If you’re looking for plenty of blood, splatter and gore from the new version of EVIL DEAD, you’re going to get it. However, I hope you’re satisfied with just that, because director Fede Alvarez’s take on Sam Raimi’s classic material doesn’t offer much else, not in the way of characters or story, which proves to be a huge problem when you’re spending 90+ minutes watching something you’ve been given no reason to care about. The 1981 original was simplistic in its set-up, but, in establishing the rules it’d be playing by, it at least took the time to develop the people you were watching, given you a reason to become invested in what was about to play out. Do you think Bruce Campbell’s Ash became this great cult icon by accident? Hell no. Campbell’s natural charisma, in addition to Raimi’s script, created a character worth rooting for, something that managed to last through two sequels and plenty of talk about one more. But Alvarez’s picture has no such rallying point, committing the cardinal sin of horror, which is what good is showing a bunch of people butchered and mutilated when I don’t care about any of the people suffering such punishment. Sure, it’s cool to look at for a few moments, but there’s no emotional connection to any of the players to make me feel anything about it. I’m not feeling their pain... I’m not feeling their hurt... frankly, it doesn’t matter to me what is happening to them, leaving me with thoughts of just wanting to move onto the next unfortunate character in line, because that’s what EVIL DEAD has amounted to - a checklist of victims - and there’s nothing frightening about that.
EVIL DEAD has an interesting premise going for it, too. Jane Levy’s Mia has been brought out to her family’s old cabin in the middle of the woods (It’s always a run-down cabin, isn’t it?) by her friends and brother in order to quit her drug problem that’s been slowly destroying her life once and for all. I guess rehab isn’t an option, so going cold turkey as far away from any available narcotics will have to do in order to break Mia’s vicious cycle. Unfortunately, her friends have tried this tactic before, and it failed miserably, but you know what they say: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Knowing that Mia is going to try to do anything in her power to get away from the house, everyone commits to not letting Mia leave, no matter what, creating the perfect opportunity for them to think she’s crazy when she starts making outrageous claims about seeing people amongst the trees and feeling as if something bad is there at the cabin with them. It’s a clever device to keep her there in this isolated location, and I found myself nodding my head in approval at the implementation of such a sensical idea that’d put them in prime position for all the bad things yet to come.
However, Alvarez seems to put so much effort into establishing Mia’s predicament that he doesn’t have anything left to make the secondary characters count. We get a little bit of a story about her estranged connection with her brother David (played by Shiloh Fernandez), but the group of four there with Mia might as well have been a collection of random strangers pulled off the street and shoved into this cabin. That’s how much we get to know about them and of them. They’re cannon fodder. They’re redshirts. They have one purpose and one purpose only - to die - so it’s as if the decision was made not to put any time into making us care about them, because they’re going to be around long anyway. But that’s a flawed way of thinking, because caring what happens to them is what should draw us into the film. Jump scares frighten us, because it’s a sudden shock to the system. It’s the unexpected sneaking up on us and screaming “Boo!” A prolonged sense of terror though is achieved through its characters. We don’t fear for our safety. We fear for theirs. We see people put into harm’s way, and we want them to emerge okay... but we are absolutely helpless to the outcome of their predicament. That’s where the rush comes from. When a film can’t give that to me, it’s doing something seriously wrong. Granted, I’m not sure if Alvarez developed these characters any further that he has the cast in place to make it work anyway, as every single performance outside of Levy’s is dull and flat, unable to evoke even the simplest emotion in matters of life or death, but I would have liked to see the film at least try, rather than give up on the idea of character development altogether.
When it comes to horror, I can accept a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, because it comes with the territory. What I cannot stand for, however, is a set of characters who continuously do everything they’re not supposed to do. I don’t need my horror to be drenched in meta, but it’s hard for me to believe that a bunch of college-aged kids have never watched a scary movie in their lives to know what not to do and to realize that behaving with such wanton stupidity will bring about severe consequences. It’s one thing to be forced up the stairs with the killer chasing you with no better option on the table; it’s another to choose to run up those same stairs though when the front door is wide open, inviting your escape. Those techniques may have worked 30-40 years ago, but good horror has been getting smarter over the years, and once you’ve treated the audience with a certain level of respect, it’s difficult to regress back to these ideas that feel outdated.
