Written by: Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues(screenplay), Sam Raimi (original screenplay)
Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, and Lou Taylor Pucci
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“You are all going to die tonight."
Remaking The Evil Dead conjures up the typical sort of concerns and possibilities that are inherent with updating a classic film and transporting it into a new context. This one seems especially appropriate, though: what would Sam Raimi’s notoriously splattery masterpiece look like in the shadow of “torture porn?” There was always a certain, playful gamesmanship to Raimi’s gory outbursts, so it seems natural that he’d return (as a producer in this case) and attempt to reclaim the Grand Guignol with his original demented baby.
After threatening to do so for years, he’s tapped newcomer Fede Alvarez to craft a film that tries to answer the bell in big, bold, and bloody fashion. However, this Evil Dead gets too caught up in its attempt to take splatter back and forgets many of the other qualities that made the original so endearing--it’s a film that remembers that The Evil Dead is riotously gory and takes every opportunity to remind you of that, all the while ignoring its suspense, atmosphere, and wit.
That blunt-force trauma approach is on display early on with a largely disconnected prologue that finds a nameless girl being captured and tortured in a cellar by some locals straight out of Deliverance. It turns out she’s been possessed by a demon, and her father’s gotta put her down; he does so by setting her on fire and blowing her head off. “Holy shit, welcome to the modern edition of The Evil Dead,” seems to be the statement. We then flash ahead to an unspecified time, where a group of kids have trekked to a remote cabin in the woods in an effort to send mutual friend Mia (Jane Levy) through detox. Once they discover that the place has been housing bizarre, demonic rituals, they unwittingly unleash an ancient evil that quite literally proceeds to tear them apart.
Alvarez and company really delight in the tearing; Evil Dead is probably the goriest big studio film ever released, and the film works as an incredible homage to the glory days of practical effects work. Leading up to its release, Alvarez claimed that everything here is practical, and, apart from one or two bits, that’s an easy claim to believe. Almost every display is extraordinary and often accentuated by geysers of gloriously wet blood that carries a sticky weight that CGI grue can’t compete with. I imagine at least three or four scenes here will be the most outrageously bloody things to grace theaters all year long, if not longer; if the aim was to one-up the previous decade’s fixation on unrelenting bodily mutilations and squirm-inducing gore, then it succeeds.
I just wish it meant something. In my review for the original film, I noted that it feels disingenuous to consider it a simple splatter flick because such a label implies emptiness. In comparison, I have no qualms calling this Evil Dead a splatter movie. This is not to say it’s a completely vapid experience, but its gore is largely at the service of nothing but its own existence. There’s no sense of escalation or cohesion to the thing (after all, the first five minutes feature an immolated girl’s brains being splattered all over the wall), and, at a certain point, it just becomes exhaustingly hollow since the movie never sustains a sense of atmosphere or energy that draws you in. It’s easy to admire these sequences in a vacuum, but they never quite hit the mark on any other level. Consider it kind of like riding a roller coaster that keeps getting stuck—there are plenty of concentrated bursts and thrills, but the movie often stalls due to its aimlessness.
In many ways, this is the “grim and gritty” Evil Dead, too, which probably sounds odd considering the lo-fi, raw qualities of the original. However, Raimi did line his movie with a kooky, oddball personality that allowed it to toe the line between genuinely disturbing gore and outrageous, entertaining splatter. Alvarez completely paints over that line with buckets of blood that are meant to completely shock and repulse—this is not a fun, splattery sideshow act but a mean horror film that’s straighter than straight. It’s a gross movie but not a spirited gross-out movie, which a completely valid approach considering this franchise’s malleable tones. The approach is little more than a half-formed idea, though, since there’s little ingenuity outside of its desire to soak itself in as much blood as possible and dispense with suspense and a relatable human element.
