I didn't go into Fede Alvarez's new version of Evil Dead (2013) expecting to hate it. Contrary to what you may think of people who write about film and their alleged disdain of movies, I want to enjoy the movies I see. I root for them to be good. I know that a lot of horror fans have had it up to here with remakes, but I don't mind them, really. I loved Alvarez's short film, "Panic Attack," in which giant robots destroy Montevideo. That film was chock full of filmmaking moxie and creativity, so I was hopeful. But, it was not to be.
One of the problems with contemporary horror remakes is that, often, the original items are foundational films that have been ripped off so often that their best effects have become genre cliches. That's what happened here. The original item was fresh and original. The remake is derivative and rote, lacking any kind of identity of its own. But let's give credit where credit is due: the new film adds missteps all its own, ported in from the genre's broader pool of cliches. Alas.
The story here is more elaborate than in the original film. Our heroes head out to the cabin in the woods as a kind of intervention for Mia, who is trying to kick a drug habit. Her friends have been through this before and they've vowed that, no matter what happens, they aren't letting Mia leave the cabin. Inside the cabin, there is a smell of rot. In a basement room, there are dozens of dead cats hung up on hooks and a sinister book, bound in what appears to be skin and tied shut with barbed wire. The brainy kid, David, unwisely un-twines the book and begins to read from it. Meanwhile, bad things begin to happen. Mia begins to freak out and lights out for the woods to get away from her friends. In the woods, she is chased by...something...and herded to a stand of viney trees that reach out, grab her fast, and rape her. When her friends find her, she's not in a good place, but soon, she begins to show signs of demonic possession. After assaulting them, Mia is tossed into the cellar with the trap door locked behind her. But her friends are not safe. As David gets deeper into the book, our heroes begin enacting what he finds there, with ghastly results...
To start with, Alvarez and his collaborators have made the classic mistake of the slasher movie™. Evil Dead explains too damned much. We get two, count 'em, two distinct back story elaborations. The first, pre-credits, finds a group of people capturing a woman in the woods and taking her to the basement of our familiar cabin, where a conjure woman uses the book to exorcise the demon within her. In the second backstory, we discover that Mia has a history of relapse after interventions, that her mother died under dire circumstances, and that her brother doesn't know the extent of her addiction. The way the film is structured after the main titles is characteristic of a film that has an unreliable narrator. Are the events of this film the product of a fevered, addicted mind? You can probably see the flaw in this already: if the opening back story is true, then the ambiguity provided by the second back story is mooted. This is one of the film's most dramatic missteps, but in truth, even providing the first back story is a mistake, because it robs the viewer of a sense of discovery. Raimi didn't bother with any of this. He just threw the viewer into the fire unprepared and the original film was more ferocious for it. Alvarez, for his part, expends too much energy on this.
Most of the horror beats in Evil Dead are familiar by now, even if you haven't seen the original. I mean, the bulk of last year's Cabin in the Woods repeats the essential scenario one finds here as parody, with practically the same coding of its characters. The scene cues are mostly taken from the original except for the finale: the demon in the basement, the self-dismemberment, the tree rape. It adds a nailgun to the mix, more as a nod to the the original film's slasher movie contemporaries than as useful elaboration. The gore in this film is vivid and nasty, but not particularly novel, though I will admit to smiling when we meet a character who has cut her own arm off to prevent her own possession but hasn't quite managed to cut it all the way through. It dangles by a thread of skin, then falls off. But that's the extent of the film's innovation when it comes to gore. I wish the filmmakers had omitted the tree rape. I know that it's in the original, and I know that fans of extreme horror movies would expect it, but it's a scene that codes the film as essentially misogynist, however much it might want to redeem itself by recasting the victim of that rape as a final girl. As for that last turn of plot: the movie manages to turn Mia's character from possessed monster into the final girl in a fit of apologia. The end result of this is that it turns the film into a kind of outward bound program for wayward women, one with a body count. The finale, in which Mia assumes center stage as the heroine after spending most of the film as the villain, is disappointing. You'd think that after foreshadowing the original film's shovel decapitation that they would pay it off, but they don't, instead, you get a rain of blood and a final boss demon that doesn't look a lot different from the Mia-demon earlier in the film. This represents a failure either of imagination or budget, because the film promises an apocalypse, and instead, we get just another demon-zombie, one dispatched with a chainsaw to the head.
For the most part, this is a slick, anonymous contemporary horror film. It doesn't break new ground, and it caters to the horror fan's dislike of CGI effects--perhaps to the detriment of its own imagination--by doing most things in-camera with prosthetics. It has that calculated grungy, unwashed look of most contemporary grindhouse retreads. What it doesn't have is a sense of either its own absurdity or the original film's antic playfulness with filmmaking itself. Nowhere in this film is there a scene like the one where Ash comes out of a mirror to slap some sense into himself, or the deeply alarming cartomancy that prefigures the original's first possession scene. I wish that it did. I wish that Alvarez had brought at least a smidgen of the joy of movie making one sees in "Panic Attack." Alas, it's not to be.
*With many apologies to Joe Bob Briggs, who coined the phrase "spam in a cabin" in his review of the the original Evil Dead.