It Practically Gallops

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There is obviously a line between contempt for your characters and apathy for your characters and I think writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature horror film Hereditary has found the thinnest element of that line. It is a movie that is aware of the ugly aspect of what its central family is doing to each other and wants us to be aware too. It is a movie that validates the devastating feelings within these people that is making them react and hurt each other this way, knowing that they are entitled to feel the way they feel and refusing to judge them for it. Only judging them for the toxic manner in which they inflict those feelings on each other. And despite this, it is a movie that does not care what happens to them and knows that the results are of their own devices for the most part.

Hereditary’s happens to be quite a movie that it is easy to spoil by discussing its premise, so I hope it suffices simply to acknowledge that it all begins with a death in the Graham family: Ellen Leigh’s (a character we see in photos that, last I checked, were uncredited) obituary is the first thing that greets us in a chillingly neutral tone. She is survived by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), Annie’s husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and child daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and their responses to her death is complex, to say the least. Annie had a toxically antagonistic relationship with her mother amplified by mental illness issues between Annie’s father and brother while by all accounts Ellen took a special interest towards Charlie.

In any case, having to deal with a death in the family is a tough experience and very soon Hereditary proves that to only be the beginning of their troubles, with an incident that irreparably tears a conflict between a slowly deteriorating Annie and an increasingly vulnerable Peter. And between the two of those are the heightened poles of Hereditary’s miseries: Collette embodies an inability to compartmentalize between her hate, her grief, and her trauma, spitefully lashing out at everyone’s who is even slightly at fault for her losing herself. While Wolff goes through a downward spiral of muting out any of his emotions and letting himself get eaten more and more. Indeed, his big showcase is a moment where he stares at an unseen thing in the backseat of a car and stares out trying to comprehend what just occurred, refusing to frown or scream or anything except let a solitary tear run down his cheek. Meanwhile, Byrne makes a useless character feel even more like a clueless slump (which I wholly mean as a compliment) and Shapiro gives Charlie a melancholy loneliness at losing the family member she most interacted with that plays very well with the other weird ambiance she gives to her presence.

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And they have a lot of time to do it. Hereditary knows full well what happens when you have the worst feelings a person could possibly be experiencing embodied in four different people and left to simmer in four walls for weeks at a time (2 hours in runtime paced incredibly well by Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston), mixed around by Charlie Dahan’s deep doomy vibrations of a score. Hereditary IS a horror movie of the supernatural sort (I do not think this is a spoiler though of course explaining how would be), but the real horrifying aspect comes for what this family is putting each other through simply for the fact that they don’t know how to process this or because they don’t feel like they’re allowed to.

The near-invisible delicacy with which Aster condemns the Graham family with only slivers of sympathy despite a loyalty to wide shots of funereal domesticity that give its central drama an empty dollhouse look to it (something Aster wants us to recognize by way of Annie‘s career as a diorama artist and indeed the very first shot after that obituary is a long close-up from an open dollhouse into a 2nd floor bedroom that happens to be Peter’s) and close-ups that accent exactly how ugly it looks for a human being to emotionally collapse. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski uses the wide shots as an opportunity to give the rooms and their inhabitants a subtle wooden brown implying how artificial anything that was holding this home together was while using the close-ups to give shadows (and aided by sweaty makeup) that make the characters look gaunt and their heads facing downwards. Collette is the best aide to this: it feels insulting to call what she’s doing mugging, because there’s so much deeper internalizing than that but she puts on a consistent exhausted frown, escalated in a dinner scene gone wrong where she can’t help ripping Peter apart verbally. She looks like if Shelly Duvall got fucking sick of Jack Nicholson’s shit and decided she didn’t an axe to murder him, just a glare.

It is so effective as chamber-esque thriller and as exercise in ruining the viewer’s day that when Hereditary takes a very-very-late turn to glibness, it is jarring in an unfortunate way (it is not the only time – there is one cutaway shot against a character’s haunting screams that feels a little beyond the pale in cruelty). It also happens to be a moment that utilizes “explain-the-plot” in the worst kind of way, at a point where we are very clear on what has went on unless we weren’t paying attention. That it is the final note in Hereditary does not particularly stain my memory of it, because when you do it right moodiness is going to linger long enough to really mess up any good feelings you could possible grasp.

NB: Good ol’ Dancin’ Daniel Bayer has suggested that you see this movie with an audience and I sure wish I could agree with that if some 305 dickhead didn’t shout “DE PINGA!” at the screen during one of the most silent-inducing moments after an hour of clicking his tongue. Still, I can’t imagine this isn’t a movie where a crowd would be synchronized emotionally so I’d say it see it… with people you know and trust.

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Kept Under Lock and…

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The future of the Insidious franchise is currently in question now that franchise writer Leigh Whannell is in doubt as to whether he wants to continue writing for it as the remaining co-creator (the other co-creator and his former collaborator, James Wan, has moved on since Chapter 2 to better things like skydiving cars, superheroes who talk to fish, and entertaining apologism for Christian con artists). Still the fourth and latest installment, Insidious: The Last Key, has already nudged itself in a direction that doesn’t seem very promising to me: it’s implied – nay, the very last scene of the film essentially propels it towards – a continuation without Lin Shaye’s presence*.

Now, I’ve eschewed the opportunity to write on the full series (maybe I’ll cover those gaps later this year), but let me tell you: it’s not a very consistent line-up, quality-wise. A large part of that happens to be the very disappointing insistence by Whannell’s writing to lean heavily on the overburdened mythology involving the blue-tinged spirit realm known as “The Further” and trying to use a lot of words just to say “demons live here and sometimes possess or influence living people” and the only way those words don’t really crash the whole thing down is because Shaye delivers most of that mythology with a sense of urgency that the material never earned one bit. Even that’s not the only merit about Shaye’s performance as medium demonologist Elise Rainier, but the fact that she’s a reliable source of warmth and personality, approaching her investigations in a superficially relaxed and assured manner as though she’s doing a solid for a friend despite how transparently draining this practice is for her. Even in spite of Shaye’s age, she has higher spirits as a 74-year-old woman tragically burdened by her abilities and responsibilities than I do as a 26-year-old who can’t talk to ghosts (… yet).

