"One thing that seems clear to me, looking back at the films that truly scared me, is that most really good horror films are low-budget affairs with special effects cooked up in someone’s basement,” said Stephen King.
Now, King has been the source for both clunkers and classics, but it was his quote – “The most ferociously original movie of 1982!” – that launched Sam Raimi’s all-but-homemade The Evil Dead upon the world 30 years ago, and his words are worth remembering as the remake hits our screens.
Urugyan writer/director Fede Alvarez exhibited similar ingenuity with his short Panic Attack! . A Montevideo-set Monsters costing $300 with basement-honed SFX, it impressed Raimi (now producing) enough to let Alvarez revamp Dead for a rabid new audience, and a slightly angry older one.
Unfortunately for Alvarez, glitches that were forgivable, even loveable, in a 1980s cult film – bad acting, poor dialogue, inconsistent plotting – can be lesser tolerated the second time around. Eager to establish his own mythos, Alvarez’s effort begins with a seemingly pointless prologue set in the distant past. In an eerily familiar cabin in the woods, a teenage girl is threatened with damnation for messing with the (also familiar) Book Of The Dead.
As she spits (modern-sounding) vitriol at her captors (“I’ll rip your soul out, you pathetic fuck!”) and CG-augmented violence erupts, three things become apparent: 1) Alvarez and co-scripter Rodo Sayagues are no David Mamets in the screenwriting department; 2) a 12A certificate will not be required; 3) King’s dictums will be ignored to the film’s cost.
“Nightmares exist outside of logic,” the author warns, calling explanations “antithetical to the poetry of fear”. But there’s more wearisome backstory as we skip forward to the present(ish) day and meet a new Scooby gang – bad boy David (Shiloh Fernandez), his junkie sister Mia (Jane Levy), plus cannon-fodder friends so ill-defined we’ll call them Shaggy (Lou Taylor Pucci), Blondie (Elizabeth Blackmore) and Cloverfield (Jessica Lucas).
They’re helping Mia go cold turkey at the now-decrepit cabin, where the siblings have some unfinished family business. “I’m your big brother,” says David helpfully, “of course I care!” Full marks for anyone who feels the same or can remember which of the others is his girlfriend.
When Shaggy finds the Book wrapped in barbed wire in the basement then reads it aloud, the junkie subplot comes, briefly, into its own.
Mia starts acting like a woman possessed - with good reason - but the gang think her demonic ramblings are withdrawal symptoms and refuse to let her leave. As her condition worsens, so does the dialogue. “This is insane!” proclaims David, twice. “What kind of virus makes someone cut their own face off with a piece of glass?” ponders Shaggy, playing it straight.
We’d call spoilers here, but as night falls and the gang turn on each other - and themselves - it’d be quicker to list the weapons not used. If the shaky writing and anonymous performances make for a frustrating first hour, it’s all the more so because the technical specs are formidable.
Aaron Morton’s cinematography makes the woods (actually deepest New Zealand) seem limpid and alive with dark promise, while the practical SFX are distressingly vivid, allowing Alvarez to linger on every flayed limb and shivering flap of skin, of which there are many.
Indeed, this may be the most violent mainstream American movie we’ve seen for years. Mia’s line, “Your little sister is getting raped in hell!” goes a few steps beyond the mother-sucking blasphemies of The Exorcist ’s Regan (who she resembles) with less shock value. A machete pierces a wall, then human flesh, twice - take that, The Raid . Stanley knives are extended, then licked; nail guns introduced, then emptied.
When a character with half of B&Q sticking out their cheek whines, “My face hurts!” it’s the only (amusing) understatement in a film that could be accused of favouring horribleness over horror. (But still, inarguably, exhibits a palpable love of the genre, unlike so many of the horror remakes of the past decade.)
By the final reel, the relentlessness of this tactic finally reaps dividends, and it feels like there’s hope for the franchise, if not the characters. Perhaps Alvarez needed to burn everything to the ground and start over, emerging in a wash of blood and viscera to make his mark in the next film.
We shall see when Part 2 arrives… and, given the skill and shading of the last 20 minutes of this movie, perhaps even welcome that inevitable sequel.