The 2013 remake of Evil Dead would be considered a top-shelf horror movie if the 1981 version didn't exist. Although it's vicious and creative in its own right, it's also overly slick, unintentionally silly, and the characters are far too bland to ever eclipse the original.
At least the screenplay by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues comes up with a few interesting tweaks, pun not intended. In an effort to kick her heroin addiction, Mia (Jane Levy) agrees to meet her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) at a deserted cabin in the woods. The plan is to keep her isolated so she can detox without any chance of a relapse. Along for the ride are two mutual friends, including a concerned nurse named Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and a skeptical hipster named Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci).
Unbeknownst by our heroes, the cabin was recently the site of a nasty demonic possession case which culminated in a young woman being burned alive in the basement. The source of the chaos, a demonic tome called the Naturom Demonto, turns up like a bad penny and, naturally, Eric reads a passage aloud from the book. Right away, Mia starts going nuts but the other characters assume that withdrawal is the reason for her psychosis.
By the time they realize that they're dealing with something a lot nastier, it's already too late. The rest of the story becomes a grueling ordeal of survival horror in which flesh is corrupted, stomachs are turned and very little humanity remains by the time the end credits roll.
First off, the film looks great. Despite it being Alvarez's feature-length directorial debut, the final product looks incredibly professional and slick. Between his Kubrick-ian opening aerial shot of the jeep, the low-angle, depth-filled establishing pans, and the extreme close-ups, I'm confident that this guy is more than the sum of a few CGI-filled digital shorts. Cinematographer Aaron Morton does a tremendous job facilitating all of this. Even though the canvas he's working with is washed out with oppressive hues of brown and gray, everything is well-lit and punctuated nicely by periodic flourishes of nauseating color.
The settings and props contribute nicely to the creep-factor. I have no idea why the Necronomicon became the Naturom Demonto here; I can only assume that the Lovecraft estate finally got themselves a high-priced lawyer. Regardless, the hide-covered, blood-inked book looks irredeemably evil and you can't help but scream "NAIL IT SHUT!!! NAIL IT SHUT!!!" whenever Eric casually leafs through it like a copy of InStyle.
Almost to a fault, the cabin in the remake is a dead ringer for the cabin in the original. I say "almost to a fault" because I always thought that it looked way too small and borderline uninhabitable but, if the remake proves anything, it's that "creepy cabin in the woods" is still an effective mise en scène. Despite the fact that the decrepit old shack might as well be the horror-movie equivalent of the TARDIS, it's a different story on the inside. The trap-door, the expansive basement and a proliferation of shadowy hidey-holes makes for a disconcerting and scary environment.
More high testimony: this veteran horror-hound actually flinched a few times at some of the creative and convincing gore effects. CGI is kept to a bare minimum here, allowing for some artistically gruesome set-pieces that involve split tongues, partially sawed-off faces and dangling limbs. The Deadites look good but I still prefer the milky-eyed abominations in the original trilogy.
All of these factors combine together for a pretty harrowing horror experience. Olivia's attack on Eric in the bathroom is especially intense. For anyone like me who's squeamish about eye trauma, brace yourself. Alvarez and Sayagues also go out of their way to exploit the Deadite's ability to use their host's memory, voice and personality against their victims. This results in another stellar scene in which the possessed Mia lures Natalie into the basement, leading to a gruesome bit of self-mutilation that had me squirming in my seat.
Unfortunately all of the actors in the film look like boring, interchangeable models and no-one gives a performance that I'd characterize as star-making or even vaguely memorable. Shiloh Fernandez is yawn-inducing as David, Jessica Lucas is moody and bitchy right out of the gate as Olivia and Lou Taylor Pucci is, well, moody and bitchy right out of the gate as Eric. Also, Jane Levy's turn as Mia oscillates between unintentionally funny or just plain bland, especially in comparison to Betsy Baker's creepy possessed-little-girl shtick from the original. As for Elizabeth Blackmore, she spends most of her time drifting through the film as a non-entity but at least she gets to re-enact a classic Evil Dead II scene.
Another scene that ejected me out of the movie is when Mia tries to warn David about the evil forces that are infiltrating their ranks. Levy's performance is so over-the-top that it actually made me snicker out loud. And even though I really dug the whole "withdrawal symptoms as demonic possession" thang, it takes far too long for the characters to realize that there's something seriously nasty afoot. Also, Natalie's subsequent nail gun attack is undeniably thrilling but Eric's ability to absorb damage makes him look less like a real person and more like Rasputin.
And then the movie does something so supremely stupid I can barely talk about it. We all loved Ash's "I'm Handy With Tools" montage, but David suddenly exhibits a level of impromptu medical field knowledge that Hawkeye Pierce couldn't muster. He also inexplicably leaves a dead companion just a-bobbin' around in the basement, knowing full well that all dead people come back as a Deadites. All of this leads to a finale in which the prophesied and very underwhelming "Abomination" appears and our hero is forced to rip off their own hand when it gets "pinned" between the side of a jeep and some very squishy mud. Um, okay, whatever.
Now, it sounds like I'm completely ragging on the film, but I'm not. I respect the fact that Alvarez and his writing partner came up with some original ideas. I love the fact that they used practical effects instead of CGI. The movie makes such a concerted effort to horrify and disturb the viewer while avoiding the same boring old found footage / zombie / slasher tropes that have watered down horror movies of late.
Yes, some of the creative decisions made in the second half of the film are inexplicably stupid, but I really can't question Evil Dead's commitment to shock and repel the audience. The remake doesn't eclipse the raw, innovative and grungy qualities of the original but it certainly goes for the jugular vein. Which is more than I can say for most modern horror movies.