Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat — first-time director Fede Alvarez’s new remake/”reimagining” of Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic The Evil Dead (this time going out minus the article at the beginning of the title, so it’s just Evil Dead, thank you very much) is not, as its ad poster claims, “the most terrifying film you will ever experience.” That’s actually a gutsier tag line than it sounds on first reading, since it’s essentially promising that not only is this flick scarier than anything you’ve already seen, it’s scarier than anything else you’re ever going to see for the rest of your life. It can’t live up to that, period — and truth be told, it’s not even very scary at all.
Which isn’t to say that it’s bad or anything. In many key respects — eschewing CGI for “real” special effects, not even trying to cast somebody new in the role of Ash since absolutely anyone would suffer in comparison to Bruce Campbell (who, along with Raimi, is on board as at least an air-quote producer on this one) — Alvarez and his cohorts (including, it pains me to say, co-screenwriter Diablo Cody, who I was fairly certain was going to fuck things up here in some way, shape, or form but, pleasingly, doesn’t) get a lot of what they’re trying to do here right. The film is gory beyond belief, moves at nearly the same breakneck pace as its ’81 template, there’s a sublimely wrong tree-rape (yes, you read that correctly) scene, the script provides a believably updated reason for why our five protagonists are getting together in a remote cabin in the woods — that looks very much like the original, might I add — in the first place ( I won’t spell it out too specifically but it gives new meaning to the old “withdrawal’s a bitch” cliche), and the performances are, on the whole, fairly solid.
They’ve also wisely chosen not to mess with the whole “haunted book inked in human blood and bound in human skin that releases untold evil onto the world” premise, so points all around for not only not messing with what worked in the original, but also for not trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice by hewing too closely to it. Alvarez seems to have gone into this one knowing what he should and shouldn’t play around with, and that puts him a step ahead of your average horror remake director.
Here’s the rub, though — whenever you’re trying to update the look and feel of a $375,000 production on a budget of $14 million, something’s bound to get lost in translation, and no matter how hard it tries, Evil Dead circa 2013 just can’t capture the grittiness, the grime, the immediacy and, dare I say it, the heart of its progenitor. Alvarez is definitely going for an old-school approach here, and I commend him for that, but it’s still (and obviously) not old-school in actuality. Once you poke beneath the paper-thin surface, it becomes fairly obvious that any successes the new film has are more or less of the cosmetic and superficial variety. It looks good, sure — but it still feels kinda wrong, even though it’s doing its level best to cover that up by, again to its credit, not giving you too much time to think.
I mentioned before that I by and large liked the cast — Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore and, especially, Jane Levy as our doomed (or is she?) central “heroine,” Mia — all do a nice job. But none of them especially stand out, either, which isn’t too bad a mini-metaphor for the movie itself as a whole — it’s thoroughly competent in terms of its execution, but there’s not much extra “spark” to the proceedings. Alvarez seems to understand the essential ingredients for making a solid, respectful, won’t-piss-you-off updating of a classic, but he’s got some way to go before he can create a genuine classic from whole cloth himself.
In some respects, there’s really not a whole lot he can do about that — The Evil Dead was shot in a remote Tennessee cabin while Evil Dead constructed its own location in New Zealand that set out to ape the look and feel of middle-of-nowhere USA as best it can — but that’s just endemic of the greater problem at work here, namely that this is a story that just plain not only doesn’t need a so-called “upgrade,” but literally can’t survive one with its celluloid soul intact. I give Alvarez all the kudos in the world for trying, and for at least understanding the surface elements of what made the original the undeniable classic that it’s rightly hailed as, but so much of what made Raimi’s flick the singular triumph that it was can never be duplicated. Hence, I guess, why I just referred to it as a “singular” work. In short, while we’re still talking about the first one some 32 years after its release, I’ll be damn surprised if people are talking about this remake very much even a year from now.
Still — they did what they could here, I suppose. I had an exchange with a couple of friends on facebook earlier today about the endless stream of remakes in general that we’re forced to navigate, and it made me realize that at some unspecified, silently-arrived-at point, I went from going into these things thinking “I hope they get it right this time” to “dear God I hope they don’t fuck this one up.” It’s a subtle shift, sure, but it certainly speaks volumes about the general performance of the studios’ big-budget-remake machine. I’m pleased to say that Alvarez et. al. don’t fuck this one up (and whatever you do, hang around until the credits are over — you’re guaranteed to leave with a smile on your face even if you don’t actually like the film at all), but it is what it is. The Evil Dead 1981 was a product of blood, sweat, tears, determination, and — weird as it may sound — love, put together by folks who didn’t always know what they were doing but were always giving it more than their best effort. Evil Dead 2013 is, for all its attempts to duplicate the trappings of its predecessor, a professionally-executed Hollywood production. You tell me which is gonna be better.
Hell — tell me which has to be.