The most interesting thing about the Evil Dead remake isn’t the movie itself, which is generally unremarkable and not particularly special, but the amount of violence in the film. This is a gory movie - a hyper gory movie, even - not quite a splatter film but closer to that than any major studio release I can call to mind. If the cut I saw at SXSW is rated R, this is certainly one of the most relentlessly bloody major releases ever.
It feels like Walking Dead fallout; in a world where zombies munch guts in prime time, how does a ‘transgressive’ horror film keep up? The answer is to pump up the Karo syrup, and it seems as though the MPAA is willing to accept that our culture has come to this gore-soaked point.
If you’ve never seen The Evil Dead, perhaps Evil Dead will be for you. Then again, the movie is structured as a series of callbacks and misdirects predicated completely on your knowledge of the original films, so it feels like a lumbering lump of fan service. It’s the sort of movie where a chainsaw is expected to get a rousing cheer because, you know, there was a chainsaw in the originals. It’s also the sort of movie where someone’s hand gets infected by a demon and that person cuts it off... but it’s totally not the person you were expecting based on your recollection of the original films! (Exclamation point the movie’s, not mine)
I think what I disliked most about Evil Dead was the casual way it wastes a ton of opportunities. The premise of this film is great: a group of friends come to a secluded cabin to help one of their own go cold turkey off heroin. While she’s detoxing she is possessed by a Deadite, and all hell breaks loose. This is an extraordinary set-up for something dramatically juicy; the friends can assume that she’s just going through the mother of all withdrawls while the Deadite sows chaos and death in their midst. But the detox aspect of the movie is just there to pad out the first act and to give the kids a motivation for being in the woods (and not immediately hightailing it home when stuff starts to get intense). At the beginning it seems as though the Deadites will be a metaphor for addiction, and the addition of a deeper metaphorical edge would make this Evil Dead pleasantly different from the original. That metaphor is utterly abandoned.
Also wasted: director Fede Alvarez. I don’t know what kind of a movie he wanted to make, but I’m not sure it’s the same movie that producers Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell wanted. It’s hard to imagine that any first-time director wants to include a bunch of homage shots to his producer in his movie, but that’s what Alvarez does in Evil Dead. And those homage shots don’t work; the tone that Alvarez is going for is the exact opposite of the Raimi style. When a possessed girl says ‘I can smell your filthy soul’ in this movie it’s absolutely, completely out of place.
Alvarez is definitely a strong director. When he’s not being asked to replicate famous shots from the original movie he establishes bona fides as a filmmaker with a sense of the frame and how to compose a shot. He’s less successful when it comes to establishing tension or horror. Evil Dead is not a scary movie by anybody’s estimation, and it doesn’t even contain much by the way of cheap jump scares. It’s all gore, all the time - this is a movie where the audience reacts not to scares but to nails being pried out of legs, to faces being cut off with jagged glass and to people tearing off their own hands.
On that level Evil Dead is extraordinary. There’s a ton of wet, wonderful, beautifully executed practical FX work. Every filmmaker wasting their time with digital blood needs to look at Evil Dead and see what a huge difference in-camera gore effects can make. This is a film ripe for canonization in a ‘best gore ever’ list, and the last hour’s constant barrage of injury and fluids will make any gorehound happy. I laughed and clapped at more than one splattery set piece.
But I found myself appreciating these sequences on a technical level, never being truly brought into them. I never thought ‘Oh, that’s gotta hurt’ or ‘Jesus, that’s disgusting.’ Instead my brain kept saying ‘Excellent grace note on this nail gun sequence’ or ‘They really sold that hand being bisected with a crow bar.’ I liked watching all of this stuff, but I would have liked it just as much taken out of the film’s context and placed in a gore montage.
There’s one aspect of the movie that works on its own: Lou Taylor Pucci. He is subjected to an inhuman amount of abuse, and he’s a hoot to watch while taking it. Pucci is playing a hippie-d out schoolteacher who unwittingly unleashes the Deadites by stupidly reading from the Necronomicon, and he more than pays for his sin. Pucci is absolutely game, and he’s the guy who most seems like he’s in a Raimi movie. Everybody else - especially dead-eyed lead Shiloh Fernandez - is acting in a Platinum Dunes film.
Perhaps I’m being harsh on Jane Levy, who is putting forth a terrific effort as junkie Mia. The role requires her to first spend time crying and screaming and then to spend time as a cellar-dwelling Deadite, which she plays to the hilt. If Pucci and Levy had been the rule instead of the exception in this small cast I think Evil Dead might very much have been more successful.
It isn’t that Evil Dead is particularly bad; it’s fine. It’s not hard to sit through, and it’s certainly competently made and every dime is on screen. But it’s without much of an identity; it’s never allowed to become its own movie and is constantly forced to reference or bow to or swerve from the original.
But is fine enough? Is Evil Dead acceptable because it isn’t absolutely horrible, because it’s better than many of the other horror remakes of recent years? Maybe I’ve just been around too long, but the film’s slick gore effects don’t make up for an unengaging cast in an uninteresting story. And the gore itself doesn’t feel transgressive or scary or crazy; there’s a professional sheen over the whole thing that distances you from the edginess of the gore.
To me there are two kinds of great gore films: one is the kind where you suspect that the people behind the movie are enjoying the violence too much. It’s unsettling gore, something a bit mean-spirited and ugly. That’s your exploitation film gore, and what the original The Evil Dead had going for it. The other kind is gore presented with childish glee, gore intended just to shock and sicken you but also make you laugh. That’s what Evil Dead 2 had going for it. But 2013’s Evil Dead? It’s gore escalated in the way action movies keep escalating fireballs and explosions.This is gore as product. They’ve even co-opted blood.