BE WARNED: The following review contains MASSIVE SPOILERS as I talk about the plot in detail. Proceed at your peril.
Fede Alvarez’s excessively hyped remake of Sam Raimi’s horror classic Evil Dead is the kind of remake I enjoy. It deviates from the source material while retaining only a few familiar elements to help the audience get their bearings. For example, character archetypes from the original are maintained while the film otherwise employs completely new characters that can follow their own unique paths rather than slavishly retread those of their predecessors.
And in a nutshell, I think that best describes Alvarez’s Evil Dead. It starts out mimicking its inspiration, but quickly goes off trail into new territory to keep the audience on their toes. Whether that new territory was worth exploring, though, is up to a matter of taste, I guess.
As the plot goes, recovering heroin addict Mia (Jane Levy) is brought to a secluded cabin in the woods to go cold turkey. Keeping her in check is her brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), David’s girlfriend, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and their friends, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas). In the cellar, they discover an old book bound in human flesh, and when Eric recites a passage from its pages, a violent supernatural force takes possession of them one by one.
To give you an idea of the kinds of curveballs this remake throws at you, there’s a part where about halfway through the movie, Eric tries burning the Book, but it doesn’t work. It’s a little scene, but I felt that it was a really clever way of telling the audience fairly early on that the characters won’t be able to resolve the conflict the same way as in the original. That kind of twist was subtle (if you hadn’t seen the original, it wouldn’t feel out of place) and alleviated any concern I had that the movie, or at least it’s conclusion, would be a beat-by-beat recreation.
Likewise, every time they homaged anything else from the original, they didn’t dwell on it for too long and promptly put their own spin on it. For example, the girlfriend character Natalie is the one to get her hand possessed and winds up chopping it off to save herself from possession. That left me with the impression, “Okay, they’ve already done the hand-thing, so we won’t be seeing that later.” And then, during the climax, Mia loses her hand and does the chainsaw bit (but in a very different way) and it took my by surprise because I thought they’d already covered that.
And I liked these new characters. Except Natalie. She goes, like, half an hour without a single line and when she does start talking she says nothing of consequence. And after she dies following the nailgun scene she just sort of vanishes from the movie (even though her corpse should still be a threat so I wondered what they did with it). Still, considering her counterpart from the original, Linda, was the most important non-Ash character in the movie, one could argue that Natalie’s sidelining was just another way of deviating from expectations.
I liked everyone else, though. There’s a great new reason for the characters to be out in this isolated area and while you hate Mia at the start, she really does pay her dues by the end of the movie (and then some). Eric sort of became the human pin cushion and I was laughing at him near the end, but for the “Scotty” of the group, he does a great turn around and winds up not being the big asshole of the group as the opening set him up to be. David started to annoy me by making a bunch of stupid horror movie mistakes (how many times can the voice changing thing fool him? Really?), but to his credit, his final gambit actually works.
Speaking of which, that was a great bit of misdirection at the end there. When David brings Mia back you fully expect it to be a ruse and that Mia’s still possessed and you’re rolling your eyes… Then it turns out it WORKED, Mia is Mia again, but oh crap we forgot about that other guy, aw Hell.
If I had to complain about anything, I felt that this “Evil Dead” was very much a product of modern “ADHD filmmaking”. The camera and editing never settles down and there’s no time spent establishing an atmosphere. The original Evil Dead was a violent gorefest for sure, but it knew when to slow down and take its time to impart a feeling of dread. Like when Ash goes into the cellar, there’s this long circular pan and then silence as he slowly creeps through the darkness and finds the book. It builds a sensation of pervasive scariness that counterbalances all the over the top gore and violence.
Here the movie does everything quick, quick, quick. When we first see the cabin at the very start, there are all these grey, dead trees and I really wanted to just soak in the environment because I loved the look. But no, the movie couldn’t settle down for 10 seconds to let me do that. The only time the camera lingers and holds on anything is when there’s body horror going on. I don’t think the new Evil Dead ever crosses over into bland Eli Roth style “torture porn” crap, but it was definitely more concerned with gore and action than atmosphere and dread.
Overall, I enjoyed that this Evil Dead remake took the risk of doing things differently and didn’t try to be another Hills Have Eyes (the most pointless, dull remake this side of Vince Vaughn’s Psycho). It struck a great balance between familiar and different and it’s that lingering sense of familiarity that sets you up for surprise when the film deviates from your expectations. At the same time, it squandered a lot of its atmosphere and elaborate sets by never settling down for a second. While I get that the director wanted to go for a relentless rollercoaster experience, it just gets tiresome after a while. By the fifth or sixth time Eric takes something pointy to the face or torso, you get a little bored.
Is it as good as the original? Not by a long shot, as Alvarez with millions of dollars is still a far more pedestrian filmmaker than even Sam Raimi was in his early 20s with only a few thousand dollars to work with. Still, I think it can coexist with the original just fine and I appreciate that it tried new things.
EVIL DEAD (2013). Starring Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Elizabeth Blackmore. Rated R, 91 min. Genre: Horror. Written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues. Directed by Fede Alvarez.