As a devout horror fan, the trend of updated remakes is often more disheartening than refreshing. I especially despair over the idea that for some people, the remake is their first, and only, exposure to the content. The bar I set for remakes is not very high; if you have something new to say or examine, while also taking the time to adapt the movie to contemporary time, go for it. Otherwise, you lose the charm, the heart, and the spirit of the original film. Instead, the idea is to add gore, add an expendable cast, and convert it to 3D. Few and far between, there are some remakes that pass the litmus test. Off hand, the best recent horror remake I can name (in my opinion) is Fright Night. Obviously, my next example is the new Evil Dead, that along with the rubber stamp of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, manages to build upon the narrative devices of the original.
So what does Evil Dead (2013) update to distinguish itself from its predecessor while also subtly remaining an homage?
Changes to how relationships are emphasized
In the original, Ash’s sister Cheryl, is arguably the most annoying person you are like to encounter anywhere. She whines, she serves as a Debbie Downer from scene one, and is a general buzzkill. She gets possessed first and it actually serves to improve her personality. Ash’s relationship with his girlfriend Linda is a far more integral to the plot. She’s the one that gets the necklace from Ash early on, she’s the one that gets put in the pretty burial dress and lovingly laid to rest. His sister becomes the primary antagonist but his girlfriend retains a victim-like quality throughout the film, ’til Ash decapitates her.
The remake doesn’t try to hide that fact that it is far more interested in the dynamic between the brother (David) and sister (Mia) of the group. So much so that they seem to integrate Ash’s character arc into both David and Mia’s storyline. Mia receives the necklace, gets changed into a burial dress and subsequently buried. And yet, it retains the Cheryl plot for the better part of the film. She’s the first to be possessed, she tries to flee and gets raped in the woods. What the remake does very effectively is base her craziness (and the desire to keep her there) in reality. She’s a heroin addict who is one OD away from death. The whole weekend actually serves as a last ditch effort to get her clean, as opposed to a generic spring break trip. Unlike the original, Mia’s attitude makes perfect sense. The best evidence of the change in dynamic? In the original, Linda wears the Michigan State sweater. In the remake, Mia is seen wearing it.
This also marginalizes the girlfriend character completely (Natalie). In fact, while not the first to become possessed, she is still the least developed character. Intentional or not, this is another example of the change in relationship focus. The movie almost goes out of its way to leave her a blank slate.
The Back Story
In the original, the group finds the Necronomicon, and a record, that explains what happened to the previous inhabitants of the cabin. The incantations on the record bring about the demons’ release. Meanwhile, in the remake, we get an intro that depicts what happened at the cabin prior to the main events. Then, we have Eric become obsessed with the Necronomicon, secretly. While it goes a little unexplained, how the remake depicts this obsession (which leads to all the hell that breaks loose) and the fact he never reveals it or gets called out on it, is kind of disturbing. I’m still thinking about it.
The Sequence of Events
Surprisingly, the movie maintains the shell of the original, only diverging at the climax (and adding a dog, because, why not?). In the original, Scotty’s girlfriend Shelly is the second to get possessed; she attacks him, and he eventually dismembers her. Linda is the next to be possessed and at first is just a passive, creepy singer of a scary sounding song. Eventually, unable to dismember her, Ash opts for the burial option. She rises from the grave and Ash is forced to decapitate her. Ash goes back inside to battle with Cheryl and Scotty, both possessed. The sequence of Ash in the cellar with blood seeping out into everything is one of my favorites and I’m torn between being sad it’s left out of the remake and happy they didn’t try to touch the scene. The remake sort of addresses this with a blood rain.
Shelly’s analog in the remake, Olivia, is also the second to get possessed and attacks the Scotty analog, Eric. Instead of dismembering her, he bashes her brains in. Natalie is the next possessed, but unlike the original, is not passive. She attacks Eric and David with a nail gun. Here, Mia’s character temporarily takes over the arc of Ash’s girlfriend and gets the burial treatment. Mia awakens exorcised. David only has to deal with Eric, and his solution is to set the cabin on fire with both of them inside.
