Navigating SXSW's film festival is always a tricky proposition because there is simply so much going on at the same time to lure you away from the smaller films and adventurous spectacles that truly make up its spirit. Lately that's been especially apparent in its opening day premiers, which have gotten bigger and bigger and this year was no different, as both the all-star comedy ensemble flick The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and the horror remake Evil Dead saw their debuts at SXSW yesterday. But the festival is smartly coordinated, and the lack of competing material on opening day makes it easier to justify devoting your time to the big premiers and forgoing them for the rest of the festival.
Myself and Dylan Garsee took things light yesterday in order to preserve our energy for the rest of the festival, when our days become far more chaotic and eventually the music portion will rear its head and attempt to seduce us with its tweet-powered Doritos forts and StumbleUpon massage centers. And by light, I mean we began as breezily as possible with a visit to a panel dedicated to internet cat videos.
The panel had in description seemed like an examination of whether cat videos and other, similar content could ever be art. It was headed up by the founders of the Cat Vid Fest, an event that takes place at the Walker Center and has drawn big crowds despite some resistance from its parent museum. That last point is important because the bulk of the panel was devoted to the Cat Vid Fest folk essentially bragging about how their little quirky festival enjoyed far more attention and press coverage than other events at the Walker. They showed some cat videos, and that was where the audience was engaged the most, but overall they were more concerned with defending their festival from these art snobs.
After a quick break for lunch at beloved Austin establishment Frank's, we joined the massive line waiting for entry to the world premier of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone at the Paramount Theatre. With Steve Carrell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi and Olivia Wilde all starring, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone felt like an older ensemble comedy banking on star wattage rather than a hook or writing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and the film had a decent story at heart, with the focus on Carrell's titular Wonderstone, a formerly bullied boy who takes up magic as a way of getting people to like him. Buscemi is Anton, his foil, a meek, near silent partner who is secretly the ideas man behind their act, which is titled "Burt and Anton's Magical Friendship," and seems to be stuck in the kind of rut familiar to anyone who has been in a longstanding relationship. And then Jim Carrey comes along as a Criss Angel parody named Steve Gray, a gross-out who would have been a carnie star last century but now has his own cable show called "Mind Rapist."
The film features Carrey in full on manic mode, eagerly distorting his features and characteristics for desperate laughs, and while some of those laughs land and land well, the film doesn't quite seem to know what to do with him, other than to treat him as an all-purpose gadfly. But the star who gets it the worse here is easily Olivia Wilde, who as Jane is thrust into a stage assistant role she doesn't want and is stuck dealing with Burt's bullshit as his stars continues to fade. At first, Wilde's character stands up to Burt and calls him on that bullshit, but because this is a huge comedy with a massive budget, a romantic angle is forced into the film shortly before the end and all of the goodwill engendered by her character beforehand is sacrificed for one slightly entertaining visual gag. Burt Wonderstone isn't a bad comedy, not by any stretch, but it seems to have once been a great comedy that was focus grouped into submission. Luckily, the next premier of the evening is almost entirely the opposite.
Helmed by the mostly unknown short film director Fede Alvarez, and featuring a murderer's row of screenwriters, including Alvarez himself and Diablo Fucking Cody, Evil Dead has no right to work. Yet it doesn't just work, it's a ridiculous triumph, a master class in how remakes should be approached and a genuinely terrifying experience that keeps you on the literal edge of your seat right through its credits. Though it is well-written and performed, most of the credit for that success is owed to Alvarez, who stuck to his guns and utilized mostly practical effects for the film, which enables it to feel far more real and gritty than most major contemporary horror works. At the introduction to the film, Alvarez contended that the film is not a remake but a "rebirth," a reimagining of a story us horror hounds know and love that plays on the knowledge we think we have of what will happen and flips our expectations in dazzling and subtle ways.
Because this is a film that works best the less you know about it, I'm not particularly interested in going over the details of its plot other than to say that it of course features five kids going to an old broke down cabin in the woods to fight some inner demons, not realizing more literal ones will be plaguing them. The characters themselves appear to be purposefully underwritten, but Jane Levy's performance as Mia is worth sing
ling out both for how well she utilizes the two ends of her endearing-creepy personality spectrum. There are also plenty of nods to the original Evil Dead, but it's important to note that where that film's gonzo horror style was infused with a kind of twisted humor, this film is serious as a knife to the jugular and it never lets off that pressure. Think of it instead as a spiritual successor to the likes of Martyrs, with similar brutality and a sharper edge. The film, oddly enough, can also be read as a 21st century horror update of Andrea Dworkin's assertion that the act of penetration is an act of violence and therefore all penetrative sex is violence, yet it features no sex scenes, no lust, no libido.
More importantly, it's a film that just fucking works, full of artful cinematography from Aaron Morton that distracts you with haunting beauty before it rips you to pieces. That this is Alvarez's debut feature makes it all the more impressive, both for the intensity of the work on display and the careful withholding that Alvarez exhibits, a talent that is typically not found in young, untested filmmakers. Evil Dead may have premiered on the first night of SXSW, but it's already set an incredibly high bar for the rest of the films on the program, especially since SXSW has been an excellent proving ground for horror films, as Cabin in the Woods showed last year.
We closed our night out with a party at the relatively new Holy Mountain, where Karaoke Underground was doing a party for Miss Match and Dylan and I were both still so high off the adrenaline rush of Evil Dead that it felt like we'd just robbed a bank. All in all, not a bad start to what will be a true endurance test.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.