Editor’s note: Rob’s review originally ran during SXSW last month, but we’re re-running it as Evil Dead officially hits theaters starting tonight.
When a remake of Sam Raimi‘s seminal horror film was first announced it was met with a fair share of understandable skepticism. The hostility was tempered somewhat by the inclusion of Raimi, Robert Tapert and original star Bruce Campbell in the producers’ chairs, but still people wondered if that bloody magic could be recaptured.
The answer is a tentative and extremely gory “yes.” Kind of. Somewhat. Unless you’re someone who prefers their horror films to be smart and scary in addition to being creatively bloody.
Five friends head to a cabin in the woods (surprise!) looking for both a fun vacation and a place to help one of their own kick a bad drug habit. But withdrawal is the least of their problems when a bloody basement and a skin-bound book are discovered beneath their feet. Soon an evil entity is causing violent and messy mayhem in the form of extreme acts of self-mutilation and murder. And tree rape. Can’t forget the tree rape.
Mia (Jane Levy) has been an addict since her mentally ill mother died, and in an effort to go cold turkey she’s come to a family cabin with her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci). The friends have been through this before, so they make a pact that no matter how bad Mia’s tantrums get they won’t drive her home.
But then they find the creepy book bound in presumably human skin, wrapped in plastic and barbed wire, and scrawled with warnings not to read, write or speak aloud from the contents within… which they immediately proceed to do. Mia makes a run for it only to get an intimate encounter with something nasty for her trouble, and soon the maiming, vomiting and killing begin.
Fede Alvarez‘s directorial debut is a mixed bag on both its own merits and its status as a remake, but we’ll start with the good.
The film gets two things right that far too many horror films, Hollywood ones in particular, get disastrously and continuously wrong. The effects on display here are mostly accomplished via practical means, and they are fucking sweet. From the tongue-slicing glimpsed in the trailer to various acts of slashing, bashing and severing, this is a wet dream for fans of the red stuff. Better still, the scenes rarely cut away too soon and instead force viewers to endure the cringe-inducing, flesh tearing action to the end. It’s honestly surprising that this cut is R-rated, but thankfully the MPAA seems to recognize that watching people commit gratuitous and extremely gory violence against each other is far less dangerous to society than watching them make whoopee.
And speaking of the end… Not only does Evil Dead nail its ending better than just about any other horror film of the past decade, but the final fifteen minutes are a crimson symphony of brilliant staging, suspense and gore.
Also good are the presence and performances of Levy and Pucci. The two of them endure the most punishment, some rough and truly violent abuses in fact, and they both sell viewers on the pain and the will to fight. Pucci’s always been an underrated actor, and it’s great to see him trying something well outside his wheelhouse here. It also helps that he gets some of the best dialogue too.
And finally, Alvarez has a great eye for visual set pieces and framing. Several shots here serve to heighten the creepiness and (oddly) the beauty of the possessed through slow reveals, focused glimpses of evil and crane/rig use. And have I mentioned those final fifteen minutes? Sweet Jesus it’s so damn good.
But the script by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues (with conspicuously invisible punch-ups by Diablo Cody) is flat, generic and utterly idiotic. Just as slasher films had to evolve or die after Wes Craven’s Scream, movies like this need to be smarter in a post-Cabin in the Woods world. Alvarez and friends apparently missed that memo, though, as everything about the script is lazy and the characters are far from compelling. The five friends act stupidly and unrealistically throughout. The film simply moves through a series of checked boxes to appease fans of the original and get to the action through the path of least narrative resistance.
And before you comment below that “It’s a horror movie! Who cares about the script?” let me just answer you preemptively. We should all care about the script. Imagine how fantastic it would be to see a horror movie with a similarly serious tone and blissfully joyous gore effects *combined* with an interesting story and characters we actually care about. Is that really too much to ask?
And it’s worth noting, especially in light of the film’s audaciously bold poster claim, that the movie is at no point scary. More than a few attempts at jump-scares are made, but they’re visible from miles (and minutes) away. Alvarez even tries to get away with the old open/close mirror gag. Instead the film settles for a sometimes tension-filled exercise in nightmarish brutality as it delivers a deadly serious take on Raimi’s own goofy, slapstick remake/sequel (Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn). [Edited so people will stop reminding me that the original Evil Dead wasn't a comedy and instead maybe get on with their lives.]
Evil Dead is a better film than was probably expected, but as good as the effects and bloodwork are here — and they are jaw-droppingly fantastic — they don’t make up for the film’s incredibly shoddy and flaccid script. Still, horror fans should support it if only to encourage the genre’s return to a harder tone and more practical effects. And because I really want to see a sequel.
The Upside: Insanely glorious final 15 minutes; strong and wonderfully gory effects work throughout; Lou Taylor Pucci and Jane Levy
The Downside: Anemic script; generic setup and character execution
On the Side: Depending on who you ask this is either a remake or a sequel