The Manifestations of the Demons
In the original, the demons are only seen through the possessed bodies of the characters or when the camera seems to become the eyes of a demon as it rushes from the forest. Without seeing it, I’ve always identified it as an invisible force in our world. In the remake, we have a startling different take on how the characters see the demons, including an ending that conjures up an “Abomination” from hell. I’ve been going back and forth on whether this entirely works for me (in some cases, it feels like just another opportunity to add shock factor) but it definitely offers up a departure from the original.
In the lead-up to this movie, I could hardly avoid people referring to Jane Levy as the “female Ash.” Which I thought was cool. But it is hard to reconcile that with the first half of the film, where she appears to be playing the sister role from the original, albeit with more substance. However, the movie takes an abrupt turn in its climax. Eric successfully exorcises his sister, just in time for him to bite the dust and her to assume the role of heroine. Instead of continuing to fight her possessed friends like Ash, Mia must deal with the resurrection of the Abomination. She emerges triumphant and does not get possessed like Ash in the original. However, she does lose her hand in the battle, implying that like the Evil Dead musical, this was an attempt to consolidate the original Evil Dead with Evil Dead 2 (okay, they are the same movie, but not really…).
References to the Original
Fans of the original are not left to drift in the cold lonely waters of the remake, or subjected to obvious, groan-inducing callbacks. Here are some things I noticed, but this list is not exhaustive:
- what looks to be the now dilapidated car from the original
- the necklace looks similar but isn’t exactly the same as, the one Ash gives his girlfriend. And said necklace assumes the shape of a skull at one point when it is laying on the ground.
- Jane Levy gets way more Ash-like after being exorcised, dusting off some one-liners and like I said, losing her hand. (“Feast on this, motherfucker!”)
- They hail from Michigan, the same place as the original group. Also, Eric looks like he borrowed the shirt he is wearing from Scotty’s closet, amirite? (Compare to Eric above).
Now that the remake is making bank at the theaters, it is basically a done deal that we are getting an Evil Dead 2 from the same director. At the same time, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are attempting to make Army of Darkness 2. As suggested by some people, the remake doesn’t preclude the idea that the events from the original happened in the same timeline. Therefore, as Raimi et al. have suggested, a seventh film could combine the two narratives of Ash and Mia, resulting in, you guessed it, pure awesomeness. While the current box office stats definitely raise expectations that this could happen, I don’t want to get my hopes too high. Does anyone else remember when, after the relative success of Freddy vs. Jason, some people were talking about getting Ash involved? I’m sure that had to do with rights, but that was such an exciting prospect I still feel sad over it not happening.
Inevitably, October dissolves into a re-visitation of horror movies I’ve seen countless times and sometimes taking some dubious chances on “horror” I haven’t seen yet. If it all works out, hopefully I will have added one or two to my rotation. The great thing about horror fans is that whenever we get to pow-wow, someone will have some obscure, great title that you’ve never seen before. And of course, judging from various tastes (supernatural, slasher, B movie), each collection will be skewed in some direction. I will freely admit I overly love anything from the ’80s: the good, the bad, the marginally okay.
Everyone has their own method of introducing a pal to a series, a genre, or even a new band. You have to strategically decide what to expose them to and when in the process. Someone wants to get into Doctor Who, you show them “Blink” (probably). Someone wants to get horror educated, you don’t start them with Sleepaway Camp (I mean…right?). My college roommate used to vehemently oppose horror. Luckily I wore her down eventually. My method: first you gotta start with a spectrum-spanning base of classics. My go-to Top 10 of these would be something like:
1.Night of the Living Dead (1968)
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
3. Jaws (1975)
4. Suspiria (1977)
5. Halloween (1978)
6. Alien (1979)
7. Friday the 13th (1980)
8. The Shining (1980)
9. The Evil Dead (1981)
10. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
And because that list was really hard, I would in theory put these on the table as well:
Zombies!: Dead Alive; Possession!: The Exorcist, Child’s Play; Vampires!: Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Near Dark; Mogwais/creatures!: Gremlins, Pumpkinhead; Hell children!: Children of the Corn, The Omen, Carrie; Ghosts!: Poltergeist; They never come back…good!: Re-Animator, Pet Sematary, Hellraiser; Slashers!: Prom Night, Candyman, Black Christmas; Aliens!: The Thing, Phantasm
Of course you could go the new classics route with:
Entertainment Weekly posted last week that Lois Duncan’s book Down a Dark Hall will be adapted by Stephanie Meyer, creator of He-Who-is-Shiny Edward and the rest of those people. Like many, I was excited to see a book I enjoyed in my teens being thrust back into prominence. But I am anxious about Stephanie Meyer and what her influence will do to it. (Shuddering at the thought.) Serendipitously when I discovered my cache of Lois Duncan books in the attic, I decided to sit down and see what I had in store – and how Hollywood would likely adapt the story for our modern age and movie-going expectations.
