FOR ALL THE FLAK he’s taken in the past week for Oz the Great and Powerful — from critics as varied in sensibility as Dana Stevens, Ann Hornaday, Manohla Dargis, Scott Foundas, even perennial cheap date Peter Travers — Sam Raimi remains a demigod among cult-horror connoisseurs. Raimi directed and wrote the original 1981 Evil Dead and its 1987 sequel and did the same double-duty for Army of Darkness, which remains an upper-middle-camp rite of passage for most 16-year-old males. 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, if less shark-jumping in its approach, was a totally above-average divertissement in the Raimi horror-comedy catalogue. Leaving aside Oz, the Spider-Man trilogy, and 1999’s maudlin Kevin Costner baseball flick For the Love of the Game, Raimi’s chief contribution to the film universe has been his formal mastery of blood spatter — and how to make a packed auditorium laugh even as the skin crawls.
The world premiere of Fede Alvarez’s hotly hyped reboot of Evil Dead drew a crowd that wrapped not once, but twice around the 700 block of Congress Avenue in Austin. The Paramount Theatre, where just last week L.A. Theatre Works staged its bicentennial performance of Pride and Prejudice, would eventually reach its 1,100-seat capacity. The crowd, to put it mildly, was voluble — a thousand-plus humans hooting and hollering, unquestioningly delighted by scenes of impressive self-dismemberment and bloody vomit.
You know, art house stuff.
That Evil Dead was SXSW’s big-ticket offering for the opening night of this year’s festival isn’t particularly surprising or provocative. Annual counterculture frolics have a life-arc as predictable as the college revolutionary who returns for the 25th reunion with wife and two-and-a-half kids in tow. At first you’re fringy and edgy and muddy, but before long, Herbie Hancock starts to qualify as “adventuresome” programming at Bonnaroo, where Jay-Z now feels quite at home.
James Agee railed against the phenomenon we now call “mainstreaming,” the notion that society will inevitably tame and subsume the shaggy-haired visionary into the regulatory program of the culture. Agee relished referring to this phenomenon in castratory terms:
Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.
“Fury,” “deadliest blow,” “castrated,” “fatal misunderstanding”: points well taken, each a fitting epitaph for once-indie, now magnanimously corporate-sponsored festivals. This is why Craig Newmark refuses to “monetize” Craigslist: once you get big enough, you lose that sense of format-busting freedom.
Those buzzwords bring us back to Alvarez’s Evil Dead, which is full of sound and fury, not to mention deadly blows, fatal misunderstandings, and at least the specter of castration. Written by Alvarez and Diablo Cody (who came to prominence on the merits of a very indie film called Juno), the rebooted script offers certain richer rewards than its 1981 referent. Sliest of all, it is under the shadow of rehab that Alvarez and Cody consign their characters to the requisite cabin in the woods: David’s (Shiloh Fernandez) sister Mia (Jane Levy, present at the premiere) keeps relapsing to heroin, so David and friends gather to guide Mia through three days of cold-turkey hell. This conceit, pitting the hallucinatory state of heroin withdrawal against the related phenomenon of demonic possession, is awfully clever. More to the point, it casts Mia as the girl who cried wolf: when she starts seeing woodland harpies wearing nightdresses, no one believes her because she’s clinically delirious and a craven, scheming junkie. Not until it’s far too late do Mia’s brother and friends realize what’s going on — by which time, Mia really isn’t Mia anymore. (On the plus side, a brush with Satan starts to look like a pretty reliable cure for heroin addiction.)
The quintet discovers a creepily whispering Book of the Dead in the house, and its prophecies self-fulfill with the efficiency we have every right to expect from a horror flick of such pedigree. Before long, we’re seeing lesbian kisses that bear mortal consequences and self-dismemberment scenes that hit the funny bone as hard as anything in Monty Python. At one point, Dave’s quasi-intellectual pal Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci, doing his manic best to channel David Foster Wallace) is discussing potential occult solutions to the evil spirit that has taken hold of Dave’s cabin and his sister. “Are you sure this will work?” Dave asks. It is the funniest line of the movie — self-consciously so, in the face-palm tradition of Raimi gores of yore. But the laughs, which come easily enough, are not played cheaply, nor do they detract from the pulse-quickening technical satisfactions of the cinematography. (In one exemplary moment, a flashlight pans across a table on which lies a knife. When the flashlight pans back — no knife!) What Raimi understood, and what Alvarez deserves no little praise for replicating, is a proper and deliberate sense of balance between the hilarious absurd and the horrific absurd. We laugh at horror films for a few very basic reasons: we are glad to exist in a world free of foul-mouthed demons, and it is refreshing to remember this; we see everything the characters themselves do not, and can therefore laugh at them for their mortal foolishness; we laugh to prove our superiority over the slashees, to distance ourselves from the uncomfortable knowledge that the same dark urges propelling the film are the very ones that keep us waiting in line to see the thing at all — a truth that Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon mined to virtuosic effect in the semi-postmodern and deeply loveable The Cabin In The Woods (2011).
The coming week will see a number of promising indie releases that will not draw the wraparound crowds of Alvarez’s Evil Dead or Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a fool’s game to be indignant about ostensibly mindless horror frontloading a festival that bills itself as something altogether more cutting-edge. But it would be awfully nice to see the early buzz shift from clearly bankable product like Evil Dead and toward something more adventuresome. SXSW hosts 133 features this year, including 78 world premieres and 22 US premieres. Among these, 76 are premieres by first-time directors. Attendance patterns over the next few days will tell us whether the 2013 SXSW can maintain its own sense of balance — between the forgivable blockbusters and the art house revelations.
Ted Scheinman will be reporting irregularly from this year’s festival; follow him on Twitter: @Ted_Scheinman.