Let me give you an example as it relates to EVIL DEAD. In this cabin, there’s a lingering smell of something awful. With a little bit of luck and a nosy dog, the group discovers a trap door that’s smeared with what appears to be dried blood. In typical fashion, they open it, and elect to descend beneath the cabin to discover what’s down there... always a great idea, especially as the smell gets stronger. What they wind up uncovering is a room filled with dead cat carcasses hanging from the ceiling and a charred post where something or someone clearly had been burnt. Someone speculates that this is some voodoo stuff, and, while that isn’t true, they have the right train of thought that something very bad happened in this spot. In the same general area, they recover a shotgun, a couple of shells and a very strange bag wrapped in barbed wire. Now the common sense approach would be to leave these things alone, but not in EVIL DEAD. The other guy in the cabin (Lou Taylor Pucci) sneaks this bag off to his bedroom, and against everyone’s better judgment which dictates that a bag sealed with barbed wire found at the location of potentially some type of Satanic ritual probably shouldn’t be opened, he proceeds to not only strip away its protective covering, revealing a book all too familiar to fans of Raimi’s films as the Naturon Demonto, but he decides it’d be wise to read from it, too, unleashing an evil on this cabin and its inhabitants that they’re no match against. Oh, and to make matters worse, he then doesn’t tell anyone about what he’s done until it’s way too late. I realize that, without such idiotic choices, there wouldn’t be any EVIL DEAD to talk about, as the events of the movie would then cease to exist, but this one is only the first in a long line of dumb decisions that make it nearly impossible to root for these people to walk away unscathed. After all, couldn’t the world do without a few extra morons?
Worst of all, these may be huge problems, but they are ones that could be overlooked or forgiven if I was having any bit of fun with EVIL DEAD. To my own disappointment, that never materialized either, as I spent much of my time with the film finding it a chore to watch. I was doing nothing more than observing the mechanics of leading lamb after lamb to the slaughterhouse, giving EVIL DEAD a very hollow feel. It’s missing that spark that makes it a joy to spend time with, and it really never comes close to ever finding it. I don’t think going for such a serious tone was a bad decision, but there is no ebb and flow to the film’s structure. There are no moments of comic relief to alleviate some of the graphically intense sequences, nothing which allow us the space to feel safe again (not that we ever feel danger in this one). And, as we’ve come to learn from a different horror classic, all work and no play makes EVIL DEAD a dull boy.
Jane Levy is the lone bright spot in EVIL DEAD, and that’s mostly due to her Mia getting the benefit of being possessed. She is able to cut loose from whatever is plaguing the rest of the cast into their lifeless performances, exhibiting the only strand of personality in the entire film. Seeing the terror in her eyes as she’s curled up in bed, convinced that something is in the house with them, is probably the one and only moment of EVIL DEAD where you feel something for someone involved, but then the film quickly takes that bright light away from us, in order to make her the monster. There’s nothing wrong with that, as she’s the only bit of fun to watch as she hams it up in all of her demonically possessed glory, but it eliminates that one element that might have drawn us into the rest of the film. Yeah, she’s cool in her evil form, but that’s the easy part. It may have actually served the film better to keep her fighting on the side of good throughout.
EVIL DEAD certainly looks better than Raimi’s original film. You can tell that there was money to go into upping the production value, and there are a number of sequences that really do look incredible. But style over substance can only carry you so far, and I wish Alvarez would have been given less to do more with rather than the other way around. As I stated at the outset, the practical effects certainly are something, and, if you just want to see what feels like endless buckets of gore poured out in and around this cabin, then EVIL DEAD may satisfy your very basic needs. But, being someone who hoped they’d be able to update EVIL DEAD into a quality horror film that still maintained a great deal of its charm, I have to say I left rather disappointed in the end result, wondering why they even bothered if a lesser film was going to be at the finish line.
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