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The decision halfway through the run to turn this reliably compelling character from a late-film exposition delivery system to a protagonist has been a smart move for the longevity of the franchise and the character that The Last Key suggests will take over for Elise, her niece Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), unfortunately feels like a non-presence, especially given how a whole quarter of the runtime has her taking charge without being able to take charge. Perhaps if she could have, it would have distracted me further from the other horrifyingly reliable source of banality in the Insidious franchise, Elise’s bumbling ghost-hunter-parody assistants Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell) and oh gawwwwwwd, if this franchise continues they’re also implied to continue tagging along while this time around hitting on Imogen and her sister Melissa (Spencer Locke).

So yes, I’m going to miss Elise a lot and fear what is to come for a franchise that I already wasn’t too fond of anyway. But I will say that Whannell and director Adam Robitel have put together a pretty fond farewell for the most part: The Last Key establishes the sort of toxic childhood Elise (played by Ava Kolker as a child and Hana Hayes as a teenager) went through in the 1950s in her family’s remote New Mexico home, exacerbated by her executioner father (Josh Stewart)’s abusive antagonism towards Elise’s powers and the sudden release of a noseless key-fingered demon (Javier Botet) who wastes no time murdering her protective mother (Tessa Ferrer), all of which leaving a rift between Elise and her brother/Imogen and Melissa’s father Christian (Bruce Davison).

Sometime after Insidious: Chapter 3 but shortly before the first Insidious, the now adult Elise and her partners get a call from her home’s new inhabitant Ted (Kirk Acevedo) reporting paranormal activity happening, forcing the reluctant Elise to face her past and particularly her feelings of guilt towards the key demon’s freedom and thereby her mother’s death (not to mention Christian holding Elise accountable for abandoning him when she ran away from home). And walking back into the domain of her childhood pain means unlocking secrets regarding its line of inhabitants that fundamentally shift the way she looks back on her hard memories.

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Now, of course, saying that the movie wants to deepen the Elise’s character one last time before she leaves the franchise does not necessarily mean it accomplishes that well: this is still a Whannell screenplay and he’s rarely shown a grip on how humans talk or behave on a superficial level, so the idea of going deeper into a full-on character study is much too daunting a task for the writer to do well on his own. Still, Robitel’s entry into the Insidious director’s holds up as well as his two predecessor’s (Wan and later Whannell taking his directorial debut with Chapter 3), able to jump into the formula they set for spooky haunted houses between the murky and earthy living world and the dingy dark blue shadows of the Further, even despite the relative goofy look of this movie’s demon (he lacks a palate and…) or the fact that Elise is missing in action for a hot minute and leaving us with characters that either are annoying or don’t feel present to drive the film.

Hell, it’s kind of by Robitel’s strength that the opening sequence is so distressing, utilizing Whannell’s need to have Elise abused, unleash Keyface, and kill off her mom in apparently one scene and one night and turning that unbalanced density into something that makes the momentum of the opening disorienting and uncomfortable. It’s affecting enough for us to align with Elise when Shaye gets to take over and even when Robitel doesn’t get that much narrative material to work with in one scare scene, he can still up the tension in the air so that it feels like maybe something of that power will occur (and he does get at least one more moment to do it: a game of hide-and-seek that occurs halfway through the film just after we’ve been given unsettling information about a character and climaxing without an out-of-character yet desperately violent act that leaves one of our protagonists shook).

Now, I’m going to admit there does come an early point where Robitel’s repetitions get more obvious to us and Insidious: The Last Key stops being scary (it also happens to unfortunately align with the absence of Elise, compounding the movie’s issues). Nevertheless, it goes far enough along the way so that we don’t have to wait long for an extremely satisfying resolution telegraphed by the constant presence of an item dear to Elise and Christian, aided enormously by Joseph Bishara’s score incorporating and foreshadowing an element of safety from Elise’s past and keeping that item present in his musical cues, and most of all smoothly facilitated by having its light source roll towards a heroic figure in such a silently climactic way. A wobbly descent can still be relieved from sticking the landing, something I’m not sure I can entirely acclaim The Last Key for doing when it ends on the sort unsubtle and clunky “here comes the first Insidious” note that it does. But even if I’m not sure I can call The Last Key a good movie, that final sequence involving the confrontation of old demons and the warmth with which it congratulates Elise is the sort of love for its character that stayed in my mind six months after watching it, even if it’s only the one character.

*Though this is not really set in stone, given that Chapter 2 is the chronologically latest entry and it ends on a note saying that Elise and her partners are still working, despite certain developments.

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September 21, 1945… That Was the Night I Died.

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R.I.P. Takahata Isao
29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

1988 – 30 years ago from this very day, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli was not yet the worldwide phenomenon it has formerly grown to be but it was in the middle of significant success on the wings of co-founder Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (pre-emptively a Ghibli production before Ghibli even existed) and Castle in the Sky. 3 years after its inception in 1985, they were in the midst of releasing what the future would see as their flagship film – Miyazaki’s cuddly and fuzzy My Neighbor Totoro. And yet doubts were made unto the box office potential of the affable children’s film so the second of the co-founders Suzuki Toshio made the decision to attach it as a double feature to the adaptation being produced around the same time for publishing house Shinchosha on one of their novels by Nosaka Akiyuki.

