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New Maps Of Hell: Why Evil Dead Fails To Bring The Fear
Mat Colegate , May 3rd, 2013 06:38

Mat Colegate comes away unimpressed by the new Evil Dead remake and thinks up some new techniques to satisfy shock-hungry audiences. Contains mild spoilers

I've got to admit to being pretty excited by the idea of Fede Alvarez's take on The Evil Dead at first. Not at the prospect of yet another remake of a horror classic, although I admit I don't share a lot of people's cynicism about these things (why does a remake have to be bad? After all John Carpenter's The Thing is a remake, however loose, and find me the horror buff who doesn't rate that movie and I'll pull off their mask, Scooby Doo-style, and expose Samantha Cameron) but there was a tingle of excitement at the fact that this remake (or re-imagining, or re-boot, or soft f*cking re-boot, or whatever you call these things these days) came with a very simple strapline:

The Most Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience

Holy Shit! Ever! Ever? In the history of cinema watching, through our long, hard-lived lives full of aching regret and the joy that brings respite, up until our eventual deaths and the release of our spirits into a world of even stranger pains, we shall never experience a film as 'terrifying' as a remake of The Evil Dead allegedly re-scripted by the person who wrote Juno? (And, incidentally, if Diablo Cody was involved there was no sign of it. One thing the film definitely lacks is wit). However, the cold hard factuality of the wording catches the eye. It's not a 'Horrifying' film - too specific to genre - nor a 'Frightening' one - too olde worlde. It's 'Terrifying': undeniable, cold, even medical. As in, “The victim would have been terrified”.

Yet my reaction to Evil Dead was one of practical nonchalance. It fails to deliver anything of the free-wheeling spirit of its predecessor and indeed does it the ultimate disservice by failing to be either scary or funny. Ridiculous, frequently, but all-too-rarely entertaining. Giving the audience a good jolt is a serious task and not an easy one, but if there's one thing that dulls a film's shock factor it's repetition, and it's all been seen before. Different combinations maybe, of different faces in mirrors or different parts of the body being sawn, bludgeoned, nailed and torched, but it was familiar. As familiar as the smell of "burnt hair" that one non-entity of a character notices on entering the cabin basement.

Evil Dead does not hold back on the gore either. Everything gets shown. About as much punishment is showered on the frail human body as it can be expected - in a horror movie context - to stand after. Limbs are torn off, nails sunk into torsos, there's screaming and vomiting and fire and lots and lots more vomit and fire. It really goes for yucky broke and yet it is never 'Terrifying'. Its evocations of hysteria and pain don't linger after you leave and when I got home after the screening I had a piece of toast.

The last mainstream horror film that came with such a serious ultimatum was The Blair Witch Project. It was a big fuss (though not big budget) movie that's very freshness seemed to challenge you to watch. The footage that followed the preview screenings of hyperventilating film reviewers and people looking like their lives had just flashed in front of their eyes cemented the notion that this was something a bit different (unless you were one of the handful of people who had managed to catch Stefan Avalos and Lance Wheeler's The Last Broadcast that is). Audiences were exhilarated, but they looked like they hadn't actually had that much fun. These were preview audiences, without any real idea of what they were going to be seeing, and the way they were responding had as much to do with Blair Witch's technical innovations as its carefully-placed shocks.

The handheld perspective was ingenious. It's not a filmmaking watershed (although the amount of films that came after Blair Witch that yoinked its style would certainly constitute a deluge) but its influence on horror opened up a whole new way of unnerving people; of putting them that bit closer to the action. It's legacy is obviously mixed, for every REC or genuinely innovative V/H/S there's a Diary Of The Dead (my fist just clenched involuntarily when I wrote that title), but the point stands that rather than looking for gory content to shock audiences, we could perhaps be looking to the ways of framing that content. To the speed and intensity that a mainstream cinema experience, with its pummelling volume and its constantly flashing lights, can provide.

Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space is ostensibly an art film, whatever you think that may mean, but it's one that aims itself straight at horror with intent. The footage Tshcerkassky folds, manipulates, crunches and turns into quivering lines of spectres is taken from a 1982 fright flick called The Entity, starring Barbara Hershey. That's her, walking into that house. There.

What Tshcerkassky does is splinter a demonic assaults chronology. The horror of a situation is rendered even more crippling by its disobedience of A-to-B logic. Frames full of half-seen malevolence flash by; weird burps and strangled yells pipe from behind the ever intensifying assault of film scraping on film. It's unnerving, brutal and harsh and would be understood as such by anyone. I'm not arguing that the inevitable remake (or re-jig, or renovation, or soft fu*king renovation) of whatever overrated slasher movie should suddenly be turned into an art school triumph, merely that I suspect a multiplex shocker acknowledging these techniques would make for a more satisfying – more 'terrifying' - ride.

