Around this time last year, Lionsgate released Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s meta-horror hit The Cabin in the Woods, which was, no doubt, one of the biggest, most pleasant surprises of the year. Not since Wes Craven’s Scream had we seen a mainstream horror film proceed to lovingly deconstruct the genre, pointing out and making light of the many conventions that audiences had become all too familiar with. This year, we return to the similar cabin-in-the-woods setting in Federico Alvarez’s Evil Dead, the remake of Sam Raimi’s 1981 low-budget cult classic The Evil Dead. Unlike The Cabin in the Woods, we aren’t brought along to the world of Evil Dead to scream and laugh. Alvarez’s film is a completely different beast. Evil Dead is an unbelievably bloody and gleefully demented film made for fans of the original.
As a fan of the original film myself, I’d like to say that Federico Alvarez was a great choice to direct this film. When he was first announced as the director though, because he was an unknown – Evil Dead is his first feature-length film – I knew that he was going to have to really impress me and other fans like me. Our skepticism was not based on his capabilities as a director, but rather the fact that a classic film like The Evil Dead was being remade at all. At this stage in the Hollywood movie-making game, there are so many remakes being made and so many euphemisms for the word – reboot, re-telling, and re-imagining to name a few – that it makes my head hurt. So, the thought of another horror classic being remade would be enough to make most fans go bonkers with rage. Fortunately, Alvarez was well aware of that when writing and directing the film, and he knew he was going to have win over people like me and tread very thin ice in the process.
When it comes to remakes, it would be very easy and tempting for filmmakers just to produce a carbon copy of the original that does not do the source material any justice. Not only do co-writers Federico Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues write a script that sets itself apart enough from the original, they managed to create a love-letter to the original with many playful winks sent its way. The script comes alive in the film with a certain flair that would make any fan of the original believe that Raimi made the film himself (he did produce the film, though), with one particular moment bringing me flashbacks of 2009’s Drag Me To Hell, Raimi’s most recent foray into horror as a director. For the most part, the spirit of Raimi’s film runs rampant, creating a twisted, gritty atmosphere that will be fun for any fan of the original. But, let’s be honest with ourselves, most, if not all, of the fun comes from all of the blood.
Another fear many fans like myself had, before any trailer for the film was released, was how the filmmakers would tackle the visual effects, specifically the blood and gore. The Evil Dead gained most of its fame for not only its amount of blood and gore, but also its amazing practical effects that put all of the viscera on display. So, with all of the recent trends in Hollywood filmmaking, many fans were terrified that CGI would take over and tarnish the film’s effects. After the red band trailer was released, if anything was clear, it was that there was little to no reason for any of us to fear.
The film just about drowns in a sea of red and practical effects, with blood being unapologetically tossed around the set with such reckless abandon that makes gore-hounds like me giddy. For example, heads are blown away and smashed in, one character lops her possessed arm off as a nod to Ash in Evil Dead 2, and the set actually rains blood. If any person were ever to write a book about how to get away with an R-rating when an NC-17 looks imminent, I believe it should be co-written by Alvarez and editor Bryan Shaw. There are moments of CGI, but those are exclusive to fire, which is tricky to work with anyway. With its use of practical effects, the film has the fans on its mind the whole way through and it fails to disappoint in this regard.
Another aspect of the film worth noting is the film’s location. Shot on location in New Zealand, the film, like the original, returns to the familiar cabin-in-the-woods aesthetic that many horror fans have seen many a time (on a side note, it’s quite remarkable how similar some of the set looks to the original). While this would not normally be a note of praise for films of this nature, Evil Dead is an exception to the rule. Too many films that use the cabin-in-the-woods setting exploit it in the worst way possible. In other words, they use it simply because that’s what audiences are familiar with and do not use it to inspire fear in the characters or in the audience (ahem, Platinum Dune’s Friday the 13th). Hell, The Cabin in the Woods lovingly mocks movies like this and it manages to take advantage of this sort of location better than most.
While it may not exactly inspire fear in the audience, Evil Dead’s set certainly is unsettling. First of all, the film does really well with making the location feel about as isolated from the outside world as possible. The cabin almost occupies its own terrifying realm that the characters are trapped inside of. Secondly, the forest surrounding the cabin, thanks to Aaron Morton’s cinematography, feels labyrinthine and oppressive as characters and the camera wind around each tree, which reach tall enough to make sure any sort of skyline is invisible to both the characters and the audience. Throughout the film, the set communicates a language of evil and terror that, while not frightening, is unnerving and crawls slowly under your skin.