That adaptation was written and directed by Ghibli’s third co-founder, veteran animation director Takahata Isao, and it was called Grave of the Fireflies. And side by side with My Neighbor Totoro, the two stand as not only the greatest films of a studio that seldom produced anything but great films, but among the greatest animated works of all time.

And despite this superlative, Suzuki’s tenure as in-house producer of Ghibli had a lot of brilliant ideas, but this was unfortunately not one of them. While the films did not end up box office failures outright, Fireflies received a chilly reception towards family audiences because it meant following up on the movie that stars a giant furry benign forest God with two young children suffering horrifying severe afflictions from the aftermath of World War II. Or not, depending on which order the uninstructed theaters played them, though I can’t imagine being in the mood for something as jovial and harmless as Totoro so soon after witnessing Fireflies either. And so while it remained praised by critics and made enough money that combined with Totoro’s exploding merchandising sales continued the sail of Ghibli, the uninhibited starkness of Grave of the Fireflies‘ material alongside the fact that it was one of the movies which Disney did not purchase North American rights en masse from Ghibli’s parent company Tokuma Shoten (who did not own the rights) left Grave of the Fireflies to fall not into obscurity but a state of being underseen nevertheless.

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Those who did see it would begin faced with the image of a teenage boy in monochromatic reds and a baggy oversized military uniform facing the audience as his voice hovers over announcing his date of death before we watch him have to witness and relive that moment that his gaunt, broken body in rags collapsed in the middle of an apathetic and dismissive crowd in Sannomiya Station. His last words before his life leaving a corpse practically swept away by janitors is a name “Setsuko”.

Setsuko (Shiraishi Ayano), we will later learn, is the name of the young girl we meet quickly after in the same reddish sepia tone surrounded by the warming light of fireflies practically dancing to the first cue of Mamiya Michio’s delicate lullaby score, watching the boy’s death before being met by his spirit in an exuberant manner that implies long awaited reunion as we also learn that boy is her older brother Seita (Tatsumi Tsutomu).

This opening death of Seita is the most notable major liberty one can know taken by the novel’s author Nosaka in what was a semi-autobiography and self-condemnation of his inability to save his sister Keiko from dying of malnutrition in the wake of the Americans’ devastation of World War II and we watch Setsuko and Seita live out his story from the waning months of the war, starting out by their ill mother’s side* with their father absent fighting in the Imperial Navy afar. Having not read Nosaka’s novel, I cannot know the extent to which informs the writing of Seita as a well-meaning but irresponsible and unfairly unqualified guardian (there is a moment very early on where Seita attempts to cheer his sister through playing on playground bars foregrounded by Setsuko’s unbated tears that illustrates just what Seita is not prepared for), but it feels as though the literal directness of Seita’s failures are Nosaka’s blunt lack of forgiveness for himself while Takahata brings in a humane sympathy to Seita for trying to desperately make it out a situation he should never have been thrown into by a war he’s not very much involved in (though his father being in the war does give him investment and we do witness later in the film his response to the war’s results).

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That’s part of the ghostly element of Grave of the Fireflies: while we soon after witness the effects of war laid on undeserving lives, the fighting’s always at a distance and it makes the unnecessary element of the casualties we and the children witness wound us deeper. Even the early firebombing of their home in Kobe that opens the story proper violently (in more than a few ways, the film’s serene opening credits of the peaceful spirits on the train is interrupted by a smash to the loud American B-29s on their trail) is too oppressively one-sided with not a single Japanese shot fired on-screen back, just people running and hiding for their lives (there is one particular Japanese soldier who stands defiant shouting “Long Live the Emperor” that Takahata frames at a distance from heads keeping down from incineration and it only screws in Takahata’s vehement anti-war attitude in the film, portraying an action intended as defiant nobility to futile imbecility. That irony towards Japan’s doomed patriotism continues in a later Navy procession scene interrupting the children’s sleep.).

Amongst those casualties being their mother rendered in upsetting deep reds soaking over bandages dark enough to look dirty from the soot and smoke still suffered in an atmosphere of harsh browns and ash grays, a palette Grave of the Fireflies will visually maintain except in moments of peace like a major beach respite or a glowing yellow speckled image of fireflies comforting Setsuko in their . This death forces the two children into a hopeless situation of drifting over to an aunt that passive-aggressively points out the hardship of life after wartime being multiplied by mouths to feed, leading to the children’s departure into homelessness from their only possible shelter and their slow demise by malnutrition.

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For the most part, this doesn’t sound like material that necessitates an animated production perhaps but Takahata is not just using animation because he happens to work in that field. Seita and Setsuko are generally defined cartoon children (with unmistakably young voices), barely enough to recognize them from a crowd of suffering and to facilitate any emotions of joy and sorrow the film needs to weave through (especially Setsuko’s design, whose tears are the glassiest out of fairly big baby eyes), moving through photorealistic landscapes, either ruinous or wild or industrial in dark tones that make it look like a Totoro nightmare. Those contradictory elements only make the danger to these characters who are easy to look at much more real and at least me as a viewer more anxious**. And it’s outright dreadful to witness them slowly develop coarse lines showing the toll the situation is taking on their bodies, in last cases accentuating their emaciation and only populating more and more of their designs until their basically the very shell we watched die at the beginning of the film.

No, it is very much because Grave of the Fireflies is animated that it feels so very devastating and heartbreaking as a picture, animation used to remind you of the fragility of its characters in the immediate knowledge of their fate. With all that deliberation in the visuals, it just makes moments like a group of girls in bright dresses laughing oblivious to a child mourning a heavy loss or a delirious moment of solid rocks being mistaken as rice cakes feel somewhat like redundancy to the anguish and sorrow the film puts us through, except in its final images and moments Takahata’s humanism takes a restorative turn to suggest a form of release from the suffering Seita, Setsuko, and their companion ghost fireflies faced and a sense of completion that while not optimistic maintains a peaceful sense of absolution to a story told by a man who could not find himself to get it from his confession.