Because, let’s face it: the premise cooks up some harrowing shit, and, for all its playfulness, the original film remembered those little human beats. They’re mostly missing here despite the stronger set-up involving Mia and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), who ditched his friends and family once his mom started to lose her mind. There’s some genuine tension there and a strong throughline that gets lost once the film’s quieter moments degenerate into David and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) thumbing through the Necronomicon to reveal the film’s bloated mythology. Alvarez rarely mines all of the inherent drama, so the inspired angles get lost in a deluge of gore that only manages to feel shallower as it pools up. At one point, a character bludgeons another to death and no one so much as blinks an eye, and the film doesn’t get around to reckoning with its drama until the climax (at which point it not-so-coincidentally roars to life). In between, you’ll witness a lot of heinous stuff, including animal torture and mutilation (just in case you weren’t sure just how harsh this effort is), and it feels like Alvarez’s heart lies in that stuff rather than storytelling.
Evil Dead becomes even more problematic when it confronts its legacy since it’s constantly caught between paying fealty to it and striking out to do its own thing. Remakes inherently invite comparisons to their originals, and that’s especially true here because this film preys on your knowledge of The Evil Dead. Some of it, such as the re-jigged fates of some of the characters, works because it’s almost feels like a riff on Raimi’s own toying with expectations. A lot of it is empty fan-service, and Evil Dead often feels like the Chris Farley Show of remakes: “You remember that time Ash had to lop off his own hand? That was awesome." Chainsaws, shotguns, Raimi-cam, and the infamous tree rape all make obligatory appearances and mostly act as surface level intrusions. Other call-backs are less effective, such as Alvarez’s attempt to wedge Raimi’s shrill, over-the-top Deadites into the proceedings; at first, The Evil reveals itself in the form of Mia’s ghostly doppelganger, but it doesn’t take long for the film to do some requisite retreading with possessed girls spouting vulgar dialogue that’s amped up in accordance to the extreme gore. Most of the exchanges feel more befitting of The Exorcist rather than The Evil Dead, and they clash with the film’s severe tone.
Alvarez’s film often threatens to completely work since many of its moving parts are strong. He’s certainly no slouch as a director and exhibits plenty of cinematic verve in bursts. When afforded more resources than his predecessor could ever dream of back in 1981, he doesn’t waste them; Evil Dead is still a relatively cheap movie by today’s standards, but it never looks it since the film is expectedly slick. Aesthetically, it’s obviously at odds with the original and it also processes and glosses over its own griminess, effectively diluting it with polish.
A more accomplished troupe of actors also graces this update, but only Levy and Pucci separate themselves from an otherwise forgettable pack. Fernandez functions as the pseudo-lead but only has marginally more presence than Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore, both of whom exist to add to the body count. Levy is quite impressive, and the film’s biggest misstep is sidelining her from her own story (this is one instance where the film is too slavish to the original’s structure—the sister ends up in the cellar just because). She throws herself into the proceedings when given the chance and eventually earns the gore-soaked baton from Bruce Campbell as the franchise’s bloodied, battered victim.
Does the film itself earn its franchise mantle, though? I suppose it does, if just barely. No one would ever accuse it of being a half-hearted, lazy cash-in because it has too much reverence for the original, and it’s not a total copy and paste effort. It’s more like karaoke than anything, but this Evil Dead howls when it really wants to. I’m not sure it does it often enough—not so much out of laziness, but out of a misguided attempt to merely recall and one-up the original’s Grand Guignol sensibilities, an approach that eventually results in so much bloody static. There’s a cosmic irony in this film debuting almost exactly a year after The Cabin in the Woods, a film that argues against such ritualized and processed displays. Not only does Evil Dead continue the ritual, it renders its gore into white noise. It’s a film with big, blood-caked balls but little brains or heart. For all of its attempts at gory transgression, it mostly feels harmless but somehow worthy, which is better than many remakes* can boast. Buy it!
*If this is a remake at all; I suspect fans will argue that this is basically a sequel, thanks in part to a post-credits bit that’s equal parts fan-wanking and trolling. I think I’m just going to err on the side of caution and consider Drag Me to Hell to be the true spiritual successor to Raimi’s trilogy, which is just as well.
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