My obsession with Lois Duncan books fell sometime in between devouring everything Nancy Drew and scouring used bookstores for Christopher Pike titles. My version of I Know What You Did Last Summer ties in with the movie version as the cast from the film is on the cover. That’s right, the film led me to the novel, but at least it was the gateway to more Lois Duncan fun.
Apparently (disclaimer: my source is Wikipedia), Duncan was none too pleased to see her YA novel turned into a horror movie. Which actually makes sense because (spoiler alert) I was stunned when reading the book that neither Helen nor Barry (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe’s characters in the movie) die. As a SMG obsessive at the time, I was actually pleased with this alternative narrative. Her book Killing Mr. Griffin was adapted into film in 1997 and again under the title Teaching Mrs. Tingle in 1999. I remember the previews for the Katie Holmes and Barry Watson-helmed Teaching Mrs. Tingle well, but do not remember Helen Mirren playing the titular Mrs. Tingle. I haven’t see it, and why, Helen, why?!
But if true, her outlook is sort of a shame: even if they are gearing toward the Twilight crowd, Down a Dark Hall has all the ingredients necessary to pull off a spooky, atmospheric horror film. In fact, throughout the book, there are many elements reminiscent of horror movies that came out after Down a Dark Hall was published. What jumps out immediately? Suspiria; in fact, I could almost see some people (not knowing it was a book) thinking of DaDH as a modernized take on Suspiria, although the film came out 3 years after the book. If a script, and director, could put together a film as creepily haunting as Argento did with Suspiria, this could be awesome. In Suspiria, an American ballet dancer travels to an elite academy in Germany only to discover it is run by a coven of witches. Like main character Kit in DaDH, Suspiria’s Suzy is often woozy and falls asleep unexpectedly while strange events happen around her.
Some aspects reminded me of Evil Dead. One girl in particular, Lynda, appears possessed by the spirits that compel her to paint. Similarly, a possessed Kit throws a broken pencil at her friend Sandy, evoking memories of this scene in Evil Dead and this scene from The Faculty. Pencils are deadly. Similarly, when Ruth throws her notebook on the fire and howling voices emanate from it, I couldn’t help but think of the Book of the Dead when Ash throws it onto the fire. Briefly, I also thought of A Nightmare on Elm Street, if only because of the evil that awaited when the characters slept. Kit repeatedly fails to stay awake to prevent the spirits from taking over – if only she took a page out of Nancy’s book and kept a coffee pot under her bed (I remain envious of this).
My takeaway: I identify – a lot – with Kit. She looks around the small town (that she doesn’t even get to visit) and remarks “There isn’t even a movie theater!” (When I went to college, the sight of the local Regal made me feel instantly better about life.) And her newly remarried mom and step dad dropping her off at boarding school so they can take an extended European honeymoon?: that is straight out of my worst fears as a child. This quote in particular from new dad Dan, annoys me: “I know your position in the family has been different from that of most girls; with just the two of you, your mother has treated you as an equal rather than as a child. You’re strong-willed and independent and very used to running things. But you are not going along with us on our honeymoon”. All of that uttered as if it is a bad thing! To be fair, I think Duncan wants us to feel as slighted as Kit; the real perpetrators of evil in this book almost seem to be Kit’s mom and Dan: guardians surreptitiously pointing Kit towards Blackwood and ignoring her fears because their honeymoon was so damned important. I would feel so much satisfaction from being able to tell my mom how wrong they both were and how miserable I was in part due to their inattention. To think my mom would let anyone talk to me like Dan talks down to Kit is just unfathomable. Thankfully, I also believe that my mom would never have left me anywhere for that long of a time, especially if I voiced misgivings about it and pleaded to leave immediately.
