Saturday, 20 April 2013

Zeitgeists & Demons: Fede Alvarez's 'Evil Dead'

In the wake of Joss Whedon’s deconstruction of the well-trodden ‘cabin in the woods’ scenario, a 2013 return to The Evil Dead seems a little ill-advised - especially given the rotten state of the horror remake in the early 21st century. Over the past decade Michael Bay has regurgitated (through his trash-for-cash studio 'Platinum Dunes') a string of corporate reimaginings of horror classics from the 1970s and 80s, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Amityville Horror (2005), Friday the 13th (2009), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). Diligently branded with matching poster art (red type beneath iconic villain) and gunmetal-grey cinematography, each polished turd displayed the somnambulant directorial vision of Bay’s roster of ex-MTVers and ad-helmers, such as Marcus “AT&T” Nispel and Samuel “Teen Spirit” Bayer. Team Platinum worked hard to kill the notion of the aesthetically imaginative horror remake during the last ten years, and they practically succeeded: masterpieces such as Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) are all-but hidden by Bay’s pixelated shroud of CGI fog.

A glance at the poster of the new Evil Dead (minus the ‘The’) reveals, surprisingly enough, that it has been produced by the three key individuals behind the 1981 classic: Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell. Fede Alvarez, the film's Uruguayan director, was picked by Raimi based solely upon his Ataque de Pánico! (a 5-minute youtube short made for just $300):

This choice already suggests the kind of underground sympathy utterly absent from Platinum Dunes’ work, and links the film with the contemporary wave of Spanish-language horror cinema led by Gustavo Hernández and Jaume Balagueró. The association is borne out by the film’s opening sequence, in which Bay’s nubile-teens paradigm (lampooned so memorably by Whedon) is abandoned in favour of a witch-burning sequence that could have been directed by Tobe Hooper, or even Tod Browning. Camera weaving between cat corpses and deformed faces devoid of emotion, Alvarez immediately establishes his own relentlessly corporeal aesthetic, presented in resolutely analogue 2D, but with far more physicality than was displayed in his mentor’s recent trip to Oz

Ending with a gigantic title-card that Gaspar Noé would be proud of, this short prologue reveals the Evil Team’s obsessive belief in a pre-CGI horror paradigm, a return to an aesthetic absent from the multiplexes since The Blair Witch Project (1999). As Alvarez has remarked: "We didn't do any CGI in the movie. Everything that you will see is real, which was really demanding. This was a very long shoot, 70 days of shooting at night.”

Looking through the early responses to Alvarez’s film, it soon becomes clear how unfamiliar the analogue horror experience has become to modern audiences: American reviews have complained that the film contains “some of the most graphic horror violence ever presented on the screen” (Moore, Movie Nation), and the overwhelming novelty of the resulting experience has led critics to suggest that Alvarez and Raimi have gone “further than any mainstream picture” (Nashawatay, Entertainment Weekly), with the screen “literally awash in blood” (Whitty, Portland Oregonian), exposing “demons at its core” (DeFore, Hollywood Reporter). These shell-shocked reports, unsurprisingly, are not translating into universal acclaim (the film currently languishes at 57% on Metacritic and 63% at Rotten Tomatoes), but attest rather to a sense of shared near-trauma more familiar in the 'nasty' era preceding the 1984 Video Recordings Act. A Twitter trawl reveals a similar stream of proud multiplex anecdotes, ranging from walkouts (“I saw 5 people walk out” @Alexaitis) to more appropriately grisly reactions, such as “3 people got sick and 2 fainted” (@edenmasterson), and the magnificent “vomit smell all over the cinema” (@CarmaFilm).

As well as demonstrating the novelty of analogue horror, such extreme reactions reflect the brutal factuality with which Alvarez shoots some of the film’s most graphic sequences, abandoning Raimi’s carnivalesque humour in favour of an aesthetic seemingly inspired by crime-scene photography:

Shots like this recall films such as David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), or Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), yet Alvarez's film seemingly lacks any sense of psychological or sociological motivation. Where Roth explored the pitiless behaviour of a European plutocrat, and Fincher indulged in a Catholic examination of sin, the Grand Guignol splatter of Evil Dead is presented as an utterly amoral spectacle, a macabre study of the indifference of the undead. Following Joss Whedon’s postmodern palate cleanser, Alvarez and Raimi seem to lack any interest in ironising the genre; instead, like Rob Zombie, they pick up where the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre left off, and situate the vast majority of their 92 minutes in the red heart of hell.

This sense of a sustained aesthetic exercise gives Alvarez’s film an unexpectedly avant-garde tone, the kind of rigorous austerity more associated with Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) or Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) than any recent mainstream horror release. The foggy moments leading up to Mia’s infamous tree-possession scene, for example, rely upon a sustained evocation of vivid natural imagery that might otherwise be found in a Terrence Malick film:

The water, mud and reeds that consume Mia’s car feel as alien and ominous as the poisoned quagmire that Affleck gingerly traverses in To the Wonder (2012), and as damp and tangible as the Virginia mashes of The New World (2005)

With Malick’s moral and theological compass forcibly amputated, however, such imagery becomes oppressive and revolting, an environmental parallel to the bodily corruption that infests the film. Where To the Wonder’s Marina boasts a rich interior life, Alvarez’s Mia is a corporeal shell, a figure who is viewed as barely human even prior to her possession

In a brilliant addition to Raimi’s original scenario, Alvarez’s heroine is immediately introduced as a drug addict. Crucially, far from being the heroic pothead stereotype (represented by Marty Mikalski in The Cabin in the Woods), Mia is presented as an addict in the most inhuman, Burroughsian mould, existing in a monstrous state of mindless consumption:

Junk is the ideal product, the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy... Junk yields a basic formula of “evil” virus: The Algebra of Need. The face of “evil” is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope... A rabid dog cannot choose but bite.
- William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch: ‘Introduction - deposition: testimony concerning a sickness’ (p. 8)

Totally abandoning the standard Carpenter/Craven model of an innocent heroine pursued by sinful demons, Alvarez situates Burroughs’s “evil virus” within Mia from the outset, and the remainder of his film (like the novel that succeeds Burroughs’s clinical introduction) serves as a hallucinatory illustration of the hellish realms lurking behind “the face of total need”. In place of the Kafka-derived insect-people/aliens of Naked Lunch, Alvarez’s film is populated with human forms in which the living and the dead are rendered almost indistinguishable: both are transformed into grotesquely animate slabs of meat.

The nihilism underlying this transformation is, upon reflection, the most truly terrifying element of the film, a portrait of going ‘cold turkey’ that gradually reminds its audience of the dehumanizing comparison underlying that expression. The sickening horrors brought to the screen (in glorious two-dimensional analogue) are the logical extension of a worldview in which a recovering addict is equated with a piece of animal flesh, an apocalyptic blast of body horror even more potent than Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of Burroughs’s novel. 

Behind such indifference to the addict, of course, lies an indifference to suffering in general, a state in which human beings are seen as vapid ciphers, defined solely by their bodies, dismembered or otherwise. This attitude haunted the existential void of Harmony Korine’s own recent Spring Breakers, especially its opening montage, in which super-saturated slow-motion footage of barely clothed bodies is accompanied by the blaring music of Skrillex, forming a synthetic sublime to rival Jeff Koons:

In Evil Dead, this nihilism is even more concentrated and sustained, leading to the unforgettable image of our undead heroine, half-buried, addressing her brother through a polyethylene bag:

Rather than willing the hapless David to offer aid to the addict, Alvarez has so brutalised his audience by this point that we find ourselves unable to look upon the face of suffering; our capacity for empathy has been utterly annihilated. This peculiar process, implicating ourselves along with the film’s sole survivor, suggests that (like Burroughs) the film takes the “evil” of its title as a far more pervasive quality than we are accustomed to in the genre. Far from representing an upstanding group of teenagers facing an external malevolence, the five characters of Evil Dead are revealed as a synecdoche for a more general evil, a product of their (and our) collected indifference: David, Eric, Mia, Olivia and Natalie are not, in the end, individuals with any living interiority. They are a unit, and, like Korine’s raging adolescents, they combine to form a mirror to our own age; a cold and hapless spirit hidden within their five initials: DEMON.