Addiction is a fierce beast, a monster that takes many shapes and can consume people whole, at least if you look at it a certain way. It’s not a very subtle analogy, but one at the heart of the grim new film Evil Dead, based in no small part on the seminal horror film from the early 1980s that vaulted Sam Raimi into mainstream fame. This new Evil Dead is nothing if not unrelenting, a dark and unyielding story of self-destructive self-righteousness splattered with a healthy coating of blood.
Unlike the 1981 original, though, this Evil Dead has no Bruce Campbell figure winking at all the bloodshed happening onscreen. Jane Levy stars as Mia, a young woman dealing with drug addiction who’s brought out by her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and their friends to a family cabin in the woods to help her go cold turkey. But then, they stumble upon a basement filled with skeletons, dried blood, oh, and then there’s that book covered and stitched together with human skin. Someone gets curious, reads a mysterious incantation, and…well, you can imagine the rest. Now, however, there’s no holding back on the gore or inventiveness in which it’s spilled, making Evil Dead a notably bloody affair.
Director Fede Alvarez, who wrote the film with Rodo Sayagues, is an able hand behind the camera, rarely indulging in the same kind of techniques that are easily recognizable among Raimi’s career. And yet, the one thing Evil Dead is missing, if just a bit, is a sense of play, a moderate amount of fun. Granted, it’s hard to have a lot of fun when depicting characters decapitating each other or shooting each other, or using nails in the nastiest way possible. Thus, the first two acts of Evil Dead are something of a tough sit. We don’t get to be too terribly acquainted with the characters, outside of Mia, relatable entirely because of Levy’s natural charisma, but it’s still disquieting to see these people get possessed and destroy each other.
In fact, it’s partly because Alvarez and Sayagues work at creating a grounded element within the supernatural carnage that Evil Dead is absent a bit of fun. Levy and Fernandez, as estranged siblings, are the closest things we have to main characters amidst the torrential downpour of violence, their faults and flaws writ large once the demons come out to play and contort their human vessels into whatever shapes they consider pleasing. The script isn’t particularly subtle in letting Mia’s latest try at staying away from drugs tie into her possession, or the way the demons manifest throughout the woods, yet it’s impressive that a mainstream horror movie in 2013 at least aims at connecting real-life internal torture of the body and soul with something far more grandiose and ridiculous.
Where Alvarez appears to get the most enjoyment is in figuring out new ways to gross out the audience, and put these characters through the visceral ringer. His fun translates most of all to the rest of us, though, in the climactic showdown, which not only throws in a number of very familiar homages to its source material but is a thrilling, if totally bonkers, battle. Here, unlike in most of the other setpieces, which are well-executed if often cringe-inducing, Evil Dead throws off the shackles we’ve placed on new versions of old stories, eschewing a sense of grittiness for nutty, Grand Guignol-inspired excitement. Ironically, it’s only after Evil Dead embraces its roots that this reboot manages to stand out among other modern horror films.
Fans of the original Evil Dead franchise may be a bit let down that its current revival is a darker, bleaker effort, but director Fede Alvarez has a canny knack for producing some gruesome, disgusting, but compelling sequences oozing with guts and viscera. The closer he hews to the source material, allowing Levy—so charming, in a much more family-friendly sense, on the TV show Suburgatory—to take her character into the realm of iconography, if only for a few minutes, the more Evil Dead comes alive. Most attempts from major studios to breathe new life into an old moneymaking franchise are too beholden to their predecessors, but Evil Dead is unique among the unoriginal crowd, an impressively gory and gross, if sometimes overly serious, retelling of one of the oldest, most familiar horror stories in the book.
— Josh Spiegel