If there was a way to make every character in Evil Dead mute, but keep the sound effects and music in tact, this 2013 remake would be one of the most astounding horror releases since the original Saw and Hostel. With a fantastic visual tone, an almost throwback kind of score and jaw-droppingly excellent practical effects work, Evil Dead excels with its excess but doesn't come up with much in terms of substance.
The plot device that sees our typical twenty-somethings stuck out in the woods is actually deceptively clever: one of their friends is going cold turkey off of heroin and they are all there to help her through the withdrawal. Not too much is exploited with this premise, other than to have the characters make excuses for the obviously demonic behavior the former junkie starts participating in, but it sets a very different aura over the film as opposed to "kids going out in the woods to have fun." That atmosphere and tone may be one aspect of the film that I didn't fully enjoy. Sam Raimi's original certainly had its fair share of scares and eerie atmosphere, but there was always this feeling of "we're off in the woods making a crazy horror flick" that injected some fun sensibility into the proceedings. This is even before Raimi really let the comedy loose in the sequel. Evil Dead '13 doesn't have that (except in the pre-credits sequence, which I absolutely loved). In fact, it's a very mean-spirited movie. It's more like the movie people thought the original was when it gained its notorious controversy. Nothing is played for laughs, and while that does help set this film apart from its progenitor, it loses some of the spirit the Evil Dead brand is known for.
Another knock against the movie is that none of the characters have even a tenth of the charisma Bruce Campbell brought. The only interesting character (Mia, our junkie) is forced to spend almost the entire running time being possessed. I will say that Jane Levy's performance is the highlight of the cast. She knows how to play creepy and when to go just over-the-top enough to let us know she's having a blast. There's a little speech she gives near the end that is honestly chilling, but all the dialogue feels ripped from Regan in The Exorcist rather than something wholly original.
Everyone else in the ensemble is fair to middling. Mia's brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) is the stinker of the bunch, delivering lines like he belongs on a CW show. His backstory with Mia is an attempt to give the characters some weight, but it flounders. It comes off as far too saccharine, and we only get a dose of it at the beginning of the film before things get crazy. Olivia (Jessica Lucas) is the know-it-all nurse who convinces everyone to stay once Mia starts turning into Satan's bride, and she sells her bitchiness appropriately, but there's not much else to her. Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) is another friend (possibly Olivia's boyfriend? I never really felt that came across well enough) who finds the Book of the Dead and summons the demons. He mostly serves to expulse exposition, but he does okay as the punching bag of the group. He definitely receives the most punishment, almost to the point of unintentional hilarity. Rounding out the cast is David's girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), who maybe had four or five lines. She does get one of the best visual gags in the picture, but there's nothing at all to her character.
Before you assume I'm nothing but down on the film, let me tell you the things I overwhelmingly enjoyed. There are a ton of nice little nods to the original, but nothing that feels like winking fanservice (stay after the gorgeously gory credits if you want that). It's all integrated wonderfully into this version of the tale, even original audio from The Evil Dead is managed effectively without taking you out of the experience. I also like that this movie is not self-aware at all. There's no references to other films or the acknowledgment by the characters of their cliched predicaments. Nothing is "meta" and that makes the story far easier to get into. I'm glad that Evil Dead is unapologetic in the format it chooses to be. I was worried how this movie would play after living in a world where Cabin in the Woods deconstructed the very fabric this film is woven out of. It was a smart decision to play things straight.
One aspect of the film that I thoroughly loved was the score. There were tons of very old school cues that sounded like they were plucked from a Universal classic monster movie. Composer Roque Banos creates an appropriate tone that helps make the movie seem timeless. And this movie does "timeless" with a capital T. No one even does the hackneyed "I can't get a signal on my cell phone" scene that has become mandate for all horror films. Cell phones aren't even mentioned. The fashion and design of the movie will ensure that (just like the original) it will be able to play twenty years from now and be just as relevant.
However, the real standout star of the show is every visual component in the film. The framing and cinematography is superb, and maybe even a little too good for as grungy a picture this is striving to be. There are a few Raimi-esque zooms, but for the most part, director Fede Alvarez cultivates his own style that works surprisingly well. I'm certainly on board for whatever project he next attaches himself to, especially if it's as gonzo a picture as Evil Dead.
And the aspect that everyone is talking about (the effects) is not without merit: The effects are phenomenal. While there are a few CG touchups here and there (I only know this because there were VFX crew in the credits), they have to be so minimal as to be practically nonexistent. The majority of what you see on screen is happening in-camera, and it's a knockout. While not as cringe-inducing as I'd been hyped to expect (we'll have to wait for the unrated DVD to dissect every little vestige of unused viscera), they are still an absolute joy to see on the big screen. Blood flows in fountains and it's all being pumped by someone off-screen. I hope this movie is successful enough to help usher a return to more practical effects, especially in the horror genre. Evil Dead proves that the art of actually doing an effect in-camera can still be effective and most of the time superior to the digital alternative. The final big effect during the film's climax is the grandest of Guignol, and filled me with the urge to actually applaud its awesome audacity. If you want nothing more than to sate your inner gore-hound, Evil Dead will scratch that itch raw.
It's too bad that that's almost all the movie really has going for it. The near-ending has a bit of sappiness slapped on it, and when I walked out of the theater, I didn't really have any care for what happened to anyone, even Mia. While the movie didn't need another obvious hero like Ash, it did need someone who I actually wanted to see survive. But, most people will just want a goopy distraction out of this movie, and I can't begrudge them that. I'm sure all the 13-16 year old kids who sneak into this film will have a hoot. Too bad they won't be able to recognize that the script is a tad lacking.
Evil Dead is an excellently crafted film and will certainly provide an appallingly enjoyable time at the movies, but it doesn't hold a candle to any of the previous films. It's definitely a textbook example of style over substance, which isn't necessarily the worst thing for this kind of picture, but it does leave you wanting something more. It will provide a great service as that movie that's playing on your TV during your Halloween party. Just make sure the kids are already in bed. ...Unless you're one dementedly awesome parent, because a young kid with an interest in the grotesque will eat up this new Evil Dead. Mom and Dad can go to sleep to the original.