Evil Dead (2013)
Director : Fede Alvarez
Screenplay : Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues (based on the motion picture The Evil Dead by Sam Raimi)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Jane Levy (Mia), Shiloh Fernandez (David), Lou Taylor Pucci (Eric), Jessica Lucas (Olivia), Elizabeth Blackmore (Natalie), Phoenix Connolly (Teenager), Jim McLarty (Harold), Sian Davis (Old Woman), Stephen Butterworth (Toothless Redneck), Karl Willetts (Long Haired Redneck), Randal Wilson (Abomination Mia)
Evil Dead, Fede Alvarez’s remake of Sam Raimi’s early-’80s gory cult classic, dispenses with the article “The” in the original title, adds in some backstory, and pumps up the budget by tens of millions of dollars. However, the biggest and most noticeable change is in the tone. While Raimi balanced the splattery imagery and relentless violence of the original with a tone of self-effacing humor that morphed into outright slapstick in his 1987 sequel-cum-remake Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, Alvarez, a Uruguayan-born filmmaker making his feature debut, plays the material absolutely straight, dousing us in straight-up blood-n-guts in a way that it is, with a few minor exceptions, irony- and humor-free. The removal of anything chuckle- or guffaw-worthy makes this Evil Dead feel resolutely different from its progenitor, even if there are plenty of visual shout-outs to Raimi’s original (including a Michigan State sweatshirt, the recurring woods-crashing camera POV shot, and the presence of a yellow 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88).
The basic story is essentially the same: A group of five young people retreat to a cabin in the deep dark woods only to find themselves under violent supernatural assault after accidentally unleashing an evil force via a strange book bound in human flesh found in the basement. Alvarez and co-screenwriter Rodo Sayagues change things up a bit by giving the characters a more interesting reason for their backwoods sojourn than just getting away for the weekend: They are there to help Mia (Jane Levy), a troubled young woman with bad memories of her dying mother, kick a drug habit by going cold turkey for a few days. The other members of the group are old friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time and clearly have some tensions among them: Mia’s absentee brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his new girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), David’s former best friend Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and his girlfriend Olivia (Jessica Lucas). Olivia happens to be a registered nurse, which is useful when trying to help someone kick a drug habit, but not so helpful when under assault by supernatural forces that possess everyone in sight and turn them into horrific zombie-ish ghouls intent on mutilation of both self and others.
Raimi’s The Evil Dead is one of the great, unlikely success stories of the nascent video age. Produced on a 16mm shoestring by a group of Michigan State college buddies in their early 20s, it benefitted from Raimi low-budget ingenuity, as he hid his production liabilities with aesthetic exuberance and a devil-may-care attitude. The film didn’t always make sense, but it didn’t really matter because it had you so rattled and goosed. It was a surprise hit at the Cannes Film Festival, got a rave review from Stephen King, and became a mainstay of video stores everywhere, which helped turn it into a perennial much-watch-over-and-over-again staple of the teenage set. Raimi, of course, went on to much bigger things, including the blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy (2002–2007) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), although his gift for humorous gore never quite left his bloodstream.
Alvarez’s remake (which is officially sanctioned via producer credits by Raimi and original star Bruce Campbell), like all of the past decade’s remakes of ’70s and ’80s horror classics, is sharper, slicker, and shinier—low-budget horror by way of the music video aesthetic. The cinematography by Aaron Morton (Spartacus: War of the Damned) freely mixes blown-out Spielbergian back-lighting and the kind of glistening-to-pitch-black contrast associated with the films of David Fincher. A far cry from grainy 16mm celluloid, Morton’s razor-sharp digital images render every torrent of blood, snapping tendon, and gruesome shredding of flesh with medical precision. The difference between what the MPAA will allow in terms of R-rated violence in 1981 (when The Evil Dead had to be released unrated to avoid the dreaded X-rating) and today continues to amaze me, leading to the obvious question of what would a filmmaker have to put on-screen to get an NC-17 for violence in 2013? Is it even possible anymore?
Nevertheless, while the slickness of this new Evil Dead and its humorless approach distinguishes it from the original in significant ways, it unfortunately highlights the original’s deficits, which are kept pretty much intact. At the end of the day, the story in Evil Dead is simplistic to the point of banality; you might be able to argue that it has the stripped-down directness of folklore and campfire ghost scares, but most of those at least have some kind of twist. Raimi made up for his blah narrative with gonzo filmmaking prowess and the inherent humor of watching lead-with-his chin Campbell screeching away as “the final girl,” but Alvarez doesn’t demonstrate the same cinematic chops or sense of humor. His work is good, but it doesn’t stand out in any way, making the story feel even more rote than it is, even when he overlays it with orchestral and choral bombast that feels like outtakes from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” Added exposition about the nature of the evil book that unleashes the demonic horrors does little to clarify or increase the film’s tension, while the nature of possession—how and why are some people possessed?— remains resolutely incoherent. All we know is that bad things are happening to people in notably gruesome ways (multiple limbs are hacked and sawed and blown off, shards of a broken mirror are used in deeply inappropriate ways, and a nail gun is employed to frightening effect), and if that’s enough, then the film works. If you’re looking for something beyond that surface, Evil Dead has little to offer. You’re better off giving Raimi’s original another spin.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © TriStar Pictures, FilmDistrict, Ghost House Pictures