I have taken to watching a film most nights before I go to sleep. Not every night—but often—it serves as something to look forward to at the end of a work-filled day. I can indulge my passion and build my expertise in my genre of preference, horror, or I can stretch myself and watch something else. Either way, I find movie-watching a delightful way to end my day, and so I sat down two nights ago to re-watch Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981) in preparation for Evil Dead Rise (2023) which Michael and I saw last night at the movie theater. In my estimation, Evil Dead (1981) is a riot. It’s just raunchy enough, conceptually uncomfortable, and weirdly hilarious. It lost me a little bit at the end as a lot of movies do (I think many movie endings feel drawn out, or maybe I just have a poor attention span), but in general, what fun to watch, and what a unique take on monstrosity; possession films aren’t usually among my favorites, but I really like the Evil Dead. So I guess I was expecting something with a similar tone when I saw Evil Dead Rise last night. What I got was something much more macabre, and, in my opinion, probably more captivating for its bleak vision.
To really encapsulate what intrigues me about this film, I will foreground two opinions on it: my own, and Michael’s. Thanks to my influence, my friend Michael is now a fairly regular horror movie-goer. Any consistent reader of my blog (do I have those?) will note that he accompanies me to a large portion of the horror movies I view. When I met Michael, he disliked horror and made a point to avoid it. Then we dated, for five years, give or take, and during that time he developed an appreciation for the genre. We no longer date, but he’s among my closest friends, and we see horror movies together all the time. Like me, then, he is not easily jilted by the genre, although I will watch pretty much anything, and he has his limits. But because we are fairly frequent viewers of the genre, our (vastly) divergent opinions on this movie really interest me. But wait, nobody will be able to convey his feelings of the film like he does, so I’m tagging him in. Here’s Michael:
As we left the movie Kalie, naturally, asked me what I thought of it. I told her it was horrible. Now, I don’t mean it was horrifying, as horror movies presumably hope to be. No, I mean the movie was HORRIBLE. In fact, I fucking hated it. It was a miserable experience. I watch a lot of horror with Kalie and I even like quite a bit of it. I’ve come a long way in my relationship with the horror genre. But this was the bleakest, darkest, most fucked up, grotesquely gory, soul-starving thing I have ever seen. I tried to be positive and say, “At least making the movie gave people jobs – all the crew, the people on set, who made the props, the caterers, etc.” But that didn’t help. I’m still angry it exists. Let me say that again for emphasis – I am angry this film exists. Are you hearing me right now? I am angry it exists. And I’m angry I wasted a night with such a horrible experience. Kalie (as this piece is exploring in more depth, I’m sure, than I was interested in receiving last night) found its darkness and utter hopelessness fascinating though XD. So it wasn’t that it was poorly done or even a bad film…it’s just that I personally hated it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed an experience at the theatre less. It was as though Evil Dead Rise burned away all that was bright and joyful in my soul, tossing the ashes to the bowels of hell and leaving me worse for having experienced it. It may have taken something from me, from my soul, I’ll never get back. Who knows? I did go home and watched Doctor Who before bed in an effort to reorient myself to all that makes life beautiful, exciting, and worth living (or, in other words, the exact opposite of Evil Dead Rises) and it helped. I didn’t have the nightmares I expected. And I did return to Doctor Who first thing in the morning. But that’s because I love the Doctor. Evil Dead Rises? FUCK THAT NOISE.
So I think you get the gist of his reaction. Thanks for that, Michael. Now here’s the remainder of my take:
I see all film, in one sense, as nothing but a grand experiment, and to me, this film was a grand experiment in gross-out and nihilism. Part of the appeal horror, as many before me have stated and many after me will state, is its ability to allow us to experience a lot of the anxiety, a lot of the “feels” that come with the horrific, in a safely fictional setting. To that end, horror cinema becomes an exercise in creating, encapsulating, and transmitting that sensation of darkness (and sometimes hopelessness) that takes us to a realm of emotion and contemplation that we don’t normally experience. We all experience adversity, of course, but none of us will sit back and watch as our entire family gets possessed by a monstrously demonic entity that literally cannot be stopped (although there could be some metaphoric real-life situations that are similar, I suppose, but not with the literal level of graphicness and mayhem that a horror film provides).
