Evil Dead review

Ambitiously billed on its poster as "the most terrifying film you will ever experience", Alvarez’s remake-cum-reboot of The Evil Dead arrives pulling significant buzz from its debut at SXSW. A ferocious red band trailer suggested this revamp would attempt to follow Sam Raimi’s original 1981 "ultimate experience in gruelling terror" rather than the splatstick comedy of its follow ups Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992). In this at least, I am happy to report it succeeds.

A group of friends convene at a remote forest cabin to help Mia (Levy) kick her heroin habit. Mia’s troubles may stem back to caring for her mentally ill mother die alone after her brother, David, fled to pursue a career as a mechanic. Absent for many years, David joins former friends Eric and Olivia, and brings his girlfriend Natalie along for the trip. At this point one might wonder if a weekend watching your boyfriend’s sister go through drug withdrawal cold turkey represents a quality date.

The cabin belongs to Mia and David’s family, but on arrival it is clear that someone has broken in. Investigating further, Eric finds an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, a mysterious book of supernatural incantations and some unwelcome surprises in the cellar. Of course, curiosity gets the better of him and he begins to translate the book, raising an evil spirit in the woods. And so on... you know the story. And if you don’t? Well that’s great, go see this film and you will have an absolute blast. For those of us who grew up with Raimi’s loose trilogy, this is a more problematic prospect.

On the positive, this is probably as good as any remake of The Evil Dead could ever be expected to be. No-one would hold up the original as a greatest example of B-movie screenwriting ever (its no Re-Animator in that respect). The remake’s script by Alvarez and Mendez was reworked by Cody as English was not their first language. Cody has done an efficient job, and has avoided any temptation to use any of her trademark funny/clever dialogue. This isn’t Jennifer’s Body, and there isn’t a strong feminist subtext to chew on.

There have been some intelligent additions and, notably, one subtraction from the formula. I appreciated that some effort had gone in to giving the group a credible reason to be spending the weekend in a remote cabin. When things start to go bad, they initially are centred on Mia. As she is in the throes of withdrawal, her dark warnings are interpreted as a side effect and ignored until it is far too late. Mia’s character and backstory are well drawn, and Levy gives a very good performance. Unfortunately, the surrounding characters are bland, and when the movie cuts loose it is pretty difficult to care that much about their fates.

The subtraction will be controversial among some, because there is no Ash character in the film. As played by Bruce Campbell, Ash became (especially in the wake of Army of Darkness) a horror icon. Trying to find a new actor with a comparable chin would have been an impossible task, so removing Ash from the equation is a bold but smart move. Also, Ash isn’t really Ash in The Evil Dead; the wisecrack-spouting, chainsaw-wielding deadite slayer emerged in Evil Dead II, so having the character in the remake would have led audience expectations in the wrong direction.

Where the film is inferior to the original is in the visuals and the editing. A film made on an ultra-low budget by a cast and crew out of college, The Evil Dead was essentially made by people who didn’t know what they were doing. Like Toby Hooper with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Raimi was outside the Hollywood system and brought a sensibility that was untutored and untainted by conventions. This remake is slick, and well directed, but it rarely surprises in the way the original did. It also goes from zero to holy shit in minutes, eschewing any careful escalation of suspense and tension. It is the curse of remakes; the audience knows where they are going from the start, and the filmmakers know they have to get them there as fast as possible or lose their attention.

If blood, gore and dismemberment are your markers for success, then Evil Dead may be the best horror remake in years. However, you may find that in its drive to be as relentless as possible, it has sacrificed the quiet and unsettling moments that made the original film genuinely scary.

Evil Dead at IMDb

Fede Alvarez round-table interview

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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