“The most terrifying film you will ever experience.”
While director Fede Alvarez’s remake of the 1981 low-budget cult classic “The Evil Dead” falls short of this lofty tagline, it definitely compensates for terror with the grotesque. Original trilogy director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell serve as producers in this largely faithful adaptation, which amplifies the former’s “splatter” qualities through 30 years’ worth of special effects advances. Despite polished visuals and creative filmography, the new “Evil Dead” (now without “the”) fails to modernize itself plot-wise, falling prey to horror movie clichés that render it fully a replica rather than a potentially novel addition to the horror genre.
The film opens harmlessly enough, with five friends heading to a cabin in the woods to force their friend Mia (Jane Levy) into sobriety. Her distant brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) has returned home to provide her with emotional support, but with that, all attempts at exposition come to a shuddering halt. The friends soon discover the grisly site of a past exorcism in the cabin’s cellar, containing at its center a barbed wire-tied book bound in human flesh. In the first of many cringe-worthy, poor character decisions, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) decides to ignore the book’s ominous warnings—“Don’t say it! Don’t write it! Don’t hear it!”—and accidentally summons a demon that commences the film’s hour-long tour de force in gore.
Fans of “The Evil Dead” will note the many references and tributes sprinkled throughout Alvarez’s film, ranging from a reimagining of the infamous tree scene to an after-credits cameo by Campbell. Although the demon antagonist retains its deep and distorted voice, it has definitely learned more than a handful of obscenities (“The Exorcist”-style) during the past three decades. In this remake, the demon’s possessed victims also look less like Heath Ledger’s Joker after a bar fight and more like characters from “The Ring.”
Alvarez also takes a lot of filmography cues from “The Evil Dead,” especially the long tracking shots from the perspective of the demon. In the style of recent horror films, he opts to avoid pop-up scares and instead focuses on the gradual development of suspense leading up to unusually grotesque reveals. In most scenes, the audience knows that something is coming, but rarely exactly when or how disturbing the visual will end up being.
Levy’s character has the unfortunate distinction of being possessed first early in the film, but she takes advantage of this to demonstrate an effective acting range. Whether as a terrified junkie or foul-mouthed possession victim, Levy delivers a standout performance in a film with little character development. Fernandez also provides a solid portrayal of David, and the black humor and occasional wit of Pucci’s Eric adds much-needed balance to a movie solely propelled by violence.
Don’t expect innovations along the lines of the Joss Whedon-produced 2012 meta-horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” though—once “Evil Dead” picks up steam, Alvarez keeps the hits coming nonstop, and blood flows not in streams but geysers. More than a handful of scenes involve extremely realistic mutilation more characteristic of the “Saw” films than traditional horror movies, while other scenes were surprising due to their creative use of vomit (not bringing food to this film is strongly advised). Major commendations should go to Alvarez for creating such realistic and extensive visuals without CGI, which was only used in touch-ups. Despite all these impressively disturbing images, the film feels a bit hollow when compared to the original.
Ultimately, “Evil Dead” is an enjoyable blockbuster horror film for longtime fans of the original and new viewers alike. Unfortunately, visual innovation alone doesn’t go far in the horror genre anymore, and “Evil Dead” fails to move beyond its effects and into creative storytelling. A noticeable lack of humor or truly memorable characters prevents this film from achieving its true potential: taking a well-established genre and turning it on its head, in the way that “The Evil Dead” accomplished in 1981. So while this remake may not tread new filmmaking territory—or be the “most terrifying film” ever—it definitely achieves a level of gruesome creepiness that won’t soon be matched.