Monday, 26 August 2013

Why The Evil Dead (1981) Original, is *so much better* than The Evil Dead remake (2013), IMO

SPOILERS OF BOTH FILMS HERE!  Don’t bother with this post if you aren’t into horror – you’ll probably get very bored and grossed out, and I would hate that!  Also, there are pics and clips of the film here, and they are quite a bit nasty, so don't look if you don't like that kind of thing, ok?  See you next post, non horror lovers, I promise nothing scary there - in fact I promise you loveliness from one of my photographic artist friends :-)

I love the first Evil Dead film, the original.  (I can’t stand the sequel or the 3rd one.)  The first one is a masterpiece and amongst the scariest arse films I have ever seen.  That’s my starting point here[1].  All pics here are from the first film, the original, to show you its wondrousness and atmosphere!  Behold below - I give you the film's characters, just after thy have looked in the cellar, yes, the evil cellar...

The thing with this remake, was that its one of those extremely unnecessary remakes – why on earth did they do it?  It must have been those who thought the original had a great premise, but lacked the budget to realise it, or the acting talent or somesuch.  (I could actually look this info up but I’m not going to as I’m irritated enough to not actually care why they remade it.  I just think they made a mistake in doing so.)

The thing with the original, was that its limited budget and hammy acting helped its realism no end (yes, I did say realism, bear with me).  Barring episodes with pencils, plasticene in extreme and the scene with the book, the poker and the fire that was just too much altogether, the entire film was played with not a foot wrong.  I’m going to do a post one day about My 5 Favourite Films of All Time, What’s Not Wrong With Them, and Why Aren’t They Yours? – I do remember threatening this some time ago, over a year, but I haven’t got round to it yet.  The Evil Dead will be on this list – despite its flaws.  The poker scene loses some atmosphere (though not the ‘gruelling horror’ tagline the makers promised, nooooooooooooo, that’s still there – but for me, it loses the film momentum as it’s just too silly.  But the end picks it up again and the last shot followed by the creepy happy 20s music is just…chills on the spine.

Be clear: there is NOTHING subtle about the original at all.  It has a bare plot, bare but effective characterisation, rich atmosphere, wonderful camerawork – and a score that would terrify me were I not watching the film at all and only listening, and some visuals that despite the lack of budget scare the living shit out of me every single time I watch it.  There’s nothing like the “Jack of Diamonds! Jack of Clubs!” spin round reveal moment in practically the entire rest of cinema.  That moment is always going to petrify me.  The hardboiled egg eyes with that nasty hint of embryonic pink….shiverrrrrrrrrrrr.  The little girl demon sitting cross legged with her horrible apple cheeks while singing “We’re gonna get you…” in that twisted little voice, followed by that insane cackling never fails to make me want to do the Dr Who thing and hide behind the sofa (I never do, though I have been known to hide behind my fingers).

Of course, neither of these films will work for you, especially the first, if you don’t have a slight silly suspicion in the back of your head that…you know… spirits that are mean and just want to harm people …exist on some level, and want to be in flesh, enfleshed…they want to stab, to eat, to scream, to make bleed…If you don’t have that old fashioned and twisty logicked notion somewhere in your mind – these films will simply make you laugh at the effects (first one), and squirm or doze off at the torture pornishness of the effects (second one).  Since I have many silly notions, that being possibly one of them (thanks mum!), the first film works for me.

I’m not going to describe the plot of the first here, if you haven’t seen it and you like horrors, especially nostalgia horror and classics, then why on earth haven’t you??  There’s a summary here:

I’m also not going to be particularly even handed and say what was good about the remake, as I think it was so utterly unnecessary.  I will say it had clever effects; I will say that some of the demons had scary faces.  But that’s it.  (Why was there so much water in the remake – too much creek, too much cellar water, too much car crash water – what motif did I fail to understand there?)

I always watch remakes of films I like, because even if I think they are a dumb idea, I am a believer in the Variation on a Theme – that someone will take someone else’s idea, and make of it something a bit different, something else, something interesting.  Therefore I won’t be offended, as it no longer bears any proper relation to the original.  They are very distant cousins.  I don’t really feel that with this remake.  I feel they stole bits outright (the location, the cabin), and referenced other bits, but took all the soul away in doing so: what was the point in having one character say – ‘what’s happened to her eyes?’ after one of the most flat and unatmospheric scenes in film history, where very little actually happened at all…it just throws you straight back to the first one, where you were being bludgeoned with the sheer amount that was happening right in your face and you feel quite wrung out at that point?  It’s just a bad comparison.  When the character says it in the original, we are thinking the same thing, and feeling scared; in the second, we’re just thinking ‘oh, was that meant to be the equivalent of that moment?  What did I miss?’  The original character wails the phrase with fear; the new character breathes it, sounding a bit bored and confused.

