Normally I don't complain about the proliferation of movie remakes any more than I complain about movie sequels and communal tables in restaurants — what's the point?
But recently a remake delivered a shiver. Its arrival felt like a cold harbinger of a bleak future. I felt pushed, motivated to revolution — in a fuming-at-my-desk kind of way. Since remakes are not going away anytime soon — indeed, since they appear to be venturing into ugly territory — it's time to compose a Movie Audience's Hollywood Remake Bill of Rights.
But first I should explain: Here's how I was radicalized.
“The Evil Dead,” the first of the “Evil Dead” movies and the first feature film directed by Sam Raimi, was shot in the backwoods of Tennessee in 1979 and early 1980. It was released nationally three years later and made $108,000 its opening weekend. (Yes, $108,000.) It told the story of five friends from Michigan State University who drive into the backwoods of Tennessee and get killed. They stay in a cabin, party and do the things that thoughtless college students in 1980s horror movies did. They find what the film refers to as an evil Sumerian Book of the Dead; they also find a tape recorder with a tape of someone reading incantations from the book. One of the students presses “play” on the recorder, which releases ancient demons. Next thing, eyes are gouged, torsos impaled, ankles stabbed, bodies dismantled — a woman is raped by a tree.
Obscene as this sounds, the film is distinctive, weird, kinetic, melodramatic, funny (though not as funny as “The Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn,” which brought back Ash, the last man standing, for further punishment, despite his being killed in the original).
Whatever quirks Raimi inserted decades later into his Spider-Man movies and the recent “Oz the Great and Powerful,” you can see clearly here the fingerprints of a style coming into focus. Last week, when I asked Bruce Campbell, who played Ash, if the first “Evil Dead” was intended to be that funny, he laughed: “Of course not! We were amateurs, delivering amateur dialogue!”
In fact, though “The Evil Dead” has become a horror classic, you could say it isn't really about anything.
But there is a moral:
Don't mess with sacred text.
Like, for instance, “The Evil Dead.”
Oh, go ahead and play around with the Bible (as Mark Burnett and the History channel recently did with their blockbuster miniseries); feel free to completely retool Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Phantom of the Opera” (a “newly reimagined” revival tours America starting in November); by all means check out the Court Theatre's revelatory rejiggering of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof” (despite two well-received revivals and a movie having already come through Chicago, all within the past dozen years); and definitely patronize Tributosaurus, Chicago's most accomplished cover band (re-creating the music of Cheap Trick at Martyrs' on April 17).
In fact, I would bet you that, in my lifetime, someone will remake “Star Wars” — and I'd go see that.
Great art tends to be malleable, the raw material for decades of interpretations.
But “The Evil Dead” …
It's not great art. It's just great.
“Oh, I definitely heard reasons why we should not have remade it,” said Campbell, one of the producers (along with Raimi) of the “Evil Dead” remake that opened Friday. “‘If Ash isn't in it, it isn't “Evil Dead,” If Sam Raimi is not directing it, it isn't “Evil Dead.”' Look, flat out, I am not a fan of sequels or remakes, but in the world of reality, in the entertainment world, remakes are inescapable now. ‘The Great Train Robbery,' from 1903, one of the first movies, was remade a few years later! This is the collision of art and commerce! And it is all driven by a fiscal reality. My beef with remakes is when they are naked — naked commerce.”
This was your idea, I said.
“No,” he said, “Fede Alvarez, the guy who directed (the new ‘Evil Dead'), he's from Paraguay and owns a special effects company. He made this cheap, great short film about robots attacking cities that landed him meetings with, like, every major studio executive and director in a two-week span. He met with Sam and he made a convincing argument that you could do an ‘Evil Dead' movie without an Ash, and since we get asked to do a sequel all the time, and it never feels right, Sam and I, we thought, ‘Well, in the meantime, what the heck: What would happen if we redid this monster movie with an actual budget this time? What if we could hit people with scarier, louder sounds, rattling in surround sound? The special effects were seamless, so you can't see how we did it? With good actors with actual experience? And a script that tells an actual story?'”
An actual story — “Evil Dead”? A professionally made “Evil Dead”?
That sounds like every other horror movie now.