People forget that while the stories about the making of the original 1981 THE EVIL DEAD are quite hilarious, the film itself is quite serious, and I remember being utterly terrified by it when the 14-year-old me watched it home alone in the middle of the day. The silliness that some associate with the Sam Raimi-directed, Bruce Campbell-starring series didn't enter the picture until EVIL DEAD 2. So in that respect, this EVIL DEAD relaunch (not so much a remake since the curse may be the same, but the story and characters are completely different) is similar in tone to the source material.
As directed by newcomer Feder Alvarez, EVIL DEAD ups the gore and the sheer brutality several notches, and that doesn't bother me because it also maintains its roots in being plain-old scary, too. And while there are several nice touches in this new version, there's also something missing—some might call it a spark or a quirky element that made the original film stand out from the horror crowd of the early '80s. While the film is technically very well done—especially the filmmaker's devotion to practical special effects—it's missing that special quality that would make me want to revisit it time and time again to energize me about the state of modern horror.
That being said, there's still quite a lot to like. The story is largely the same, but with an interesting twist. A group of 20-somethings head to a cabin in the woods, not for vacation, but because one of the group is an addict and needs a good bit of detoxing, even if it's against her will. Jane Levy plays the strung-out Mia, a troubled soul whose friends are trying to look out for her; this is no romantic weekend or vacation outing for the group. By casting Mia as an addict, this puts her mind in a vulnerable place and makes people less likely to believe her when she starts to say she's seeing things in the woods.
While exploring the cabin, the gang stumbles upon a book that appears to be bound in human skin with crazy, horrific, ancient drawings inside, some of which are defaced with a very modern-looking pen. Naturally, one of the group (Lou Taylor Pucci's Eric, the film's throwback character, who looks like he stepped right out of the original) goes through the book page by page, eventually reading a passage that sets the hounds of hell upon our helpless crew, beginning with Mia, who is literally sexually assaulted by the woods, in a sequence that is both very familiar and quite different from a sequence in the original film. The event seems to have impregnated her with "Deaditis" that she brings back into the cabin.
The remaining characters are a bit more forgettable and interchangeable. Jessica Lucas plays Olivia, Eric's pretty girlfriend, who has one memorable scene in the bathroom with a piece of glass. There's no denying it's one of the most impactful moments in the film, but it's an ugly, grotesque scene that doesn't really tell us much about the evil that is beginning to possess the people in this cabin. We also have Shiloh Fernandez as the somewhat cowardly David, as well as Elizabeth Blackmore, who has a limb-severing event in the film that might draw cheers from fans of the original films, but beyond that she's utterly unmemorable.
The scenes that truly horrified me were the less gory ones. Everything in the notorious cellar was classic scary stuff. Any sequence where things got quiet had me plugging my ears in anticipation of the screams to come. EVIL DEAD has plenty of sort-of callback moments and elements that are kinda-sorta like the original, but then don't fully commit. When a chainsaw comes into play late in the movie, I'm sure audiences will cheer, but when it doesn't really result in anything especially nutty, it's a bit of a letdown.
I applaud the makers of EVIL DEAD (including original producers Campbell, Raimi and Rob Tapert) for committing to doing something new, but gore for gore's sake isn't that scary. It's fun and gross, but it doesn't stick with you and leave the theater in the recesses of your brain the way a good scare might. I was mightily impressed with the performances of Pucci and Levy, and it helps that they're playing the most well-rounded characters of the bunch, thus the ones we wanted to see not die. The makeup and effects are pure bloody perfection, and as an outlet for sheer Hollywood artistry, I can't fault the film.
But there came a point where I wished the film had more going for it in terms of originality. The "drug as inner demon" metaphor vanishes as soon as the real demons come into play, which is such a colossal missed opportunity. I think the bottom line with EVIL DEAD is that I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I think most people will, especially people who have had no exposure to the original work. But I'm not totally convinced that people that know the first film inside and out are going to respond any better to the ugly qualities of this version.