There are only a few things I think Stephanie Meyer should change in the adaptation.
- Kit should be older than fourteen. She certainly acts older than that in the book and any flirtation that she will get to have in the movie with Jules, a recent graduate of a European music conservatory will be less creepy. Duncan does a pretty good, Stephanie Meyer-esque, job of describing Jules as the hottest guy, like, ever. But as Kit faces some tough revelations about Jules, she re-evaluates and no longer finds him attractive – not sure if this is in Stephanie’s wheelhouse.
- There is the obvious need to update technology. One of the biggest reveals in the book that something is up at Blackwood occurs when Kit notices neither her mom nor her best friend are receiving her letters anymore. This will not fly in this day and age, especially with Skype. How can the movie get the students so isolated for so long? And the whole “ugh, no signal” trope will not work for many parents.
- I Know What You Did Last Summer, at the end of the day, was a horror movie, making the deaths of two of the characters all but necessary. Had the book been adapted in the vein of Twilight, they could have stuck to the main plot instead of creating the Ben Willis character. With Stephanie Meyer taking the reins on DaDH, I assume (and hope) that there will be little derivation from the book in this regard.
- Finally, the book stops abruptly: we know that Kit has escaped and she will be rescued almost immediately after the conclusion. It is fairly satisfying but — at the risk of book purists getting up in arms — I would love an epilogue to these events. The book ending denies us the chance to see Kit’s mom’s reaction to what happened at Blackwood. We fail to find out what happens to Madam Duret and if her deceits, forgeries, and abuse are uncovered for the world to see. Would Kit forgive Jules after he stands up for the girls against his own mother? Questions I would love to see answered on the big screen.
The Cabin in the Woods came out on Friday the 13th and that was too great of an opportunity to not see it on opening night. I have so many thoughts on this film bouncing around in my head I don’t think it is possible to fit them all into a concise post. I want to talk about the commentary it makes on horror movies, the parallels to Evil Dead (and how Evil Dead, surprisingly, doesn’t fit into the obvious archetypes that the movie also addresses) and how it fits into the legacy of Scream’s revitalization of the genre. So this is more a stream of consciousness post that I apologize in advance for; however, it is categorized into three discussions. Also, if you haven’t see The Cabin in the Woods and do not want to be spoiled (which for this one you really shouldn’t) then just…don’t read this. Please.
Cabin’s contribution to the contemporary discourse on horror movies:
Self-identified fans of horror movies (myself included) are so used to the formula it is almost ingrained to the point of invisibility. Why else do we watch literally the same variation on a theme countless times with only the big bad, locale, and kills slightly modified? CitW points out that any deviation from the norm results in dissatisfaction: case in point, the need for female nudity; or, as Randy appropriately calls it in Scream, “the obligatory tit shot”. When the puppeteers are ogling the couple about to have sex (a scenario they have engineered) Richard Jenkins remarks that if the girl fails to show some skin, “they” won’t be pleased, as in nudity is such a given to the horror formula that fans will be disappointed without it. Can’t say that I agree with this assessment because honestly I feel like if you attend horror films hoping for the nudity, you are not there for the right reasons; studios that make nudity a cornerstone are probably also not concerned with the overall product and hence why we get such formulaic dirge every year.
To enjoy horror is to turn off a little valve in your head that would otherwise be horrified by the events depicted on screen and, of course, you need a healthy dose of suspended disbelief and detachment. In Friday the 13th we are not expected to grieve for the counselors as they die (I hope), their missed opportunities, or to think about how their parents will react upon hearing the news (“We regret to inform you that your child was murdered by an insane woman who believes all camp counselors are at fault for the drowning death of her son…”). We are supposed to fear the unknown: who the next victim will be, how they will die, and whether the evil will ultimately be defeated. And be entertained throughout. However, when horror movies do depict the fallout of murdering an innocent or stop to ask questions similar to those we would tackle if such events happened in the real world –the film proves that its ambitions are higher, that it aims to carve out its own niche in the canon.
