Monday, 28 October 2013

Recollections - 2013-14 Session One: Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead

On the 16th of October the Gothic Reading Group held its first session of the 2013-14 academic year: screening and discussing Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead(2013). This was a first for us in a couple of other senses too: being the most contemporary 'text' we'd looked at together and our most graphic piece of 'horror' so far. Though members were quick to question the film's internal logic (and physics...), we can safely say that none of the eighteenth-century dramas, nineteenth-century monster narratives or even twentieth-century films that we've looked at before said quite such an emphatic 'farewell to arms.' And cheeks. And eyeballs. Here Mark has a crack at summarising the group's response to the film and picking out keynotes in our discussion.


Welcome to Another (Gothic?) Cabin in the Woods

Genre was an obvious entry-point for our discussion and a question we were able to approach from a few directions. As our previous blog-posts had anticipated, Alvarez's film faced a few challenges as a successor to a series that had fostered a seminal genre of horror cinema. This new Evil Dead, with its claustrophobic woodland cabin and (some might say equally claustrophobic) cast of youthful monster-bait had to negotiate its relationship with that established horror format: a question rendered even more interesting in the wake of intervening pastiches and reworkings. So, once we'd ticked off the film's various plot-holes and improbabilities (if you find your cabin's cellar is full of hung cats, leave dammit) we got down to a core question: was the new Evil Dead playing its genre straight, or reworking it? If reworking it, was it doing so for laughs, or was it trying to out-Whedon Whedon by turning Raimi's schlocky, plasticine-encrusted formula into a clever commentary on its own, er, plasticity?

Who needs the Bettie Ford clinic...

It wasn't playing for laughs. Barring one or two awkward moments of almost slapstick (slices of cheek are the new bananas?) this was not a funny film. So that left clever postmodern critique then...

The most obvious 'twist' in the original formula was the addition of a new occasion for the cabin trip. This time the characters are no longer taking a low-budget vacation, but are seeking a remote retreat as part of an intervention to benefit one of their number, Mia, who has a history of substance abuse. This seemed to constitute an attempt at plausibility as Mia offered an initial witness - an unreliable narrator if you will - for the encroachment of the 'Evil.' Her companions were then (supposedly) justified in treating Mia's subsequent possession and violent tendencies as a particularly sociopathic 'cold turkey' experience. This may not have been entirely convincing (less so as other characters clung onto it in the face of ever more disturbing developments). It was also unable to sustain any uncertainty on the part of viewers who'd already been presented with clear evidence of the supernatural at the film's opening. Setting those reservations aside, we were interested in the use of Mia's addiction and its management as a moral device. Necessarily concerned with the trauma of her own withdrawal, Mia's selfishness and aggression were rendered unattractive, but comprehensible. Meanwhile, her companion's stoic refusal to take her home inadvertently lead to her isolation and attack: the catalyst for the events that followed. Whereas Raimi's original formula presented more congenial social groups rendered vulnerable through their naivety, the atmosphere in Alvarez's film was immediately tense as the group struggled to cooperate in its commitment to Mia and her management. This gave the process of possession and gruesome dismemberment a sense of inevitability that was far bleaker than the original films.

(Animal) Body Horror and Infection

We picked upon on a few other areas in which the film seemed to speak to a contemporary context, but were unsure how much to read into these. Animal cruelty / abuse seemed to be a recurrent image as the hanging cats of the opening 'frame' recurred as dried out corpses in the main narrative. Alone the insistence on this image might just have been a means of establishing continuity (though not a necessary one). Yet we noted that the discovery was almost immediately followed by the carving of a roast in the next scene. Getting on with the dinner isn't the most likely response to discovering an array of murdered pets under your accommodation, but, for all its clunkiness, the juxtaposition seemed intentional as the camera lingered on the bloody meat whilst the carver (an electric blade, of course) got to work. Animal cruelty recurred as Mia's first act of demonic violence involved the murder of a dog. We noted that animals - particularly pets - seem to suffer a fair bit in contemporary horror cinema (a similar scene in the recent film The Conjuring springs to mind for me) but the focus seemed particularly interesting in The Evil Dead. Violence towards animals seemed especially graphic here, yet always occurred off-screen. The viewer doesn't see the cats being hung or the dog being murdered. Instead the bodies are found and, in the latter case, so is the bloody hammer used to kill them. In contrast, graphic violence upon human bodies is the franchise's stock-in-trade. Again, we weren't sure if this involved any intentional commentary on the absence of empathy across the film (perhaps hinted by the cats / roast transition) or if it was simply a means of instrumentalising animal bodies to warm-up for the human body-horror to come.

