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EVIL DEAD

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It’s not the fault of director Fede Alvarez that his take on “Evil Dead,” which he also wrote with Rodo Sayagues, can’t hope to match the impact of Sam Raimi’s much cheaper 1981 original. The glut of horror movies that has appeared over the intervening years makes it really difficult to come up with anything new to jolt viewers from their comfort zone. But Alvarez is responsible for the fact that his picture is so tediously formulaic.

Not because it much resembles Raimi’s, though. To be sure, it shares with that cult classic the basic plot outline of a group of people who come to an isolated cabin, only to be attacked by an evil spirit, unleashed by incantations from a magic book, that takes them over and uses their bodies to slaughter one another. But while Raimi and his star Bruce Campbell brought a gonzo attitude to the proceedings, combining shock effects with wacky slapstick to create a weird hybrid that could make you laugh one minute and scream the next, Alvarez’s movie is deadly serious from beginning to end, and as such seems just another gorefest, not appreciably different from the scads of other similar dreck that floods into theatres every month nowadays. For some genre fans this—along with the occasional allusion to Raimi’s film—will be enough. But most people will find returning to the original a much more rewarding experience.

For the record, this time around the five youngsters who make their way to the cabin are Mia (Jane Levy), a drug addict who’s been brought there by her college friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and med student Olivia (Jessica Lucas) to get clean, cold-turkey style. They’re joined by her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). But after some preliminary stuff that tries but fails to invest the quintet with a trace of personality, Eric takes up the strange book they find in a basement riddled with animal remains and begins perusing it, something that’s distinctly unwise, as a brief prologue about a father’s immolating his possessed daughter has already shown us.

No sooner does Eric find a warning against reading the book’s text aloud scribbled across its pages than he begins to intone it anyway, and before long Mia, already on edge, turns into a jabbering, homicidal creature. Naturally it’s assumed that her transformation is merely an unfortunate result of her sudden withdrawal from drugs, but that explanation seems increasingly unlikely, especially after she sets her sights on the others. But she’s just the first: as the various members of the group get assaulted, they’re possessed too, and the issue is merely who’s next.

There’s a depressing familiarity to everything in this movie. Yes, the picture does make greater use than most pictures of this type of the old “bear stuck in a trap” bit, with characters sawing off one part of their bodies or another to escape some immediate danger—in fact, they resort to it so often that it becomes a virtual motif. And if one’s an aficionado of squirm-inducing moments, the ones in which Eric has to pull a hypodermic needle from a point just under his eye, and then has to extract nails he’s been shot with from his skin, will be something you’ll appreciate. And anyone might get a laugh out of the scene where David and Eric, who’ve been on the outs for some reason, pause amidst the mayhem to embrace again. The “I’ve missed you, man” moment is so inappropriate in the circumstances that it’s hilarious, though probably not intentionally.

For the most part, though, the incessant slice and splatter of this new “Evil Dead” come across as par for the course, and while the amount of blood and gristle that splatter the screen is greater than usual, the impact isn’t. Of course, with only five characters as victims, the picture has to revivify them repeatedly so they can be dispatched—or apparently dispatched—time after time. That also adds to the feeling that you’ve seen it all before—because you did, ten minutes earlier. The acting is no better than what one ordinarily encounters in such stuff—certainly Fernandez can’t hold a candle to Campbell (one of the producers here), and technically the movie has no outstanding qualities except, of course, for the makeup and prosthetics (designed by Roger Murray).

“Evil Dead” does raise one significant question. If somebody who encountered it in the past not only realized that the infamous book was so dangerous but had plenty of time to write tons of monitory messages on its pages, why didn’t he just destroy it instead? The only answer, it would seem, is that if he did, it wouldn’t leave room for a sequel.