For instance, it is hard to separate what happens to Johnny Depp’s character in A Nightmare on Elm Street from the wails of his mother when she discovers the scene. And other than just abiding by the rules of a sequel (“Number one: the body count is always bigger. Number two: the death scenes are always much more elaborate – more blood, more gore – *carnage candy*. And number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead” What would any of us do without the dedicated wisdom of Randy?), Halloween II also pays off what we learn in the first film: Laurie’s murdered friend Annie was the sheriff’s daughter and before the hospital mayhem we get a poignant scene (for a horror movie) where the sheriff realizes that his daughter is one of the victims. Setting certainly lends a hand (these teens were dying in their homes and around their parents) but it indicates a certain acknowledgement that even though these characters were engineered to be serial killer fodder, they are not an island unto themselves and death has immediate consequences.
To take this commentary as criticism of the formula seems a little odd to me. In fact, I would be very much in favor of a return to the standard formulaic themes of horror that function under a innovative idea. Hostel was innovative. The new Oren Peli movie, Chernobyl Diaries, looks to have promise. These days horror seems comprised of two types: the remake/reboot/prequel (which employs the formula, but is recycling an already established premise) and the “lost footage” gag which I was already annoyed with after Paranormal Activity and I now beg to never see another poor exorcism movie again. I recently discussed how the Final Destination formula (working with but separately from the tradition horror formula) is one of the most predictable while also being the most nerve-wracking. It is an instance where we know the formula enough to anticipate where we are going with the narrative but it is also highly effective because of repetition: they will try to surprise you with how death actually occurs and they consistently follow through with unique devices.
The commentary doesn’t resonate with me as much as Joss Whedon would like it to; it is an interesting concept, but not one that makes me question myself. Should we enjoy watching teens being murdered by some supernatural force? If you approach it in some ways, probably not; but the point of horror is the rush: as humans we are scarily attracted to falling and other dangerous activities, we are attracted to the thrill of being scared. And yes, maybe sometimes we want to see ingenious kill scenarios or gratuitous blood and guts. This may be compelling for a psych major but I don’t find anything particularly disturbing about being a rabid horror fan.
CitW takes a crack at the Evil Dead formula:
The obvious parallel that viewers are supposed to draw from the beginning of this movie is Evil Dead. (How many people who went to see the film have seen Evil Dead? Especially since the remake has yet to grace our screens? I can’t answer that. But I assume that the answer to “How many of the people who saw The Cabin in the Woods and have also seen Evil Dead enjoyed CitW?” is the majority). In both, our main stable of characters pull up to a cabin in a secluded area (in ED they must cross a bridge; in CitW they must go through a tunnel). Inevitably, these means of access will be obliterated and the characters trapped. This scene in CitW worked really well for me: being unable to escape their circumstances is a must for horror movie characters and the panic over the tunnel still being accessible as they drove towards it was pitch perfect. There are large floor openings to the cellar in the living room. The cabin seems to grow and expand as the movie goes on. Investigating what you find in the cellar may not be the best idea – reading out any foreign phrases is also not a good idea.
