Evil Dead was as consistently bad as it has every reason to be. It is, after all the remake of a truly iconic original, Sam Raimi's 1981 debut feature, and horror remakes as a class are not terribly impressive. Moreover, it's rather overt about its intentions to replace the campfire story creepiness of that film with over-the-top gore effects and a truly unfortunate reliance on jump scares, and I, for one, have not yet hit the point where I'm willing to allow that the fundamental shift in cinematic horror over the last 30+ years from "the thing that gives me the creeps" to "the thing that throws a cat at me and makes me jump" is good in any way whatsoever.
But for all that, Evil Dead managed to have me on board for at least half of its 91 minutes, and even after it starts to go to shit - rather, even after it hits a point where it becomes very clear that it will not be rising above a certain level of gores-over-scares that seemed, initially, like it just might be part of the wind-up - there are flashes of the great movie that this could have been; the great movie that this, strictly speaking, was, back when Raimi was a desperate, hungry young indie filmmaker with some twisted ideas, and not a brand name and genre film icon whose work as a producer - for he did indeed produce this movie, and has been very excited about it all throughout the promotional tour - has largely consisted of one variety or another of unmitigated dreck (even taking into account every single thing that goes wrong, Evil Dead is the best of his producer-only credits that I have personally seen).
The basic concept is pretty much the same, with wrinkles: five young people have all arrived at a remote cabin in the woods, for the purposes of sobering up one of their number, Mia (Jane Levy), a heroin addict working on her last chance after a recent overdose left her clinically dead for a few minutes. Her two very good friends, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas) are certain that only several days of isolation hours away from the nearest fix will help her; her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) just wants to reconnect and rebuild; David's girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) is there only out of what I can describe only as a fathomless lack of class. While puttering around, trying to find the source of a barely-noticable reek that's driving Mia up the walls, the boys find a basement full of mutilated cat corpses hanging from the ceiling, and a book tied up in thick cloth and heavy barbed wire; seeing absolutely nothing suspicious about any of these details, Eric opens up the book, the Naturom Demonto, with an eye to translating its several gruesomely-illustrated pages. What the characters do not know, and we do, having seen the opening scene of the movie, is that the Naturom Demonto - which, I'm sorry, isn't a patch on the ass of Necronomicon Ex-Mortis as far as creepy titles for unspeakable books of ancient evil go - is a book which can summon of the spirit of an unfathomably evil demon, and Eric's dicking around succeeds only in getting Mia possessed by the figure of a grey-skinned girl with yellow eyes (Randal Wilson). None of her friends perceive in Mia's horrifying subsequent behaviors, especially the one where she tries to burn her flesh off in a scalding shower, anything but the madness of a junkie in withdrawals, which sucks for them as she starts to turn them into particularly vicious let's-just-call-them-zombies, one at a time.
Points for motivation: the whole kicking heroin angle is ingenious, absolutely the best thing that Evil Dead '13 has to put a leg up on its predecessor, particularly as it relates to the new film's increased emphasis on the emotional toll of all its goings-on; if The Evil Dead '81 was above all else about surviving an indescribable nightmare at whatever cost, the remake saves most of its strength for making the nightmare particularly tangible and fleshy. It is, not to belabor the point, a movie about the horror of being helpless when a loved one is spinning out of control. The opening scene is all about a father being forced to shoot something that looks and sounds awfully like his daughter in the head; the remake's first climax (yeah, it has a false climax; 21st Century horror film, what do you expect?) is a much more drawn-out and discomfiting variation on the same idea, and at the heart of its new hook, relative to the original, is the question of how you're supposed to help somebody when you can't even tell what's wrong with them. Some potent stuff in there, much deeper character-wise than anything in the first movie (the vaunted Evil Dead sense of character personality, much like its puckish black humor that so many reviewers are missing from this new movie, date to the 1987 Evil Dead II rather than to the first film), and only slightly ruined by the mostly crappy acting from everybody but Levy and Wilson as the two faces of Mia.
Where this solid, if hardly revolutionary treatment of a redoubtable old scenario goes wrong is largely a matter of tone and therefore entirely subjective: simply put, Evil Dead isn't scary in the remotest sense. The Evil Dead '81 is, itself, not as scary as its reputation, I have found, but it generally strives for a sense of decayed Gothic ghost-story atmosphere that is awesomely unsettling and creepy, and largely absent from contemporary filmmaking (even in '81, it was anomalous). But from my vantage point, Evil Dead '13 isn't even making the attempt: oh, it has jump scares out the ass, mirrors that swing shut to show figures who aren't there, and pans around the room that light on a shadowy figure with a screech from the strings on the soundtrack, but Christ, if we're going to start calling those kinds of jump scares genuinely frighting cinema, then Mirrors is a great horror masterpiece.
The new Evil Dead, instead, is a freak show: a panoply of tremendously effective gore scenes, done solely with practical effects as much as writer-director Fede Alvarez (Diablo Cody is credited as co-writer, but that just can't be true: nothing typical of any of her previous work is even marginally detectable) could possibly manage it. I'll say this, the gore is of a particularly fine level of craftsmanship and enthusiasm and vigor; the movie is, if not the most violent thing I can recall having seen, certainly one of the grossest (it also makes the always dubious MPAA even stupider than usual: if this isn't an NC-17, then the rating has absolutely no real meaning besides "warning! cunnilingus!"). I would not describe them; the gore is either the main reason to see the movie and thus not worth spoiling, or sufficiently lusty that I can imagine it genuinely bothering some people just to hear what happens.
Great gore, then, but kind of pointless gore, and frequently nasty in ways it oughtn't be (this films tree-rape scene is sickeningly tactile and specific in ways that the same part of the original - clearly the most suspect moment in that film - can't even dream about). And it's all the film has up its sleeve. Alvarez is a perfect satisfactory director, but not a graceful one; and no matter how much gloom he and cinematographer Aaron Morton dump on the interiors, it's never enough to make the film seem anything special (meanwhile, the big "rain of blood" climax has the effect only of flattening the palette and thus making the movie look even less distinct). The reason the film exists is solely to disgust: perhaps in an enthusiastic "ew, gross, cool!" way, and perhaps in a moralistic "ew, awful, evil!" way, but that's pretty much the limit. It is a film that explores even more than the most graphic torture porn film ever did the idea that visceral violence is scary, rather than an augment to scares, and even as a fairly well-established fan of imaginative viscera - I'm a Fulci defender, for God's sake - I can't pretend that this idea doesn't depress me at least a little bit.
Reviews in this series
The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981)
Evil Dead II (Raimi, 1987)
Army of Darkness (Raimi, 1992)
Evil Dead (Alvarez, 2013)
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