Every critic with a keyboard is going to open their review with a comment on remaking a classic horror film such as Evil Dead. The really hack ones will reference the cheesy nature of the original, without commenting on just how deeply disturbing and relentlessly mean that first film was to watch. Even worse are the critics that simply assume that since Evil Dead gave rise to Evil Dead 2, which begat Army of Darkness and thus the cult of Bruce Campbell (hallowed be his chin) that any attempt at resurrecting the truly unforgiving tone of the first film is a fools endeavor. And you know what? To a point, they are correct. Then again, for as much as I love the first Evil Dead, there is a special kind of gumption in letting some young filmmaker take a shot at a classic with the original masters looking on. For that alone, let’s give this sucker a fair shake.
Evil Dead opens very strong, with some of the more visceral scenes from the trailer actually playing out in the opening minutes. The screenwriters and director Fede Alvarez made a smart choice in dropping the audience right into the mix of the horror and gore. Evil Dead arguable started the “cabin in the woods” sub-genre of horror, so to take 20 minutes and get the characters into the setting isn’t really needed or wanted. Still, we need to get to know our characters if we care about their pending demise, which Fede does allow, but that opening scene lets the audience know that this isn’t going to be a pretty picture.
Except that it is. Evil Dead is very well-shot and has some strong cinematography. Fede has a good eye for horror and knows when to hold the shot and when to pull away. For as much as I am a fan of letting my mind fill in the blanks, this is Evil Dead. This is a film that, by it’s very nature, must punish the audience for watching. As if it’s angry that you dared it to freak you out. Although in it’s beauty, it loses some of the quality that made the original such an impact. The original Evil Dead was shot on 16mm and no amount of post-production trickery can fix that fact. As a result, the original feels like we’re watching something that we really shouldn’t. While Fede’s Evil Dead has an eye to the emotional feeling, it’s a little too polished. Mind you, he and the effects crew go a long way in selling you the scene, but there is just a shine to the final product that lacks that last little punch.
The acting is hit or miss, although leaps and bounds better than the original. Which, in all honesty, isn’t that large of an accomplishment. By all accounts, the actors in this Evil Dead are trained and have some real films under their belt, something the original crew just couldn’t claim. Still, some of the dialog is a little stilted. Jessica Lucas is strong in her role as the nurse and it’s a shame she fell victim to the cliché of the Black actor dying first, as I would have much rather seen her play the longer-lived Natalie; merely played adequately by Elizabeth Blackmore. (If you’re angry about spoilers, come on, this is Evil Dead. No one survives). The same desire to see roles swapped happens with our two males lead, as Shiloh Fernandez playing Mia’s brother David never really sells his role in the film. Unlike Lou Taylor Pucci, who steals the scene as Eric whenever he’s up. He’s the perfect “comic” relief in a movie that never allows for a laugh outside of our need to chuckle to cover our horrified feelings.
Finally, we come to Mia, played by Jane Levy. Everyone was up in arms over a “female Ash.” Here’s the thing friends, this isn’t that Evil Dead, which means no Ash. In a way, this version owes much to Within the Woods, with our main character going bad relatively quickly and causing pain and torture to every poor soul in her way. She is fantastic. This poor girl was put through hell in this flick, and clearly enjoyed every nasty minute of it. If they do indeed do a sequel to this movie, I can’t wait to see what Levy brings. It’s been a long time since horror had the tough as nails female lead that takes the nastiness as well as she gives it, and Levy is more than capable to step up to the plate.
And yet, for as much as I enjoyed this new Evil Dead, I still walked away wondering what could have been. See, when left to his own devices, Fede Alvarez shows some real promise as a horror director. He has a good sense of pacing and attention to details. Although he lacks Raimi’s chaotic relationship with the camera, he has more than a few inspired shots. Alas, be it first time feature jitters or directing input from those higher up, Fede slips into a few too many homages to Raimi and the original crew. As much as I believe you can learn all aspects of filmmaking, you’re either a little nuts like Raimi in the original or you’re not. (Indeed, it might be Fede’s more formal training in filmmaking that hinders him, whereas Raimi was pretty clueless as to the “rules”). Still, there were too many moments where the audience (myself included) were cheering for a scene simply because it harkened back to the original films. Once that happened, I know there were more than a few viewers that started looking for those moments. It’s a subtle, but rather large misstep in a movie that really could have held it’s own as a nasty little horror flick.
It’s hard to watch this new Evil Dead and completely dissociate it with it’s inspiration, given that the original holds such a place of honor within the horror genre community. But even if you can’t, this Evil Dead is a solid horror film. It does a good job of selling the gore and violence. Everything horrible that happens in this movie happens for a reason, not just because they want to gross out the audience (though that does happen). Alvarez’s Evil Dead is a strong, if flawed, return to classic American horror.