the time Venom arrives on the scene, there’s little of the movie left to examine the parallels between him and Spidey. However, the plot does take a few different directions that kind of compensate, with Peter and MJ’s relationship troubles hitting some quite unexpected snags.

Indeed, even with all the action already on offer, just as Doc Ock was shafted before them, more Venom and more Sandman would have been welcome. Even if they are both a little too fantastical for my tastes (sure, space symbiotic ooze is too far out, when genetical spider transformation isn’t?), both Topher Grace and Thomas Haden Church really sold their roles, so it would have been good to see them do a little more than just be superbad. The shifting friend/mortal enemy relationship between Peter and Harry did offer some good fisticuffs in their place, but, after so many big battles, the grand finale doesn’t deliver quite the knock-out punch it should have, leaving the ending feel more lacklustre than it would have done had there been a greater climax.

Nevertheless, kudos must also go to Raimi for continuing to keep the tone and style consistent throughout the three films. As seen previously with the Batman and X-Men series, when the original director jumps ship, so seemingly does all sense of logic and good taste. The most enjoyable sequences are those which play to his strengths, notably his kinetic camera-work and also his love of daft broad humour, in particular Bruce Campbell’s hilarious cameo (as well as yet another Stan Lee appearance, seemingly on some kind of mission to break Hitchcock’s record), the return of J. Jonah Jameson, and an alternative reprise of Peter Parker’s ‘changed man montage’ from the previous film, courtesy of his new black suit. Many of the goofy gags can probably be attributed to the fact that this is the first time Sam actually co-wrote the screenplay, with brother Ivan Raimi, who co-wrote Army of Darkness, and, returning from #2, Alvin Sargent.

All in all, Spider-Man 3 is a reasonably satisfying package; a little less of this and a little more of that would have made it ideal, but it’s hard to make a threequel for a much-loved comic book character that pleases everyone. Perhaps it’s problem is that it tried too hard to do so, resulting in something that felt like a dark chocolate cake, with plenty of tasty layers, but just a tad too rich. Or maybe like a Chinese takeaway, in that there’s so much stuff, you try and have some of everything, and in the end feel a bit bloated and it all looks a bit messy, but you’re quite happy anyway. You could easily remove one dish, and it wouldn’t have ruined the rest of the meal. Or something.

But as more of a Raimi fan, I was just happy to see a new film that he directed. Is there much left to be said about Spider-Man? Probably not. Should they do another sequel with or without Raimi? Don’t know. My personal view is perhaps to give the character a rest for a decade or so, and see if anyone is then willing to give the franchise a reboot a la Batman Begins or Casino Royale. But for now, we’re left with three pretty entertaining, occasionally cheesy, rather well-made crash bang wallop superhero movies. Mr. Raimi, you may now take a break. And then go shoot some low-budget funny bloody nonsense with Mr. Campbell. Come on – you know you want to!

8/10

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