Jane Levy: To Hell and Back

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There was a tasty rumor that Alfred Hitchcock suddenly dropped the water temperature to its bottom limits for Janet Leigh’s infamous Psycho shower scene to make the starlet’s screams more convincing. Members of the crew and Leigh herself have since disputed the story, citing that the scene took seven days to shoot and that a sub-zero soak would only work once. But Hitchcock allegedly used other tricks to keep his actors on their toes, including moving the mummified corpse of Mrs. Bates around the set (and into Leigh’s dressing room closet) to keep the suspense equally oppressive behind the camera. These behind-the-scenes shockers were designed to help actors empathize with the fictional characters they occupied, taking method acting to a new, brutal level where the barrier between actor and character blurs past the emotional to the uncomfortably physical.

Jane Levy, who ascends into scream-queen royalty as a demon-infested addict in this year’s Evil Dead remake, knows all about it. After enduring a live burial, invasive vomit hoses, and a debilitating three-week ear infection, the 23-year-old actress felt just as tortured as Mia, a college junkie who discovers a greater evil lurking inside her body. In addition to sitting through glacial makeup and prosthetic sessions, Levy’s transformation into a supernatural sadist proved hellish in more ways than one. “The shoot involved hours in the morning and really early call times. I was extremely physically uncomfortable, twitching, and losing my voice because I was screaming so loud, and getting buried alive, and having tubes stuck down my throat so I could vomit on people. So that was the process of being a demon.”

Levy, best known as the precocious-yet-lovable Tessa on ABC’s teen hit Suburgatory, hadn’t initially heard of the Evil Dead franchise or its beloved reputation among VHS-renting sleepover fiends. “But once I read the script I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” Levy says. “It’s so over-the-top. Every moment I was reading it and thought it couldn’t get any worse, it was just the beginning. It just seemed like the perfect project to take on after I’d spent so many months working on a comedy television show. I wanted to try something new, and this felt like the diametric opposite.”

Levy’s not kidding. Her gruesome new movie and its predecessors veer as far away from a whimsical Disney-owned sitcom as possible. Ironically, original Evil Dead writer/director Sam Raimi’s career has followed the complete opposite trajectory. Decades before he helmed family fare like Oz the Great and Powerful and Spider-Man, a 20-year-old Raimi ventured into a backwoods Tennessee cabin to film a movie about five Michigan State students who discover an ancient skin-bound book that summons nasty spirits. Though it was shot on a shoestring budget of approximately $350,000, the founding Evil Dead remains endlessly inventive and pornographically gory. The demon-infested coeds of the 1981 feature stab, hack, dismember, and vomit in lurid close-ups that beg for a gag reflex. Stephen King sang the film’s praises at Cannes the following year and a cult quickly followed. The Evil Dead eventually spawned two sequels, The Evil Dead II in 1987 and Army of Darkness in 1992, each one more ridiculous than the last as Raimi balanced claustrophobic terror with Three Stooges pratfalls and bodily fluid overkill. This new approach fused old Tom and Jerry cartoons, Ray Harryhausen epics, and John Waters exploitation into an unholy cornucopia of belly laughs and sweaty palms. (Ash, the stoic chainsaw welder of all three films who made actor Bruce Campbell a fanboy icon, even indulges in some playful eye-poke shenanigans with a group of skeletons in one of Darkness’ goofiest scenes).

Unless you find supernatural vine rape or self-mutilation funny, there’s nothing remotely goofy about the Evil Dead of 2013. The founding trio of Raimi, Campbell, and producer Rob Tapert gave Uruguayan first-time director Fede Alvarez freedom to reconstruct their plot into a bloody bombshell that renders its gore obsession in hi-def beauty. Rapid-fire nail guns and bloody downpours have never looked so picturesque. Though his first cut received an unmarketable NC-17 rating by the MPAA, Alvarez eventually worked his tale of four doomed friends sobering their dope-withdrawn friend into an incredibly hard R. And we mean hard. Though the film offers multiple instances of amplified carnage, the most alarming sight at Paste’s Evil Dead screening was a woozy athletic dude stumbling out of the theater 20 minutes in, one usher under each shoulder to prevent an imminent collapse. Two pensive girls wearing sweatpants and frowns followed.

Levy admits that the brutal subject matter could be a tad much, and the intensity even followed her to bed. “I did have bad dreams. You can’t help but spend your whole day screaming, ‘Suck my dick motherfucker’ and then go home and have a nice, peaceful dinner. I would have bad dreams a lot. And I think most of the crew had the same thing.”

Despite a shoot more hellish than any demonic possession, the difficulties faced by Levy and Alvarez stemmed from a specific choice made early in preproduction. Inspired by the DIY austerity of the original film he rented when he was 12, Alvarez committed to make a CGI-less “indie” movie with the full resources of a studio. You won’t find any uncanny valleys or tinny green screen explosions in Evil Dead, but you will find thorny wirework stunts, grotesque prosthetics, and more than 50,000 gallons of fake blood. Unlike Hitchcock’s intentional pranks, the devastating challenges of Evil Dead were built into the fabric of its production. And that fabric was woven with a lot of fake vomit. “All movies are hard, and especially since we were doing all practical effects, it took a long time. After I vomit on (fellow camper) Olivia’s face, we have to clean her up, clean up the entire set, and then do it again. And just one shot of me vomiting would take at least half of a day, because it wasn’t something that we added in with computers later. I definitely don’t think (Alvarez) wanted to make the shoot hard. It’s a horrific movie with so many stunts.”

Mechanical vomit tubes and nightmares aside, Levy would “love” to make a sequel and is meeting with Alvarez this week to discuss potential story options. But with all of the confessed misery and hardship, what exactly makes a repeat trip to this haunted cabin so appealing? “It was really fun to be a torturer, as fucked up as that sounds,” Levy beams. With this statement, the winsome starlet touches on a very special element that permeates the entire Evil Dead mythology: it’s the women who violently penetrate the men in a complete gender subversion of the slasher archetype. “It’s a really fun part for an actress to play. I go through three totally different transformations in the movie. On one level, you don’t get the opportunity to play the villain as a woman that often, and not only do I get to do that, but I get to be a frickin’ action hero.” Go ghoul power.