What they did here with the remake was to try and give a film that effectively made itself almost timeless by giving itself so little context…a proper backstory.  Oddly, I have never seen a film killed before by the addition of depth, backstory, subtler (though boring) characterisation and a bit of place and time context.  You wouldn’t think it, would you?  You’d think it would make it richer.  Instead, whilst they managed to give the group a reason for going into the woods other than a weekend away (and the original group were never idiots – one of the girls was reading a book in the car on the way up there, for example, they weren’t your average teen horror twits), the new reason immediately made me feel irritated. They are there so one of the group can go cold turkey and detox from a drug addiction.  Another of the group wants to keep her there no matter what as she’s failed in the past.  She’s a nurse, and she’s an oddly strident and angry character.  This worthy social cause sort of element annoyed me.  Also, since the detoxing character was the first to be possessed, they could have played a lot with the idea of her seeing things and the others not believing her, there could have been some psychological work going on there with the audience vs. what the characters know…a wasted opportunity, they just didn’t pick up on it once the possession began.

The significant magnifier necklace Linda wears in the original is here worn by another character, the addict, and for her it means something: it’s made of buckwood and is supposed to strengthen your will.  That annoyed me too.  The necklace was there for what it does, not what it means; for what it symbolized and how Ash uses it in the original (something of Linda’s saves him in the end despite her death, her love helped to save him[2]).  It’s not just a necklace that is dismissed by one of the other characters as New Agey, then never to pop up again.  Obviously the new director and writers wanted to subvert our expectations of the so famous original by changing it wholesale while harking back to tease us – the end alone does so (the Ash-equivalent  character dies much earlier, heroically, the sister addict character survives, is the biggest example).

Obviously you don’t expect a remake to pick up on all the elements of an original, but if you are going to do the rape by the woods scene – why not do it properly?  Why make it so utterly nothingy?  The only thing that struck me about that scene was the cringy similarity of the odd black wormy thing to the size and texture of the odd sluggy things in Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975).  By the way, when I say ‘do it properly’ I don’t mean make it more violent or more real and exploitative – I felt it was sufficiently real in the first one without seeing too much – I mean they could have done more with the way the trees and vines moved – having the technology to do that today, if they had wanted to.  Instead they made the scene very minimal indeed, and the trees and vines seemed very static.

There were more updatings of the concept in this story that I hated: I hated the way the demons eyes were totally different and quite familiar – I’ve seen those contacts in a thousand other horrors, they are scary enough but not so dehumanising as the hard boiled eggs with hint of pink of the original. 

I hated the operatic soundtrack (borrow me the original Omen  [1976] and mix it with bog standard nowadays operatic epic theme and you have the soundtrack to this film).  There were pleasing callbacks to the original – the whole film starts with that fly buzzing sound; and freakily, if you listen right to the end of the credits on the remake, you get the original Professor from the first film reading the story of how he released the demons accidentally to begin with, and you get it with no interruption (in the original Cheryl is yelling ‘Turn if offfffffffff!!’ all the way through): curiously mesmeric and ordinary, at the same time.  (Of course, you also get Bruce Campbell saying “Groooovy!” in a stupid voice, so it serves you right for listening that long.)

What I hated the most was the demons themselves.  They DID NOT have any separate and distinct personalities.  (In the original, there was the first spirit – nasty controller Cheryl spirit, ankle stabby and cellar frothy; there was Scotty’s girlfriend, simply crazy, oddly male and very loud and violent and clingy; there was Ash’s girlfriend Linda, a nasty little girl who likes to lick and twist bloody knives and giggle a lot, and Scotty, who I must admit was simply a Zoombie, but he didn’t have much of a chance to get going…)  This was just…demons with super strength and weird eyes.  No personality differences at all.

I hated the way I could see right from the beginning I was going to be bored by them – they SWORE hugely, they swore like Mafiosos.  There was so much of a harkback to The Exorcist (1973) I was disappointed.  The Exorcist was massively – and rightly – influential as a demon film, it had a lot of powerful ideas and imagery within it, but it’s a completely different film to The Evil Dead. The Exorcist had things to say, a point of view, a narrative and a moral…The Evil Dead simply wanted to take some normal seeming people, subject them to a surreal and increasingly maddening state of affairs and for this to be it.  There was no moral (very unusual for an American horror film of the era of its making, the early 80s).

