SXSW Review: ‘Evil Dead’ Is A Grim, Humorless, Ultraviolent Update Of A Horror Classic

SXSW Review: 'Evil Dead' Is A Grim, Humorless, Ultraviolent Update Of A Horror Classic
SXSW Review: 'Evil Dead' Is Grim, Humorless, Ultraviolent Update Of Horror Classic

When the “Evil Dead” remake was first announced, everyone pretty much assumed that it was going to suck. This was something that star/producer Bruce Campbell acknowledged during the Q&A at last night’s SXSW World Premiere. But after years of being assaulted with fan questions about a fourth installment, the trio behind the original (Campbell, writer/director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert) probably felt it was their duty to give the fans what they wanted. And since they perhaps felt they were getting a little old for another go-round themselves – it’s been 20 years since the third and previously final installment “Army Of Darkness” – a remake/reboot/”rebirth” must have seemed really the only way to go.

After roughly a decade of trying to bring the series back to life, the trio eventually settled on newcomer Fede Alvarez as co-writer/director, signed on as producers and promised fans that they would not be disappointed. Unfortunately for fans, it seems that Alvarez (and by extension producers Raimi, Campbell and Tapert) may not have understood what made the originals great in the first place. Featuring truly shocking levels of violence but none of the wit or fun of the original, the new “Evil Dead” is mostly a dud. After a brief (and regrettable) prologue designed to put some horror right up front, we follow five kids into a cabin in the woods. But they haven’t come for a weekend getaway, they’re there so that one of them can detox off heroin.

The group includes the aforementioned addict Mia (Jane Levy), her friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), her brother David (Zac Efron stand-in Shiloh Fernandez), who we’re told hasn’t been there for her in years, and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). But before too long the group find the Necronomicon in the cellar and begin reading from it, awakening an evil spirit which begins to inhabit and dismember them one by one. Outside of Mia whose defining attribute in early scenes seems to be “hysterical,” to try to describe the other characters with any adjectives other than “bland” would be a disservice to the script, which doesn’t imbue any of its characters with traits that are even recognizably human. It’s not the cast’s fault. They’re clearly all game and willing to be put through the ringer here, but there just isn’t anything to work with. (To be fair, the original featured a mostly forgettable round-up of characters as well with Ash arising as the unexpected hero.)

Watching the director’s short film (“Panic Attack“), one would’ve expected a similar playful inventiveness to carry over (which is probably what convinced Raimi and co. he was right for the job) but that’s all been lost here. The original trilogy is Raimi’s DNA through and through so the question becomes, how to update it for a modern audience? Last year’s SXSW opener “Cabin In The Woods” succeeded wildly as a comedy and a rollercoaster but not really as a horror film so it seems there could still be room for a balls-to-the-wall straight rendering, but the execution just doesn’t work. While “Evil Dead” thankfully doesn’t acknowledge the cliches of the genre with a post-modern wink, they don’t go out of their way either to make the character’s stupid behavior any more plausible.

When the characters pull back a carpet revealing a giant red streak of dried blood on the floor leading into a cellar door,  all they can manage is, “is that blood?” before heading down. Other than Eric, who looks like he wandered in out of a 1970s film, we’re not even given the standard signifiers as to who the other characters are supposed to be (the jock, the slut, etc.). So long after some major shit goes down, the characters are still hanging around the cabin trying to rationalize events like someone spewing a fountain of blood is a normal thing that could happen. While we don’t have to identify with the characters, it helps if you can at least understand where they’re coming from.

Many of the genre’s greatest moments happen when we see characters living through something horrific and going absolutely out of their minds over it. Here, limbs are hacked into and hacked off but never with any real consequence. There is a fine line in horror films between those intense films that still invite the audience to have fun and those that are just a punishing experience and the new “Evil Dead” seems to share more in common with the recent-ish wave of extreme French horror (“Inside,” “Haute Tension“) than with the original. So with the overwhelming burden to compare it to the original to which it can never live up, the question becomes: how does it work on its own? And the answer is: not very well.

During the Q&A someone asked Alvarez why he felt it was okay to break the 180 degree line in the film, to which he responded that it hadn’t really occurred to him and you can see this kind of sloppiness throughout the film. He didn’t set out to break the rules, he just didn’t really understand them in the first place. On a smaller debut he could’ve worked out some of these kinks out before transitioning onto a larger effort but here his inexperience is glaring. Horror is tension and release, anticipation and delivery, so despite throwing 100,000 gallons of blood on the screen, Alvarez doesn’t seem to grasp these most basic fundamentals. Instead his film plays as a series of scenes where intense “stuff happens” and at times it’s disgusting but never scary or fun.

The only real bright spot comes near to the end when a character who had been basically wasted for the entire film comes back into the fore. Otherwise the film’s biggest achievement is with the MPAA (how this cut got an R is truly unfathomable) and for many that’ll be enough of an endorsement to check this out regardless. Gorehounds only looking for bloodletting will be satisfied with the carnage on display but for the average viewer, it’s a fairly grueling experience (but not in a good way). Diablo Cody wasn’t credited on the script (by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues), which she supposedly did a polish on, but it’s hard to see her fingerprints anywhere on this grim, humorless venture.

Coming from the cheap redo shingle Platinum Dunes, a misfire like this would be easier to swallow, but coming with the seal of approval from Raimi and co., it definitely stings. Like George Lucas with the Star Wars‘ prequels before them it seems that the creators misjudged what made their creation resonate with people in the first place. The 2013 “Evil Dead” instead arrives without any of the spark that made the original so memorable and satisfying. Compare even the tagline of that film (“The Ultimate Experience In Grueling Terror”) to the remake’s far less interesting “The Most Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience.” The new tagline is clearly a nod to the original and on the surface it would appear they’re both basically saying the same thing but all the personality has been robbed of the former in an attempt to appeal (and dumb down) for today’s audiences.

That’s essentially the experience of the remake in a nutshell. If the original was Raimi’s inventive soufflé of horror and slapstick, in the remake, Alvarez seems content to simply show us the ingredients: a chainsaw, the book of the dead, ‘The Classic,’ without knowing how to put them together into anything scary, involving or inventive.
For fans of the original [D]. For everyone else [C-].

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