Evil Dead: Hollywood, Sam Raimi, and his Ghost House Pictures have long-threatened a remake of Raimi’s no-budget horror classic The Evil Dead, and what little comfort the presence of the director himself as producer provided was erased, at least for me, by the abysmal track record of his Ghost House Pictures—a horror shingle that has produced exactly one strong horror movie, Raimi’s own Drag Me to Hell. But Raimi and his fellow producers Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell pressed on, and eventually handed the spiritual keys to Raimi’s Oldsmobile over to newcomer Fede Alvarez, who, it’s said, impressed the team with a fresh pitch.
2013’s Evil Dead, dropping the definite article per the custom of the times, turns out to be more refresh than fresh. The movie’s face, straight with the occasional unsettling grin, comes from Raimi’s original, which you may or may not remember is not nearly as hilarious as Evil Dead 2 or Army of Darkness. It also stays true to the spirit of the first two movies by being kind of a remake, kind of a sequel, maybe a prequel: while it shares a young-people-in-a-cabin set-up, the characters from the earlier movies aren’t recast; the continuity-minded can just imagine that it’s all happening again, or before, or whatever, to a different set of people (there don’t seem to be any cell phones, either, so the time period feels fuzzy). Alvarez even came up with a clever hook to get these people into the woods: Mia (Jane Levy) is trying to kick heroin, again, and her childhood friends, along with her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), come along to see her through it. The antsy, inquisitive Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) finds a book in the basement, doesn’t leave well enough alone, and summons some actual demons to go along with Mia’s inner ones.
The addiction-as-possession metaphor never lands as hard as it should; it just provides a little cursory delay in realization for the sober characters between the movie’s rush through its earnest but student-film-y dialogue n’ development and its headlong charge into mayhem. Too bad, because Levy and company appear up to the task of steeling into the more resourceful Ash of Evil Dead 2, rather than the likably vexed Ash of the original. For much of the running time, the resourceful one here is Alvarez, in devising ways to get non-CG blood flowing as ickily and copiously as possible (Pucci in particular may set some kind of record for variety of stabbings). The effect is more horrifying (and sometimes darkly playful) than really scary, but it does provide a master class in the still-convincing nature of practical makeup effects. Whatever computer enhancements have been used are nigh-invisible; even the movie’s generic cabin and woods set-up feels more tactile than most. Alvarez also doesn’t skimp on the camera ricochets, which are less maniacal than Raimi at his silliest, but take on an appropriately demonic energy; it does sometimes touch the secret giddiness of eyes darting around a room, looking for the quickest and most effective household tools with which to fight off demons. Evil Dead doesn’t have many ideas about how to top or riff on the original movies, beyond rudimentary math: if Evil Dead 2 had one memorably severed limb, well, then this one should add more. But it does have its gruesome moments, and its characters, especially Mia and the semi-bland but determined David, aren’t so thin as to engender gorehound contempt. Before, it was Campbell and Raimi who made Evil Dead a worthwhile series, rather than a one-off with the usual diminishing sequels. The 2013 refresh veers into training-ground territory; time will tell if Alvarez has a Simple Man or even a Darkman in him, too.