Better Off Dead

Review: ‘Evil Dead’ remake more ‘blah’ than ‘boo’

Jane Levy in a scene from 'Evil Dead' / AP

The reviews of Evil Dead that have appeared so far from the film nerd community have ranged from pleased to ecstatic. Quotes like "simply astonishing" and "utterly and astoundingly awesome" and "a near perfect experience" from such trusted sources as IGN.com, TheHDRoom.com, and BloodyDisgusting.com, respectively, litter the film’s official website.

But it’s hard to say if the raves are the result of critical groupthink or of wishful thinking from fans of the original Evil Dead. The movie I saw was a perfectly acceptable remake of a beloved horror film that substituted a bigger budget for heart and soul.

Evil Dead is slightly better than the remakes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Friday the 13th (2009), The Amityville Horror (2005), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). But it is far from a "near perfect experience."

The best sequence may be the opening one, in which a gang of inbred savages and a terrified father capture a scared, confused girl running through the woods. Brought back to a cabin basement filled with cat corpses and a strange book filled with evil pictures, her soul will be saved—at a high price.

The scene is lean, terrifying, and even a little funny: everything the original Evil Dead was. If only the rest of the film were like that.

We return to the cabin where a quintet of twenty-somethings has gathered to help their friend Mia (Jane Levy) get a monkey off her back. Since Mia is addicted to heroin and brought to the countryside to facilitate going cold turkey, they are in for an even rougher night than they could have imagined.

Whereas the characters in the original were more or less blank slates—everymen having some fun in an abandoned cabin who are thrown into a fight for survival against forces they cannot comprehend—our new victims are loaded down with backstory.

Mia is mad at her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) for abandoning their sick, crazy mother. His "best friend" Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) is also mad at David for some reason. Olivia (Jessica Lucas) serves as Mia’s nurse as she goes through withdrawal, while David’s girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) is just along for the ride.

Unfortunately, our protagonists are infected with that deadliest of horror film diseases: Ebola, AIDS, and malaria have nothing on Stupid Person Syndrome (SPS).

Only someone infected with SPS would open a book that has been wrapped in plastic, bound with barbed wire, and filled with messages warning against reading, speaking, or even looking at the words within, and think, "Gee, maybe I should go to great lengths to read aloud the incantations within."

SPS kills the suspension of disbelief faster than a junkie possessed by a demon can kill a cabin full of kids.

The original Evil Dead managed to avoid falling into this trap by having the curious cabin dwellers simply turn on an audiotape of a scholar explaining the origins of the Necronomicon (Book of the Dead). In the course of his discussion, he speaks the accursed words, unleashing an unspeakable evil on the unsuspecting campers. Elegant plot devices such as this are woefully absent from the remake.

What the new version has plenty of is gore. The maestros of torture porn have nothing on Fede Alvarez, who utilizes nail guns and chainsaws and claw hammers with equal aplomb. Every penny of the budget appears to have been poured into creating practical (that is, non-digital) effects designed to turn the stomach.

As is so often the case, what goes unseen is more unsettling than what is seen. In one particularly harrowing shot, we hear flesh being cut before we see the grisly results. It is a rare moment of subtlety—well, what passes for subtlety in the genre of splatter flicks—and the effect is impressive.

There is nothing wrong with mediocrity, per se. And this film is nothing if not mediocre. But audiences expecting a throwback to Sam Raimi’s classic micro-budget horror flick will find the remake wanting.