(by Dustin Putman
Made on a tight $375,000 budget from a wet-behind-the-ears first-time filmmaker named Sam Raimi, 1983's "The Evil Dead" became an almost instantaneous cult favorite, a grim, gnarly, frightening, blood-drenched horror item that handily turned cabins in the woods into a subgenre of its own. Spawning two bigger-budgeted sequels that carried over crowd-pleasing lead character Ash (Bruce Campbell)—1987's more comedic, still gruesome "Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn" and 1993's adventure-oriented "Army of Darkness"—the unorthodox series has since lay dormant for a full twenty years. When word came that an inevitable remake was in the pipeline, initial skepticism turned to cautious optimism when it was revealed that Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell not only were endorsing the project, but also helping to produce it. Making his feature-length debut, Fede Alvarez was chosen to direct the film and co-write with Rodo Sayagues, vowing to largely stick to practical special and make-up effects over lazy CGI. In the meantime, 2012's "Cabin in the Woods" arrived to brilliantly subvert, comment upon, and reinvent these very kinds of films. Would there be room left for another picture that more or less followed the old rule book and took itself seriously? Article continues below
The answer, of course, is always going to be yes, as long as it's done well, and this new incarnation—or should that be incantation?—of "Evil Dead" gets it right. Feeling unforcedly modern even as it remains an affectionate throwback, the film receives a more polished treatment than its forefather while upping the gore quotient tenfold. Does it improve upon the earlier classic? Not really, but it's also no worse, either, tweaking the story and its trajectory just enough that it stays pleasingly unpredictable rather than a note-by-note knockoff. At the same time, director Alvarez makes certain not to skimp on the hallmarks of the original. Is there a foreboding cellar? Yes. Are there decapitated body parts? Most certainly. Oh, and might there be a tree rape? Affirmative, and it's as bold and uncomfortable and disturbing as fans will be hoping.
Twenty-something Mia (Jane Levy) has had it with her addictions. Along with recently estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), and David's girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), she heads to her family's backwoods cabin for the weekend, hoping the moral support will help her to finally kick her shameful heroin habit. As Mia struggles with coming off the drugs, she is suddenly faced with something altogether more alarming when a mysterious book is found in the basement and Eric makes the terrible, terrible decision to read aloud an ancient phrase that awakens soul-sucking demons in the forest. Before long, Mia's body has been overtaken by something not of this world. Though the rest of the group at first believe it to be a reaction from her detoxing, that theory is promptly obliterated when the possession begins to infect and sweep over the others. All hell, quite literally, is about to break loose.
The poster for "Evil Dead" loftily claims it will be "the most terrifying film you will ever experience." While the actual finished product fails to live up to that (purely from a get-under-your-skin scare quotient, 2011's "Insidious" and 2012's "Sinister" were far creepier), don't let the decidedly false assertion dissuade you. With the exception of one or two too many cuts to black that cursorily hurt the momentum of the pace, "Evil Dead" is an unrelenting parade of shocks and yuks, all of them blanketed by a sense of inescapable doom. Sliced-off jaws, an arm severing via electric carving knife, and some rather grisly business involving nail guns and chainsaws foliow, the narrative upping the ante while, at heart, weaving an obvious, but somehow still poignant, tale about a brother and sister reconciling and coming to terms with their past amid the most unimaginably extreme circumstances. Suffice it to say, once a cute dog named Grandpa is introduced, it's a safe bet he won't be around for long.
Unrecognizable in every way from her sunny best-friend role in 2012's Halloween comedy "Fun Size," Jane Levy hits a bull's-eye with her exceedingly demanding role of Mia. Both the central protagonist and main villain, Levy must shift radically from earning sympathy to appearing mighty threatening, and she pulls it off at every turn. In the homestretch—a finale that won't be revealed here—there is one irksome discrepancy with her character involving magically disappearing skin burns, but that is the fault of the filmmakers, not the actress, who fearlessly throws herself into an impressively fleshed-out part. As Mia's big brother David, Shiloh Fernandez (2011's "Skateland") believably shares a kinship with Levy that roots the fantastic in a semblance of reality. Less plausible is the screenplay's numbskull treatment of Lou Taylor Pucci (2009's "The Informers"), whose Eric is portrayed at the onset as far too intelligent to so stupidly unleash evil from the "Book of the Dead" when words are plainly scrawled not to read, hear, or say the offending chant. Jessica Lucas (2008's "Cloverfield") and newcomer Elizabeth Blackmore fill out the remaining two female roles as Olivia and Natalie; both are solid, but underutilized.
Ardent fans of the earlier "The Evil Dead," rest easy: your beloved film has neither been cheapened nor desecrated. "Evil Dead" is a giddily effective bombardment of mangled body parts and gushes of viscera while simultaneously weaving a supernatural tale that is tension-filled and genuinely disquieting. No matter how dark and hopeless it gets, though, the key to the movie's success is its ability to never lose sight of its fun side. For the right audience—you know, the strong of stomach and not easily scarred—"Evil Dead" is the purest horror entertainment of the year, thus far. It might not be "Cabin in the Woods," but this cabin in the woods nevertheless holds a sharp-toothed bite.