Killtoberfest 2 – #20: The Thing (2011) / Evil Dead (2013)

In All, Movies by Kyu

Today on Killtoberfest 2, a couple of remakes of classic, early 1980s horror movies. They bring up a very good question: what makes a remake worthwhile?

They thought John Carpenter’s The Thing was so nice, they made it twice (and didn’t even bother changing the name, the bastards): 2011’s “premakequel” The Thing.

I didn’t remember this until I went back and watched, but the ’82 The Thing opens with a Norwegian man with a rifle in a helicopter, trying to shoot and kill a dog fleeing through the snow. Later, Mac and others visit the compound he came from, seeing a number of specific and unexplained details, all of them ominous: a bloody axe in the wall, a giant slab of ice that used to hold something big, burned and broken halls and rooms, and some kind of twisted, melted remains, burned to a crisp in a depression in the snow. It’s a haunting mystery that is solved in general (well, the Norwegians found the Thing and it thawed out, James Arness-style, and everything went to shit) but not in specific (how did that axe get there?). The 2011 film sets out to answer these questions, providing us with one of the oddest prequels ever filmed.

The story in this film is basically similar to Carpenter’s version, which is why I call it a “premakequel” and not just a prequel. A group of scientists are gathered, including Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, solid and almost totally unrecognizable from her turn as Ramona in Scott Pilgrim vs the Universe), an expert on excavating biological specimens from the ice. Although the team is going to look at a “structure”, a massive (really neat looking) ancient alien craft, they’re bringing her along because the craft carried a being: a dark, shadowy thing with insectile limbs lying dead and frozen beneath the ice. Of course, Science Goes Too Far and then it turns out It’s Not Dead After All and the shit hits the fan. Along the way there’s paranoia and trust issues, and a clever test is developed, and the movie becomes a race to keep the alien from escaping to the outside world. This is the point where I mention that the film doesn’t even credit Carpenter’s film or Bill Lancaster’s screenplay, something I found shockingly rude. It claims to be based solely on the original short story, John Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” despite keying off of specific shots from the ’82 film and taking almost all of its overall design and story structure from Carpenter’s vision. I don’t know what legal decisions went into that; maybe they could get the rights to the story but not the film, but either way it’s pretty low.

It’s a pretty decent rehash of The Thing‘s major elements: snowed-in compound, flamethrowers, freaky body horror. I was anticipating disliking the CG here, because we’ve all been trained to snobbily prefer physical effects, but I actually really liked the creature(s). The CG gives it a freedom of movement that the old monster lacked, especially when its tentacles start flailing, eerily faster than you’d expect. Likewise, the way the creature assimilates itself into people and then twists and manipulates their bodies (sometimes producing horrific moans or sighs in their vocal cords) was really creepy and reminded me of the work of Junji Ito (and if you recognize the name, you’ll know that that’s very high praise indeed). Winstead is a good lead, and the movie progresses nicely from the initial findings to the creature’s escape to the slow destruction of the compound and its inhabitants.

Along the way, though, the movie keeps hitting those dot-connecting points, arranging elements so that they end up right where they need to be for MacReady and co. to find them. Eventually this got pretty distracting. I’d rather they just told their own story without having to do that side of it. There are a lot of prequels that go wrong because the stories they’re telling are boring (“No, in this one he’s a little boy and his mom dies and he’s very sad”); The Thing (2011) deliberately sets out to solve a mystery. In doing so, I think it diminishes the original while not necessarily adding much on its own. Carpenter’s movie is great, even though it doesn’t have a whole lot of thematic depth, because it’s so thrillingly, intensely executed, because it’s incredibly original (look how different it is from The Thing From Another World, the movie it was essentially remaking), and because it presents one of the great cinematic puzzles (as the story progresses, Carpenter takes great pains to elide time and hide information so that it’s a real struggle to determine who is or is not the Thing at any given moment). This new movie isn’t about anything either, but it’s not as well executed–in particular, the ’82 script is better at writing individual scenes; compare the way the testing scene in the original keeps you guessing to the new one, which is tense but also weirdly perfunctory. Nor is the 2011 film as original (obviously), or as committed to making you think your way through along with the protagonist. (In fact, until they go back and explain something, I spent about 30 minutes of the movie thinking she was a moron. This is apparently exactly what they intended?) I did like the open ending (although I agree with Vern that that sound effect should not have been there).

