Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fan Service

And lo, across the land, a mighty bluff was called. With nothing to lose, Warner Bros. made a curious wager with fans, giving them thirty days to put $2 million into a Kickstarter fund in order to allow for the production of a film version of long-canceled cult series “Veronica Mars.” Not only did the money come, but they had reached the mark in less than a day, a massive success that dwarfed any prior accomplishments made on Kickstarter, a system designed to fund undernourished artists and troubled independent projects.

Why “Veronica Mars”? I confess to have only watched the first season of the series on DVD. The stories involved Kristen Bell as a plucky high school P.I. who found herself in some very dangerous situations within mysteries way above her ostensible maturity level. It was interesting, never predictable and with unusual warmth, mostly due to the rapport between Mars and her father (Enrico Colantoni). There would be two more seasons after that, the third abbreviated and a fourth season teased, but never filmed. Having a passing familiarity with the community established by the series, I had interest in a potential fourth season, which planned to age Mars ahead considerably, turning her into an FBI recruit and, I would assume, changing the series concept entirely. It speaks well of creator Rob Thomas (not the Matchbox 20 guy) that I imagine this approach would have avoided becoming just another network procedural.

So I suppose I’m on the outside looking in, but aside from those that appreciated the series, it never seemed to have popularity beyond the “cult.” It aired on the CW, with ratings that would’ve gotten a weaker show canceled, and I recall they really hung on to get to that third year. Anecdotally, I understand the sales for the DVD were modest, suggesting the fans’ demand for future adventures was derived from but a passionate few. A passionate few who, I admit, I cannot relate to: the series made it to fifty episodes, each an hour long. That’s an extensive commitment that seems to have yielded greater rewards: why do we want more?

Every year, popular shows get cancelled, and the fans beg and plead for more. This refusal of closure has some sort of extensive psychological content I dare not probe, but on a surface level, it flummoxes me. Every couple of years, film buffs set aside a couple of hours for their favorite filmmaker. A diehard fan of, say, David Fincher, will always make time for him. Fincher, who has dabbled in commercials and music videos, has directed nine feature films, which collectively (off the top of my head) approach twenty hours, essentially the bulk of one season of an hourlong show. Is that enough? Does Fincher, who keeps a modest schedule, make enough movies? I think even the biggest Fincher fan is pleased with a considerable body of work that features several distinct, intriguing titles thus far. That Fincher fan likely just ran through all ten episodes of Fincher’s Netflix series “House of Cards” as well. I would think that counts as a bonus addendum to his considerable filmography. But give a hardcore fan fifty hours of “Veronica Mars” and it isn’t enough?

I’m reminded of the sick little dance that resumes every couple of months between Sam Raimi and his fans. Raimi made “The Evil Dead” his first film because he knew the horror genre was profitable, and that he could make a chiller on the cheap with his buddies in the woods. When the film hit, he returned to the well for “Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn,” with Raimi’s occasionally referring to it as a remake suggesting a modest appraisal towards the earlier effort. Given a real budget, Raimi later directed a third installment with his newfound early career clout, but “Army Of Darkness” fulfilled its destiny as a cult curio basically ignored by the mainstream. Raimi went on to bigger things, and the “Evil Dead” series rounded out with three highly enjoyable, endlessly rewatchable films.

But the fans wanted more. And as Raimi would ascend to the A-List, working with big stars and bigger special effects, the chants for “Evil Dead 4” continued. Raimi made three billion dollar “Spider-Man” movies, and the fans remained hung up about the adventures of a swaggering doofus named Ash and his chainsaw-hand fighting off the Kandarian Deadites. Raimi, who dabbled in every genre, soon returned to horror by starting Ghost House Pictures, but while successful, those films he produced definitely showed that Raimi’s interest in the horror genre was only a passing fancy, not a natural calling. Even “Drag Me To Hell,” his brilliant late-career return to scares manages to pack in several laughs and skirt the edges of a PG-13 rating. Needless to say, that vaunted “return to horror” from the man behind “The Evil Dead” didn’t exactly set the box office on fire.

And now we have “The Evil Dead,” a Ghost House-produced remake of the Raimi classic promising to give fans their fix. Raimi handpicked Fede Alvarez to make his directorial debut with the project, though when quizzed about the new film his frequent shrug would often be that he thought he should remake it before someone else did. And this new “The Evil Dead” certainly seems like a delicate balancing act of a film: it’s both ferociously violent and, at times, darkly funny, revisiting the memorable haunted cabin of the first film and adding new, but not complex, bells and whistles. Trouble is, “Evil Dead” is such an unusual film that it’s difficult to know what’s being remade. Alvarez often seems like he’s aping Raimi’s style down to the bone, with frenetic cuts and montages of blistering speed in an attempt to keep the chaos going. It felt like there was a method to Raimi’s madness, but Alvarez seems to plow through familiar plot points simply because that’s what happened the first time. There’s no Ash this time around, but in remaking the original film, if you hem closely to what happens onscreen, don’t you end up inadvertently creating a new Ash anyway? This remains an open-ended question until Alvarez’ fandom collapses on itself in the bombastic third act.

“The Evil Dead” isn’t scary like its predecessor; it’s too busy surrendering to that Tyranny of Genre that affects all modern horror films, where the soundtrack and the camera angles inform you that a scare is happening. Raimi’s cavalier use of wacky camera angles in the original creates confusion and disorientation, of which horror is a by-product: Alvarez is honestly just desperate to scare you. He’s not bad at it, of course, but that naked desperation overwhelms his imagination at times, and fans of both the original film and the genre itself will be checking off boxes at certain points. Still, the film played like gangbusters to my audience, and it should please both those with no awareness of the original (who are shameful troglodytes) and the hardcore fans happy with their fan service, references and winks (a man at my screening randomly accompanied one of the film’s money-shots with a joyful, knowing, “Groovy!”). They’ve wanted more, and they got more, and a post-credit sequence confirms that Raimi knows exactly where the fanbase’s pulse lies.

Of course, it’s not the original song, but a cunning cover. Still tuneful, but mostly laboriously following the beats of the original, taking predictable detours at certain junctures. It hasn’t been enough to ease fans off Raimi in regards to a fourth chapter in the original saga, as they even goaded him into admitting he would spend the summer writing a new entry in the series with brother Ivan. The crowd, as expected, roared, before Raimi, forever a gentleman, demurred. So used to being pelted with requests for a fourth film, he later confessed to simply telling the fans what they wanted to hear, and that he had no idea what a fourth film would entail (some say a direct sequel to “Army of Darkness”) or if he’s actually interested in making it. The fans just won’t take no for an answer, and like other stories, you wonder if there’s any end that can please them.

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