So Takahata generously gave it to him by re-telling it.

*That is perhaps the most prevalent similarity between Fireflies and Totoro: Both of them focus to some degree on siblings dealing with the distressing state of health of their mothers, though I think one can easily guess that Totoro has a significantly happier ending about it.
**If I may lose some credibility with readers, I feel Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (Pixar’s CCO John Lasseter is notably a Ghibli fan and possibly the biggest credit to their stateside exposure, though his creative input on the movie was probably not that much) attempts this as well and actually accomplishes it for the most part and I am as a result an inveterate apologist for it.

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Dead Men Tell The Same Ol’ Tales

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I don’t think a single person in the world asked for another Pirates of the CaribbeanPirates of the Caribbean movie. Hell, I don’t think a single person asked for it back in 2012 when Rob Marshall’s sloppy Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made good on Disney’s threat to continue past the original trilogy. Hell, I’m sure half of the people who received Pirates sequels when they asked for them in 2006 and 2007 kind of ended up with a regret that they existed to dilute and complicate the enjoyment of the original Curse of the Black Pearl, one of the most fun and surprising summer blockbusters of my lifetime. It would only make for Walt Disney Pictures and Johnny Depp to want to keep hanging by that successful thread during one of the most tumultuous periods of their respective careers (which Disney has since recovered from but I don’t think Depp’s ever will). And the honest truth is that much like On Stranger Tides has mostly faded from others’ minds, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will do so as well and this is despite being a much better movie than the sequels that preceded it.

That’s not a high bar.

Anyway, the way Dead Men Tell No Tales gets to being that “best sequel in the franchise” is simple, they repeated the narrative steps of Curse of the Black Pearl. Like that’s it. They took every single narrative step that the one great Pirates of the Caribbean movie pulled and retread them all again. Though the way they retread those steps are inarguably weaker, for one re-establishing our ol’ pirate scalliwag “Captain” Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) once again abandoned by his crew (but without the messiness of mutiny and all) and having him recruited by a young man wishing to free somebody he loves from imprisonment amongst the pirates. That young man is Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) and he wants Jack’s help finding Poseidon’s Trident to free his father, previous hero Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) from the curse Jack actually put him under three years ago to save Will’s life – the curse that made Will the Captain of the accursed ghost ship The Flying Dutchman. Alongside them is a young scientifically minded woman Carina Smythe (Kaya Scodelario) who is also in search of Poseidon’s Trident and her father, evading pursuers accusing her of being a witch (which makes little sense but whatever) while Jack is evading the revenge of undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) after Jack gets rid of his compass.

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So basically Thwaites and Scodelario are playing the same roles Bloom and Keira Knightley (also returning as Will’s old love Elizabeth Turner) played in the original Pirates trilogy and while Scodelario is barely better at establishing agency than Knightley, Thwaites is far below Bloom. And Bloom’s no De Niro. It’s some very vanilla acting overall, only salvaged by Depp finding a lot more comfort in having Sparrow become a tricksy puck rather than the lead and Bardem’s spitting anger. Even Geoffrey Rush is done with this, in his mandated return as pirate rival to Sparrow, Admiral Hector Barbossa.

I’m not 100 on the logic of Salazar and his crew’s return, but that’s fine because that crew makes up the first time in a while where the frequently undead (because when does this franchise ever not have undead pirates?) actually play with the horror imagery, having them half present and fragmented and grisly but in blue paleness to their skin is sure enough to give children the creeps enough to pass as a Disney film, while Bardem knows how to turn that handicap on his character into an anchor for his acting, much like Bill Nighy before him as Davy Jones. And while it goes without saying that directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (of the fellow sea-faring picture Kon-Tiki) are not Gore Verbinski in their popcorn filmmaking ability, there’s a lot in this film to make for a pleasant enough diversion from the very labored script (I personally think Barbossa gets the worst of it with an element tacked on that feels absolutely unearned despite how long we’ve been acquainted with Rush in the character, but there’s also the possible contender in Royal Lieutenant Scarfield played by David Wenham, who seems so arbitrary and second-banana as a threat compared to Salazar). There’s their action sequences such as the wonderful rescue of Jack and Carina from execution early on, particularly in a very theme-park-ride esque shot involving a guillotine on Jack’s head that feels like a Looney Tunes moment. There’s the wiliness of a flashback in which Jack shows his sea skills that turned Captain Salazar in for dead. Rønning and Sandberg know their way around over-the-top physics in an action scene, save for a very underwhelming and forgettable CGI climax to remind us that this is of course a summer tentpole (in 2017… a disappointing summer to say the least).

There’s nothing about this that screams a necessary watch. Like I said, nobody asked for this movie to exist and I think the world would keep right on turning if it didn’t. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a return of the franchise to some kind of quality and however minute that amount may be, it has to count for something.

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Splatterhouse Rock

Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead trilogy hits a pretty sacred spot for me. The first entry is the first NC-17 movie I’ve ever watched, a horror movie that jarred with my previous idea of Raimi as the director of something as wholesome as Spider-Man, and a truly demanding work of emotional exhaust. The second entry (for the record, the last one I saw) is a rollickingly impressive toss of slapstick and disturbing material that deftly avoids undercutting the comedy or terror of the moment. The third entry is of course just a good-time adventure picture reminiscent of the ol’ Harryhausen works that made me want to grow up to be Bruce Campbell’s Ashley J. Williams and one that is absent of horror movie elements in a deliberate manner. They’re all pictures I have intense nostalgia for and while I accept the flaws in them (except Evil Dead II, it is flawless, fite me), they are movies I don’t take to kindly to remaking.

