The first two entries in Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy — released in 1981 and 1987, respectively — delivered such delightfully inventive takes on the horror genre, uniting the disparate traditions of suspense and slapstick, that no remake could possibly match their originality. Respectably enough, with his snazzy redressing of the first movie, director Fede Alvarez doesn’t even try. Instead, “Evil Dead,” a studio-produced take on the demon possession mayhem at a now-iconic cabin in the woods, delivers a slick and undeniably wild ride by repurposing the original premise in body horror terms. With simpler aims and oodles of blood, the new movie is a watered down scare-fest that works in spite of its formula by constantly frightening audiences into submission.
Co-produced by original “Evil Dead” auteur Sam Raimi, his producer Robert G. Tapert and cult star Bruce Campbell, “Evil Dead” takes the material that Raimi initially used as an excuse for filmmaking trickery at face value. In a grisly prologue, a possessed young woman is put out of her misery by her weeping father, while an eerie shaman chants nearby. Unlike the original movies, there’s no ambiguity about the direction Alvarez is heading when, in some vague period of time later, a group of five young friends hole up in the aforementioned cabin and one of them comes across the foreboding Book of the Dead, a graphically illustrated tome containing ominous conjuring spells he’s not supposed to read (but naturally does, because why not).
Cue the similarly iconic swirling-camera-through-the-woods POV shot as a dreaded force makes its way toward one helpless character, turning her into a furious monstrosity eager to nab each of the cabin dwellers’ souls, which she proceeds to do in a series of grotesque assaults. This scenario is somewhat flimsily positioned in the context of an addiction story, with coke fiend Mia (Jane Levy) escorted to the remote forest setting by friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas), Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) in a desperate attempt to get their pal to clean up her act. They’re accompanied by Mia’s brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), returning to his sibling’s life after a lengthy absence that found him leaving Mia to take care of their dying mother alone. Just as Mia and David make an effort to get along, old wounds are reopened — literally, of course, as Mia encounters a ghastly presence in the woods that uses her to gradually infect and destroy the rest of her friends.
Supposedly co-written by Diablo Cody (though her name doesn’t appear in the credits), the half-baked screenplay finds Cody’s penchant for witty asides tamped down in favor of pure shock tactics, most of which are rote: sudden projectile blood vomit here, unexpectedly ghastly reflection jarring an infected character there (the only real joke involves Pucci’s beleaguered Eric, who endures virtually every possible attack imaginable and somehow keeps breathing). Alvarez relies on the it’s-right-behind-you tactic so many times you start holding your breath in virtually every scene while anticipating the next jump scare, but the movie works better when it turns up the gore, showing off a rare attentiveness to utterly grotesque production values.
The rash of maiming and skin piercing that takes place in this movie unfolds at a breakneck pace so extreme that at times it gives you an idea of what it might look like if John Woo directed torture porn. At the movie’s SXSW world premiere, audiences yelped with a mixture of excitement and disgust at these throwaway gags, demonstrating just how well positioned they have been ahead of everything else. It would be easy to yawn away these ingredients were they not so relentlessly, nerve-rackingly effective.
There’s certainly a sense of play at work in “Evil Dead,” which slyly inverts some aspects of gender expectations established in the original movies, and Alvarez dutifully pays subtle homage to Raimi’s work through a handful of signposts (including, yes, a chainsaw). Yet no matter how freaky it gets, “Evil Dead” displays a coyness when it comes to stylistic innovation. The involvement of the team behind the original movies may imply a desire on their part to explore the earlier movies’ ideas on a commercial scale not available to them at the time, but it also proves they never needed it in the first place. An ode to the strength of onscreen horror even in its less inspired state, the new “Evil Dead” primarily succeeds at illustrating how the originals have managed to stand the test of time.
Criticwire grade: B–
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony plans to release “Evil Dead” on April 5, when it seems well positioned to dominate the box office a month of ahead of summer blockbuster season. The enthusiasm from SXSW may help kick off solid word of mouth, but this movie more or less sells itself with the trailer.