I wanted to love this film; I really, really did. A remake of the 1981 cult classic The Evil Dead, this one tells a very similar story. Five friends head to a cabin deep in the woods, where they find a sinister book that unleashes a demonic force, which proceeds to pick them off one by one, and in increasingly gory ways. While as far as being a splatterfest goes, "Evil Dead" certainly delivers, it fails to truly horrify.
To its credit, "Evil Dead" provides a sadly realistic reason for the cabin getaway: Main character Mia (Jane Levy) is trying to kick a heroin habit, and her brother (Shiloh Fernandez) and her friends are determined to see it through to the end. Unfortunately for them, they picked a cabin that happens to have animal carcasses and traces of witchcraft in the cellar, as well as a grimoire full of incantations and demonic diagrams. After the group's token hipster (yes, those exist in films now) recites a few Lovecraftian words from the book, he unleashes an evil beyond their imaginations - but, at this point, nowhere near above the audience's expectations.
From there, a demon (or demons - we never learn if it's more than one) seizes control of Mia, spreading its evil to the other females like a zombie infection, and causing gruesome mayhem that pushes the butchery to new levels. But it never seems to push the envelope.
What could have been a sprawling, dark journey that rattled the nerves and unsettled the stomach, instead is little more than an over-the-top fusion of jump scares and a concentrated effort by the filmmakers to convince us they're willing to use truckloads of fake blood - as if it's going to strengthen the impact of all the savagery. But blood the color of red Kool-Aid is more "campy" than "queasy." And campy, indeed, is a good word to describe the more disappointing aspects of "Evil Dead." The dialogue is at times either cheesy or predictable, and yes, all the clichés in this film are very tongue-in-cheek, but at a certain point, that sarcasm is lost on the viewer, who just wants something new.
It's true - the original Evil Dead was purposefully, outrageously campy. But after having been given every indication by the filmmakers that this version aimed to be darker and menacing, what we end up with is a big letdown.
What's actually a shame is that female lead Jane Levy actually does a good job. Modern horror often fails from unbelievable acting or laughable facial expressions. Levy really slides into the role of someone who is actually disturbed and terrified, but that subtle touch nearly becomes a joke when combined with the melodramatic, cornball background music. Moreover, Levy doesn't really get much normal dialogue in. The filmmakers would rather have her crawling up the cellar stairs and doing her best "Exorcist" routine.
"I can smell your filthy soul!" demon-Mia exclaims. You can almost imagine the entire audience collectively rolling their eyes.
Despite all this, "Evil Dead" is a fun enough film, if accepted simply as an enjoyable way to spend your afternoon at the movies. It's more form than content, more guts than grimness, but that's acceptable enough for this genre.
For us younger horror fans, there is a definite "awesome" factor here. The makeup and creepy orange eyes look very, very cool. The action sequences are well-executed, and this demon-thing that Mia becomes has all the makings of an iconic character, no doubt inspiring Halloween costumes for years to come. And it is nice to have a good old fashioned monsters-and-demons style horror film again, rather than exploitative torture designed to see how much money we're willing to spend to watch the modern-day equivalent of a Roman gladiator match. But we also can't help notice that "Evil Dead" is neither a cut above its predecessor, nor above genre conventions.
More than anything, this film is proof of the damage that commercialism and marketing have done to the cinema experience. It was touted as "the most terrifying film ever;" advertised as something that "you shouldn't watch alone." We were given every reason to believe that if we flocked to theaters to see this, it would honor these promises and be more than worth the ticket price. Well, it's still worth seeing, but try and get a discount on that ticket.
And yet, it has huge box office numbers, which point out a rather unfortunate truth: Horror is rapidly becoming a commodity; buckets of blood with a price tag, rather than a piece of art that actually makes us feel something.
We're supposed to be horrified, not merely satisfied. We now live in an era where taboos and censorship are fading away. Given that fact, horror filmmakers have every opportunity to give us something chilling and creative. Instead, we're left walking out of the theater with perhaps the most annoying of opinions: "Well, it wasn't that bad...but it wasn't that great, either."
Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez
Directed by Fede Alvarez
Photo: There's no shortage of "blood" in "Evil Dead." Evil Dead Facebook page