(Side bar on more horror commentary) The cellar in Cabin serves as a staging board: whatever object is activated by a character will be what is sent to kill them (a puzzle ball reminiscent of Hellraiser, a merman whose closest analog in my mind would be a creature from the black lagoon, an old wedding dress, a music box, or a diary). Possession is the watchword in Evil Dead but without becoming an exact replica, CitW instead went with hillbilly zombies. But in CitW this scene (jam packed with images that evokes horror movies of years past) establishes that the basic premise is set: you have five young people in a secluded spot, whatever bad decision they make in the cellar is arbitrary. It calls to mind those old Goosebumps books where you chose your own pathways (Go into the tomb: turn to page 40; run after your brother: turn to page 105). Your free will only extends as far as the moments leading up to a fatal decision. (Mostly…end of side bar)
The other horror trope CitW wants to criticize is the necessary archetypes that must exist in the horror formula: the stupid jock, his blonde slutty girlfriend, the fool, the scholar, and the virgin. Early on CitW establishes that these archetypes were not initially the core of our characters: the jock is on scholarship and majoring in sociology, the blonde has literally just gone blonde and the “virgin” just ended an affair with a professor. Interestingly, Evil Dead more so than other films from the same period, bucks the trend of these archetypes. Bruce Campbell’s Ash is the clear leading man, shunning the prevalence of the female lead protagonist. His friend Scotty could be considered the typical hard party-goer, if only because he is the one most eager to party and most disbelieving of supernatural forces. Ash and Scotty’s girlfriends seem to be on the same level of annoying and neither fit into a category. Ash’s sister, sidelined like the fool but also imbued with characteristics of the virgin, is the first to be possessed. Evil Dead is a-typical of many horror films and perhaps that factored into the reasoning behind choosing it as the foundational material for CitW.
Is CitW the new Scream?
The Cabin in the Woods is getting a lot of buzz over being the most inventive horror film since Scream. Apparently, when it comes to being awarded buzz about creating game-changing horror, you had to start out entertaining teens over on the WB. Thanks to Kevin Williamson (of Dawson’s Creek) and Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) we now have two of the wittiest scripts in horror.
CitW is more interested in illuminating specific tropes and the state of formula horror. Scream begins in a world that acknowledges its horror predecessors, which is actually revolutionary in itself. The members of The Walking Dead can’t even refer to the walkers as zombies because to admit that such a catastrophic event was predicted in pop culture would undermine something…somehow. Not only is Ghostface asking future victims about their favorite scary movies in the form of trivia, but even Tatum has enough knowledge to accuse Sidney of acting out some “Wes Carpenter flick” (I didn’t say her knowledge was correct). The references weave together seamlessly in Scream: it seems innocent when Billy is watching The Exorcist (sadly on TV) but he also watched Carrie to get ideas about pig’s blood to fake a stabbing. Sidney knows that the big breasted girl will always run up the stairs and Randy knows that the “werewolf movie with E.T.’s mom in it” is code for The Howling. And to cap it all off, perhaps the most seminal slasher movie, Halloween is the background soundtrack to the climax of Scream.
The best conclusion that I can draw from my musings is that Scream reigns supreme, revolutionizing horror for the modern age and making filmmakers remember that it is possible to make smart, provocative, game-changing horror without falling back on a ridiculous premise and existing archetypes. CitW is a love letter to people who have this formula ingrained in the very fiber of their soul: the archetypes, the settings, the cliches, and every plot contrivance in between. It is more of a commentary on the genre as well as those that are entertained by it (the target audience for CitW).
I think, besides his commentary on formula horror, Joss Whedon wants us to go into our next horror movie thinking “is there an exterior force pulling the strings on this situation?” and thus, that is his contribution to modern horror. Or his attempt to destroy it: I get the point, I like it, but I also think this theory being applied to any given horror movie is an unnecessary distraction. Scream’s takeaway is this: our society is saturated with horror movies that most people are aware of on some level; people like Randy (and yes, myself) obsess over horror movies because they are movie geeks. People like Billy and Stu think that a preoccupation with horror is the ideal motive for murder (“It’s the millennium. Motives are incidental”).
Scream is accessible to any viewer and the horror fan only gains but so much by knowing all the the references dropped throughout the film (in my case, I was young enough to be very unfamiliar with most of them but Scream spurred me into seeking out these movies to be part of the club). But CitW is only accessible on its best level if you have put in at least a few years of horror movie watching. CitW even hopes you have experience with J-horror, which I assume most horror fans do; otherwise, the fact that the school girls in Kyoto defeat the Ring-like menace with a song and turn it into a song is just not as hilarious. I am not sure at what point maximum saturation would occur for you to enjoy all that the movie has on offer but suffice to say, you need significant experience with the genre.