No one needed a Nightmare On Elm Street remake. The world wasn’t crying out for a reworking of Halloween, or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or The Hills Have Eyes. Likewise, Sam Raimi’s 1981 carnival of gore The Evil Dead stands alone as a masterpiece of horror cinema, and is no more in need of a modern update than, say, Citizen Kane or Vertigo.
The Evil Dead‘s nasty little tendrils have also spread so far into filmmakers’ collective imaginations that, almost 30 years later, its woodland cabin setting has passed from archetype to cliché; the subgenre’s now as old and familiar to modern audiences as the flying saucer invasion movie or the gothic horror flick was to cinemagoers in the 80s. After the arch humour of Tucker & Dale Vs Evil and The Cabin In The Woods, is it even possible to make a serious horror movie in this setting?
It may come as a surprise, perhaps, that Evil Dead 2013 makes little effort to update the premise for a modern era. There are, to the best of my recollection, no mobile phones. Nobody pulls out a laptop to Google the word Necronomicon. As established the template dictates, we’re offered a handful of youngsters, a remote shack, and a monumental slab of gory violence.
At the centre of the film we have David (Shiloh Fernandez), who’s ushered his drug-addicted sister Mia (Jane Levy) out to their dilapidated and isolated family cabin. Along with his childhood friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), David hopes that a bit of country air, tough love and cold turkey will cure Mia of her insidious dependency. Unfortunately, supernatural events conspire against the group, and after making certain discoveries in the cabin’s basement, they soon begin to fall victim to an ancient, demonic force.
Evil Dead is the debut feature from Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez (whose short film, Ataque de Pánico!, was a YouTube hit), and it must have taken a certain amount of faith on the part of producer Sam Raimi to hand over his firstborn to a relatively new filmmaker. Although Alvarez clearly has a bigger budget to play with than Raimi did while making his shoestring original, the young protégé directs with the same youthful, maniacal energy – cameras hurtle through forests, just as they did in the original, and extreme acts of violence are captured from jarring angles.
Time may have taken the edge off the film’s framework, but the horror element is as sharp as ever: blood flows in mighty geysers, limbs are detached, and household appliances are employed as weapons in a manner that would have left the BBFC quaking in the 1980s. For a multiplex film, this is extraordinarily strong stuff, from gratuitous and repeated eye damage to the bifurcation of tongues; one late instance of bloodletting even earned a ripple of applause for its sheer nastiness.
It could be argued, however, that Alvarez skips over the character introductions too quickly. The five central characters are barely sketched in, and broadly defined by their job titles – bespectacled school teacher, nurse, and so on – and even by horror standards, their actions are often downright illogical. But then again, the script – which Alvarez co-wrote with Rodo Sayagues and Diablo Cody – seldom takes itself seriously, and although it’s less pointedly funny than, say, Cabin In The Woods, it shares some of Raimi’s sly, rictus-grin humour. Like Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, there’s a blackly comic atmosphere as the blood begins to flow, and when characters shriek things like “My God, what’s happened to her eyes?”, it’s clear that this is a remake intended to amuse as well as horrify.
In terms of acting, Shiloh Fernandez is handsome and stoic, but lacks Bruce Campbell’s screen presence, while Jane Levy puts a considerable amount of energy into a nightmarish role that has her constantly covered in goo, mud and prosthetics. Lou Taylor Pucci leaves the strongest impression as the harebrained teacher Eric, but even he struggles to make himself heard from beneath the fury of Alvarez’s direction and Roque Baños’ honking (and very effective) soundtrack.
The actors, therefore, come a distant second to the true star of the picture: the Evil Dead title, and all the iconography that comes with it, from demonic figures straining at chained basement hatches to forbidden books full of unholy scrawls. At its worst, the new Evil Dead does little more than stir these elements around, with memorable scenes from the first film played out in a different order. But at its best, new Evil Dead sweeps along on its own crazy momentum, and the last half an hour is a joyously nasty exercise in gruesome horror.
Evil Dead isn’t the equal of its 80s counterpart, and neither is it “The most terrifying film you will ever experience” as its tagline disingenuously suggests. Instead, it’s a ghost train ride; its events are easy to predict, but its commitment to blackly comic, riotous gore makes for an often thrilling tribute to the classic original.
Oh, and be sure to hang around after the credits for a fun parting shot.
Evil Dead is out in UK cinemas on the 19th April.
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