It may come as a shock to people, but I feel it necessary to open up with this confession; I’m not a fan of The Evil Dead.
I’ll give you a moment to compose yourselves. See, I think Evil Dead 2 is an unmitigated masterpiece and I’ve seen Army of Darkness a few dozen times thanks to the Oscar-worthy performance of Bruce Campbell. But I have always found the first Evil Dead to have a tone that I couldn’t get into. It was too silly to be scary, but it wasn’t silly enough to be funny. Sure, there’s a lot of the inventive camera work and energy that would put Sam Raimi on the road to becoming the captain of blockbusters he is today, but for the most part I’ve always seen it as a pretty run of the mill, low-budget 80s horror film. And of those films, it has never struck me as the rip-roaring, tree-raping, scream-inducing good time that a lot of cult cinema fans have found it to be. I’ve always found it to be one of the rare instances in which the sequels are unquestionably better than the original film. Understandably so, given it was Raimi’s first film.
Perhaps that’s why, while I was not particularly enthused when it was announced that there would be a remake, my head did not fully rotate 360 degrees from my outrage while steam poured from my ears. Besides, Evil Dead 2 is basically a remake of the first film. The first twenty minutes or so of it, anyway. I just kind of figured it would be another case of a 70s/80s horror film being remade, maybe managing to spit out a sequel, and then slowly migrating into the dollar DVD bin at Wal-Mart while the original continues to be the one that people think of when the name is brought up. (Looking at you, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Texas Chainsaw Massacre…)
One thing that does seem to initially cause a seismic shift in that way of thinking is that Raimi, along with his old cohorts Campbell and Rob Tapert, are producers of this particular installment in what apparently is taking a calculated move from “cult favorite that died off when Army of Darkness didn’t make money” to “franchise.” Since Raimi is busy making mediocre movies with James Franco, we are instead being led by first time director Fede Alvarez. Honestly, I’m still trying to decide how good a job he did. There are definitely scares in the movie, mostly of the “jump” variety, but the tension never ratchets up to the levels it could under the hands of a more seasoned director. Also some of the performances are stiff and wooden, especially Shiloh Fernandez as the male lead, David. Doing much better (though with some questionable moments kept in that I can’t quite blame her for) is Jane Levy as his sister Mia, a heroin addict taken to the cabin in the woods by David, his girlfriend, and a couple of old friends: a stubborn nurse and a dick high school teacher. They’re finally getting her sober and making her stick to it. What follows is a film that never quite seems like a straight remake, but is never original enough to not be a remake. Shots and plot devices are stolen directly from the first two films in the original trilogy, which acted as a double edged sword; part of me thought the references were fun, while part of me was taken out of the movie by them. Not to mention, there are a couple of things in the film that point to it being a direct sequel to the original series, which makes little sense under any kind of continuity. (But which Raimi’s subsequent comments on how the story is planned to move forward, and a tiny stinger after the end credits, seems to substantiate.)
In some ways, it’s hard to watch this kind of film in a post-Cabin in the Woods world. That film did such a good job skewering this exact kind of film, while also elevating it, that I almost expected Richard Jenkins to suddenly show up after a jump cut. Perhaps this is another reason that the film seems to purposefully shy away from any self-referential humor, though I think it was in production before Cabin finally was released. It’s odd, but the clumsily obvious metaphor of the demons of drug addiction is one of the things that seems to work well in differentiating it from the original series and, thanks to Levy’s performance, ultimately helps the film, grounding it before the supernatural shenanigans start, thanks to the dick teacher reading from the Naturom Demonto, a generic brand version of the original Book of the Dead, seemingly designed by a metal album cover artist and defaced by a kid in study hall.
One thing that is not in short supply is gore. A lot of the movie just plain hurts to watch. There is a balancing act that is mostly pulled off, in which gore goes from gooey and weird to ultra realistic. Once again, it creates a bit of a tonal issue for me, like the original film does. But when it is just going for squirm-inducing moments, the lack of CGI absolutely helps sell the pain. It is not a film for the easily queasy. There were a couple of moments that had me thinking about covering my eyes and I’m even a bit surprised it managed to get an R-rating.
By the ending, the film does go very over the top. It is obvious the tone is still not intended to be overly comedic, but without daring reveal anything about it, the finale is crazy enough that it is exciting and fun. It was here that things seemed to really gel for me and the film ultimately won me over. I’m not sure exactly what it was that got me over the hump, but things just finally merged into a whole that made me curious to see what is to come from the already announced sequel.
(Three damns out of five)