Evil Dead (2013)
91 min., rated R.
When released in 1981, Sam Raimi's micro-budgeted, Karo syrup/milk/creamed corn'ed backwoods-splatter flick "The Evil Dead" was almost slapped with an X rating and cited as one of the most violent films of its time. Even when being spectacularly gross, it was still so cheeky and over-the-top. After earning a cult following, a remake sounded like messing with sacred ground to its dear fans. Besides, we need another slicked-up, corporate-sponsored, cheapjack horror remake like we need a hole in the head. Well, the producers' chance to enhance their vision for 2013 came with a bigger budget, polished production values, and even more gruesomeness, while wisely sticking to practical effects and make-up in lieu of cheap, fake CGI. Approved by the original's team (Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tapert serving as producers) and helmed by promising first-time feature director Fede Alvarez, "Evil Dead" is how you do a remake — use the original as a road map and respect and honor the source but deliver plenty of splatterific, gnarly goods of its own.
Five kids going into the woods is a setup as familiar as one gets (and when will they ever learn?). Eli Roth's giddily disgusting "Cabin Fever" paid affectionate homage to "The Evil Dead" a decade ago and, just last year, "The Cabin in the Woods" very cleverly deconstructed this throwback trope. Luckily here, Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues' screenplay puts an interesting modern wrinkle on an old chestnut that usually throws our quintet into the woods for booze, sex, and a good time. Mia (Jane Levy) needs to kick her heroin habit cold turkey, but she needs a little help. Her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), with girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) along for the ride, agrees to meet his two friends, registered nurse Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and schoolteacher Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), at their family's old cabin in the woods for Mia's weekend detox. The inside of the shack is a dirty mess and Mia insists that she smells a rancid odor, which just so happens to be coming from the basement. Unaware that they're in a horror movie, the boys investigate the tomb and Eric finds a creepy, flesh-bound book (yes, the Book of the Dead) wrapped in a plastic bag and barbed wire. Against his better judgment and every written warning on the pages, he reads aloud the ancient incantations anyway, only to unleash an evil force. Though her friends believe her to be experiencing extreme drug withdrawal, Mia is the first to battle her "demons" and, well, let's just say all hell breaks loose, leaving all five of them screwed. Where's Ash when you need him?
With a dark, deadly seriousness and none of the tongue-in-cheek campiness of its forefather (or 1987's "Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn" and 1992's "Army of Darkness" for that matter), "Evil Dead" takes a nasty, down-and-dirty but no less fun approach. In his impressively stylish and ballsy debut, Alvarez refuses to compromise for tender, mainstream sensibilities and gives the fans enough bang for their buck. This might be one of the hardest R-rated movies being released nationwide, and it's an insanely gory, hyper-violent ride turned up to eleven or twelve if there ever was one. Now, amid all the positive hype at Austin's SXSW Festival, the poster promises the film to be "the most terrifying film you will ever experience," which sets the bar awfully high. Sure, it's a gruelingly grim, unrelenting, and unpleasant experience, but not nearly as residually creepy as last year's "Sinister." Nevertheless, as an in-the-moment experience, it's a blast, keeping one consistently thrilled, repulsed, and rattled from scene to scene as the terror escalates. Thankfully, the filmmakers have crafted together a well-made package of nifty camerawork, atmosphere, moments of silence, squishy sound design, and sound mixing with chanting and sirens to earn their scares and thrills. Oh, and fluids galore.
After a startlingly no-bull opening and some getting-to-know-you expository dialogue that comes off a bit stilted, this visceral, deliriously grisly ghoulie is tightly paced like a 91-minute roller coaster with maximal drops and just enough letup in between. With the most dread-laden, blood-soaked, expertly staged set-pieces that probably even made Sam Raimi jealous on set, "Evil Dead" goes hog-wild with a torrent of bloody bile vomited onto someone's face, a sliced-off cheek, self-amputated limbs, and the most memorably cringe-inducing/morbidly funny use of a box-cutter knife. And when characters are shown early on using an electric carving knife and a nail gun for their normal function, that usually means these appliances and tools will be used for extremely horrible purposes when the going gets tough. The yucky carnage gets capped off by a breathlessly tense finale, which not only throws in a chainsaw to do some messy slicing-and-dicing but is set outside during a sky shower of blood.
If there's a terrific standout in the entire cast (whose character names make the cool acronym of "demon"), it is most certainly Jane Levy. The role of Mia, diametrically opposite from her adorably smart Tessa on TV's "Suburgatory," demands Levy to gain our empathy as a stir-crazy young woman recovering from drug addiction. She pulls that off, then gamely goes through the wringer and takes it to the hilt once she's demonized, and what a creepy sight that is. Levy and Shiloh Fernandez credibly form the film's only real emotional connection, especially when David realizes he might have to kill his sister so her soul can rest in peace. Lou Taylor Pucci also complements humor with some of the foolish decisions and unbelievably heroic actions his Eric is asked to do. Though fine in the minimal business they're given to do as Olivia and Natalie, Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore only really deliver when they catch the "cabin fever."
Like a really good cover to a great song, "Evil Dead" doesn't try to upstage Raimi's charmingly homemade baby but earns its stripes to exist right next door. With just enough cute nods to the 1981 version (i.e. Raimi's beloved 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, a Michigan State sweatshirt, the clock, the super-fast "ram-o-cam" tracking shots, the utterance of "dismemberment" from the tape recordings) and one intensely disturbing tree assault to get the ball rolling, there is no sacrilege or softening here. Hell, there's even a groovy post-credits cookie to get horror geeks cheering. Sticky, balls-to-the-wall, and proudly and awesomely disgusting, "Evil Dead" is also non-stop fun. It will make horror buffs drool and might even shock the most seasoned, desensitized sort, but seriously, it's not for the faint of heart or the easily nauseous.
Grade: B +