Maybe it’s because the long lead-up to their forthcoming album has clouded my thoughts, but I kept hearing Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” as the bodies were being torn apart in the new remake of Sam Raimi’s debut feature Evil Dead. Not an orthodox soundtrack, to be sure, but one which in retrospect complements the entire trajectory of the now freshly rebooted franchise, all the way back to most Raimi fans’ personal favorite in the series, the madcap 1987 sequel/remake Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn.
Raimi’s 1981 original was the original The Cabin in the Woods, an inventive, breakneck speedy twist on the then-already-stale slasher movie template and a quick cult smash in the VHS format’s early days. Starring future force of nature Bruce Campbell, the 1981 film placed five attractive but otherwise featureless teenagers into an idyllic cabin in the middle of nowhere, plopped a skin-bound Book of the Dead in their laps, and loaded cast, crew and audience alike into the cinematic equivalent of a rusty traveling carnival ride. Raimi’s entire apparatus was perceptibly jerry-rigged, but as soon as one character found herself on the receiving end of a nasty assault by sentient tree branches (accompanied by Road Runner sound effects), it was clear this was a film not to be trusted … in the best possible sense.
Raimi would ramp up the splat-stick gags in sequels Dead By Dawn and Army of Darkness, but there’s something sort of charmingly precocious about that first salvo. The humorous and horrifying setpieces intermingle uneasily, and the effect is sort of intoxicating. You can never quite tell whether Raimi’s effects are intentional or incredibly loopy accidents, whether you’re laughing with the film or at it.
If the sequels revealed Raimi’s sleight of hand, Fede Alvarez’s remake decidedly skews the balance back toward the first film’s Uncanny Valley, and emerges as one of the stronger recent horror films because of it.
Same setup: three girls, two guys, one cabin. This time, though, they aren’t gathered to enjoy blended margaritas but, rather, to oversee the safety of one of the girls as she (once again) attempts to kick junk and go cold turkey. Her brother is one of the gathered clan, though he has been notably absent from her life when she developed the addiction, apparently in response to watching their institutionalized mother tailspin and die.
Alvarez wisely doesn’t go so far as to underline the connections between Mia’s dependence and her eventual possession by literal evil, but setting the promise of carnage against her battle with inner demons proves a wicked red herring, one which recharges the franchise’s ability to shock audiences with bad taste. By the time the last one standing catches a glimpse of that immortal chainsaw while it rains torrents of blood outside, Alvarez has resuscitated the spirit of Grand Guignol.
The Place Beyond the Pines isn’t just some contest between People’s sexiest man alive and the presumptive first runner up. It’s one ambitious termite director’s bid to locate another Godfather epic among the barnacles.
Director Derek Cianfrance reunites with Hollywood’s scowlingest matinee idol Ryan Gosling after their mutual triumph of feel-bad realness, Blue Valentine, a raw, time-fragmenting postmortem on a doomed relationship in which good times and bad moments were juxtaposed in such a way that the amplitude of emotions seemed more important to telling the story than focusing on a specific, linear trajectory.
In Pines, Cianfrance streamlines the narrative but expands the social palate to show how fractured relationships can ripple beyond ruining the lives of the two people primarily affected. Gosling plays Luke, a daredevil cyclist who performs the Globe of Death with a traveling carnival jankier than anything the original Evil Dead could suggest. When he reconnects with an old flame, Romina (Eva Mendes), and finds out that she has a son by him, he decides that to pursue the chivalrous response with a level of zealotry that quickly escalates into stalking and harassment, not to mention staggered bank heists to raise enough money to make a better (or, at least, bought and paid for) life for his assumed family.
The string of robberies introduces the film’s second major character, police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who has enough problems even before his path crosses Luke’s. To tell much further regarding the plot here would verge into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that the film’s two-tiered structure is already weighty enough to send tremors through its modest superstructure even before their mutual family drama fast forwards into the next generation.
Based on true events WCCO director of meteorology Mike Augustyniak assured me were a cause célèbre back in his hometown of Schendectady roughly 15 years ago, Pines is dazzlingly acted and ambitious enough to send the film’s pacing straight down the tubes. It may convey a greater sense of import than the material frankly supports, largely due to Cianfrance and Gosling’s converging storm fronts of dourness, but it gives off the impression that someday the director might tighten up and deliver another truly shattering American tragedy.