Does this make you want a roast dinner?

One way in which we thought the use of animals might relate to other themes involved the brief suggestion that their bodies might be a source of infection. This was interesting, because infection seemed to be the primary 'vector' for possession in the film. In fact, we spent a bit of time at the end of our session pondering the difference between these two means of coming under demonic influence. All transmissions in the film seemed to involve direct or implicit fluid transfer (the details of which I'll pass over) - something which felt particularly interesting alongside references to substance abuse and the reference to medical issues in characters' responses to (and 'treatment' of) Mia. Again, it didn't seem clear if the film was commenting upon this directly, particularly as its final demonic showdown took a  more conventional form.

Character Archetypes: The Blonde Girlfriend, The Scholar, The Drug-Addict, the Not-Nurse and the, er, Protagonist... 

The group itself also came in for some discussion as we attempted to cross-reference them with classic horror-film archetypes... with limited success. This group included Eric the 'Scholar' (well, we knew he taught high-school and somehow managed to decipher the Naturum Demonto) Natalie the 'Girlfriend' (she was someone's girlfriend) Olivia the 'Nurse' (we're not sure if nurse is actually an archetype, or if Olivia was actually a nurse, but she was the only one who didn't fix everything with duct-tape) and David the 'Protagonist' (a vaguely blue-collar alternative to the Scholar, love-interest to the Girlfriend and brother to Mia). The extent of the film's characterisation beyond these properties is amply illustrated by the fact that I've just had to look up all their names on Wikipedia.  

Eric, David, Mia, Olivia and... er *quick check* Natalie. The stunningly diversified characters.

Again, it was hard to tell if the film was playing these 'archetypes' (such as they were) straight, trying to do something else with them or just failing to decide between the two. The Girlfriend was suitably dumb and disposable: wandering merrily into the cellar to chat with possessed Mia. The Scholar was suitably entranced by the book (which did in fact contain instructions not to read it, score one to Mark) and obediently switched to reading out loud as soon as he came across anything that looked like a ritual incantation. After that his background didn't seem to stop him being the first to decide that supernatural forces were at work. The Nurse wasn't around particularly long and, David, the Protagonist, was mainly distinguished by his grim determination that everything would be OK in the morning if the group just pulled through the  intervening demonic apocalypse. 

Gender: Blame it on the (Not So) Final Girls

One character trope that did seem to receive some considered tinkering was Mia's status as the 'Final Girl.' After being released by David from her possession and watching him die, it was down to Mia to fight off the final 'Abomination' that had by now received enough souls to pop up from under the front-yard, where he / she / it had apparently been hiding all along. At this point the sky was quite literally raining blood and the series' fondness for powertools had reached its pay-off with Mia taking on her antagonist, chainsaw in sole-remaining hand. The question was what we were to make of Mia's survival and success as a "Final Girl." Her vulnerability depended partly on her already fallen nature as a self-indulgent addict, whose attempted escape (and vehicle theft) threatened the group's survival. Her possession had then associated her with an aggressive (indeed, monstrous) sexuality: transmitting the 'Evil' to the two other women through a violent oral assault and making mocking advances to her brother. Yet we also picked up on the fact that Mia's survival was the result of David's ritual purging of her possession. This process also  involved his attiring her in a red dress, the costume in which she then faced and defeated the Abomination. The choice (and presence) of the dress were both inexplicable within the logic of the plot and we wondered to what extent this was simply employed as a visual aid - matching the bleeding rain and fire that determined the conclusion's pallet - or if it was meant as a more symbolic gesture. Red, not white, the dress seemed to indicate a re-feminisation of Mia that couldn't quite succeed. 


