All you really need to know about the Evil Dead remake is that it will appeal to moviegoers who can imagine, under the right conditions, enjoying scenes where hapless characters hack off their own limbs. Those who cringed reading that sentence should stay home, but then, they probably never had this flick on their must-see lists.
It’s the story of the worst detox ever. The sad junkies of TV’s “Intervention” have nothing on Mia (Jane Levy), whose friends bring her to a remote cabin to get the monkey off her back. After Mia drops her stash of junk down a well, things go downhill fast. When she attempts to book it through the woods, the woods have other plans. Kinky, demonic plans. Our heroine’s friends insist on practicing tough love, even when she’s vomiting geysers of blood, attacking them with pointy objects and matter-of-factly announcing, “You’re all going to die tonight.”
Meanwhile, the film’s other characters struggle with an ailment peculiar to horror movies: a blasé acceptance of discoveries that would make most of us run for the hills. A basement full of ritually slaughtered animals? Let’s clean it up. A book bound in human skin with “Don’t read this book” scribbled on the first page? Let’s read it. Better yet, let’s recite the mysterious incantations aloud!
It’s hard to be scared by tropes this silly, but then, Evil Dead movies have never been about scares. Sam Raimi’s 1981 The Evil Dead was a masterpiece of creative, low-budget shock and gore, but not of terror per se; it had a strain of campy humor that flowered in the director’s two sequels.
In other words, this “cabin in the woods” horror subgenre had already thoroughly dismantled and mocked itself before last year’s The Cabin in the Woods came along and added a brilliant level of meta-mockery. (That film built a mythology to explain the genre’s ritual slaughter of pretty young people.)
What, then, can the director of a remake possibly do with Evil Dead that hasn’t already been done? Besides increasing the budget, not a lot. It’s to the credit of first-time feature director Fede Alvarez, working under the aegis of coproducer Raimi, that he turns out a less redundant retread than most.
Alvarez doesn’t succeed in making Evil Dead terrifying, but he does make it as prodigiously intense and gory for our time as the original was for its own. He pays loving tribute to the young Raimi’s inspired shenanigans (such as the camera hurtling through the woods to represent a demonic presence). Most importantly, he relies on practical effects rather than CGI for the bloody, disgusting parts — which, by the time a literal rain of blood starts falling, constitute most of the movie.
What Alvarez doesn’t do is find a consistent tone. On the one hand, he encourages us to take the film seriously by introducing the addiction storyline and a fraught relationship between Mia and her brother (Shiloh Fernandez), who hasn’t been supporting her in her dark hours. On the other hand, the characters continue to act as unaccountably foolish as they did in previous versions, a proud tradition that the script acknowledges in moments of snarky self-awareness.
The actors play along gamely, and their deadpan responses to inconceivable horrors enliven Evil Dead with occasional comedy. The movie’s attempts at emotional catharsis lack weight, but the sheer excess of Grand Guignol brings its own fun, like a carnival ride that refuses to stop. None of this needed to be done (again), but it might have been done worse. In a review of a horror remake, that’s practically gushing praise.