While this review, so far, would make you think differently, I do not believe Evil Dead was a perfect experience. Before I get into what the most glaring negative of this film was, I believe it is important to note that the film is wholly unpleasant. I’m not just talking about blood and gore; I’m also speaking of other visual and thematic elements that make the film a bit difficult to take in. These are not all criticisms of the film – I praise much of these qualities, in fact – but the film’s unpleasantness is taken to a degree sometimes that makes the viewing experience not quite as enjoyable as it was meant to be. Anyway, let me start with aesthetic qualities I commend the film for.
First of all, let me say that whenever most people see a movie advertised with the familiar cabin-in-the-woods trappings, they can typically guess what the characters are like and why they’ve ventured to the cabin in the first place. More than likely, the group of characters these films revolve around are all pretty 20-somethings looking for a weekend getaway filled with several acts of debauchery (party, have premarital sex, drink and do drugs just to name a few). Evil Dead is completely different from these films.
The five characters we get to know certainly are pretty 20-somethings, but instead of partying, they’ve gone to the cabin to help one of their friends kick a drug addiction. Needless to say, the scenes that display symptoms of withdrawal can feel pretty tense. This serious approach to the film helps the audience become invested in the characters, even though we know that most of them are going to meet a horrific end. So, instead of revelry and merriment abruptly ended by madness, we have one scene of suffering followed by another, and then another. It may not sound like something that’s fun to watch, but it’s different from what is normally seen and once the violence gets going, it gets pretty easy to forgive the opening.
Secondly, the film just appears unpleasant to begin with. Every single frame in the film feels gritty, grimy, dirty, and just about every other adjective one could use to describe filth. On top of that, many of the shots outside the cabin make the forest seem as if it has pale, polluted green tint, which is later echoed in the color of the skin of the ‘Deadites,’ as fans of the franchise refer to them. Additionally, some of the shots inside of the cabin feel overexposed, which helps to emphasize the gritty nature of all of the ‘events,’ so to speak, that happen in the cabin. Nothing in the film suggests cleanliness, as if the characters are condemned to damnation from the very beginning. While the visual grit and grime may not be easy to absorb sometimes, it certainly is in keeping with the tone of the film.
Unfortunately for the film, this unpleasantness leads to some scenes having a mean-spirited quality that sucks the fun out of the viewing experience. For example, two of the characters in the group are brother and sister, David (Shiloh Fernandez) and Mia (Jane Levy). Mia is the one attempting to end her drug addiction, so to help remind her of better days, David brings along Grandpa, the family dog. While it helps at first, David later discovers that Mia, who, admittedly, was possessed by the demons that pass through the film, has killed Grandpa. The death of animals in a film is never easy to watch, and this film is no exception.
Secondly, when Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) proceeds to cut off the possessed portion of her arm with an electric carver, she does not get to cut all the way through. Instead, the power goes out and she’s left to just let the rest of her arm fall off when the remaining bits of flesh finally tear apart. Simply cutting her arm off would have had a strong enough punch, but it’s the unnecessary extra jab that undoes the fun of the sequence. It was instances like these that the film should have avoided altogether to make the viewing experience more enjoyable.
Finally, while this is merely a minor criticism, part of me questions the accessibility of the film to viewers who possibly had never seen the original (if you think about the average contemporary filmgoer, that’s a lot of people). It’s wonderful that the spirit of Raimi’s film exists in much of this one, but the winks to the original can only be truly enjoyed by the fans of the franchise, which could make a new viewer feel somewhat left out of the enjoyment. This is not to say, however, that you should have seen the original to fully understand this remake. Additionally, someone who is new to franchise probably will not bother with the original films and continue along with the new series of films – yes, there will be a sequel to Evil Dead.
While it is flawed, the bloody romp that is Evil Dead is just too irresistible for people who consider themselves fans of Raimi’s version. There are simply too many glorious moments that showcase why practical effects are far superior to CGI. If any CGI was used to touch up the practical effects and make them look prettier (that’s a pretty relative term) – which is most likely the case – then it went completely unnoticed. Federico Alvarez has said that he will back to write and direct the next film and I am absolutely confident he can improve upon this film given the result. It certainly is not better than original film, but there is no possible reason anyone could have to make the claim that it could have been.
In the end, Evil Dead is a surprisingly fresh take on a much beloved classic that will surely be one of the best horror films to hit the big screen this year. As I have written this review, I’m sure everybody is now aware of the passing of Roger Ebert, a man who wrote about cinema more eloquently than most people will dream of and stands as a shining example for people like me who thoroughly enjoy writing about movies. So, in honor of his legacy as a critic, I’m going to use his and Gene Siskel’s thumb scale to rate Evil Dead. In the case of Federico Alvarez’s Evil Dead, I give it a thumbs up (which I’m pretty sure means 3 out of 4 stars). If you’re looking for a late night thrill, I recommend this movie highly, but make sure your stomach is strong enough to take it beforehand.