It would be unfair to say Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead is never funny. Compared to the 1981 original, however, it’s pretty humorless. While the first Evil Dead wasn’t exactly hilarious — much of the humor came from the film’s low-budget quality and Bruce Campbell — the sequels Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness played up the comedy. With that in mind, one might expect the long-awaited continuation of this series to be at least a little tongue-in-cheek.
But 2013’s Evil Dead isn’t played for laughs. That’s not to say it’s a failure: the movie is engaging, suspenseful, and a solid addition to the horror genre. As a remake, however, it’s lacking. The title Evil Dead should conjure gleeful Deadites, snappy one-liners, and Ash Williams saying, “Groovy.” (No, the new Evil Dead’s post-credits Campbell cameo doesn’t count.) This remake is good as a standalone movie — it just doesn’t feel like Evil Dead.
Instead of humor, we get gore — and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with the latter, they’re not interchangeable. At the same time, it’s easy to mistake gore for humor, because the audience laughs at both. In Evil Dead, Mia splits her tongue in two licking a blade, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) cuts off her infected arm with an electric knife, and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) pulls a piece of hypodermic needle out from under his eye. The audience squirms, groans — and laughs.
This laughter comes from discomfort, or from shock. (“Are they really going to show that? Oh my God, they’re showing it!”) It’s a legitimate response, but is it earned? We know from the Saw and Hostel series that today’s make-up and visual artists are fully capable of grossing us out with extreme gore, and there’s certainly joy in that. But for a movie like Evil Dead, based on cult classic horror-comedy, getting laughs from severed limbs feels a little cheap.
At least Evil Dead works in other ways. The biggest offender when it comes to humorless horror remakes is the 2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street, which seemed to forget that Freddy Krueger is supposed to be funny. It was, in fact, a conscious choice to deny Freddy his quips, and to remove the whimsical absurdity of the nightmare sequences, but the end result is a completely unnecessary slasher film that sucks all the fun out of the franchise. It’s brutal, yes, but what’s the point?
The original Nightmare on Elm Street was highly influential in terms of horror in comedy: this was a slasher movie that showed a villain could be sardonic and terrifying at the same time. Subsequent horror comedies have continued to walk that line, appreciating how effective the right balance can be. Just look at Scream, one of the biggest horror success stories of all time: also by Wes Craven, the 1996 film was as darkly comedic as it was frightening.
Both the Evil Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street remakes would have benefitted from a little comedy — making these movies funny and scary is a more impressive feat than what either accomplished. We’ve seen so many slashers by now that comedy is one of the few ways to stand out. Otherwise, it’s just another “cabin in the woods” flick, and that’s been done to death. (And satired perfectly with Cabin in the Woods.) The fear seems to be that letting these remakes be too ironic or self-referential will take away from the scares. That just isn’t the case.
It’s not horror’s fault, really: the dark, serious remake is largely a result of Batman Begins, 2005’s dark, serious reboot of the Batman franchise. Remakes like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th went straight as a response to how silly their franchises had become. While Batman soiled itself with Batman & Robin, Freddy and Jason lost all sense of menace with schlock like Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Jason X.
But here’s the problem — when it comes to modern horror, straightforward adaptations are often boring. Gore is an enticing novelty, especially given how far the technology has come, but it’s becoming stale. Even Evil Dead, which manages to entertain for 90 minutes, still leaves a much less lasting impression than any of its predecessors. Meanwhile, the Nightmare and Friday the 13th remakes did nothing to reboot their franchises. Nowadays we mostly pretend they didn’t happen.
The new Evil Dead is a hit, and critics are mostly fond of it. And that’s fine: it’s one of the better recent horror films. But as the latest retread to eschew humor it speaks to a frustrating trend. Where does it end? A gritty Leprechaun reboot? A joke-free Scream sequel? A sincere remake of Child’s Play? (Child’s Play is actually happening, but the tone is still under wraps.) We can keep amping up the gore, but it means nothing if we continue to ditch the laughs.
While there’s a place for horror that isn’t funny, of course, beloved franchises aren’t the answer. Even though Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Evil Dead’s Deadites long ago descended into self-parody, they don’t need dark resurrections to become relevant again. If producers insist on reinventing classic horror for a modern audience, they should do so with the appropriate sense of humor. Find that perfect balance between violence and wit, and maybe we’ll stop complaining so much about Hollywood regurgitating past successes.