There’s plenty of reasons for Evil Dead fans to worry about the new version hitting theaters this Friday. The era of superior horror remakes (The Thing, The Fly) vanished over two decades ago, and while we’ve had our share of decent ones lately (Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes), most of them act as admirable also-rans rather than brilliant visions of their own. The Evil Dead reboot definitely falls into that category, content to follow the lead of its predecessor rather than blazing its own trail. But at the same time, it takes advantage of a higher budget, a more talented cast (none of whom, admittedly, answer to the name of “Bruce Campbell”), and a desire to give hard-core horror fans something they can rely on. In those terms, Evil Dead has more than earned the right to stand by its followers.
One is tempted to cite the presence of producers Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, and Campbell himself for its success. They can ride herd on newcomer Fede Alvarez, preventing him from boiling their baby while still giving him the freedom to pursue his own vision. But it’s Alvarez himself who deserves credit for navigating the dangerous waters of re-creating this franchise. He knows exactly what to keep in order to make it an Evil Dead movie – kids in the cabin, the Necronomicon, the outrageous gore sprinkled with just a dash of knowing humor – while adding enough of his own to set his version apart.
His best conceit is a great one, and in fact could have done with a little more development in the final product. The five young people arrive at that sinister cabin in the woods not for a weekend of relaxation, but as a way of helping a buddy. Mia (Jane Levy) has decided to kick her drug habit by going cold turkey. Her friends are there to help her through it… that is, until one of them finds a suspiciously familiar book in the basement and starts to read from it. You can guess where things go from there.
The drug addict angle puts a rather brilliant twist on the formula. When a girl in full-bore withdrawal raves about getting raped by a tree, who would possibly believe her? Or, conversely, when someone starts shuffling around in a suspiciously Deadite manner, who’s to say they didn’t get into her stash and decide to take a hit? By the time the truth comes out, it’s far too late. More importantly, it gives the characters a viable reason to be there, as well as giving them a personality beyond just getting chased by a Raimi-esque steadicam.
And yes, the steadicam is in attendance, as well as numerous other nods to the first film. (You know what they say: if a chainsaw shows up in Act One, it needs to hack off a limb by Act Three.) Alvarez expertly skirts the line between homage and rip-off, keeping the essence but making it his own. Evil Dead definitely trends towards the more serious side of the concept; the winks and nods are there, but they don’t reach the Stoogian extremes that made Evil Dead 2 as much self-parody as horror film. (And believe me, that’s not a criticism.)
Instead, it amps up the shocks. Lots of fright flicks promise gore, but this one may set a new standard. It works because Alvarez doesn’t treat it as exploitation… or rather, he exploits it in the name of a roller coaster ride instead of an excuse for a dearth of ideas. The R rating is, once again, a joke, but hard-core gorehounds will love every minute of it. (For the rest of you, forewarned is forearmed.)
That’s beneficial, since the characters display a staggering case of the Stupids. Unlike Raimi, Alvarez doesn’t smirk when the know-it-all reads aloud from the Necronomicon to start the ball rolling, allowing us to encompass the full impact of his idiocy. And too often, people fall for obvious ploys like a Deadite imitating the good buddy he/she used to be, even though no one in their right mind would believe it. At times, Evil Dead clings to the original closer than it should, relying on Raimi’s inspiration rather than creating more of its own. We’ve yet to see whether Alvarez can work without a net, though flaws aside, his work here certainly gives him the right to try. The film’s biggest accomplishment rests in the use of that name: not the first to use it and certainly not the best, but still deserving of it regardless. That’s no mean feat in an era of quick-fix rehashes. Evil Dead earns every inch of it.
Oh yeah, and stick around for the credits. There’s a cookie you shouldn’t miss.