In Scream 4 (2011), Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson posited that the first rule of reviving a franchise consists of respecting the original (or possibly not having sex with it). Because of their cash-grab nature, horror remakes in particular have trouble with this dictum. Consider the new iterations of April Fool’s Day (2008) and Prom Night (2008), which, save for the title and a few recognisable set pieces, bear so little resemblance to their eighties counterparts they might as well have been called Saw with Rich Pranksters and Hostel in a High School Gym.
Fede Alvarez’ Evil Dead takes the opposite tact, filling the screen with loving references to Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic. This includes a heavy reliance on practical effects, specific camera movements (and not just the famous ramming shots), as well as a groovy post credit Easter egg. In fact, the cabin where our five unfortunate protagonists find the Book of the Dead and awaken a demonic entity strikes me as a more accurate replica of the original than the shack in Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987). I love the attention to details: the tiny shed by the side, the makeshift layout of the basement, and even the step Ash cracked while looking for ammo.
It occurs to me the movie could have been billed as Evil Dead 4 or Evil Dead: The Next Generation, and no one would have batted an eye. No single element in Evil Dead openly contradicts the events of the original series, except perhaps for the presence of Ash’s yellow Oldsmobile buried beneath the leaves. Depending on which version of Army of Darkness (1992) you saw, that car ought to be rotting in either the Dark Ages or a distant post-apocalyptic future. More to the point, Alvarez and co-screenwriter Diablo Cody have come up with a new, richer context for five young adults to gather at an abandoned cabin in the woods, making it all the more plausible that a new set of characters would have stumbled on the same old demon.
This time around, we follow Mia (Jane Levy), who has enlisted the help of four loved ones to help her quit drugs cold turkey: Olivia (Jessica Lucas), the assertive nurse; Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), the bitter scholar; Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), the mousy in-law; and David (Shiloh Fernandez), the big brother who, a few years prior, left her to fend for herself with their dying mom. His guilt serves as the story’s emotional through line, and her past relapses provide an excuse for our heroes not to skedaddle at the first sign of trouble.
I like the way Evil Dead links demonic possession to the disturbing mindset of an addict. Once in withdrawal, Mia becomes a different person, you see, a monster who torments her friends and destroys their lives one by one. The whole affair feels overwritten at times, but I’ve long argued that the second rule of putting together a remake should pertain to innovation: shake things up, find new angles to explore, lest you want to end up with Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998). At first glance, this may seem to contradict the first principle. However, Alvarez strikes the perfect balance between paying homage to what’s come before and taking ownership of what lies ahead.
Having mentioned that, I confess that Evil Dead left me cold for most of its runtime. Part of the problem stems from the two most charismatic cast members getting possessed first, leaving us with an unshakable sense of doom as the competent but oddly detached survivors struggle to make us think they could helm a franchise. Another small qualm: Alvarez telegraphs every possession with a close-up of a door closing shut. The intent, I presume, is to have us on edge before each attack, but I had the opposite reaction, writing off the characters as soon as I’d see the handle. As a result, much of the movie felt to me like a random assortment of gruesome deaths.
Things don’t pick up until the final act, when we switch protagonists, and Alvarez finally displays the inventiveness that prompted producer Sam Raimi to put him in charge. I love the bit in which our lone survivor crawls between the walls of a shed while a demon repeatedly stabs through the narrow corridor. Blood rains, limbs are lost, and the whole shebang culminates in a cathartic, gloriously mad celebration of gore. I contend it takes Evil Dead far too long to get to this point, but that climactic shot alone has me eager for a sequel, one wherein the filmmakers can perhaps shed the burden of shooting a remake and freely partake in the sort of giddy exuberance that made the original a cult classic.