For the past several months, banners have hung in movie palaces and city walls across the country advertising the new Evil Dead as the “Most Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience”.
Aren’t these guys adorable?
If there’s one thing that the horror genre instructs us as filmgoers, it’s to put full faith in the concept of diminishing returns. If an exceptionally bold, original idea happens to emerge in a film, sequels and remakes will dilute the initial appeal until it no longer exists — witness the hallucinatory brilliance of the first Nightmare on Elm Street being utterly wiped out by eight sequels and a remake, or the delirious, shocking savagery of Texas Chainsaw Massacre being consigned to a similar fate, due to the industry’s inability to just let sleeping dogs lie.
Two significant exceptions exist to this rule — Italian shockmaster Dario Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy (irrelevant), and Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead trilogy (highly relevant). Few cinematic rides offer as much senseless gore, pitch-black comedy and pure scrappy charm as Evil Dead‘s installments smashed back-to-back, and they’re among my very favorite films for it. So as Raimi (who’s moved on with Oz and the Spider-Man trilogy) and original star Bruce Campbell (who’s moved on to cult stardom) gave this reboot their unrestrained blessing, die-hards like myself braced for greatness on the lowest scale possible.
That scale is not met.
Evil Dead suffers from an identity crisis so profound it literally undoes almost everything the film gets right, which to its credit is a fair amount. For starters, it’s an utter wet-dream for gorehounds, as it puts five young cabin-dwellers through some of the most traumatic, painful experiences in recent cinema history. First-time director Fede Alvarez conjures an atmosphere of genuine discomfort and tension, and I concede that a couple strong scenes had me clenching both the seats and hands around me. Box cutters, tree branches and chainsaws are used to a very effective degree. And the premise of the film lends itself well to unpredictability: over one night, a demonic force moves through a group of friends, occupying their bodies one at a time and conjuring horrific violence. In this way, Evil Dead plays with audience loyalties cleverly, as every character, no matter how ‘good’, manages to be the villain at some point in the film.
But the ground on which the film is founded, especially its relationship with the 1981 original, genuinely dampers most of this good stuff. All of the significant elements from the original Evil Dead are at play — the cabin, demonic force, weapons, the five-protagonist structure, and even entire camera-moves are all lifted beat-for-beat. This would seem to classify the film as a ‘remake’, yet the film wildly deviates at points — adapting a deadly-serious tone throughout, switching the gender of the main character, and in the film’s biggest missed opportunity, giving them a legitimate reason to prowl around in an abandoned cabin: the lead, Mia, needs to kick heroin.
The agonizing, hallucinatory nature of drug withdrawal lends itself so well to a great horror movie, I can’t believe it hasn’t been significantly done before. Yet, Alvarez has no interest in prowling that territory with Evil Dead. The one idea that could have made the movie great is wasted as an excuse to simply get five people in a room, as Mia’s addiction is totally forgotten at around the 20 minute mark once the movie discovers it can make its characters bleed. (And oh, how they bleed!)
The makers seem to think that great remakes must essentially re-enact the events of an entire film, while wildly flipping the script at random points just to claim its own singular identity. It’s a cute idea, but the result is something that likely won’t satisfy the core fan-base for which the film was made. This means that all the ways in which it grovels for the love of its original fanbase end up working against it, serving as reminders that while the outer elements remain, the goofy, bat-shit spirit of the original films is nowhere to be found. This puts Evil Dead in a funny place, as it becomes a rare film where your experience with it is actually hurt by how much you love the elements and materials that inspired it. Re-read that sentence and contemplate how shitty that is. D+