Saturday, April 6, 2013

Misunderstanding Evil Dead


I can't tell you how many times I've had pretty much this exact exchange with people since the first footage of the Evil Dead was revealed:

Me: "I can't believe they're remaking Evil Dead as a straight horror."

Other Person: "But the original was a straight horror movie. They're remaking the original."

Factually, this is true. But that ignores the fact that the legacy of the Evil Dead series -- which includes The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992) -- is horror comedy. In fact, the third movie almost entirely abandons horror in favor of comedy. If you had to choose a second genre for Army of Darkness, you'd probably choose fantasy before you'd choose horror.

So that raises the question: If you are rebooting a series, do you want to capture its essence, or do you want to be literal about it?

It's probably clear that I think it should be the essence. Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this way, but when I think of the most Evil Dead-ish Evil Dead movie, I think of Evil Dead II. I think of Bruce Campbell treating his disembodied hand as an adversary and dropping the single-word adjective to describe any situation: "Groovy."

If you have a different experience, that's fine. Perhaps you saw the movies in order. Me, I saw Evil Dead II first, followed by Army of Darkness and then by The Evil Dead itself only two or three years ago, 17 or 18 years after I saw Army of Darkness. That's a pretty logical explanation for coming to know this as a comedy series, not a horror series.

But I'm talking to people around my age, age 39, most of whom would not have seen The Evil Dead in 1981 when they were seven going on eight. In many ways it seems like mine was the more likely experience, with Evil Dead II being slightly more age appropriate (13 going on 14) and Army of Darkness even more so. Me, I was introduced to Evil Dead II in college, probably around 1993 or 1994. There was a reason my friends chose to show me this, followed quickly by Army of Darkness, and not the original movie: They thought it was funny as hell.

In case you think this is some kind of indictment of The Evil Dead, I assure you it isn't. I couldn't believe how much I loved Sam Raimi's original film, even seeing it at the late date of 2010 or 2011. I am a big champion of that film.

But it seems to me that if you are looking to attract the original audience of a series, at least as a secondary goal, you need to make a new film that's a tribute to our lingering impression of that original series. (The primary goal, of course, being to appeal to today's teens.) Especially if you are going to make it a rebooted franchise. If that's your goal, you have to get it right the first time. Otherwise, you won't have the chance to remake Evil Dead II as a comedy. 

Not that this is how they would be going with future Evil Dead movies, if there are to be some. Now that you've established this new series as a horror series, you run the risk of turning off whatever your new fan base is by shifting tone so radically for the second or third movies.

Especially when you have attempted to make -- and believe you've succeeded at making -- "the most terrifying film you will ever experience." So not only is this not a comedy, it's more frightening than The Exorcist or Poltergeist or Suspiria. What's more, it's more frightening than any movie anybody will ever make. To quote John Travolta from Pulp Fiction, "Das a bold statement."

It strikes me as very odd that a studio would consider a movie series worth rebooting, but also run so completely away from what made that series distinctive. It's not that horror comedy has utterly no traction with today's youth, either. Though it may not have been a box office smash, The Cabin in the Woods was certainly a cultural phenomenon, indicating that teens like their horror movies funny and self-aware. You can fit some legitimate scares in there as well without them being any less legitimate. As currently constructed, Evil Dead 2013 seems like just another attempt to scare the bejesus out of the audience. It could end up feeling -- gasp -- generic.

In a way, though, perhaps this is the best way to serve Evil Dead II. When we talk about movies being sacred and not wanting to see them remade, that's because we think the remake will dilute the ongoing value or our lingering memories of the original. If the makers of this reboot had spent a bunch of time on trying to cast a square-jawed leading man who could be as funny as Bruce Campbell was, that's a sure recipe for failure. Campbell was an unexpected comic genius who did his thing perfectly, and any attempt to duplicate that would probably fall flat.

I will take all of these questions out of the realm of the theoretical when I go to see Evil Dead on Tuesday night. At the very least, I'm curious to see what somebody's hyperbolic notion of "the most terrifying film [I] will ever experience" is.

It has to be good for at least one or two disturbing moments -- even if not any funny ones.

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