I’ve been running this little experiment on people whenever talking about the new remake of Evil Dead: which one are you talking about? Are you talking about the one where only he and his girl go up to the cabin in the woods alone or are you talking about the one with the five kids? Are you referring to the one with the chainsaw, the time portal and “Groovy”? Or are you talking about the one where there’s almost no humor, no comedy and it’s all horror?
What I’ve found out is that most people are speaking about Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, the 1989 cult classic that features one of the greatest performances ever — the manic, desperate and over-the-top job by one Bruce Campbell. Evil Dead 2 did something most horror movies cannot pull off — it realized that horror is a visceral reaction, just like humor. As long as it was hitting you with one kind of visceral reaction — whether a shock or a joke — it was entertaining you. This led to the more comedy-than-horror Army of Darkness (i.e. one of the most quoted movies of all time).
But the first Evil Dead — the ORIGINAL Evil Dead — is a flat-out horror movie. There is almost no humor in it. Five kids head up to a cabin in the woods to have a good time. Unbeknownst to them, a linguistics professor had gone up there to translate an ancient and evil text and had released a great and terrifying force upon the world. The kids are chased, tortured and taken by the evil spirit until only one, a young man with a strong chin, remains to battle it out.
The movie archetype laid out by a young Sam Raimi in 1981 has become such a standard cliche that it took Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods to re-energize it. For the last 32 years, kids have been going up to remote cabins to go have a good time, only to be set upon by some sort of foul or nefarious being. Most of them die in bad ways; one or two remain to finish off the evil form. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In remaking The Evil Dead, director Fede Alvarez and co-writers Rodo Sayagues and Diablo Cody make a few different choices. For starters, there is no “Ash character. That’s because there’s almost no intentional comedy in this movie. They are remaking The Evil Dead and thus found a way to put five young persons in a cabin in the middle of the forest without making it a party.
David (Shiloh Feernadez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) and his estranged friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) are all in the old cabin David’s family has owned for the purpose of helping his junkie sister Mia (Jane Levy) finally kick off her heroin habit. Through their interactions we learn that Mia was left behind to care for her mother as she died, that Mia took the death quite hard and descended into a world of drug abuse. She’s tried to kick the habit before and it has failed. Now, a year after her last attempt, Olivia has called David in to act as a positive force in what will likely be Mia’s last attempt at sobriety, before she ends her life accidentally.
Right off the bat, you recognize that there is a lot of hard stuff going on under the surface for these characters. Where was David when his family crumbled? Why was Mia left alone with Mom? Why does Eric hold such a grudge for David? Can they really hope to make this cold turkey attempt happen? All of which help to preoccupy them when they find the lock on the cabin’s door broken and dozens of dead cat remains hanging on the basement’s ceiling; rotting away like so much fruit left on the vines. Oh and there’s this strange package, bound on razor-sharp barb wire. When Eric opens it up, well, bad things begin to happen.
The “Mia is a recovering junkie” story helps to create not just a sense of discomfort even before the story kicks in, but it also helps in covering up the usual cliché questions of why don’t they just leave at first chance. Olivia is desperate for this cold turkey chance to work as she knows there won’t be another. Eric is willing to try for his friend, but doubts it will given all that has happened. Natalie is there to support David, who is desperately trying to make amends for his past with his sister. And Mia, who can smell the cats and sense the danger is an untrustworthy warning signal because she’s in the middle of her detox. Even as the evil power of the book takes over her, her friends think it’s more of her detoxed mind trying to act out in a way to get away from them and back towards her heroin. None of them realize what’s happening even as it is happening.
Now part of this is that there is no collection of recordings from Professor Knowby to fill us in on the “Natorum Demonto” and its lore. (NOTE: The remake uses the name for the Book of the Dead that was used in both The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2. It doesn’t get the name “Necronomicon Ex-Mortis” until Army of Darkness. If you don’t believe me, here’s the link to that scene over on YouTube). You’d think they would have taken advantage of 2013 technology and had hand-held camera footage of the initial reading and its effect. There’s an intriguing prologue featuring a girl, her father and several stock “hill folks”. Later on, they add some more lore to that most evil of books. But none of that is explored any further – was that the Professor and his daughter? – nor do we get to see the hill people again. Odd since they could have likely provided exposition and background as well as more meat for the grinder. Instead, the movie leaves it to one of the characters to speak the ancient Sumerian incantations and release the POV monster towards its unsuspecting victims.