THE HOST

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The “Twilight” movies, bad as they were, became a cultural phenomenon, and Stephanie Meyer’s fans—and the producers of the film—are obviously hoping that with “The Host,” the new film from one of her other books, lightning will strike twice. After all, it includes another romantic triangle composed of attractive young people. But in this case the triangle actually has four sides, since the girl in question has been possessed by an extraterrestrial entity with which she shares her body. Among the complications that ensue, one boy remains in love with the original human host while the other shows increasing interest in the non-human personality in the equation. Unfortunately, in attempting to replicate the formula that made her previous trilogy such a success both on the page and the screen while giving it a new twist, Meyer has concocted an extremely silly story made worse by Andrew Niccol’s ponderous, self-important adaptation of it.

The premise is that earth has been invaded by beings that travel the cosmos, hopping from planet to planet to take over their inhabitants and turn them all into peaceful, docile individuals who will form a harmonious society that can endure after they depart for another locale to continue their beneficial work. On earth, however, they encounter resistance from some who are intent on maintaining their own personas, warts and all. So some of the invaders become Seekers, assigned to track down the troublemakers and bring them into the fold.

One such unincorporated human is Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), who’s captured by the Seekers and has one of their number implanted in her. But Melanie’s a strong-willed gal, and her consciousness survives within. Moreover, her possessor is a wise, beneficent being that calls itself the Wanderer (and is later christened Wanda) and proves remarkably solicitous. Together—how could it be otherwise?—they make their way back to Melanie’s rebel community, which lives underground in a network of caves beneath the New Mexico desert. It’s led by sagacious Uncle Jeb (bearded William Hurt), and includes Melanie’s kid brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) and her two ardent admirers, Ian (Jack Able) and Jared (Max Irons).

Disputes arise almost immediately over whether the ‘new’ Melanie can be trusted, and how to deal with her. It certainly doesn’t help that she’s being pursued by a particularly determined Seeker (Diane Kruger), who’s intent on finding her refuge and is happy to lead the efforts to capture other members of the community when they venture out for needed supplies. A particularly dicey situation occurs when Jamie is injured and desperately needs medication. Meyer provides a happy ending of sorts—several of them, in fact—but still leaves room for a sequel or two, if she ever gets around to writing them.

“The Host” is basically a friendlier variant on the old Pod People scenario, and Niccol, who has specialized in cerebral (if deeply flawed) science-fiction stories like “Gattaca” and “In Time,” and he obviously wants to use it to say something serious about identity, free will and conformity—or, in the most general terms, the possibility of coexistence. But he’s hobbled by Meyer’s casting of these themes in “Twilight”-like romantic terms, and never finds a proper pace and tone for what is, after all, a pretty goofy, hackneyed narrative. Apart from the requisite action sequences—chases in futuristic cars, for instance—his approach is to present everything at a nearly funereal pace, with most of the dialogue delivered so slowly and portentously that it almost sounds as though it were being read phonetically. (A sequence that’s meant to generate tension, when Melanie/Wanda ventures to an alien clinic to retrieve some needed medicine, is boring instead.) This has a dulling effect that’s particularly noticeable in the best actors—Ronan, who’s stuck reciting the pedestrian narration as well as the almost comical conversations with herself (the sort one might recall from “Breaking the Waves”), and Hurt, who seems to be sleepwalking through the picture. Abel and Irons, meanwhile, prove handsome but bland suitors, while Canterbury seems rather lost and hesitant throughout.

Even visually “The Host” is a disappointment. Though the desert locations are striking and nicely caught in Roberto Schaeffer’s widescreen cinematography, the design of the film in terms of buildings, clothing and vehicles is for the most part curiously uninteresting.

The result is a movie that resembles, in its look and manner, neither “Twilight” nor “Gattaca” so much as an episode the old TV series “The Outer Limits” (the mediocre Canadian reboot, not the great sixties original). There’s actually the seed of an idea to “The Host,” but Meyer drowned it with her propensity for the clichés of the “young adult” genre, and now Niccol has embalmed it with his lethargic, heavy-handed treatment.