Outer Space's effect on the nerves occurs because of its unpredictability. It's jumbled, but still vividly coherent. Put simply, the viewer understands that something bad is happening to a certain character in a certain place. There would be no need to sacrifice coherent narrative or entertainment value in the employment of some of these tricks in something as mainstream as Evil Dead. And it would go a good way toward tipping the hat to the anarchic, shocks-at-any-cost spirit of the original as well.

But what about sound? Well, sound in cinema has had a bit of a renaissance recently. From the use of more thoughtful scores such as Drive's, or those by Clint Mansell, to the dread-heavy clangs and shrieks of Berberian Sound Studio, the use of audio in the movies is getting some necessary attention. And was this anywhere to be seen in Evil Dead? Not in the slightest. The most intense use of sonics I can recall was the sound of a particularly heavy door closing and that was in one of the producer's idents before the film even started.

One example that comes to mind when thinking about the use of sound to scare an audience occurs in the 1968 BBC adaptation of M.R. James' Whistle And I'll Come To You, directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Michael Hordern. The dream sequence in which Hordern's bumbling antiquarian is chased down the beach by a malevolent spectre is among the most disturbingly vivid in the history of filmed fear and this is mostly due to its use of sound.

Simple, subtle and remarkable, with - and this is crucial - peaks and swoops of volume that seem to bring the terror into sudden hot-breathed contact with you. A lot of the more recent Hollywood shockers seem to be set at the same shrieking pitch. If there isn't a constant soundtrack of bloody chaos then there are stringed instruments circling like buzzards at the top end of the register (although, to be fair, Evil Dead was admirably free of prosaic musical distraction). A lot of the time these films seem to suffer from the same problem as mainstream rock records: too much compression with everything lumped into a middle range mush; whispers mixed to earth quake levels. Imagine if, instead, at the moment a main character snatched up a saw blade and proceeded to hack through their own arm, the audience was plunged into total silence, or a sudden tinnitus-aping ring whistled through the cinema - something's gone wrong, maybe? The film's broken somehow? - before a sudden cathartic explosion of noise. Just for a moment leaving your audience hanging. Letting go of their hand and not feeling the need to explain everything away. Again, no sacrifice to narrative is needed, just a willingness to trust your audience to follow you. After all, if you're doing a good enough job then they should want to keep up with whatever you throw at them. That's the point of horror generally, isn't it?

And then there's Gaspar Noe's Irreversible:

And whatever else you think about Irreversible, you have to admit that in terms of shock factor it has the right ideas about sound. It's bizarre that mainstream horror cinema has yet to pick up on the use of ultrasonic frequencies. The practically inaudible bass tone that churns through Irreversible's opening scene – a tone picked precisely in order to cause physical unease in the audience - has as much to do with its seasick claustrophobia and nails-scratching-against-concrete revulsion as anything caught on camera. My disbelief at this technique's relative lack of application may stem from the fact that the use of ultrasonic sound in splatter films seems like such a great gimmick! Something akin to 1950s horror huckster William Castle's setting of electric buzzers into cinema seats for showings of his The Tingler. A pure Hollywood wheeze, plain and simple, and an achievable, potentially frightening one. A movie with the ultrasonic thrust of a Merzbow show. The pursuit by hellish forces, the blind flight through the forest, matched by a sub-bass thud that leaves audiences harassed and loving it. The gift of physical unease.

And of course there are other tricks you can play. Flicker can be used to cause hallucinations for example. Although maybe it might be taking the idea a little too far if you turned a cinema into a massive stroboscopic equivalent to William Burrough's and Brion Gysin's Dreamachine. Not to mention a tad unethical. Still a gore hound can dream, eh? But in the use of techniques developed through more avant-garde fare, your average blockbuster giblet thrower could find a few new ways of providing the shocks that sensation-hungry audiences crave.

What all of these techniques would be, of course, are an attempt to push the hands out of the screen and grab the audience by the ears and say “HEY, FUCKER, I'M RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU AND I'M SCARY!”, as great horror movies have done since time immemorial. Gory mainstream horror thrives on shock and often flounders on it, and it will continue to be watched forever, whatever. But one day it would be good to sit in a dark, crowded room full of people you've never met, and for the lights to dim, and for an hour-and-a-half later everyone in that room to leave, not giggling or shrugging or making plans to get a pint, but battered and wonder-struck and terrified. Terrified and loving it.

Many thanks to David Sanders for technical assistance with this article