‘Evil Dead’ Review
"Let's hope this still works," says David (Shiloh Fernandez) as he puts a key into the door of his family's old cabin in the woods. But of course he's not just talking about the key; he's talking about the idea of remaking 'The Evil Dead,' the 1981 cult classic that launched the careers of writer/director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert, and star Bruce Campbell and remains close to the hearts of discerning horror fans everywhere. Between the original film and its two sequels, 'Evil Dead II' and 'Army of Darkness,' Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell created one of the most iconic horror franchises of all time. But that was thirty years ago. Times change; tastes change. And in the interim, 'Evil Dead' has been ripped off by so many other movies its plot smells about as fresh as a fruit cellar full of rotting cat corpses. Forget hoping it still works; you'd need the mother of all prayers, and maybe a blood sacrifice or two, to make an 'Evil Dead' remake click.
Thankfully, whatever Kandarian demon co-writer/director Fede Alvarez prayed to heard him and answered him: somewhat miraculously, his 'Evil Dead' is a success, one that out-'Evil Dead's the original movie with even more gore, puke, blood, and dismembered limbs. It may not be wildly inventive, but it is effective, and plenty faithful to the spirit -- and tagline -- of the first "Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror."
The broad strokes remain the same: five friends, a remote cabin, a Book of the Dead, an evil force lurking in the woods, possessions, vivisections, dismemberment, and a partridge in a pear tree (that attempts to sexually assault one of the characters). The five friends, though, are a little bit different this time around, as is their reason for taking a trip to such an inhospitable looking shack in the middle of nowhere. David, his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), his old friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas) have all convened at this dump to help David's sister Mia (Jane Levy) kick her addiction to heroin. After a brief and deeply disturbing prologue, the quintet arrive and watch as Jane pours her last bag of drugs down the cabin's well. Then they settle in to help her go cold turkey. In drips and drabs, the character details come out: David and Mia's damaged relationship, the fact that Mia has tried to ween herself off heroin before and failed (in a sense, this is Mia's own remake of her previous attempts to get clean).
Kicking smack is tough enough already, but it gets infinitely harder after the gang's dog finds a blood-drenched cellar door hidden under a rug. In the basement they discover some nasty smells, a whole mess of dead kitties, and a book wrapped in garbage bags and barbed wire. Exercising what I think we can all agree is some very poor judgement, Eric snips off the wire, opens the bag, and examines the text inside, which, like the Necronomicon of old, is bound in human flesh and inked in human blood. The pages are scrawled with an ancient alphabet, creepy illustrations, and dire warnings urging whoever finds it not to read it. Making a very strong bid for a Darwin Award, Eric recites a passage aloud anyway. Perhaps Eric's stupidity is designed to make what comes next palatable, because he kind of deserves what's coming to him.
But that's really the only way in which what follows could be called "palatable." Once Eric unleashes the evil and it infects Mia at her weakest moment, 'Evil Dead' becomes less of a movie and more of an assault on the senses, building to a sustained crescendo of brutal sequences in which the characters, possessed by the spirits of the book, perform hideous acts to themselves and each other. It is certainly not for the faint of heart; two women in the row behind me left about halfway through the movie, after one told the other that she "couldn't handle it."
That's because Alvarez plays the audience the way Pete Townshend plays his guitar at the end of every The Who concert: smashing them over and over until they feel as broken as the characters onscreen. A Uruguayan filmmaker making his feature debut, Alvarez boasts a clear knack for relentless pacing and an almost alarming deftness with gruesome, transgressive imagery (the tongue-slicing gag from the red band trailer is just the tip of the iceberg). After just one feature, I can't tell you whether he's the next Sam Raimi. But he's certainly got the chops to make a punishingly grisly horror movie.
In between -- and sometimes during -- the bloodletting, Alvarez works in winks to all three previous 'Evil Dead' movies; you'll see shotguns and chainsaws and blue workshirts and Necronomicon illustrations that look an awful lot like the striking poster for the Raimi original. A lot of them are fun, some of them are probably overkill, and one, a stinger after the closing credits, crosses the line from fan service to fan wankery. But even with the callbacks, and in spite of the fact that this is basically just a slightly altered and updated version of a movie we've seen a million times, 'Evil Dead' manages to carve out its own distinct and memorable place in the history of this franchise. With a chainsaw.
‘Evil Dead’ opens in theaters on April 5.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’