Remaking any beloved horror property presents a sizeable challenge for the filmmaker. However, the challenges faced by Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake — which premiered last night at SXSW — were absolutely Herculean. We’re not just talking about remaking a classic here: we’re talking about redefining a standard. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead was a watershed feat of low-budget magic and ghastly effects wizardry. It represents a turning point for the entire genre, and its name is hallowed as much as, if not more than, the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th. On top of that, Evil Dead has already ostensibly received the remake treatment in its own 1987 sequel.
The timing of its release also places the remake at tremendous disadvantage. We now exist in a post-modern, post-cabin-in-the-woods age of horror wherein the significance of Evil Dead has provided the centerpiece of the most self-aware horror film of all time. The titular cabin from Drew Goddard’s loving genre send-up The Cabin in the Woods (which also played to anxious audiences at SXSW last year) is in fact a near exact replica of the central setting of Raimi’s masterpiece. How then does Alvarez find fertile new ground to till, while still genuflecting to source enough to please fans?
Alvarez, who incidentally is a rookie feature film director, and the marketing behind the new Evil Dead, didn’t shy away from this seemingly insurmountable challenge; point of fact, they faced it head-on. The tagline on the poster reads, with considerable swagger: "The most terrifying film you will ever experience". Was their boast justified?
Yes and no.
Alvarez’s Evil Dead absolutely excels both as a remake and as a standalone horror thrill ride. It tips its hat in all the right places — the shell of a yellow Oldsmobile and a prominent Michigan State sweatshirt — and even utilizes, reservedly, a few of Raimi’s patented camera tricks. Surprisingly, it even includes references to Evil Dead II, but only where those references function in service of establishing the remake’s own identity.
However, the diversions from its predecessor are where the remake is strongest. Part of the problem with a great many contemporary horror films is that believable character motivation often takes a back seat to contrived convenience. Evil Dead casts aside the now standard setup of young people escaping to a secluded location for unsupervised debauchery and gives the group a more substantial reason not only for venturing to the cabin, but for choosing to remain there as long as they do. This outwardly simple change keeps our characters grounded and amiable…where appropriate. There is also an interesting gender reversal at play in the remake, though to say more would court spoilers.
But is it the most terrifying film ever you'll ever experience? Probably not. However, were adjectives altered, it may well be in the running for the most intense and/or most gruesome. The tendency with remakes is to make everything sexier: younger casts, slighter apparel, etc. This is one area in which Evil Dead cannot be called a conventional remake. If Alvarez’s film is anything, it is not sexy. It is a dirty, savage gauntlet of pain and suffering. This thing is so grisly as to hearken in equal measure to the genre greats of the 80s and The Grand Guignol. These gory displays, constructed in overwhelming majority by practical effects, are as wickedly entertaining as they are disturbing; lending the film the levity of dark comedy and steering tone away from the less attractive “torture porn” distinction.
Evil Dead jumps and bumps, but rarely do the scares feel cheap. Eerie static images share screen time with pop-up frights, and even the grossest of gross-outs have a certain charm, which is again testament to the practical effects. Where we should be writing off these moments as exploitation, the magnitude of the violence becomes positively absurd and keeps the atmosphere light enough for the audience to enjoy the ride. The opening moments, just prior to the appearance of the title card, wonderfully encapsulate the crowd-pleasing spectacle that is Evil Dead.
The young cast assembled is solid, but leading lady Jane Levy (Suburgatory) is the clear standout of the bunch, and carries even the ghastliest, gut-twisting moments with poise. The cinematography is rather impressive; often succeeding in making the cabin feel like a lived-in setting as opposed to a mere callback prop. Providing an undercurrent for the scares, Roque Banos’ score is outstanding and artfully incorporates sound design elements from the original film. By the film's end, with all elements impeccably combined, it is clear that there is still plenty of room for fresh ink in the Necronomicon.
[Photo credit: Tristar]