The original version of THE EVIL DEAD was such a perfect little horror film. Written and directed by Sam Raimi in 1981, it simultaneously sent up the conventions of horror films while also unleashing the sort of nightmares that originate in the id, and then become progressively more terrifying as they percolate up to consciousness. The fine line between irony and creepiness was blithely broached, and there was an absurdly right element of black comedy running throughout. It made Raimiís career as a filmmaker, and made a cult icon of its star, Bruce Campbell. When something has worked so well, why tamper with it? Raimi and Campbell co-executive produced this 2013 version, and why they thought it was a good idea is something that only they can answer, but the audience can be very, very happy that they did.
As with so many other recent re-makes, this is more of a re-boot, with many of the original elements in place, starting with the de rigeur isolated cabin in the middle of a deep, dark wood. Five friends have gathered to help one of their number, Mia (Jane Levy) kick the demon of addiction. Solemn oaths are pledged, but all the good intentions in this world and the next does nothing to prevent them stumbling into demons of another, more objectively aggressive variety. The first signs of which Mia is the first to notice, and are chalked up to her withdrawal, her heightened senses, her irritability, and her desire to flee. Eventually, though, the group has to acknowledge that what they found in the basement of the family cabin, in response to Miaís complaining of a bad smell, may be more than kids playing around with black magic. And that Miaís safe return from her aborted attempt to escape the tough love of her friends might not be so safe after all.
In fine horror film fashion, the brains of the group, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), figures out too late that the oddly bound book discovered in that basement, and from which he has been reading despite warnings not to, has summoned up something unholy. And in further fine horror film fashion, brains are spilled as a result. And blood. And assorted limbs. All the while the underlying relationship tensions of the group bubble up and over adding to the general mayhem.
Director Fede Alvarez co-wrote the script with Diablo Cody of JUNO and YOUNG ADULT fame, and they bring a freshness to the material that is more than refreshing, itís biting. While staying true to the spirit of low-budget horror, Alvarez also brings a visual elegance to even the most gruesome of sights, from a puss-engorged hand being possessed by a demon, to the minutiae of being buried alive. This is an exercise in style that uses the camera as though it were possessed itself by one of the characters or the pervasive sense of evil that looms over the action and the locale. There is also a nice mirroring of the necessity of being cruel to be kind, from keeping Mia against her will at the cabin until she has completed the cold turkey withdrawals, to the growing certainty that killing her in a ritually gruesome manner is the only way to save her soul.
Inside jokes abound, like when Mia reaches for a chainsaw, but familiarity with the original is not necessary in order to enjoy the re-boot on its own terms. Enough has changed so that everyone will have a full quota of surprises, and the actors have both commitment and imagination when it comes to embodying terror in all its manifestations and evoking an empathetic response. There is a way that Levy shakes, unable to stop it entirely, but desperate to keep it under control so that the others will believe that she really did see something evil in the woods, that speaks to the all too accessible terrors of vulnerability and helplessness that are the stuff of daily life. No demons necessary. If there is less humor in this version, it is not entirely absent, if only when Eric opens the book and quickly proceeds to ignore the warnings, writ large and in red, to not read further, and certainly not to pronounce the names he finds.
THE EVIL DEAD is a tidy piece of filmmaking that is also smart enough to pay homage to its progenitor and to not just respect its fans, but to embrace them with a wink and a nod. Genuinely terrifying and wonderfully fun, itís as much a romp as it is an object lesson in everything a good scare, and a good reboot, should be. N.B. Stay for the credits, during which plummy tones from the original are heard, and a welcome cameo proclaims everything groovy.