Five friends camp out in a cabin, helping one of their own detox from drugs, only to find foul murder indelicately staged in the basement. Skinned cats hang from the ceiling, blood trails across the floor, and a pile of cinder speaks to some terrible crime committed. Of course, any normal group of teenagers would take this time to call the police, or to choose another location for their detox slumber party, or anything save stubbornly embracing their original plan without adjustment. And normal teenagers would likely not read forbidden words from a book bound in human flesh, unleashing an unspeakable evil that wreaks chaos and spattered gore on the inhabitants of the small wooden shanty. Like many horror films, plausible deniability of any rational, intelligent thought must be given to each character in Fede Alvarez’ Evil Dead. In return, viewers receive a series of increasingly gruesome deaths and in-between sequences so bizarre they might make the likes of Rob Zombie blush.
The most painful part of the film passes in the first twenty minutes. Each actor struggles through unconvincing exposition, waiting patiently until they can scream bloody murder as a possessed girl vomits blood and peels the skin from her face. And so the audience must wait patiently too, knowing that the film can only go uphill from its stilted dialogue and self-aware banter. Mia, played by Jane Levy, offers the most convincing performance as a girl quitting hard drugs cold. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast remain unconvincing as friends, and the vital relationship between Mia and her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) feels orchestrated and lacking in familial chemistry.
If viewers can forgive the dull opening though, Alvarez’ new rendition on Sam Raimi’s camp horror film proves its mettle before too long. All the important elements from The Evil Dead (1981), and for that matter Evil Dead 2 (1987), have been faithfully reincorporated here, but gain a sadistic edge in the retelling. For instance, consider the now famous sequence of a character severing a possessed hand. With Evil Dead 2, a comedic sequel to Raimi’s unintentionally amusing first film, the main character Ash has a slap fight with his own hand, leading to the joyous moment of hacking the limb off with a chainsaw. In Alvarez’ Evil Dead, David’s girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) suffers the same ailment. Only now, her possessed hand slowly spreads fetid decay up through her arm. As a possessed demon girl taunts her from the basement, Natalie must use an electric saw to tear through sinew and bone, screaming as blood drenches the floor beneath her.
Beyond a simple update in grotesquerie, the incorporation of events from Evil Dead 2 shows that while the film attempts to remake the original, it honors the fandom of both films. In the new Evil Dead, however, a brilliant score trills with each suspenseful moment, demon possessed bodies leap out from unsuspecting corners, and the film generates tension in a way few horror films can. The look of the film has also improved, and the camera’s keen eye frames the forest in a thick fog and uses the dim, gaunt surroundings of the cabin to pull the audience in. All told, the series has been given a new lease on life, and that lease comes with a polished presentation, perhaps in some ways forsaking its own low-fi charm. Still, when characters duct tape up their arm stumps, or use a chainsaw to literally cut a woman in half, one can see the spirit of Raimi’s series is alive and well here.
It is no easy task to take on a beloved franchise, but Alvarez and company do so with a mind to make the new film their own. Alvarez’ script, co-written with Diablo Cody of Juno (2007) fame, never recoils from a disgusting moment. When the demon girl uses a box cutter to cut her own tongue in half, then proceeds to french kiss Natalie and choke the girl with her blood, the film does not shy away from the spectacle. This same glee of creativity though, does not extend to how the characters are written. With all the talent of writing on display late in the film, one would think the opening could have been better developed. If relationships between each character felt more believable, the audience might have cared about who dies and who lives. As it stands, the audience can only care how each character dies, as the crafted suspense and the shock of the film’s gore stand in for character development. Then again, perhaps this choice is for the better. In a film as twisted as Evil Dead, caring for the characters would only be a burden. Without that weight, the audience can collectively squeal at an ugly demise free of any guilt.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
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