I've spent a bit trying to articulate how, even if it's isn't exactly successful, director Fede Alvarez's "Evil Dead" (2013) captures some of the soul of the 1981 original. Overly expository, a little too busy, and maybe a little too slick, "Evil Dead" uses its practical effects and sheer punishment of its leads to do some of what Sam Raimi's original cabin in the woods splatter film did.
Alvarez's adds a heroin detox story on top of the "kids find evil book, things go wrong" plot of the original, placing lead actress Jane Levy front and center as Mia. She's mostly burned her bridges with her friends and this is their last-ditch attempt to get their friend clean following an overdose. Levy is the pulpy, sick heart of the movie, the first to be possessed after teacher Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) reads aloud from the Book of the Dead, unleashing a demon into Mia, and setting the whole bloody mess into motion. Levy is battered, bloodied, boiled, and worse through the course of "Evil Dead" and the actress throws herself into the role with abandon.
The rest of the cast, barring Pucci, is given less to do besides look scared and (spoilers) be dead. Pucci acquits himself well enough as the one character who thinks Mia's going through something worse than withdrawal, but Shiloh Fernandez as Mia's brother David looks lost and confused for most of the movie while Jessica Lucas's Olivia and Elizabeth Blackmore's Natalie are underwritten to the point of nonexistence outside of their gore scenes. In fact, I'd actually forgotten that Blackmore's character was even in the film at one point, given how inessential she is to the rest of the film.
It's hard to feel much actual horror from "Evil Dead" given how most of the scares are telegraphed by a copy of the Book of the Dead which seems to have crib notes detailing what's going to happen next. In fact, if we're stacking this one against the original (and I am), its major failing is in how unsurprising most of it is. We not only know terrible fates will befall the cast, but thanks to the book, we know precisely what they will be. It hardly qualifies as foreshadowing and instead serves as clunky telegraphing of what's to come. Why? Who knows. It hardly adds anything to the story, and makes me think Alvarez and company thought the audience wouldn't connect the evil book to the bad things happening onscreen.
Still, I can (kind of) forgive such blunt storytelling thanks to some truly expert practical gore and special effects. The violence in "Evil Dead" has a tangible, sick weight to it, and anytime one of the cast is shot, stabbed, sliced, or otherwise put through their horrible paces, you'll wince a little. That's a more difficult feat than you would imagine, given the over-reliance these days on CG, and dried-out looking prosthetic effects.
I have to also add, Alvarez knows how to capture a shot--the flames and rain of blood, Mia's face peering out of the cellar, Olivia after the glass. Between this and Rob Zombie's "Lords of Salem," 2013 has itself two gorgeously-shot horror movies to brag about come the end of the year.
Is "Evil Dead" a worthy successor to the original? No, that would be Neil Marshall's werewolves vs. mercs movie "Dog Soldiers." But it's a fine enough cover. And if you can look past some weak plotting and barely-there characters, you'll find a nasty modern horror movie like they don't make them anymore here at home.
Blu-ray special features:
Actress Jane Levy and director Fede Alvarez are out front for the bulk of the features. It makes sense, given Levy's prominence in the film, but it would have been nice to get some kind of face-time with co-producer Sam Raimi who's noticeably absent from the special features, save in archival photos from the original "The Evil Dead."
- "Evil Dead" the Reboot (09:50, HD): "Evil Dead" producers Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell offer a quick history lesson on the original and getting the reboot off the ground.
- Making Life Difficult (08:13, HD): Alvarez and Levy talk about the more gruesome and challenging aspects of the production as the cast throws themselves into the film's gross-out special effects.
- Directing the Dead (07:25, HD): Alvarez is joined by the cast as they talk about finding the characters and direction of the film interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage and table reads with the stars.
Cast and filmmaker commentary
Unleashing the Evil Force (05:07, HD): Producers Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert are joined by actor Lou Taylor Pucci in talking about the construction and function of the new Book of the Dead. Honestly, this was one of the most problematic elements of the reboot with all of its terrible signposting, but if you liked it, here's five minutes to learn more about it.
Being Mia (09:13, HD): Actress Jane Levy guides the viewer through some of the makeup effects that went into making "evil Mia" and the extensive preparation it took for the role.
"Evil Dead" is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD from Sony Home Pictures Entertainment.