by Tony Dayoub
That's what I get for listening to you guys. Yeah, all of you bloggers filing out of the SXSW premiere of the Evil Dead remake declaring, "This time, they got it right," I'm looking at you. I know you weren't necessarily saying this time they got The Evil Dead right since Sam Raimi's 1981 film, though admittedly amateurish in its execution, is still about the most inventive first-time horror film this side of David Lynch's Eraserhead. I get that what you really meant is that 2013's Evil Dead does right by its predecessor in ways that the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and umpteen other recent horror remakes never have. Raimi himself produced the new Evil Dead along with Bruce Campbell, the cult actor who made his name with the series, so it's certain they'd shepherd their baby through the often callous reboot process. But with each successive film of his, it seems more and more apparent that Raimi is making financial decisions not artistic ones. How else to explain the blatant inferiority of the new Evil Dead?
One would hope jettisoning both the baggage of the last Evil Dead film, Army of Darkness's zombie-cum-medieval setting and the mythologizing of its chainsaw-armed (literally) hero Ash (played by Campbell) might inspire director Fede Alvarez to take the story back to basics. Instead, Alvarez and his screenwriters (which include Juno's Diablo Cody playing script doctor) seem to complicate things even further. Where 1981's The Evil Dead played like the ultimate student film, a DIY mishmash of every makeup effect Raimi and his associates had put in their back pocket over their years of filming home movies, the 2013 update wants to show off its street cred by quoting other popular films and loading this version with brand new baggage. Devoid of any of the nifty, hey-look-at-me-ma humor of the original production, Evil Dead starts off deathly serious with an unnecessary pre-credit-sequence setting up the cyclical nature of its demonic possession tale. And the seriousness never lets up.
Where Raimi and his cohorts skipped any detailed explanations regarding why a group of college students would even want to spend a weekend in a filthy, nasty-looking cabin in the woods, Alvarez spends quite a good deal of time coming up with a somewhat airtight excuse. Recovering addict Mia (Jane Levy) has come with friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) to the cabin where the siblings spent their summers before their Mom died. The bloody scrapes and twitchy behavior Mia initially displays after the haunted forest rapes her, a sadistic replay of the first film's misogynistic central setpiece, can now be explained away by her loved ones as the delusional behavior of a still dependent junkie looking for an excuse to leave. And that's something her do-gooder friends aren't prepared to do, no matter how quickly the evidence begins to pile up in favor of Mia's story.
In reality, the shallow addiction plot only serves as a thin frame on which to hang additional angst, familiar camera setups echoing everything from The Shining to The Cabin in the Woods, and incidents that occurred so memorably in the original trilogy recycled here to far lesser effect. When one unlucky teen dismembers herself in order to avoid the spreading zombie infection spreading up from her arm, you'll think it's a nasty albeit canny excuse to offer up something to the gorehounds. When a second kid also hacks her own arm off—with a chainsaw just out of reach—any Evil Dead fan will pick up on the filmmakers' designs to fool fans of the original into thinking one or another of the new cast will step into the now iconic shoes of the first trilogy's hero, Ash.
From a pure, storytelling standpoint, Evil Dead doesn't make much sense. The only characters that seem to develop in any way at all are the ones who end up dead. Not that it should be a requirement that characters evolve, especially in movies that aspire to the concept of pure cinema. But when the last one left standing is basically a cypher compared to all the other dead friends, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers are less concerned with telling a story than with cleverly putting one over on their well-versed audience. So you guys standing in line for the next festival screening, save the tweets touting the next horror movie that tickles your little cinephilic feelers. Just let me know when one of these films actually manages to scare you.