Sunday, April 07, 2013

Evil Dead--a struggle against personal and family demons

I'm pleasantly surprised to report the remake of Sam Raimi's horror classic Evil Dead is, at the very least, worth a matinee.  It's not necessarily a classic in the way people would use the term but this is a horror remake that makes sense.  I don't normally go out of my way to watch horror and there have been some horror standards I've seen I consider to be junk (such as the original Friday the 13th, which is a tedious slog).  But this new remake of Raimi's original has a rationale.

Where horror remakes often seem to err in providing backstories for characters who are going to die anyway or for monsters who kill (which may have been a trend popularized by the underwhelming Hannibal Lecter) Evil Dead, as a remake, provides back story for the characters we're given any reason to care about.  Whereas the original film had no backstory for any of the characters the remake gives us a sister and brother (Mia and David) who are going to a remote cabin in the woods so that Mia can go cold turkey from heroin use. 

Along for the trip are Olivia, Natalie, and Eric, friends of the siblings who were around for Mia's previous and obviously unsuccessful attempt to go cold-turkey.  Olivia is trained as a nurse and is on hand to diagnose Mia's progress through withdrawal.  Olivia gets to be the rationalist who is willing to explain the supernatural occurences as probably just being signs of heroin withdrawal.  Eric is the cranky, bespectacled hippie sort who's teaching high school students and seems faintly resentful of his lot in life.  Natalie is the blonde elfin girlfriend of David, who wasn't around for Mia's first cold-turkey effort because he was in another city when their mother died, mentally broken, and who addressed Mia as though she were David.  As Dana Stevens noted over at Slate the mission of helping Mia go cold turkey from heroin means we get a plot point that explains why these five hapless youngsters are going to convince themselves to stick together when all hell literally breaks loose around them as Mia seems to fail to handle going cold turkey.

What has happened, though, is Eric, out of some boredom, has fished up none other than the old Book of the Dead, which, alas, gets no real backstory except in an end credits call-back to the Raimi original. What we do get, however, is some explanation of what the book outlines, different funerary rites and treatments in case by some terrible mistake one reads an incantation that gives a demon permission to enter the body of a living person.  Eric reads the incantation after he's uncovered it by trying to figure out what text had been inked over by a previous reader of the book.  It's a trope in horror stories that if someone says "don't read this book" in red ink on the page of a book, with the warning "don't say it, don't write it" that's what will happen.  Sure enough, a demon appears.

The demon appears to Mia as she's freaking out and fleeing the cabin in withdrawal.  The demon appears to her in the form of herself and, well, if you saw the original Raimi film "violated by the woods" is still in the film.  Mia ends up being possessed by the demon that bears her image and the demon returns to the cabin and announces that everyone will die.  Carnage and mayhem ensue.  Olivia attempts to explain these things as heroin withdrawal but quickly becomes infected by the demonic toxin herself and begins to cut at her face and becomes what fans of the old Raimi films would recognize as a Dead-ite. 

Something that may be easy to miss is that once Mia discovers she's been invaded by a demon she attempts to douse herself in boiling water.  In the pacing of the film it could be missed that Eric finds pages in the Book of the Dead advising how to banish demons when they infest a hapless host.  One of them is to pour boiling water on the victim in the earlier stages.  What may seem inexplicable initially is an indication that Mia is serious about being free of her demons, the figurative as well as literal ones. 

But as the buckets of gore in the movie will show, it's impossible for her to break free of these figurative or literal demons by herself.  What she didn't have access to in her earlier cold-turkey effort was her brother.  He doesn't really believe in magical stuff or will-power boosts but he believes in her and knows she believes those things are possible, so he shows up.  As the viscera and entrails inevitably splatter across the cabin in the woods we get to see a sister and brother deal with personal and family demons.  At one point David confesses he was afraid of the specter of mental illness and drug abuse in his family and thought he could hide from it.  For being a splatter film there's some interesting high-concept stuff here about how we can't hide from the demons of personal weakness or family history.  By the climax of the film Eric has advised David on the various terrible options for freeing Mia of the demon that possesses her.  The involve bodily dismemberment, burning, or burying alive.  Realizing he can't and won't kill or dismember his sister through dismemberment or burning, and realizing that he'd let his family down by fleeing the family history he says, "$@^& it, the only right way to do this is the hard way."

And if you've seen any number of Sam Raimi films this culminating theme will not surprise you, it's fitting that it shows up in a remake of the horror film that put Raimi on the cinematic map.  David buries his sister alive and this rids her of the demon, and then he digs her up and revives her but when he returns to the cabin to prepare for the trip home he discovers their friends are Dead-ites and David dies in a battle to stop them and to keep his sister safe.  At this point the demon, furious that its plans have been thwarted emerges in bodily form to kill Mia as solace.  So the final battle is between Mia and the literal demon that happens to bear her image.  Subtle?  No, obviously not but the horror genre doesn't exactly traffic in subtle.  In the climactic battle Mia defeats the demon who looks like her both for herself and out of regard for her deceased brother. 

Unsubtle though the point inevitably is Mia and David aren't able to prevail against the evil dead as individuals.  They have to confront their own personal character flaws (demons, natch) and the demons of their shared family history.  In contrast to the original film where, as Bruce Campbell so succintly puts it, "everything dies" Mia survives and is purged of her literal and figurative demon through the help of her brother who comes to sacrifice himself after years of fleeing the demons of the family he was afraid would claim him. 

The movie is, of course, not for the squeamish.  The tree rape scene is no more pleasant or less awkward in the remake than in the original.  What Stevens has said at Slate is worth repeating, as violent and brutal as the film is this is not really torture porn and it does not come across as exploitive where ghastly harm to women is concerned.  A significant reason for this is that the film is about people who deny evil until and even at times after they have become consumed by it.  There's a lot more self-dismemberment in this film than in earlier incarnations of Evil Dead.  Natalie, for instance, is so desperate to avoid being taken over by the demon infecting her she cuts off most of her left arm and, sadly, ends up becoming a Dead-ite anyway because she began to be infected a bit earlier.  David only survives longer because, as previously mentioned, he resolved that the only right way to do things is the hard way.  Apart from the siblings the friends of the sister and brother at different points choose what they believe is the easier path that turns out to be the path to every sort of death.  The brother and sister embrace the miserable path that leads to death for both of them but are the only two whose souls aren't devoured by evil.

What I wrote earlier about the slow trajectory of having a cautious and occasional appreciation of horror stories was building up to writing about the Evil Dead remake. There's some other stuff I could write about the trajectory of being able to appreciate some (not most) horror stories but to that I must wait until I can better formulate what I want to write about a book.  You can probably guess which one and if you can't, well, the write-up will take shape eventually!

No comments: