The Evil Dead gets unnecessarily updated in the debut feature film by director Fede Alvarez, who remakes the Sam Raimi original in contempo style. Alvarez’s version disposes of Raimi’s trademark sentimentality, replacing the young lovers at the heart of the first film with more worldly siblings, as big brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) heads out to that cabin in the woods among friends, determined to help his sister Mia (Jane Levy) detox after a near-death experience. When dumb buddy Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) starts reciting demonic incantations aloud in the basement, Mia’s harrowing withdrawal symptoms make perfect cover for her possession by formerly slumbering supernatural forces.
Something about reimagining the self-described “ultimate experience in grueling terror” as an addiction narrative feels right, though it doesn’t go an especially long way toward propping up a fundamentally thin narrative. After all, nothing much ever happened in The Evil Dead. Some kids died, yeah, but the action was limited to a few plain rooms in an unremarkable building in a nondescript locale. What was important wasn’t that creepy shit happened; it was how creepy shit happened. Raimi channeled an incredible amount of kinetic energy into that film. It had a presence. And, considering its budget and the circumstances of its making, it’s exceptionally well-crafted, with the camera moving easily among the characters as the cutting propels the mayhem.
Evil Dead never matches Raimi’s frantic directorial intensity, nor does its editorial style replicate the earlier film’s rhythmic, almost musical cadence. Where Raimi’s film becomes an exercise in letting ‘er rip, the Alvarez film is more interested in keeping its cool. I think part of the idea is to keep a certain kind of credibility in the face of obvious common-sense objections to the sequence of events on screen. But there will almost always be a plausibility gap in a film like this — Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist are incredibly famous films in part because they’re the exceptions to this rule, treating supernatural events like any other elements of drama — and if your horror is utterly implausible, I urge you to amplify its weirdness to absolutely surreal proportions. Certainly “realism” is among the least worthy commonly cited cinematic virtues, and it’s a lost cause here. For one thing, once shit starts going down, Evil Dead‘s characters seem much more isolated from one another than should be possible in a modest cabin. That’s important if you need to have a character, let’s say, saw off a limb before anyone else can notice, much less stop her, but it challenges the suspension of disbelief in its own way. Still, the tableau Alvarez creates as the poor girl slumps to the floor, bathed in yellow light, is hellish and impressive. Hellish is a good word for the gruesome visions screened here, which at their best approach the unfussy, color-saturated compositions of frames from a horror comic.
Evil Dead departs most decisively from its predecessor in the final minutes, which throw a gender-based change-up that reconfigures the film’s meaning to better mesh with genre expectations about the “final girl” that came into vogue after the initial film’s release. They also extend the film’s central metaphor and add a hint of ambiguity about the veracity of the film’s narrative. Is Evil Dead, finally, the tachycardic dream of a woman who’s just slaughtered a cabinful of her closest friends? A question like that might have more resonance if the film’s viewpoint were restricted a bit more closely to a single character, who could be sharing her hallucinations under the stress of withdrawal with all of us. But this is not really that kind of film. Alvarez has little success making these kids come across as actual humans, or even developing a compelling-in-its-own-right (rather than compelling-because-demon-possession) brother-sister relationship. Compare his work to Raimi’s corny but effective efforts at giving the relationship between Ash and his girlfriend Linda some sweetness in the original. Evil Dead is too cool for corn, and it’s definitely not a character piece. But sometimes it kinda wants to be.
Some viewers have been impressed that this new Evil Dead found a subtext, and perhaps even motivation, underpinning its gruesome horror. Some folks will point to that as a sign of sophistication compared to the bare-budget original. Those folks are wrong — Raimi’s original is a much better film than its remake. Savvy horror fans know that sophistication is not only overrated but often misidentified, at least when it comes to genre filmmaking. The Evil Dead may not have had much of a story, or anything approaching a technically accomplished performance (though Betsy Baker’s demonic turn is pretty great), yet it was sophisticated in its highly effective mise en scène. The film has some rough patches, but when it takes off, it fucking well flies. I remember watching it over and over, on an early 1980s videotape dubbed from the one for rent at whatever local video store would loan it to my underaged ass, marveling at the sheer quantity of chaos on screen. At certain points, I actually felt like I was in that room in that isolated cabin, struggling to keep my shit together as a possessed teenager slammed her body repeatedly against the underside of a chained cellar door, her banging and cackling the equivalent of the stomping and heckling you might hear coming from the cheap seats at a raucous 19th century theater.
What’s the subtext of Raimi’s film, then? It’s the same as The Exorcist. Like so many horror movies, it pits the evil dead against the boy scouts and girl scouts, the cool kids against the squares. Demons and serial killers wear their deformities and perversities like leather jackets and tight denim, cursing life, love, and Jesus himself. The sing-song refrain, “We’re gonna get you,” echoes through the original film like the taunts of so many bullies in high-school hallways, or like the threat posed to Establishment concerns by hippies, free lovers, rock-and-rollers, and other 1960s and 1970s revolutionaries. As has become customary, the new film brings us a final girl to root for, presumably redeeming the grueling experience by inviting our identification with the victims. But it made a terrible kind of sense for Bruce Campbell’s sentimental, virginal Ash, emerging apparently triumphant at the end of the original film, to get mowed down suddenly and unceremoniously by unseen evil. Likable as that nice boy was, you just can’t stop progress.