In the remake they were Judeo Christian demons, and there was much talk of hell.  That annoyed me.  I loved the way in the original, the demons were non Christian, not culture specific – they were what was it?  Gondarian?  Kandarian?  Some other cultures demon’s – they were nebulous and therefore more terrifying – they had to be dealt with by physical action rather than belief or ritual of any kind: “the act of bodily dismemberment.” They were an unknown quantity.  The remake kept the death methods and lost the lack of culture focus. They also annotated the Book of the Dead (the famous flesh covered book from the original) in case the audience was perchance too stupid to get the pictures…an annotation like ‘chop the bitch’ just shows you where we are historically now, really: in a world of luridly budgeted mediocrity.

There were references to other films I caught too, an icky scene where the remaining female is being stabbed at through a thin wall reminded me of the wardrobe scene in the original Halloween (1978); the scene where that female is brought back to life after her demonic burial (don’t get me started) by a jerry rigged defibrillating machine thing that involved some large syringes reminded of the famous adrenaline to chest scene in Pulp Fiction (1994).  These sorts of references are fine, but I feel the film had no real vision of its own – it referenced the original and it referenced many other films, without ever making me feel it had something of its own to say or make me feel.

There was an increase of tension all the way through the first film, till the scenes where only Ash remains human and is alone in the cabin.  He puts his hand in a mirror that turns to water, a lightbulb fills with blood for a reason, but it’s a silly reason, and far too much blood falls out of a ceiling pipe at him.  Doors and windows slam, camera angles woogle all over the place and zoom in and out – the filmmakers have such fun, and take us with them.  It’s almost laughable, and at the same time it’s saved from this (in my opinion – I know plenty people who belly laughed through most of the film) the sound effects. 

The last thing really, that I’ll bother you with is the sound effects.  The original film was terrifying not for its music, though the bits they picked were great – the song that doesn’t exist that they wrote just for the film, that’s used so effectively in the car journey on the way up and the editing of that scene, and not only the crazy 20s song they use near the end and at the credits.  It’s all those other sounds.  The way they processed the voices, the way the scenes are soaked by clonks and clanks and the flies buzzing - there were loads more weird and unidentifiable sounds, woven together to oversaturate the sound palette.  It was all very unsettling and crazymaking.  The way the demon of Shelly yells and yells in so many different pitches, with such a writhing intake of breath before the spewing of the milk (yes, it was milk!) to this day fills me with dread – its so endless.  It really was gruelling as the filmmakers promised – her death goes on and on – and so loudly.  Some of the sound effects really sound, to me, like bad bits of my own brain played back to me – I recognize them, they mean something…And yet the over the topness, the amateurishness, the sheer over enthusiasm of the whole film, its inventiveness (and God, it was very inventive with the sound, the editing, the camera, juxtapositions) stops the film entirely, from being too dark and scary to watch.  
It manages the trick of making the disgusting fare we’re watching both scary and silly and involving.  Just true enough, just plausible enough to hold your attention; and just over the top enough for you to laugh knowing it’s not true.  Masterful.  Fun.  Weird. 

Whereas the remake was… just another horror film.  I’m sad that was all it felt like.  Not sure what else it could have been, but it could have been something…

So, to end, here's a couple of clips for those of you who remember this mad film to either laugh or cringe at, once again.  Note I'm not linking the tree rape scene, its the most exploitative in the film - if you want to see it, go buy the film, or go to YouTube. Nuclear War, my friend - ENJOY these, and remember The Scala!

[1] I also love the way my original VHS copy has trailers for Eraserhead, Basketcase and John Water’s Pink Flamingoes before it – other crazy films if ever there were any.  Divine used to scare me witless too.
[2] Er, obviously that’s only true right till the last second of the film when those mischievous film makers just couldn’t let him get away and we know he’s doomed despite surviving the night.


  1. Couldn't agree with you more.

    The original is almost ALWAYS the better film than the remake, because (if for NO other reason)

    And yes, the SOUNDS in the first film are epic. LOVED that you noted that, too.

    We do disagree on the second film, tho (and even the third, a bit, even if they HAD reduced the series to a goofy comedy by then, it WAS fun)...the second one was scary in parts, had bigger budgeted effects (c'mon...the headless dance scene was GREAT....'DANCE with ME!') and a nice score...pretty impressive for a sequel to one of the best horror films EVER made...;)

    Overall, you made great points, regarding the characters, effects and tone of that first film tho...the remake didn't come close to matching it all...the original remains one of my favorite horror films of all time. Thanks for the insights and a great read!

    1. Thanks for reading - and commenting from so far away :-) No one EVER says anything about the sound palette in Evil Dead, so I had to put it out there. I think sound as well as soundtrack is so vital in horror - that and camerawork and you can make anything scary as hell ;-) I'm about to try and write about the remake of Carrie and the original (another of my alltime favourites), maybe you'll pop back and see it one day :-)