CINEMA: The Banality Of Evil


EVIL DEAD (2013, directed by Fede Alvarez, 91 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It is not unusual for aging pop artists to remake their early hits to take advantage of new recording technology, a new publishing deal, or some lingering impulse of perfectionism. Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tappert, the director, star, and producer of the 1981 cult-horror hit The Evil Dead have come together again to produce this modern reboot of the demonic franchise, and it is far superior to the original in nuanced acting, realistic effects and production design. Yet unsurprisngly, this new Evil Dead doesn’t come close to casting the spell that made the original a time-tested hit.

Shot in earthen tones and crimson reds, we arrive at a secluded family cabin deep in the woods where a guilt-ridden brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) has arrived with a new girlfriend in tow to help his drug-addicted sister Mia (Jane Levy) quit drugs cold turkey. Waiting there are Mia’s friends Eric ( Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia, (Jessica Lucas) a nurse who plans to help Mia through withdrawal. The cabin has fallen into disrepair since the previous visit and further investigation shows that someone has been killing cats in a ritualized manner in the basement. Eric has also found a hand-illustrated book down there, covered in skin, and reading it aloud unleashes the demon that will bedevil them for the rest of the film.

I’ll admit, those original indie horror classics, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, Nightmare on Elm Street, and yes, Raimi’s looney The Evil Dead, were films I discovered at that giddy teenage moment, and it would be foolish to expect such emotionally fulfilling lightning to strike twice with a remake. But for films that were thrilling for the audacious risks they took, it is a bit disheartening to see them rendered again with all their interesting, oblong edges buffed clean.

This update fills in all sorts of unnecessary details of the story, and while it recreates the fast-roving camerawork and the original’s major set pieces, it never locates a worthwhile new angle on the material. I suspect the Evil Dead creators had strong ideas of the tone they were seeking for what is promised to be a new franchise, and their choice of first-time director, Fede Alvarez of Uruguay, seems show a desire to find a compliant young talent who would be malleable to their concept. With this updated version, gone is the humor that was dependent on the one-of-a-kind talent of the original star, the square-jawed Bruce Campbell, replaced by a grimmer, more realism-bound setting and a more Hollywood-handsome cast. Within these confines, Evil Dead is a pretty sturdy spook-fest, if not inspired at least competently staged, while delivering a few gross-out moments for which fans will be thirsting.

The script takes the time to establish Mia’s addiction history but it never sketches any of its characters in beyond the basics. Lou Taylor Pucci stands out merely because his longish hair and glasses give his character a hint of subcultural shading. Otherwise, the characters are free of backstory or attitude, they are just good-looking young people served up to get penetrated, mutilated, soaked in goo, and buried alive. The remake’s hook has been, like the original, that its effects are not computer-generated but produced by hands-on craftsmanship, separating it from the overly-copntrolled “perfection” of the standard fright flick of today.

But Evil Dead was made for something like 30 times the 1981 version’s budget, so the rough edges that graced its original are gone, along with much of the film’s charm. The ingenuity displayed to make a film truly frightening on a half-million dollar budget is why the original has become an iconic fanboy favorite. Whatever punch its basic elements contain – its cabin setting, its screaming witches – have been recycled regularly and drained of their freshness for the last 30 years (and last year’s Cabin in the Wood deconstructed the entire genre by dissecting The Evil Dead’s premise). Regardless, if I was a teenager taking all this in for the first time, I’d probably leave the theater having a good time. But what once felt so subversive here feels hopelessly mainstream, making Evil Dead empty nostalgia for the type of freaky old horror films Hollywood was afraid to make. And unfortunately, it still is.