For horror fans, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy is sacred. The 1981 original is the prototypical cabin in the woods movie, and its pair of genre-bending sequels broke new ground by diluting the gut-spilling gore with gut-busting comedy. That’s a hell of a legacy, and anyone attempting to reboot such a venerable franchise does so at their own peril. Luckily, it’s hard to imagine any die-hard fans walking away disappointed by Fede Alvarez’s gruesome, accomplished remake.
Billed as “the most terrifying film you will ever experience” in its own marketing materials, the new Evil Dead clearly doesn’t lack confidence in its abilities. That assured hand can be felt on nearly every frame of the film, from its disorienting in medias res opening to its apocalyptic, blood-soaked finale. And devotees will be happy to know that all of the original franchise’s hallmarks are reverently preserved here: trees, chains, shotguns, chainsaws, lost limbs, and lots and lots of blood.
Evil Dead tells the story of five friends who head to a remote cabin and unwittingly unleash an ancient evil that lives in the surrounding woods. That setup is about as ancient as the demons that the group awakens, but Alvarez scores points by at least coming up with a plausible reason for the group to be there in seclusion: they’re staging an intervention for the drug-addicted Mia (Jane Levy). The film also mines surprising pathos from the relationship between Mia and her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), and investing the viewer in their fates imbues the ensuing carnage with some nice weight.
If there’s anywhere the film misses a step, it’s that the other characters aren’t nearly as well developed. No one goes to an Evil Dead movie for a character study, but Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore’s characters barely make an impression before shuffling off their mortal coils. Lou Taylor Pucci’s stereotypical nerdy guy Eric gets some amusing lines, but it’s still never clear why he would think it’s a good idea to read incantations from a book bound in human flesh, inked in human blood, and with dire warnings like “DON’T READ ALOUD” scrawled in it. The real reason, of course, is that the story requires him to. Tensions between Eric and David are also hinted at but never amount to much.
But none of that matters once the blood starts to fly, and boy does it ever. The characters in this film — both the possessed and the human — suffer a relentless barrage of pain, mutilation, and dismemberment. The trailer’s already-infamous tongue-slicing moment is staged in concealing shadows here, presumably to help the film avoid an NC-17, but there are plenty of other gross-outs to be found. The movie is about more than bloodletting, though. Alvarez (in his feature debut, though you would never know it) expertly ratchets up the tension throughout the film, knowing just how long to stretch each moment to achieve maximum suspense. The guy clearly knows his stuff, and under his direction the camera angles and editing work together to continually confound viewers’ expectations.
In addition to the audience, Alvarez manages to stay a step ahead of the original Evil Dead as well. Aside from the absence of horror icon Bruce Campbell — who didn’t really come into his own until the sequels anyway — it’s hard to think of anything from the first film that this remake/reboot/quasi-sequel lacks. The 1981 version had a certain scrappy, DIY charm to it, but the 2013 honors that in its own way by being the rare modern-day horror film to almost entirely avoid the use of computer effects. Alvarez instead relies on good old-fashioned makeup effects, prosthetics, and fake blood, and the resulting realism is like a breath of fresh air in this era of cartoonish CGI splatter.
Choices like that help Evil Dead join The Thing and The Fly in an elite pantheon of horror remakes that surpass the original films. After a decade of Hollywood trotting out just about every retread imaginable, ranging from mediocre (Last House on the Left, Fright Night, Halloween) to just plain terrible (Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, I Spit on Your Grave), it appears they’ve saved the best for last. Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead is a taut, expertly crafted, unforgettable experience. Horror fans can safely rejoice.
UPDATE: I’d like to dedicate this review to the great Roger Ebert, who passed away today. It’s possible Ebert wouldn’t have liked this movie in particular, but I think he did understand the joy and reverence that films like this can inspire. Without his influence, this review would never have been written, and my lifelong love for movies would not have burned quite so bright. It’s hard to imagine any film reviewer taking pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) without the memory of cinema’s most cherished critic occupying some hallowed ground in their subconscious. He will be missed. – Chris Maroulakos