(This review was originally published on April 5, 2013 at Reel Film News)
More often than not I’m a harsh critic of horror reboots (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween” were all predictably sub-par), but I’ll occasionally come away from one happily frazzled (“The Crazies”, “Dawn of the Dead” and “My Bloody Valentine” all surprised me, for example). While this re-imagining of Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic definitely belongs in the latter category, I think my expectations must have been unreasonably elevated. Why, I’m not sure; as perhaps the biggest horror cult classic of the last three decades, “The Evil Dead” must have been some pretty intimidating material to approach for a makeover, if for nothing other than trying to please legions of skeptics who were just waiting to tear it down. By that measure, this “Evil Dead” must be commended for eschewing almost every trend in contemporary cinema.
So forget that “Evil Dead 2”, Raimi’s 1987 re-working of his own original bloodbath, was campier, crazier, and somewhat of a remake already. How the hell do you replace Bruce Campbell, anyway?
And those are three major things that the film gets right. There is no Ash in this one, nor anyone who might be considered a comparable mainstay to fill the iconic void (or at least not as we might imagine them for any future installments). Heroin addict Mia (Jane Levy) is taken to a remote family cabin by her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and three of their friends in an attempt to help her quit cold turkey after several failed attempts and a recent overdose. Things go downhill quickly when the withdrawal begins, but the real trouble starts when scholarly Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) decides to read a couple verses from a mysterious book that they find in the basement (never mind the several warnings etched in blood across its explicit illustrations of torture and witchcraft, professor). This, of course, turns out to be the Book of the Dead, which if you didn’t know, isn’t good.
When Mia begins seeing strange things in the woods, it’s assumed by the group that she is hallucinating (a pallid, trembling Levy resembles nothing of the plucky redhead from “Suburgatory”), until she turns to such extreme self-mutilation that it defies the tolerance of a normal human body.
And, as you might expect, things only get worse. Much worse. Syringes, a box-cutter, and a nail gun are all implements of bloodshed in the increasingly gruesome proceedings as an evil spirit flirts violently with the group. For purposes of reviewing a film that I think is strong enough to stand on its own, I’ll avoid drawing specific comparisons to the original (which I will be viewing for around the tenth time post-haste). The important thing to know going into director Fede Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” is that, though it seems to remain in the same universe as the original, it doesn’t feel like such a ‘remake’ after all. It does, however, repopulate the original scenario, one that isn’t given a clear spot in the timeline of the series, if it has one at all, but that definitely shares several characteristics (and yes, there is a chainsaw scene).
The screenplay was written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, and was given a dialogue treatment by Diablo Cody (writer of “Young Adult”), which is reflected in the only slightly humorous line in the film: “I don’t want to be the Devil’s bitch.” I imagine the cast, which also includes Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore as two other ill-fated friends, had to do some exhausting things to make this thing work considering that all special effects involved are practical (as opposed to computer generated).
With all that in mind, I still felt somewhat underwhelmed, despite the fact that the film absolutely delivers the cringe-inducing gore that was promised to avid fans of the original. As much as I liked “Evil Dead”, I really, really wanted to love it. But in the realm of contemporary horror films, that should be considered high praise.