Gender was a topic we devoted a lot of other discussion to - observing that the film's initial vector for possession seemed to run exclusively through female characters, all of whom had to be violently dispatched by one or both of the two men. David and Eric were themselves allowed more redemptive endings, having successively sacrificed themselves to ensure the survival of other characters. The question of responsibility for the demonic outbreak also seemed ambiguous as Eric, despite inadvertently 'awakening' the Naturum, was never openly criticised for the risks he had taken. The possessed women, meanwhile, were not only active aggressors for much of the film, but were rendered additionally dangerous as a function of their gendered identity:  being able to imitate their original appearance and plead vulnerability as a means of disarming their victims. This was a device brought over from the original films, but the connotations of sexualised entrapment and aggression seemed to be over-emphasised in this reworking. 

Staying on gender, Mia's red dress raised comparisons with much earlier examples of violent femininity in the Gothic tradition. Mia was far from being a nun (bleeding or otherwise) yet her transformation had occurred through careful ritual within an eschatology that seemed more developed than anything in Raimi's franchise. This time the Naturum Demonto outlined a clear procedure through which a 'demon' would be summoned to take five souls before manifesting through the avatar of the Abomination. A couple of members noted the presence of religious iconography within the Naturum and in other areas of the film, but, as with other tropes, no obvious pattern emerged. It seemed instead that these and other Gothic elements functioned as part of a language available to the film, but weren't necessarily being put to any work.

What about the Gothic then?

The film's more oblique incorporation of Gothic concerns was perhaps more interesting than its seemingly more casual flirtation with familiar props. We noted that this new version of the Naturum Demonto, for example, was more detailed and presented as a kind of palimpsest, doubling its original ritual script with scrawled warnings (in red of course) that provided a running paratextual commentary. This made sense within the context of a franchise that has seen the Naturum read on other occasions and felt like a particularly effective twist on a Gothic staple as the found text recorded the traces of its other findings. It might not be allowing too much to the film to suggest that this was a clever and intentional use of its most familiar prop: a means of incorporating the audience's foreknowledge and expectations into the world of the film. In this sense the doubled text might be said to enact the film's re-doubling of its own source-material. If so, the ease with which the Naturum's scrawlings were ignored was perhaps an unintentionally appropriate representation of the difficulty the rest of the film had in negotiating that doubling. . .

Ancient Sumerian manuscript... plus explanatory notes

Doubling was present more generally, both in the transition between original and possessed versions of characters and in the showdown between Mia and the ambiguously gendered abomination (with visible breasts, but played by a male actor). The film's backstory also dealt with mother-daughter relationships and the more general absence of maternal figures, but this felt under-used in the main plot where it really just seemed to offer a shortcut to a strain in the relationship between Mia and David. Regrettably, the Abomination was not the two 'main' characters' mother, rising out of the mud body-horror-Sicilian Romance style.

On the subject of Gothic and (once again) genre, something that occurred to our more horror-cinema-literate members (i.e. not me) was the degree to which Alvarez's film seemed locked into the tropes of the original trilogy. Various nods were made to the original films, ranging from brief visual cues for the Raimi trainspotters  (a rotating clock; a flooded bridge) to key plot moments referencing the original trilogy's power-tool obsessions (if anything this film had more power-tools than Raimis') and a (slightly tamer) reworking of the infamous 'tree rape' scene. This kicked off a bit of discussion about the degree to which the 2013 Evil Dead was locked into a generic formula regardless of whether or not it set out to rework it for laughs or for insight. In an oblique sense this seemed relevant to the way in which succeeding waves of Gothic texts have been forced to negotiate their own forbears. We're perhaps more attentive to this when we pick up upon clever reworkings of generic expectations, but a large amount of the Gothic tradition could also be said to involve a more mundane ticking off of conventions in order to guarantee market appeal. This seems to be the case for many of the novels published by presses such as Minerva in the wake of the late eighteenth-century 'rise' of the Gothic as a popular genre. A long way from Alvarez's horror film reboot, but also pointing out  the obvious, but easily overlooked, fact that clever meta-commentary isn't the only way in which the Gothic's battery of tricks and tropes functions. I'm not sure how back-handed a compliment that is...


Mark Bennett is a PhD student in the School of English, working on the relationship between Gothic and travel-writing in the eighteenth-century. He owns a Hammer Horror box-set. but knows surprisingly little about contemporary horror cinema.

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