Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead is an ignore-it-at-your-own-risk debut of a young director with terrifying potential. Tackling a horror-comedy franchise that has become sacrosanct in spite of, or perhaps due to, its scattered tone, wildly varying production values, and the general choatic glee with which Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell tore through cabins and the middle ages alike. For this 2013 reboot, the filmmakers take the familiar path of making a serious-face new Evil Dead film with all the modern trimmings- dramatic cinematography, cutting edge gore-effects and, unfortunately, a script that does some very dumb things.
From an opening scene that is as ugly as it is effective, Alvarez makes it clear that his camera will be as energetic, unconstrained, and fixated on terrifying us as the ones Raimi once strapped to 2x4s and ran through the woods. There is a slickness to the camera, but it’s in service of the merciless framing of every act of violence, every terrified face, and every unseen supernatural force. The first scene is also a remarkable stage-setter, and we learn a great deal about the demon at hand and the terror it brings with it. Once our young grist arrives at the cabin, things move quickly towards familiar beats mixed with newly invented scenes, all equally visualized with inventiveness and kinetic fury.
The new framing device here is that of Mia –brought to life by Jane Levy in a pitch-perfect performance– as a struggling heroin addict whose friends and estranged brother have brought to the cabin as a once-and-for-all gesture of rehabilitation. The idea is isolation, and as her withdrawals kick in just as one of her pals finds and begins reading aloud from a plastic-wrapped and barbed-wire-encased book he finds, you begin to suspect a story that will blur the line between Mia’s feverish perspective and actual happenings.
Though an interesting place from which to start, the drug-kicking angle serves as little more than justification for the the whole group not to go scurrying home after the first wave of weird shit. Things escalate with lightning speed though, and soon the film is foremost concerned with moving characters around to different rooms, inflicting and nursing wounds, and generally propelling forward with a mad energy and breathless pace. These early ideas do return towards the end of the film, though more in explicitly-spoken character beats than interesting subtext. All that space in between though is left to the madness of an Evil Dead film, in which character open doors they shouldn’t and generally make ill-advised horror movie decisions. Iconic franchise ideas are absorbed, even as the script goes its own way more and more as things move along. It jumps through reboot hoops and there is fan service to be sure but, save for a clunky moment in which Alavrez goes over the top with a Raimi homage, the moments are usually fluidly integrated. Even in the dumber moments in which characters make baffling choices, Alvarez manages a sort of bold, unapologetic momentum that forces you to stick with the film. It doesn’t always work (there’ll never be a good reason to go down into the cellar) but the script smartly picks its battles (let’s just get the fucking Necronomicon read aloud and the party started, shall we).
The real show here is Alvarez’s control of visual form, pacing, and scene-building, all of which is remarkably sophisticated for someone making their first feature film. He also has a fine relationship with his actors, and guides Jane Levy through her dual-role as the vulnerable, imputent Mia and the sadistic Deadite witch. Shiloh Fernandez is effectively our protagonist for much of the film and he’s carries the film well- riddled with guilt, earnestly invested in his sister’s recovery, and competent enough to realistically survive what the film throws at him. The brother-sister dynamic here does not drive each and every scene of the film, but it’s a compelling, grounding wire for the electric madness at hand. In short: there’s more than enough material to make you care about these characters, and the dynamics between each of them are as well-rendered as you’re likely to see in any horror film of the sort.
This brings us to the gore, and the gore, and the gore.
In the violence arena, Fede Alvarez is quite simply not fucking around. In the most traditional, Biblical sense of the word, Evil Dead is profoundly violent. Surely the most gruesome studio feature in years (if not ever), the film touches on every kind of grue you can think of – big, gushy amputations, terrifying delicate wounds featuring needles and eyeballs, lacerations of all shapes and sizes, disgusting fountains of bile and blood… For those that seek out carnage for the sake of it, the film plenteously delivers the red, getting a lot of mileage from only five human bodies to play with. That said, it is rare for a film to be so shockingly bloody and so damn good. It isn’t perfect, but this is a gorefest shot with confident vision, populated by dimensional characters, and framed with effective dramatic concerns. The gore itself is even more sophisticated, as the hideous violence is realistic and inventively visualized. The fun never halts either- Evil Dead is punishing entertainment all the way through. I was shocked by how well the final sequence ratchets up the scale and danger without ever losing its terrifying intimacy.
Ultimately this was a different kind of endeavor, which is exactly what a remake should be. Differently people have different ideas on what the proper balance of invention and fidelity should be in any remake, but for my money Alvarez and his team struck on the ideal ratio. The verve of the filmmaking and the spirited gruesomeness more than live up to Raimi’s work across the franchise, even if the added layers of drama don’t quite equate with the value of Campbell’s classic mugging. Still, Evil Dead is going to hit audiences like a blood-soaked sack of bricks, and I’m confident that once the buzz and backlash settles out, most will recognize that this is a special horror film, well worthy of its title.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars