Unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, whose endless number of sequels had already run it into the ground by the time an ill-conceived reboot hit theaters earlier this year, the Evil Dead movies seemed sacred. A trilogy of groundbreaking, increasingly humorous films that established the reputable career of its director, Sam Raimiof Spider-Man fame, and cult status of its star, Bruce Campbell, the films’ signature blend of hardcore gore and irreverent absurdity was deemed untouchable by anyone else.
It’s a good thing the new Evil Dead didn’t even try.
Despite its being produced by Raimi and Campbell, this remake is its own animal. First-time directorFede Alvarez played the concept straight — a bunch of kids in the woods, dying at the hands of a demon summoned from a mysterious book — similar to the first Evil Dead, and he made the right choice in not attempting to ape the playful charm and humor of the sequels. (It can be argued that last year’s The Cabin in the Woods was in fact a homage to Evil Dead II — and a more-than-adequate one at that). Lead actor Shiloh Fernandez displays none of Campbell’s over-the-top charm, but he doesn’t need to — his blandness is a better fit for this type of movie.
This doesn’t mean that the movie forgets its forefathers entirely. Although the details of its plot differ drastically from The Evil Deads, the movie is full of references to the originals, whether obvious (a sinister tree, a weaponized chainsaw) or more subtle (a soon-to-be detached hand), and the claustrophobic camera work — though modern and smooth — is true to the inventive style of the originals. Cameras still rush through the forest to represent the impending demonic forces, and characters still bleed like they were attached to fire hydrants.
And, wow, the blood. A far cry from its brual but clinical treatment in the torture porn genre popular during the mid-2000s and relative nonexistence in the PG-13-rated movies most often produced today, blood is everywhere in Evil Dead: caked on faces, expelled from mouths, streaming from limbs and even falling from the sky. While the amount is clearly unrealistic, it doesn’t distract from the more visceral and more disgusting — though hardly more understated — mutilations of the characters’ bodies. Evil Dead doesn’t play these for laughs by any stretch of the imagination, and some of the mutilations are indeed terrifying, but in a horror climate where unseen violence rules, some moments can come across as corny.
What’s most impressive about Evil Dead, however, is how the best scares happen in the least bloody scenes. When the demons switch to their vessels’ voices and personalities in a final plea for penance (a tactic ripped straight from the originals), the characters’ predictably letting down their guard is understandable rather than infuriating. Unlike that of its predecessor, the setup of Evil Dead is meaty enough to justify its characters’ actions and relationships; instead of a carefree college vacation, the purpose of the trip to the remote cabin is to help the protagonist’s sister, Mia (played with gusto by Jane Levy), quit heroin. The gravity of the situation, even before the demons wreak havoc, combined with Alvarez’s willingness to subvert expectations, creates more tension than is usually found in most films that are this relentlessly bloody.
The script has some problems when characters interact post-possession, and the film, unlike the originals, doesn’t come close to transcending its genre, but it would be unfair to expect it to do so. In his first feature, Alvarez has done what has recently seemed less and less possible: successfully remake a classic horror film.