BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Five friends meet at a derelict cabin in the woods, where one finds an ancient book deep within a cellar strewn with decaying animal carcasses. When one utters an incantation scrawled in its pages, it summons the demons living in the woods.
PROS: Occasionally interesting shots.
CONSs: Generic characters and situations; strained pace; fumbled misdirection; routine direction; underfinished screenplay; poor nods to the earlier movies.
The difference between an original and a remake often is, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Before assessing Evil Dead, director Fede Alvarez’s vapid, noisy, brick-stupid remake of Sam Raimi’s groundbreaking 1981 movie, let us proffer an observation sure to elicit howls of outrage from diehard fans: despite its obvious cinematic techniques (from innovation in editing and sound to its hyperkinetic pace), its influence on future generations of horror filmmakers, and its contributions to popular culture, The Evil Dead just isn’t that good. Yes, in 1987 it spawned a brilliant sequel (Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn) and a muddled yet often inspired 1992 continuation (Army of Darkness), yet, taken on its own, Raimi’s classic splatstick feature never really gels into something coherent, logical, intelligent, or even conceptually daring. Love its energy, embrace its legacy, but be honest about its quality. Even during the glut of horror movies released in 1981 alone (a time which saw a range in excellence from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London and Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen on one end to Bruce D. Clark’s Galaxy of Terror and Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery on the other), one could find, if not more inspired movies, then at least better ones.
Of course The Evil Dead stands out. And its cult status and large following pose problems for any remake: how could Alvarez possibly offer anything new? By what metric should one measure his entry, produced by Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert G. Tapert? With how forgiving an eye should one view the screenplay by Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues, and Diablo Colby? Even if one wants to view Evil Dead on its own, the obvious question is, is it even possible? Not this time, for Evil Dead, despite earnest attempts to breathe modern concerns into a decidedly 1980s zeitgeist, bumbles across multiplex screens like Twain’s undead lightning bug. Like its predecessor, fake blood erupts from severed limbs, bile spews from diseased orifices, and much screaming and shrieking leaps from hoarse vocal cords, but the results feel sapped it of vitality, less a remake than a Baudrillardian simulacrum that traverses neither map nor territory.
Evil Dead opens (as practically every modern genre movie must) with backstory. A pair of men (Stephen Butterworth and Karl Willetts) who appear to have been plucked from a crowd scene in John Boorman’s Deliverance or Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort capture a young girl (Phoenix Connelly) and drag her to a basement where a woman (Sian Davis) reads from an ancient book in order to save her soul. As she pleads for her life, her father (Jim McLarty) douses her with gasoline and strikes a match to set her on fire, at which point (in a predictable reversal) she reveals herself to be possessed, with eyes bulging and yellow and her voice dropping into an Exorcist-style croak. Her father immolates her and then shoots her with a shotgun.
Later (how much later Alvarez et al. never divulge), a group of friends meet in the woods to stage an intervention. Mia (Jane Levy) enlists her friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) to help her pry a cocaine monkey from her back. Her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) also show up, much to Mia’s surprise; she and David, it seems, have not spoken since their mother succumbed to mental illness and died. After an impromptu ritual in which Mia dumps the last of her Bolivian marching powder down a well, Mia notices a decaying smell in the cabin, which the group discovers emanates from decaying carcasses in a cellar. Inside, Eric finds a leather-covered book, and begins reading an incantation as Mia begins going through withdrawal. When Mia sees the image of a girl with yellow eyes (and the same ‘do as the girl in Ringu), she flees, but is captured and raped by the now-haunted woods. When the others find her and bring her back to the cabin, the demons arrive to assault them in gruesome fashion…often, far too often, in sequences borrowed from the previous version, and often by rote.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Evil Dead lies in how little the newest iteration bothers to stand out in almost any way. Alvarez’s, Sayagues’s, and Colby’s screenplay tries to inject one or two modern touches into its proceedings, but in context they make little sense. Why would the group hold an intervention in a desolate cabin in the woods, especially one as run down and barren as this? Why on earth would Olivia, who claims to be a registered nurse, not keep far more medical supplies on hand, especially after Mia has failed to go cold turkey before? Alvarez makes efforts to differentiate his movie from others (not just The Evil Dead, but also Dennis Iliands’s The Last House on the Left and every entry of the Saw franchise), as in his post–title card shot—filmed upside down, with the forest overhead and the sky below—but quickly settles into clichéd semiotics (he introduces Mia sitting on a derelict car as golden sunbeams reach through shadowed foliage) and pedestrian momentum. His pacing, which should be energetic, almost frantic, slogs as he throws up set piece after set piece, demonstrating little care and even less interest in even the basic mechanics of filmmaking. The cast, in turn, receives little help from him in developing interesting characters; as broadly drawn as they are, they need as much help as they can get. Too often the result reminds one of last year’s The Cabin in the Woods, but without the invention or the self-knowing humor.
And that may be Evil Dead’s biggest problem: for all of the original’s faults, it played as a gory absurdist romp, Friday the 13th meets the Cthulhu mythos as penned by a pairing of Kurt Vonnegut and Albert Camus and directed by an ADD-addled Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. What laughs Evil Dead receives come from an audience that cannot believe it has been duped. Like the revenants that claw their way above ground, Evil Dead shambles through its 91-minute running time like something that wants to resemble life, but has no spark and awareness. It’s not evil, it’s criminal.