Indeed, there is so much light and hope innate in being human, and a good horror film presents us with that which is best in life (family, belonging, security) and then annihilates it in front of our eyes, diminishing the sense of hope that we cling to so ferociously as human beings – if only for ninety to one-hundred and twenty minutes. If there is such a thing as a “human condition”—a phrase that I always use with hesitation—then what a grand experiment to try to create something so contrary to the human condition, so perverse in its irreverent insidiousness and sheer hopelessness. And what a better experiment, still, to see how viewers will respond to it. Perhaps a simpler way of saying this (and maybe I’m looking for an easy way out here) is that when a movie strikes me, leaves me disturbed, forces its bleak presence upon me the way that this film did—when so few movies, really, can do that, at least to such a monumental degree—then how could I, a horror fan, not love it?
Bruce Campbell has become a sort of B-movie hero for his portrayal of “Ash” in the evil dead movies. But the central presence of an identifiable, familiar hero seems to automatically de-escalate the horrific nature of any film, because a hero becomes iconic, stable, dependable—a beacon, a concept and person combined that we can latch onto to allay our fears. Psychoanalytically, the hero is a sort of (probably male, patriarchal) parental figure that symbolizes the ordinary, the normate, the symbolic order, even when we’re thrust outside the symbolic order and into the realm of chaos and unremitting abjection. And a strong, brave (white, straight, male, cisgender) hero is an archetypal figure as old as Gilgamesh and as renowned as Beowulf. But when you displace the archetypal hero in the story, when you make your heroes an (equally, if not more strong, brave) pregnant woman and young child, the entire dynamic of the story changes. It is 2023 and I consider myself a feminist, so I can hardly say that our monster slayers shouldn’t be pregnant women (although they probably shouldn’t be five-year-old children, and if I were pregnant, I would hope I weren’t in a position to be fighting materialized demons) but it does douse the heroes with a level of vulnerability that makes their plight more agonizing to watch than if Bruce Campbell were hacking through the ranks of evil dead entities.
The gore is brilliant, too. Evil Dead Rise manages to create a narrative that encapsulates and emanates the insidious bleakness, the sheer but markedly non-absurd nihilism of life (or maybe it is a bit absurd, I don’t know) even as it thrusts us into the gleeful slaughterhouse that defines the horror genre, so that we sit in a sometimes campy, over-the top, but sometimes absolutely sickening blood bath for two hours as we meditate on the hopelessness that faces a world that’s about to be overtaken by *absolute* evil. The gore in itself is art, is revolution, is an element of the best horror that spits at dominant cultural notions of good taste and celebrates cinemas of subversion. A good gore movie has an interesting plot and characters (check) but simultaneously takes on new and creative ways to explore a level of bodily mutilation and dismemberment that many (*most*) of us will be lucky enough to never see in daily life. W. Scott Poole argues that after World War I, we became fascinated with the corpse because of the level of new, escalated violence involved in the war (trench warfare, mustard gas, etc). That interest in the corpse, the dismembered body, the epitome of shredded, hacked up and sometimes hackneyed abjection, has morphed into a marked effort, in post-modern horror, to explore and exploit bodily defilement. Judith Butler says 9-11 made us all aware that we are vulnerable bodies, necessarily beholden to each other, and perhaps it is our simultaneous knowledge and fear of vulnerability that drives us to like…or to strongly dislike (ahem, Michael)…a movie like this. In any case, I thought it was sickening, abhorrent, and brilliant. I say four stars.
2 thoughts on “Point-Counterpoint: Divergent Takes on Evil Dead Rise”
Yeah, this is a great piece and you really highlight the film’s brilliance in wonderful ways…but I still think we should’ve seen ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.’ Hopefully the multiverse is real and several Michaels got to escape this bleak fate XD.
Came here via Michael’s blog! Fascinating to see these counter-points. I fell more on the positive side for this particular film, and I felt it had more of the Evil Dead humour than Evil Dead 2013, which is probably the darkest of the franchise.
Very excited for a potential Ash Williams return in whatever they do next!
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