And upon the release of the evil force, violence on an epic level ensues. Expect to see mutilations, carnage and violence for each and every one of the friends in the cabin. Expect also to see a lot of blood. No, you’re not picturing enough. More than that. Imagine rains of blood. Characters soaking in blood. Drenched and coated and dripping in the red stuff. And this isn’t any of that CGI blood. This is all viscous and red and thick old school fake blood. This movie literally tries to drown you in blood. Much respect for the crew to find ways of generating so much fake red stuff as well as for the cast for being so up for all the work it took to work covered in it.
I’ll say this much: the movie you think you’re going to go see is the movie you’ve seen advertised. This is a gory flick. You get tons of jump scares. Alvarez directs deftly, throwing all sorts of camera angles and finding ways of filming the horrible monsters coming just off the edge of the camera shot. Lots of times, you know there’s something hideous and terrifying just past that shot’s frame but it doesn’t appear until the camera turns – and a few times, the movie plays with you and nothing happens. Again, the cast is willing to get themselves beaten up and made up and they all take turns being demonically-possessed Deadites. There’s no humor in these monsters. No “I’m the bad guy and you’re the good guy.”
There’s also a lot of callbacks and scenes that recall the previous trilogy. Yes, the chainsaw is there and so is the shotgun (never called a boomstick though). Yes, there’s a tree-raping scene. Yes, someone says that most famous of Deadite lines. Yes, there’s a fight in a well. But the movie also plays with these expectations and brings you to certain moments without giving you the callback payoff. (No furniture laughing. No “come get some”). The movie tries to balance the amount of faithfulness it has to the original movies with its attempts to strike out and be its own self. It sometimes work. It sometimes doesn’t.
But does that make a good movie? It depends on what you want. Are you after a movie about these five characters and rooting for them? If so, then this isn’t it. Unfortunately, you never get to know any of these characters. They mostly remain stock characters, with some getting a bit more info – Mia and David mainly – and some getting almost zero development at all – Natalie has like 10 lines, I think. Alvarez, Sayagues and Cody can’t generate enough interesting lines for all their characters because their characters are never allowed to become interesting. However, if you’re after a movie about these five characters and watching them get put through the meat grinder, then go right on in. The characters will get right back up and suffer even more before being turned into the evil dead and then take even more punishment. This is the kind of movie that works best with an audience ready to be freaked out and grossed out. You have them and you’ll have a great time with this movie.
This is a good movie, but I don’t know if this is a good Evil Dead movie. Much of what people associate with this series cannot really be replicated. Unless he goes back in time or clones himself, there’s no other Bruce Campbell to deliver one-liners and chew scenery. And that’s part of this series’ DNA. It had gone from straight horror to horror-comedy to horror-comedy-action. (And if you’ve seen the original ending planned for Army of Darkness, you know it was going to turn into horror-comedy-action-scifi!) How can this movie replicate that manic energy or that all-and-the-kitchen-sink mentality from Raimi and company? This is what makes remaking cult classics so difficult: you can’t really replicate the lighting-in-a-bottle dynamic.
What Alvarez and his crew have done is make a movie that is decent and enjoyable, but not really memorable. Yes, the buckets of blood stick in the mind and the carnage is something you’ll mention to friends who are into horror movies. But in a few months, will anyone really look back upon this Evil Dead and think “I want to see more of that”? Or will they dust their DVDs of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness and pop those in for a fun evening? I recommend seeing it right now if you’re a horror fan, because if you try sneaking this version past your friends when they expect to see Ash Williams, they won’t like you to much.
We just can’t get over that strong-chinned SOB.