It’s not the fault of director Fede Alvarez that his take on “Evil Dead,” which he also wrote with Rodo Sayagues, can’t hope to match the impact of Sam Raimi’s much cheaper 1981 original. The glut of horror movies that has appeared over the intervening years makes it really difficult to come up with anything new to jolt viewers from their comfort zone. But Alvarez is responsible for the fact that his picture is so tediously formulaic.
Not because it much resembles Raimi’s, though. To be sure, it shares with that cult classic the basic plot outline of a group of people who come to an isolated cabin, only to be attacked by an evil spirit, unleashed by incantations from a magic book, that takes them over and uses their bodies to slaughter one another. But while Raimi and his star Bruce Campbell brought a gonzo attitude to the proceedings, combining shock effects with wacky slapstick to create a weird hybrid that could make you laugh one minute and scream the next, Alvarez’s movie is deadly serious from beginning to end, and as such seems just another gorefest, not appreciably different from the scads of other similar dreck that floods into theatres every month nowadays. For some genre fans this—along with the occasional allusion to Raimi’s film—will be enough. But most people will find returning to the original a much more rewarding experience.
For the record, this time around the five youngsters who make their way to the cabin are Mia (Jane Levy), a drug addict who’s been brought there by her college friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and med student Olivia (Jessica Lucas) to get clean, cold-turkey style. They’re joined by her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). But after some preliminary stuff that tries but fails to invest the quintet with a trace of personality, Eric takes up the strange book they find in a basement riddled with animal remains and begins perusing it, something that’s distinctly unwise, as a brief prologue about a father’s immolating his possessed daughter has already shown us.
No sooner does Eric find a warning against reading the book’s text aloud scribbled across its pages than he begins to intone it anyway, and before long Mia, already on edge, turns into a jabbering, homicidal creature. Naturally it’s assumed that her transformation is merely an unfortunate result of her sudden withdrawal from drugs, but that explanation seems increasingly unlikely, especially after she sets her sights on the others. But she’s just the first: as the various members of the group get assaulted, they’re possessed too, and the issue is merely who’s next.
There’s a depressing familiarity to everything in this movie. Yes, the picture does make greater use than most pictures of this type of the old “bear stuck in a trap” bit, with characters sawing off one part of their bodies or another to escape some immediate danger—in fact, they resort to it so often that it becomes a virtual motif. And if one’s an aficionado of squirm-inducing moments, the ones in which Eric has to pull a hypodermic needle from a point just under his eye, and then has to extract nails he’s been shot with from his skin, will be something you’ll appreciate. And anyone might get a laugh out of the scene where David and Eric, who’ve been on the outs for some reason, pause amidst the mayhem to embrace again. The “I’ve missed you, man” moment is so inappropriate in the circumstances that it’s hilarious, though probably not intentionally.
For the most part, though, the incessant slice and splatter of this new “Evil Dead” come across as par for the course, and while the amount of blood and gristle that splatter the screen is greater than usual, the impact isn’t. Of course, with only five characters as victims, the picture has to revivify them repeatedly so they can be dispatched—or apparently dispatched—time after time. That also adds to the feeling that you’ve seen it all before—because you did, ten minutes earlier. The acting is no better than what one ordinarily encounters in such stuff—certainly Fernandez can’t hold a candle to Campbell (one of the producers here), and technically the movie has no outstanding qualities except, of course, for the makeup and prosthetics (designed by Roger Murray).
“Evil Dead” does raise one significant question. If somebody who encountered it in the past not only realized that the infamous book was so dangerous but had plenty of time to write tons of monitory messages on its pages, why didn’t he just destroy it instead? The only answer, it would seem, is that if he did, it wouldn’t leave room for a sequel.