The lights go dark. Menace settles on the audience. Evil Dead has begun. What heralds this new devilry? Not a demon spawned from hell itself, but a beast from the past, from your past! A winged horse, charging from the depths of the fog right at you. Yes, that’s right – when was the last time you saw the TriStar logo?!
The very appearance of that once seemingly omnipresent pegasus gives a retro feel to proceedings before the film itself has even begun. A rebootmake of cult classic The Evil Dead with heavy sprinklings of its culter classicker sequel Evil Dead II, Evil Dead (no “the” makes it more recent) follows the familiar path of those two films; young adults in an isolated cabin unleash chaos through a cursed book.
How exactly a new take on The Evil Dead can exist in this post-Cabin in the Woods world is at first baffling, but Evil Dead manages to support its existence through some clever plotting, a few unexpected twists, fine effects and a sheer commitment to be as outrageously grotesque as any film can be and any stomach can handle.
Beginning with a Hills Have Eyes-style hunt through the woods for a runaway girl, followed by a violent, terrifying human sacrifice, Evil Dead introduces us to our utterly disposable youths in traditional fashion. Mia (Jane Levy) is going through a difficult time and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) has rented a cabin in the woods where they can get away from the world for a while. Their friends, self-important geek Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and grumpy Olivia (Jessica Lucas) are along for the ride, as is David’s transparent girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore).
The simple twist on the usual secluded party is that the gang have assembled to help Mia kick her mild addiction to heroin. “Let’s play cold turkey” she says as she dumps the last of her stash down a well that is almost certainly a portal to hell. This is of course no ordinary cabin; its previous occupants collected skinned cats the way a family in 1995 collected Beanie Babies, and the basement contains a book bound in human flesh and tied shut with barbed wire. Bookish Eric investigates.
Throwing an opium-free tantrum (or perhaps possessed by the cabin’s evil), Mia storms off into the woods, where she is promptly raped by a gargantuan thorn bush in a scene marrying the most grotesque moments of The Evil Dead and REC 2. Soon the inhabitants of the cabin are turning into Deadites, flesh is getting pierced in unimaginable (until now) ways and survival seems more or less impossible. If only a preposterous plot twist could save the day…
The feature debut of Uruguayan filmmaker Federico Alvarez, whose robopocalyptic short film Panic Attack! broke the internet back in 2009, Evil Dead has the backing of the original film’s three champions; director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and iconic star Bruce Campbell. Despite this, it has a far less tongue-in-cheek feel than the original trilogy, and the lack of a lead as memorably charismatic as Campbell and his cult alter-ego Ash Williams does leave the film a little wanting. But Alvarez has in many ways improved on the originals, most notably in the inventiveness and sheer gruesomeness of the kills. Better still, Alvarez has elected to use almost exclusively on-camera effects – there is no evident CGI to instil that additional protective layer of fantasy between you and the movie. When a tongue gets slit open with a box-cutter, you’re seeing a physical object getting sliced in two. The superb makeup effects add to the sophisticated, ambitious look of what might otherwise have been a basic splatter picture.
There’s humour when there needs to be, with a half-severed arm providing the film’s most spine-shakingly awkward laugh and a few witty references to the original trilogy, as well as a nod to Bruce Willis’s weapon selection scene in Pulp Fiction.
The cast (with one exception) are all adequate, with Levy deserving extra credit for fully committing to some excruciatingly nasty scenes. Her performance as both recovering addict and possessed hellspawn make for an interesting and original juxtaposition, with both sides of the character requiring exhausting levels of thrashing and swearing. What if Regan McNeil wasn’t in need of an exorcism at all, but just desperate for a methadone fix?
If anything, Evil Dead lacks jump scares, but it is more effective in creating an aura of dread than any horror film since The Blair Witch Project. The sheer quality of the gore effects on display will make this a Halloween staple for generations to come, even if it never quite escapes the cult shadow thrown by its predecessors.