DIRECTED BY Fede Alvarez
STARS Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez
THE FIRST CUT IS THE DEEPEST: Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) prepares to do some serious damage in Evil Dead. (Photo: TriStar Pictures)
It was my high school Spanish teacher who first told me about The Evil Dead back in 1983. Urging me to rent the bootleg cassette at our favorite video store in Nairobi, Kenya, he continued by stating, "It's gory but it's not scary. It's so goofy and over-the-top that it's impossible to take seriously."
That declaration hardly prepared me for what I encountered. Few horror flicks have been as deliriously demented, as insanely radical, as alive, as Sam Raimi's so-called "ultimate experience in grueling horror" (as it calls itself during the closing credits). Creature features as far back as Bride of Frankenstein and as modern as Poltergeist had employed humor to break up the drama, while others like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck had placed the humor as front-and-center as the monsters. But The Evil Dead operated in a manner that set it apart from just about everything else seen up to that point, operating more like a three-ring circus complete with clowns, freaks and high-wire artists than as a traditional motion picture. Its standing as an instant cult hit led to similarly gonzo efforts throughout the '80s (e.g. Re-Animator), a pair of sequels (Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness) that went heavier on the out-and-out laughs and, perhaps inevitably, a new remake or reboot or re-imagining or whatever the hell they're calling these things these days.
Yet Evil Dead doesn't bring to mind The Evil Dead as much as it does The Dark Knight — or at least the Joker's signature line of "Why so serious?" It would be impossible to produce another film like Raimi's original — it's a product of its time and place as much as of its deranged sensibilities — but writer-director Fede Alvarez and co-scripter Rodo Sayagues have opted to sprint in the other direction, concocting a movie that offers very little in the way of wit or humor. The general thrust remains the same: Five friends journey to an isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere, where they accidentally unleash a demonic presence that gets off on possession. The primary way to kill the evil entity is through bodily dismemberment of the occupied person, which means that here's a plot that gleefully embraces its gore 'n' guts.
Whereas the friends in the original traveled to the cabin for a vacation, the purpose here is to provide Mia (Jane Levy) a place where she can kick her drug dependency. Involved in her DIY detox session is her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his personality-free girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), moderately competent nurse Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and schoolteacher Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), the last-named being the clod who reads aloud from a book they discover — the one that's bound by barbed wire and filled with all manner of warnings — and thus causes all the ensuing mayhem.
Evil Dead is well-made, offers some notable splatter scenes and provides a small amount of tension here and there, but there's not much that distinguishes it from other slightly above-average horror flicks. Fans of Raimi's trilogy will appreciate the nods to those initial efforts (the necklace, the bridge and, of course, the chainsaw), but these moments are more like conspicuous signposts pointing back to the quality of the original than integrated into this new landscape. The franchise aficionado in me wanted to like this new version much more than I did, but it's simply impossible to wholeheartedly embrace it when just last year we were treated to another cabin-in-the-woods yarn that carried on Raimi's legacy far better than this film does. The name of that 10 Best placeholder? The Cabin in the Woods, of course.