Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and its sequels are loved with an almost unparalleled ferocity by horror fans. The films are inventive, funny and scary, and showed budding filmmakers that a big budget wasn’t necessary to make people jump out of their seats. So what do we want from a remake? A slavish copy would be impossible to do now. Technology has advanced too far, and audience expectations in terms of visual quality meant that a glossy sheen on Evil Dead 2013 was inevitable. What director Fede Alvarez could replicate was the ludicrous amount of gore and the original’s manic, anything-goes sensibility.
Things get off to a decent start with an effective pre-title sequence before we’re introduced to our characters. Dope addict Mia (Jane Levy) has been taken to her late mother’s cabin in the woods to go cold turkey by her friends and long-absent brother David (Shiloh Fernandez). They’re understandably unnerved when they find a basement full of dead cats strung from the ceiling and a skin-bound book wrapped in black plastic and barbed wire. As Mia goes through her withdrawal, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) reads from the book and awakens an ancient evil that will transform them into terrifying monsters.
Nostalgia can cloud our judgment, and it’s important to remember that the original film was engineered as a shocking thrill ride that would get people’s attention. Alvarez grabs the role of carnival barker with both hands, engineering what is, at its best, an entertaining fairground attraction. It’s a blood-drenched ghost train that chugs along through a decent first third to reach its climax around the half-hour mark when the deadites are unleashed. We’ve all been waiting for this since the red-band trailer, and the decimation of the five cast members is split into well-choreographed and impressively disgusting set pieces.
It’s difficult to go into too much detail without spoilers, but limbs are lost, flesh is ripped, bones are broken and blood is vomited. The effects work is superb, and the attention to the little disgusting details is fantastic, like the little worm-things crawling out of an infected bite or the flecks of matter in the disgorged gore. This mid-section of the film is great fun, but Alvarez doesn’t maintain that level of breathlessness. It doesn’t help that the Deadites themselves are depressingly killable; once they’re down, they stay down, which gives our heroes a surprising amount of time to regroup, debate what exactly it is they’re dealing with and let some of the air out of the balloon.
But what’s most disappointing is that, despite all the hacking, tearing and spraying in the world, Evil Dead isn’t particularly scary. It’s gruesome, yes, and you’ll wince and groan and laugh at the gore gags, but there’s none of that atmosphere of dread that imbues the original. Of course, we all know exactly where it’s going but, with the exception of the superbly designed book of the dead (disturbing illustrations combined with hysterical scrawled warnings in red), there’s nothing as ominous as Raimi’s swinging bench knocking against the outside of the cabin.
It’s laudable that the writers (including Juno and Young Adult’s Diablo Cody) wanted to flesh their characters out a bit, but it’s still broadstroke stuff. The addition of the cold turkey storyline feels like the filmmakers establishing a level of credibility above the countless Evil Dead knock-offs we’ve seen over the years (Eric refers disparigingly to horny teens doing drugs). Of course, it’s an attempt to make us care about the characters before they get taken to pieces, but the only ones we know anything about are Mia and David. If we were being very cynical we’d say that it’s just to give them a reason for staying, but it does help to add to Mia’s despair and sense of persecution when things start getting unpleasant. Alvarez understandably looks to Evil Dead II for further inspiration (there’s also a whiff of Drag Me to Hell), and it’s to his credit that he manages to put his own spin on the more direct references. However, some of the changes aren’t as successful, and the build up to the (actually pretty solid) finale is disappointingly saccharine and lacking in menace.
In terms of performances, Levy is hit and miss during her early scenes, but impresses more and more as the film progresses, ultimately emerging as one of Evil Dead‘s best assets. Both Jessica Lucas (the responsible one), and Elizabeth Blackmore (the panicky girlfriend) could have done with more to do but they get the best set-pieces, while Fernandez’ character is a frankly unmemorable wet blanket. Sensibly, the bulk of the exposition and humour is given to the excellent Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker, Carriers) who makes the most of it and gives the referential dialogue a nicely off-kilter quality. “She just cut her fucking arm off. Does that sound fine?”
Evil Dead is not the delirious knock-out we were hoping for, but it is an effective crowd-pleaser. It’s a horror for the multiplex crowd, for young couples who’ll dare each other to go and see it and cry out with glee at the bloody dismemberment. It doesn’t feel like it’s looking to scare; it’s looking to entertain, and it’s a success on those terms. But it peaks too early, never really aiming higher than gross-out, and doesn’t pin you to the back of your seat like you really want it to. It’s at its best when it’s putting the cast and audience through the ringer, but it’s disappointingly disposable. We wanted it to be terrifying, but it’s ghoulish, gory fun and nothing more.