Reviewed: Trance and Evil Dead

Danny Boyle’s madhouse mystery and Sam Raimi’s vintage nightmare revisited.

Danny Boyle’s dreamland psycho-thriller Trance elevates plot-knotting mind games to a delirious new level. It would be wrong to say too much about the story’s ever-deepening complications, and difficult to do so in any case. Let’s just say this:

James McAvoy plays Simon, an employee at a London fine-art auction house. One day a Goya painting called “Witches in the Air” – pointedly featuring a man groping about blindly with a sheet over his head – draws a winning bid of more than $40-million. At just this moment, a group of what I suppose would have to be called art thugs bursts into the auction room, led by the decidedly un-thuglike Franck (Vincent Cassel – throw a sporty scarf on him and he’d fit right into an Hermès ad). As tear-gas canisters roll across the floor, Simon grabs the Goya and runs off to hide it downstairs. When Franck eventually confronts him, there’s a tussle; Simon gets knocked on the head, and when he awakes from a coma in the hospital a few days later, he has no recollection of where he hid the painting.

Fox Searchlight PicturesFox Searchlight PicturesThen we learn that Simon was in on the theft. And now that he’s claiming not to recall the painting’s current location, Franck – after expressing his displeasure in a most painful way -- decides to take him to a hypnotherapist, a woman named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), to recover his buried memory. Simon wears a wire to her office so that Franck can monitor their sessions from a car outside. But Elizabeth soon intuits this, and she soon gets to know Franck, too. And being the movie’s designated femme fatal, she has a deadly backstabbing agenda of her own.      

That’ll have to do. As Simon drifts into his hypnotic trances, the movie becomes a disorienting swirl of dreams and confusions. There’s a red car driven by a mysterious young woman, and a room full of “lost” paintings by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet and Van Gogh. (These works, recreated here, actually are lost -- stolen from a Boston museum in 1990, they’ve never been recovered.) There’s also some tricky business with an iPad, a few thoughts about the absence of pubic hair in classical paintings, and a startlingly blunt moment of full-frontal nudity.

Is Simon losing his mind? Are we losing ours? Or was Boyle, who made the movie while planning his spectacular opening ceremony for last summer’s London Olympics, just heavily frazzled himself? The film’s original script, by Joe Ahearne, had been turned into a British TV movie in 2001. Boyle, who had long had his eye on the property, brought in his longtime collaborator John Hodge to punch it up. By the time the story reaches its giddy conclusion, we too have been expertly worked over.

With all of its flashbacks and fakeouts, the movie could be said to be wildly over-determined, or maybe just silly. But it has propulsive energy, and a gorgeous look. (Some of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s elegant shots are composed like paintings themselves.) Is it all too much? Maybe. Is that such a bad thing?    

Evil Dead

2012 Evil Dead LLC2012 Evil Dead LLCThis exercise in classical blood-bath monotony certainly does its grisly job, but little more. Evil Dead is a remake of The Evil Dead, the micro-budget 1981 horror movie that launched Sam Raimi as a director and his star, Bruce Campbell, as an enduring cult personage. The new film tweaks the original story a bit; but while it offers a full complement of updated shocks, there are no surprises. What we have here, more than anything else, is a tribute to a much-admired classic whose arterial tropes have long since saturated the fright-flick genre.  

Raimi and Campbell, who also collaborated on two earlier sequels to the first movie, are producers here; directorial duties have been handed off to Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez, who drew much notice with his 2009 giant-robot short, Panic Attack! The script is by Alvarez and his writing partner, Rodo Sayagues, with Diablo Cody, of all people, tiptoeing in to impart an authentic youth-of-today tang to the dialogue. (Props to her, presumably, for “I just don’t wanna become the Devil’s bitch!”)

The picture begins with a gruesome prologue, which is new. But then, as in the original picture, we see a group of friends – two guys, three girls again – arriving at a gloomy cabin in the woods. The unsuspecting youths aren’t on vacation this time; Mia (Jane Levy) has come to quick-kick a drug habit with support from her brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez); his girlfriend, a dithery doctor named Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore); his nervous pal Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci); and a young nurse, Olivia (Jessica Lucas), who has brought along some meds and a syringe, which will come in handy. (Arrange these characters’ first-name initials in a certain order and you get a rather Raimi-esque joke.)

Inside the cabin, once again, is an evil book that’s very much like the ancient Sumerian relic in the first film, which you’ll recall was written in blood and bound in human skin. The new tome is similarly ghastly, and it has a warning scrawled inside: “Leave this book alone.” Naturally, the scholarly Eric ignores that, and soon realizes that this foul text is an instrument for summoning demons. Very quickly the young visitors begin to morph into cackling, slobbery horrors. Anyone who’s seen the original Evil Dead will already know all this, and will be hanging around mainly in hope of fresh new gross-outs.

And there are indeed several. The attack of the killer vines in a forest is a reprise of a famous Raimi scene, but later there’s a power-saw-to-the-face shot that’s pretty amusing. And along with much squirty dismemberment, there’s a drool-soaked scene that gives new meaning to the phrase “speaks with forked tongue.” Unfortunately – well, depending on your taste in these things – there are also a nail-gun assault and a crowbar beating that push the movie right up to the edge of torture porn.

It never really crosses that line, though. The film’s inventory of nouveau bloody jolts simply illustrates how far we’ve traveled down the road of pop Guignol since 1981. And director Alvarez has a fanboy flair for this stuff. His lurid lighting is dismal in the grand tradition, and his rejection of CGI in favor of old-fashioned practical effects allows him to approach vintage cheesiness as a style, even though it’s no longer a necessity. But he’s constrained at every turn by the need to replicate a brand-name property whose groundbreaking days are long past. Gorehounds may flock to this picture, but will they still be buzzing about it 32 years from now?       

