Now, I’m a bit of an Evil Dead fan. If anyone asks what my favourite film is, my go-to answer is usually Evil Dead II (or Battle Royale). When we were learning HTML in IT at school, my first website was an Evil Dead fanpage. I once spent an entire day at a Xena: Warrior Princess convention just to meet Bruce Campbell and get his autograph. Yeah, I’m a dork. But when news of an Evil Dead remake was announced, I was perfectly okay with it. Unlike horror icons such as Freddy, Jason, Leatherface and Michael Myers, the ‘villain’ in the Evil Dead films is ostensibly the Necronomicon itself and whoever is possessed by the forces of darkness it unleashes. If you remove Ash from the equation, there’s nothing wrong with another bunch of kids driving to a cabin in the middle of nowhere and tangling with deadites for 90 minutes. And it’s not like there’s no room for improvement with The Evil Dead, which isn’t so much rough round the edges as positively dog-eared.
So this time around, we have another first time feature director (Fede Alvarez) but with a lot more money to play with, the benefit of a producing team who have been there and done that, and over 30 years of hindsight. As such, there are some clear plus points it has over the original. For starters, the backstory is a lot more cohesive. Having Mia (Jane Levy) a junkie trying to go cold turkey by retreating to an old family cabin with friends and family to support her is a neat idea, solving such genre problems as having no one believe her when she wants to leave, and letting her increasing craziness slide as side effects of her comedown (plus the whole possession/evil drugs angle). Levy plunges herself completely into something of a dual, even triple, role – though spending most of her time as possessee, giving an impressively manic, threatening and unhinged performance. It’s gutsy and horrible and brilliant and hard to shake. More coherent too are the “rules” of the book and the evil dead themselves, but still not being too explicit with it. Effective music too from Roque Baños, mixing shrieking strings, twitchy rattles and percussion, and even the sound of an air raid siren (at least, I think that’s what it was) to complement the carnage.
It’s a testament to the relentless pace of Evil Dead that, once all the set-up is out of the way in an exposition-heavy opening (but a fair enough exchange in that we don’t then have it peppered throughout, breaking up the action), I didn’t think once about The Cabin in the Woods. Instead, what I thought about a lot where the original films, and that’s because if there is one major problem with the film, it is not that it is necessarily too reverential, but too referential. The biggest misstep is in bringing back The Evil Dead’s most infamous scene, something Raimi himself quickly came to regret. It was unnecessary then, unnecessary now, and only reminds you of the leery torture porn feel that has since become the norm and this film, for the most part, manages to avoid. There are other obvious beats and scenes that mirror those in The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II that are more welcome and expected, but on top there are repeated lines of dialogue, framing of shots lifted directly, and tiny visual details. Of course, to someone who hasn’t seen these films tonnes o’times, these little touches will pass you by, but the problem with being a fan is that such fan service takes you out of the film, the incessant winking sabotaging everything that’s original, a shame when otherwise it is doing a pretty damn good job of carving its own path. The film is most successful when it is deviating from all that’s come before, trying new things and taking the story and characters in unexpected directions. Alvarez makes enough of his own mark in terms of style (there are few attempts to ape Raimi’s trademark crazy camera tricks, beyond the classic ‘force’ perspective) and tone elsewhere, you wouldn’t miss these references if they weren’t there.
However, it seems the hang-up most people have about things missing from Evil Dead is “where all the jokes at?”. But those who saw The Evil Dead as a deliberate horror-comedy, and expect the new version to replicate the tone they think the film struck perhaps don’t quite realise what they are getting themselves in for. Sure, Raimi’s first love was the slapstick buffoonery of The Three Stooges, which informed many of his early skits. There is nervous laughter to be had in its excess, in a “I can’t believe that just happened” way, there is a gleeful knowingness in a “just when you thought things couldn’t get worse” way, and there is a creepy playfulness in the torture the dead put the living through – but watching The Evil Dead, divorced from its deliberately goofier sequels, it’s clear that the comedy comes largely from its endearing amateurness (see also original short Within the Woods that is definitely played for shock and gore). In Evil Dead’s case, all the above is present and correct, but just without the cheap wigs, hosepipe blood pumps, and disregard for health and safety. Some of the inherent grottiness is lost when filmed anew, but Alvarez compensates by challenging himself to forego CGI in favour of practical effects at their most effective and gruesome. Coupled with disturbing sound design and a cast seemingly game for any dissing of memberments, Evil Dead may be one of the most disgusting mainstream releases in recent memory, and stories of audience members fainting and throwing up can, in this instance, be justified. It’s not overly reliant on jumps and traditional lazy frights, more concerned with playing with tension and expectations, and delivering the nastiest gore possible – maybe not reaching Braindead quantities (this being filmed in New Zealand and featuring effects by Weta lends something of a satisfying full circle to Peter Jackson: The Early Years), but the objective here is sheer brutality rather than comic splatstick. It’s impressive in a time where the horror box office is dominated by films that primarily rely on slamming doors, kids saying innocent/spooky things and contortionism for scares that something this upfront and graphic can get such a wide release, but kudos for doing so.
Though unlikely to displace the affection for the original trilogy, Evil Dead does its utmost to deliver “the ultimate experience in gruelling horror” promised first time round. And, you know what, it largely succeeds. It’s a thrill ride, pure and simple, though just like the best kind of roller-coaster, it will likely leave you a little nauseous. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up to you.