Even the original trio of producers – Robert Tapert, Campbell, and Raimi themselves – through their Ghost House Pictures company were the ones who had an active and involved hand with making Evil Dead, Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez’s feature-length debut after making a very impressive (in spite of film grain and some dated CGI) indie short film on YouTube called Ataque de Panico (if you’re into giant robots like I am, check it out, it’s only 5 minutes long). The more news I heard about it, the more jaded I was towards the idea of the remake all the way into the advanced screening I sat in on surrounded by folks excited for the return of the “Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror” and once it began… well…

Rather than Ash and his close friends, Alvarez and Diablo Cody’s scri– wait, what the fuck?! Diablo Cody? Seriously? Huh. The script focuses on five friends along the same relative lines towards each other as the original gang: David (Shiloh Fernandez) brings his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) to a retreated cabin in the woods in the hopes of connecting with his sister Mia (Jane Levy), whom he’s had a strained relationship bordering on abandonment long since the death of their mother. Mia’s own friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas) are already there to lay down the real stakes of David and Mia’s reconciliation – Mia has by now had an alarmingly near-fatal heroin overdose and they’re keeping her out of the world for a while to help her break out of her addiction.

There are many reasons why it pains to say that (despite reviews picking on the characters) this focused-on group – although pretty much nobody in it is three-dimensional – are significantly more interesting than the cannon fodder of the original 1981 film’s five people. One of the reasons reciting this fact frustrates me will be obvious later on in this review.

During this retreat/intervention is when Eric and David dig around and end up finding the Naturon Demonto and Eric screws around with it enough to mean bad juju for the group, begin with the possession of Mia and the utterly disturbing self-torture her possessed herself through. Dismissed as heroin fit. Which, needless to say, will bode very unwell for these folks.

OK, with that plot run-through done with, I’m sure it’s ok to just come out at this point and say that Evil Dead ’13 at once assuaged half of my doubts and unfortunately validated the other half and that’s why I haven’t grown as appreciative of it as a movie as most of the other Evil Dead fanatics I know who are every bit as dedicated to that trilogy as me. It is actually a really well-done film, dedicated to practical effects in gooey visceral manner akin to Raimi’s own magic bag of tricks (if not as much with giggles that keep us from going “ew!”). Fede Alvarez probably has a great amount of future in a cinematic craftsman as he’s just about ready to spray shot by shot without any discrimination with blood whenever he can. He does it well enough to be believable and make us avert our eyes – maybe the biggest point of this for me is when Mia, possessed, deliberately scalds herself in the shower to the point of boils erupting on her body.

Which could go both ways really – technique aside. It’s fine to recognize the Evil Dead franchise as one based largely in its physical violence and DIY pools of red, but it’s always been more than that, underneath it. The first Evil Dead wasn’t just a splatter pic, it was a ghost story that spent half of its runtime establishing the mood and the location of its terror, building itself up. Evil Dead II was essentially one giant showpiece for the talents of Bruce Campbell, God bless him. Even say the classic early works of Peter Jackson could specifically be defined exclusively by being a bloodbath (though personally I feel Evil Dead ’13 out-bloods Dead Alive by a bit) took it to being more than a flow and based its viscera display on a sense of humor that Jackson made appealing without being ordinary.

It’s not that Evil Dead ’13 isn’t scary. Or that it HAS to be more than the sum of its gore. It probably wouldn’t bother me as much if Evil Dead ’13 didn’t have an avenue by which to be more than it is now.

But it does. And it stares me right in the fucking face.

Mia’s struggles in trying to break out of her heroin addiction. Any movie with a premise based on the bodily tortures of someone by their own hand or a friend’s and bothering to use THAT as a backstory for one of the leads must be able to see how easily one could compliment the other. But the movie screws itself over by making Mia essentially the first victim of the possession and, as such, she’s out of commission for most of the picture. We don’t get that sort of depth to the story and it was right there… right there in Alvarez and Diablo Cody’s faces. The most we get as a result is when Mia first starts acting strange, her friends and brother act horribly dismissive towards her actions as a withdrawal fit. Like goddamn. Such potential wasted.

On the other hand, it’s possibly this might be a blessing in disguise. Most of the film lies on Shiloh Fernandez and Lou Taylor Pucci’s shoulders and tell you the truth, neither of them are nearly enough to hold my attention long until the next violent setpiece. Hell, they don’t have the same blank [insert victimized posture here] presence that Campbell’s unimpressive performance in the first film had, they’re just reciting words about “insanity” and such. Can’t say much about Jessica Lucas or Elizabeth Blackmore. Jane Levy is easily best in show and that’s because she has a lot more descent into madness to work with, as well as being the easiest emotional anchor, even once she’s far gone into Deadite territory (if I’m being honest, I can’t tell where Levy’s appearance ends and Randal Wilson’s performance as her possessed version begins because they compliment each other so very well). So, if they did try to make it a tale of dealing with addiction, they may very well have had the movie fall on its face.

As such, the movie simply stands as a testament to how much blood one can spill into a movie before the MPAA tells them “Whoa… no…” (right down to a final setpiece that had my friend whispering to me in the theater “Slayer would be proud”) and that’s fine enough. It doesn’t make for a bad movie at all. But it makes for one that leaves a lot to be missed in terms of substance, especially when teased like it is, and all the bloody gushiness in the world can’t make up for it to me.

On a final note, all that shit in the credits. In the theatrical cut, it’s all the biggest fan service that could bug me. It’s great to see Bruce Campbell’s face, but we didn’t need it. It’s cool to hear Professor Knowby’s voice, but it’s after the fact. And in the TV/Home Video cut… well, what was necessary about the car scene? There’s no tension, nothing implied, we just know “Oh, she’s… not possessed. Which we knew.”