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  • sarcasmic||

    Bruce Campbell!

  • Pro Libertate||

    Exactly. No Bruce Campbell in the lead, might as well not do it.

  • Almanian!||

    MATT DAMON!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I liked Evil Dead better the first time I saw it, when it was called The Evil Dead. (Also, I don't remember much about The Evil Dead.)

  • ||

    What about when it was called Evil Dead 2?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    That could be the one I'm thinking of.

  • Mint Berry Crunch||

    "The attack of the killer vines in a forest" (or, as I call it, the tree-rape scene) is quite memorable.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Didn't they include that rapist tree in The Cabin in the Woods during [SPOILER ALERT] the "purge" scene?

  • mr simple||

    Gorehounds may flock to this picture, but will they still be buzzing about it 32 years from now?

    Well, don't leave us hanging! What's the answer?

  • ||

    Arrange these characters’ first-name initials in a certain order and you get a rather Raimi-esque joke.

    Mia, David, Natalie, Eric, Olivia.

    DEMON or MONDE? In either case, I don't get the joke.

  • ||

    Why does everything get italicized when I try to do this?

  • John Galt||

    Did you prefix your comment with the italics HTML tag?

  • ||

    Yeah, I used to never screw that up, but the last few times I've done it, it hasn't come out right. I'll just have to double check next time.

  • John Galt||

    Bleh, I don't enjoy monster movies. There's already more than enough horrific stuff in the real world.

  • derpules||

    So wasn't Evil Dead 2 a retelling of The Evil Dead? and now we have a reboot called Evil Dead? How many times can you remake a movie?

  • SugarFree||

    The first 20 minutes of ED2 summed up ED, but it wasn't a remake as such.

  • Tim||

    When I want to get scared I read about the national debt. Demons are made up pussies compared to Federal fiscal policy.

  • db||

    There is no need to remake The Evil Dead. How could the series possibly get better? It's perfection already.

  • ZedLives||

    Evil Dead 2 is pretty much a remake of the first - a little campier and with a different ending that segues into Evil Dead:Army of Darkness.

    I loved all 3, though the last one lacks the gruesome vigor of the first 2.

    The commentary tracks are terrific - the best commentary tracks I've heard - with Bruce Campbell and the Raimi brothers hilariously waxing nostalgic.

    I'll have to see the remake on dvd, as there is no way I'll get my wife to see it in the theaters.

  • Virginian||

    I love Army of Darkness, which some of the hardcore fans hate on me for, but I don't like real horror movies that much.

    But "this is my BOOMSTICK!" is one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever.

  • Almanian!||

    "Shop smart. Shop....S-Mart!" also

  • JWatts||

    "Good. Bad. I'm the guy with the gun."

    And,

    Evil Sheila: "You found me beautiful once."
    Ash: "Honey, you got real ugly."

  • Mint Berry Crunch||

    Props to [Diablo Cody], presumably, for “I just don’t wanna become the Devil’s bitch!”

    Honest to blog, that does sound like something DC would write.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    It is Mrs. G's birthday today. Tonight, we are going for steaks at Mastro's, and a screening of Evil Dead. Perfection.

  • ||

    Evil Dead 2 was by far the best of the series. It was just so amazingly bizarre.

  • Voros McCracken||

    Yeah when I first saw it, the sudden realization that this horror movie isn't actually a horror movie but a brilliant comic homage to the Three Stooges is quite wonderful.

    The time in the cabin from the end of his girlfriend to the time the other visitors showed, is the best thing Raimi and Campbell will ever do. It's about the same length of time as a stooges short and is just beyond brilliant comedy. If you can't laugh at that, your funny meter is broken.

    Evil Dead 2 is also the first movie to really demonstrate how quickly a horror movie changes into an action movie once the good guy gains the upper hand (pun not intended).

  • oncogenesis||

    a few thoughts about the absence of pubic hair in classical paintings, and a startlingly blunt moment of full-frontal nudity.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    The four seconds after the Evil Dead remake's credits were better than the rest of the movie.

    The script had Diablo Cody's stench all over it, and it all just felt too obvious and forced. It was trying way too hard, just another false pretender to "a return to old school horror" that lacks tension or suspense, and falls into the trap of modern horror cliches (FUCK the Japanese, pale women/children with wet black hair dangling over their faces are NOT SCARY), ineffectual CGI gore, and the need to hit the audience over the head with the obvious when some subtlety would have gone a long way.
    For example, lots of creepy reflections in mirrors and windows that would have been a thousand times more effective had the movie not had to hit the audience over the head with the obligatory crash jump cut/zoom requisite with the soundrack going all "BLLLLARRRGHH!". If you've ever seen The Exorcist III, you know creepy moments like this are made 1000X better when the movie refuses to linger or extrapolate.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    It's also just way too indulgent with the gore, and had the effect of de-sensiziting me halfway through. But then again, I watch Cannibal Holocaust at least once a year so I can't really comment on other people's stomachs for this sort of thing. Without spoiling anything, there's a couple of instances of the movie going to the well too many times, and it doesn't feel as shocking when we just saw the same thing ten minutes previous. All told, The Evil Dead accomplished more with a pencil than it's remake did in it's entirety.

    Again, if you see it, stick around after the credits. It's nothing spectacular or even pertaining to the movie, all told, but it better fucking mean what it seems to imply.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    Oh, and I will say this: the movie's basic premise, that the characters are at the cabin for a drug intervention, is very clever and different in this context, and allows for some good moments.

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