In the end, even though this is a pretty decent movie on its own, it can’t be judged like that. I like Carpenter’s The Thing, we all do, but maybe it’s better to express that love by rewatching it, rather than assimilating it, recreating its shape and then wearing its skin around like it was yours to begin with. I’m led to believe that that’s rude.

From body stealing monsters to…. body stealing monsters. I’m sensing a theme here. 2013’s Evil Dead.

This movie isn’t fucking around. It wants to hurt you. Everything it does is an effort toward that purpose. I found it almost painfully intense.

In my opinion, this isn’t just a remake; it’s a cinematic experiment rivaling Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. If the original film, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), intended as a horror film, ended up as a unintentional comedy… could you remake the same story in such a way as to actually be scary? As it turns out, the answer is yes, and the process is thrilling. Evil Dead adapts the original film in one of the best ways possible–by telling its own story and finding ways to use the original’s touchpoints (a creepy book, a controversial tree-rape scene, a possessed hand) in ways that enhance that new story without overwhelming it. It’s a carefully considered, totally brilliant way of approaching remaking such an iconic film.

The story is familiar to anybody who’s seen The Evil Dead, or The Evil Dead 2, or Cabin in the Woods, or whatever: a group of young friends rent a secluded cabin in a remote forest for the weekend, only to find that the basement contains evidence of witchcraft and also a demon-summoning book bound in human skin. (Who the hell rents this place out, anyway? Do they notice that every time somebody stays there, they’re never heard from again? Or do they just shrug and collect another deposit from the next group of idiots? This is a sweet scam, alright.)

If that were really all that was going on, Evil Dead would be little more than an exercise (albeit a very well-executed one). But the movie is careful to add just the right complication to the situation to make the movie as emotionally resonant as it is terrifying. See, the two main characters are brother and sister, and sister Mia (a game Jane Levy) is the reason that everyone is here. She’s had substance abuse problems in the past, and rehab hasn’t worked; so now the group of friends will bring her to this remote location and help her past the withdrawal pains from going cold turkey. The sick beauty of this element is made clear in the prologue, which demonstrates how a demon-possessed person can seem sweet and loving and act like the person you love–and then an instant later turn violent, raging, and hateful. As a metaphor for an addict’s behavior (or maybe it’s the other way around, given the provenance), this transformation is pretty apt. It really gets at the horror of seeing someone you care about change personalities and become someone frightening and dangerous. I won’t spoil the film’s climax, but the way it deals with Mia’s arc is fantastic; and there’s a meta-level, too, where the movie takes a well-deserved step beyond the purview of its predecessor. I’ve never seen anything quite like those last ten minutes.

So on one side of the coin, Evil Dead manages to be a damn sight more meaningful than its predecessor; on the other side, it’s also way the hell scarier. There’s a ton of very effective gore, tension that builds on your knowledge of the first film, and the overall horror of the situation really comes through. Shiloh Fernandez, in the Ash role (named David here), doesn’t try to build a cult badass performance like Campbell’s, but does a very effective job expressing just how fucked up you’d feel if you were in his shoes. Lou Taylor Pucci, as Eric, is the real stand-out, using his ridiculous 80s hair and glasses to build a part-frustrating, part-endearing character whose curiosity is only matched by his ability to survive getting stabbed. The filmmaking surrounding these excellent, largely unknown actors is top notch, filled with intention, innovation, and a very strong use of space.

I could go on, but like these hapless, well-sliced teens, I think I’ve gushed enough. The point is, this movie exceeded my already high expectations on every level. It’s easily the best horror film of its year and probably top 5 for Killtoberfest 2. (But we’ll find out when I do my month-end wrap-up tomorrow!)

Red band trailer below:

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