Ay yi yi yi, Evil Dead, folks. It could be better.

For God’s Sake, How Do You Stop It?!

There’s an observation within two horror franchises that I’ve seen communicated to a point that I can sort of meet them halfway: When it comes to the Resident Evil games’ entry into over-the-shoulder shooting gameplay around the time of Resident Evil 4 (technically its sixth entry) and to Aliens’ release as a runner-up to Alien, it simply makes sense that the franchises have now delved away from horror to becoming outright action. We’re not scared of there being monsters behind the door, we know they’re there and we’re going to hit them first (though I maintain that Resident Evil 4 is still a very scary horror game).

Evil Dead II turns that thing all the way around. As far as director/co-writer Sam Raimi was concerned, the only real evolution from horror now that we know the monsters are there… is comedy. To laugh along with them as they take out their torments on poor Bruce Campbell’s Ashley “Ash” J. Williams. While still retaining a lot of the overt yet solid creepiness of the horror genre.

If I may be frank, I honestly believe the comedy shift favors Evil Dead II more than the action shift favors Aliens or Resident Evil 4. It is as a result one of my favorite movies and one that I consider superior to The Evil Dead.

This certainly wasn’t an opinion I was willing to jump to immediately, simply based on nostalgia. While I saw The Evil Dead for the first time in middle school and so was able to latch unintended nostalgia onto it, I didn’t see Evil Dead II until I was in college. Yep. But I did see it in 35mm when I first saw it, so it had that going for it. Which is nice.

Before I go any further, I really need to be a stickler for something – constantly I see Evil Dead II referred to as a remake and it is most certainly not such a film, but it’s easy to see where the misconception comes from. Originally the screenplay by Raimi and Scott Spiegel (drafted in the middle of the production of Crimewave – a noir parody film that was Raimi’s sophomore film and written by the Coen bros. I made it sound better than it is) called for the film to be opened up with the recap of the original film using its footage, but rights issues in one way or another got in the way.

As a result, Evil Dead II opens up with a newly-shot and cast re-run into the main events of The Evil Dead sped through in the first 15 minutes – Ash is in this version of events joined solely by his girlfriend Linda (Denis Bixler replacing Betsy Baker) albeit because who wants to start a movie with the protagonist killing his four friends within the first few minutes? Like the previous film, Linda becomes possessed from the now-renamed Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (soidifying the book’s presence as a Lovecraftian Element rather than just implying it). Ash reluctantly dismembers her to save her soul and is tormented for it. And we reach the end point of The Evil Dead where the force actively rushes for Ash next right before the ending credits.

Except THIS is where Evil Dead II really starts for all intents and purposes. If you haven’t seen The Evil Dead (in which case, go watch it now! Why are you reading this?) You may use the preceding minutes in Evil Dead II to fill in where we are in Ash’s story, but if you have seen the previous movie, that opening only serves as a refresher. The editing even gives the frame a frozen-frame zooming-in motion as if to motion to the audience that NOW we’re really getting into the story.

And just as we’re left with Ash realizing he is so fucked, the first third of the movie proper has one character and one character only – Ash. By himself. In the Cabin. As one would expect, such a premise would need a charismatic and able lead actor to guide the audience through the various psychological and physical torments Ash goes through, especially one that could allow himself to be at once victim and clown to take hold of Raimi’s intent of turning this demon possession story into a Three Stooges Halloween Special without making the joke on the ghouls themselves. It’s certainly not going to be that bland handsome face who was more of a function than a character in the first movie so I guess Evil Dead II is kinda doomed.

Except Bruce Campbell is exactly that kind of actor who can perform all those demands of mugging and slapstick and jumps through those hoops ably, making me kind of mad the movie moves on to the arrival of four other characters pretty quickly. I could watch Campbell throw himself about all fucking day if I have to. When his evil hand begins having a life of its own, Campbell is so perfectly able to make his own appendage distinguishable enough in movement to be its own character and especially a threat to himself. When the hand begins to turn against him slamming plates on his head, it’s hilarious. How could it not be? But right before that, when Ash lies on the floor crying “give me back my hand”… Campbell doesn’t make it any sort of joke. He’s seriously scared and alone, his voice quavering and weak.

Maybe a trained mime or clown would know how to do it better than Campbell does it, but it fools me and that’s enough to – alongside his energetic frenzy at both fear and laughter – to make this Ash one of my favorite performances I’ve seen in a motion picture and needless to say my favorite Campbell turn (I haven’t seen his 1997 Running Time though, which Bruce would emphatically call his favorite performance he has done. Maybe it’ll change my mind).

It’s not exactly where one could say Campbell developed his awesome ability as a magnetic (if one-note) lead who isn’t used half as much as he should (I’d claim it was just prior when he played Renaldo “The Heel” in Crimewave; maybe Cleveland Smith if we really want to go back), but the amount of over exaggerated caricature in a single eyebrow arch or drop of a jawline is what makes Campbell one of my favorite actors.

Anyway, that’s a lot of gushing for Campbell alone and there’s still plenty of movie to talk about. Maybe I’ve remained on it because for the most part, Evil Dead II still does all the things The Evil Dead did right: Peter Deming’s cinematography re-incorporating all the fog, the motion of the camera with off-kilter angles, blue lighting (this time without ever letting us see the light sources). But now with a decent budget, funded by Dino de Laurentiis – thanks to Stephen King’s vouch – giving designers Randy Bennett, Philip Duffin, and Elizabeth Moore much to up the theatricality so we don’t have moments where we catch it being a movie so much as a ride. Such showcases of their newfound budget includes the movie having stop-motion (most notably the undead Linda dance Ash witnesses) that looks like something out of Ray Harryhausen’s nightmares or the bigness of scenarios like the final battle where the house and woods become a living breathing monster set and completely go against Ash and his new sidekick Annie Knowby (Sarah Berry), the only other character who doesn’t seem to just be there for the sake of body count and the daughter of the Professor whose voice is heard in the tape recording found in the cabin played throughout the film. It should be thrown in that even if the characters of Evil Dead II don’t have weight, they are all stock types to its immense favor of at least cannon fodder having personality within it (I wonder if Bobbie Joe would have been better if Holly Hunter, a friend of Raimi and Campbell’s who B.J. is based on, instead of Kassie Wesley DePaiva – though if I have to admit, she’s at least second-best in the small cast even above Berry. She’s got attitude at least.).

But Campbell and Raimi’s glee at just throwing the movie into whatever tonal gear they feel like without making it clunky (praise to editor Kaye Davis for keeping up) is undoubtedly the biggest anchor that turns Evil Dead II into such a one-of-a-kind movie that could only be made by the sort of folks that at once just love to make movies for the fun of it and yet at the same time know exactly what about the elements all together work to give the experience it needs. Going whiplash from psychological terror to live-action Looney Tune to underground trapped with a zombie to bloodbath to outright heroics in the end (everybody’s gotta love when Ash gets his chainsaw arm and shotgun it’s just so g… no, I won’t say it) and just when it makes the most unexpected turns of design and direction (the final beats are obviously De Laurentiis-esque though I don’t doubt they were entirely of Raimi and Spiegel’s invention), it leaves itself ready for another adventure of fear and laughs.

Maybe the biggest element that personifies Evil Dead II as a movie is where Ash is still in the cabin by himself and the Cabin elements – the lights, the windows, the boards, the cabinets, most ghoulishly memorable of all a single deer head mount with eyes as white all the possessed characters in the franchise – begin laughing at him, cruelly and cartoonishly, jerking around in sync with their giggles. And Ash, absolutely appalled by this point at how much he’s been messed with, goes into hysterics laughing along with the cabin all around and joining them before those bellows of delirious laughter become anguished screams and cries of despair without Campbell missing a beat.

That really is Evil Dead II in a nutshell and maybe the finest scene in both Raimi and Campbell’s career and watching it by itself as a short film makes a pretty obvious tell towards both how viewer will react to the movie (I’ve seen rooms of people laugh at it; rooms of people silent in horror) and to how certain and dedicated Raimi and Campbell are to leaving you just as crazy and exhausted as Ash, but completely fulfilled out of pushing through it all with him.

On a final note only vaguely related to Evil Dead II that I can’t discuss anywhere else, the 35mm screening I saw the movie in for the first time still had all of its trailers attached to the print and one of the things that played right before the movie began was a Loews Theater bumper of theater etiquette.

Featuring. Fucking. Sesame Street characters. And I am an unapologetic Sesame Street enthusiast. It was so awesome to watch it right before an Evil Dead movie.

Man, if the print burned up right before the movie started but after this video I would have felt like I got my goddamn money’s worth.

Oh, sorry, I probably should’ve ended this post about laughing scene. Yeah, we’re done here, I’m gonna watch this video again and again.

The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror

Around age 12, at one point in my life, I was playing soccer or basketball – one or the other – with my cousin and my brother. I asked my cousin off-hand what the scariest movie he ever saw was and he answered with The Evil Dead, which he happens to own at the time on VHS and lent it to me, which I was hesitant to do since I knew the movie was rated NC-17 (a pretty little known fact by anyone except probably those like me who were raised to avoid PG-13 movies until age 13 and R rated/NC-17 were right out of the question according to my parents). Still he insisted not only that I watch it, but that I watch it in the dark at night.

I chickened out not only at that chance of seeing it in the dark, but I did not chicken out on seeing the movie that very night anyway (though I remember having a heart attack when my mom watched me rewinding it, thinking she’d punish me for it – in retrospect, I don’t even think she knew the movie existed and so I don’t know why I feared it). That same cousin later on let me keep it (as was kind of his habit with any movie he lent me, he wasn’t really a cinephile though he did enjoy movies enough to occasionally pass by and borrow whatever was in my collection.)

For this reason among others that I will go into, The Evil Dead is a movie that has a special place in my heart for a great number of reasons. It is maybe the first horror movie not featuring Freddy Krueger that I took an extreme obsession towards. At the time, it was a movie that I was pretty surprised could be so tonally different from director Sam Raimi’s later Spider-Man (my favorite movie at that age), to be so cruel and gory within his first feature film (although now I’ve watched enough of Raimi’s films to catch the consistent in-your-face wacky style style that he’s had in every movie from The Evil Dead to Drag Me to Hell.

A much bigger reason for my adoration and constant watching of The Evil Dead was simply that I was impressed by how it was made. As both an emphatic IMDb browser then and already having been bit by the bug of wanting to make movies at that point, I began to take Raimi’s low-budget production history to making a superficially simple but effective horror story followed by acclaim at Cannes – from Stephen fucking King of all people – as a gospel for my goals (though I think if I had seen Mad Max – just as literal in portraying momentum via cinematic language as The Evil Dead – then as opposed to this past summer, it might have been my mecca instead).

For these attachments I find linking me to The Evil Dead as a movie (as well as the entire trilogy), it will be tougher than anything to actually approach said movie objectively. I’m much too fond of it for all the different attributes it has. That said, when you look at it hard enough, you can catch its flaws as a picture, I’ve just never thought of them as damning enough an element to make the film any less of a classic (if conceding that is nowhere near a perfect film).

The VHS copy I was lent of the movie had a cover that I actually think does a great job of portraying what the movie essentially is:

As you see in this blatant photoshoot, star Bruce Campbell (who plays Ashley, the protagonist for the entire trilogy and even makes a fanservice appearance in the 2013 remake that was produced by him, Raimi, and franchise producer Robert Tapert) standing next to a grave with a matte full moon and a pretty wary look in his eyes. Sure, it’s not nearly as fully of all that gooey gore that is the film’s very notoriety, but it pretty much is at once an obviously artificial bit of atmosphere setting – the atmosphere being a haunting and spooky one – while at once being effective simply because of how unambiguous it is about what to fear.

So much of the movie within from the get-go is dedicated to airy and foggy tones while allowing for enough darkness to get things shadowy without at all coming off as all-black amateur hour (fucking Friday the 13th). This while the rawness of the shoot gives it a more legitimate feel to it, a more immediate involvement akin to a found-footage film without hiding the good stuff or looking it was shot with an ass. It’s a hella great compliment to the soundmix featuring enough nightlife and silence within it – occasionally allowing the crushing of woods leaves and branches to define what we don’t see and what may be lurking waiting for the five teenagers – and also provided in angles and framings that verily provide impact, all diagonally and Dutch and bright lights to give outline to shapes in the dark. Lights that are very much visible when the shot widens enough, but that’s ok. It’s a ghost story without any real ghosts, just enough of a mood to make you fear before anything can happen to the gang.

The Evil Dead is essentially the equivalent of going through a novelty haunted house and seeing where the tricks come from in making those ghosts and monsters only after they jump out to scare you. With a lot of blood.

I mean, there is a shitload of blood within it. Like so much that, despite undoubtedly being the only “pure” horror film in the whole trilogy (as I will go late on with the other three films this month in obviously enthusiastic anticipation for Starz’ Ash vs. Evil Deadthe second film became a horror/comedy hybrid, the third an adventure picture that only occasionally touched on horror moods), it still has a very aware sense of humor about the buckets and buckets of fake gore that take place in all places the moment that the movie’s premise of five friends in a cabin in the woods becoming prey to released demonic spirits that possess them and scar them horrifically. An entire scene late in the picture dedicates itself to shocking Ash by having blood spurt and pour from incredibly nonsensical places from a film projecter to a light bulb.

Raimi and Tapert were totally aware of how shocking the power of the on-screen blood could be to punctuate the haunting mood of the film, but not simply on its own…

The characters surrounding The Evil Dead are inarguably cannon fodder, even Ash is devoid of any charisma that he’d be later on known for (that comes more in Evil Dead II than in Campbell’s deer-in-the-headlights performance… I meant “deer-in-the-headlights” in a good way, I promise). Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Scotty (Hal Delrich), Linda (Betsy Baker), and Shelly (Sarah York)… all five of them are only there to suffer on account of their messing with the Naturom Demonto (isn’t it great to see Lovecraft references in indie films?). I once wrote a review on the blogspot page claiming that this movie’s main premise is to witness the suffering of friends and loved ones like Ash does and deal with the horror that the only humane thing is to cut them into pieces, but I think that might be kind of a bit too much credit to the characterizations. And especially when a lot of shots hold the victims at a distance while we see from the demonic forces’ point of view.

But the anchor to it all is simply that we do have to watch them slowly but surely lose control of themselves (alongside some very creepy makeup working to disguise these humans in a very Halloween way – but also the fact that the cast seems more game playing creepily lullabying or screaming demons than, y’know, people), at some points recognizing ourselves with Ash psychologically having to deal with this. And the gore only adds to it, watch all these folks we were just riding a car with at the beginning turn into pieces of flesh and liquefied meat. It’s disgusting and cartoonish yet effective, even Campbell’s melodramatic yelling as the butt of the joke keeps things from becoming way too sober to enjoy it.

Anyway, this has said a lot of stuff about my feelings about The Evil Dead and a whole lot of it is more how I’ve adored it in my adolescence rather than any objectivity, so let me just point out the few kinks in my love for it that grew over time.

First, the infamous tree rape scene, the one that most likely got it on the UK’s Video Nasties list more than all the gore in the film.

Fuck that scene. Pun not intended (and now that I realized I accidentally used it I am ashamed). But really, fuck that scene. I know a lot of people don’t have a problem with it, but I always did, even at 13. And I usually am not reluctant towards rape scenes in cinema or television (though I always find them uncomfortable to sit through, no matter how necessary to the narrative). And I know that it’s positioned at a point that sort of makes it essential to the rising of the violence, in that it is the very first time we see these forces attack and it is with outright brutality, but whereas most of these violent incidents can do so while being banal enough to feel sort of like semi-laugh moments, that’s just never been the case with this scene. And it didn’t HAVE to be a rape scene in order to get point across that something is in the woods attacking. Come on.

And the other thing is that, like I said before many times in this review, this movie is really obviously cheap and has its moments where the artificiality of it shows up in obvious ways. The most nagging of these to me is in the case the Professor (Bob Dorian’s in an audio tape attached to the Naturon Demonto)’s workplace under the cabin… which looks exactly like a filmmaker would just get the elements necessary to have your standard workdesk with any semblance of personality or liveliness. And then, y’know, add a fucking The Hills Have Eyes poster just because. Fuck is this?

But despite these pickings, there’s still so many things I want to talk about from the editing (of which Edna Ruth Paul got help from a certain Joel Coen… hey hey hey) to the music choice of old-timey stuff that wears its fears on its skeletal sleeve and that’s unfortunate because I simply don’t want to keep you guys here forever to talk about an impressive work of ingenuity and creativity to supply a creepy isolated house movie that you oughta just experience for yourself by now. Talking this long about a movie that I love as much as The Evil Dead might leave you all dead by dawn…