Went to see the remake of Evil Dead this past weekend.
If you want the thumbnail, here it is: this movie is a worthy successor. Changes enough so that you don’t say “Why Bother”, keeps the spirit of the original. Three out of five stars. Worth the ticket price. Go ahead and see it, but bear in mind that I thought the prequel of The Thing that came out in 2011 was a perfectly good movie, too.
If you want to know more, keep reading, but the spoilers begin after this point.
Still with me? Groovy.
The movie begins with…well, the movie actually begins with a teaser that tells us that we’re not dealing with the blunt-force, darkly jocular Deadites of yore. The possessing demon this time is much more cunning and sadistic. Where the old-school Deadites would return to human form just long enough to taunt you with the loved one you’ve lost, blowing their cover long before they could gain any tactical advantage from it (and that only when they couldn’t reach you any other way), this demon keeps the human mask in place, playing on your reluctance to shoot the hostage, until it has you where it wants you.
The movie proper begins with David (no last name given, not even on IMDB) and his girlfriend Natalie (ditto) driving deep into the woods (and I mean deep. The trail they drive loses “dirt road” status early on and becomes two wheel ruts. Remember the bridges from the Evil Dead I and II? No such Works of Man here. They have to ford a shallow river) to reach a cabin so dilapidated that I would easily believe it to be the same one from the 1981 film. Waiting for them are David’s friends Eric (yep) and Olivia (yet again). Olivia welcomes David like an old friend might, but treats Natalie much more coolly. Eric greets them with open hostility, far more than one would expect for David’s two-hour lateness. They are a long way up in the woods, after all. Still, no time for bickering – they’re all here for a purpose. David’s sister Mia (who apparently shares his entire-lack-of-a-last-name) is up here to detox. This is a desperation move on her friends’ part: the last time she tried to go cold turkey, her sobriety lasted all of eight hours. This time, they intend to keep her up here until the job is done. She can’t survive another OD.
(Eric has to tell David that Mia OD’ed – that she was, in fact, clinically dead for several minutes – and we begin to understand why he has such anger for his former friend.)
Night falls (along with a deluge of rain), and Mia is deep into withdrawal. She screams that she can’t take that horrible stench anymore, which everyone dismisses as merely a symptom of her DT’s…until the No-Last-Name family dog finds a trapdoor (and a large blood smear) under the living room carpet. What, David and Mia didn’t know their family’s cabin had a basement?
Dave and Eric investigate, finding two things: 1) the site where the teaser took place; and 2) the Naturom Demonto, the Book of Evil at the center of the plot (no wink-wink, nudge-nudge Lovecraft references here, we’re going straight back to the first movie).
As the rest of the group returns to dealing with Mia, Eric does something so fundamentally stupid, inexplicable and unconnected to what little we know about his character (unless we’re supposed to take the fact that he wears glasses to be a sign of intelligence and insatiable curiosity – which we probably are), that I have to wonder if the Book is influencing him somehow. He cuts open the barbed wire holding it closed, ignores the warnings scrawled on every page, and reads the chant written within.
No, not “Klaatu, Verata, Nikto”.
At this point, all Hell breaks loose, but Our Protagonists don’t realize it for some time yet. They just believe that Mia is either hallucinating or trying to get them to take her back to civilization and her next fix. We might do so as well, if we: 1) hadn’t seen the teaser, and 2) didn’t know that this was an Evil Dead movie. Other horror movies have gotten away with characters hallucinating weirder things, and for quite a while, there’s no hard evidence of anything more uncanny than a junkie freaking out. Even when Mia goes full-bore Deadite, she doesn’t start off with mind reading and levitating like Cheryl did in the original. While her skin and eyes may have gone unnatural colors, it’s still possible – with a hefty dose of denial – to believe that she’s merely gone berserk.
We know she hasn’t, though, and as the possession spreads to other members of the group, Eric figures it out, too. By reading from the book, he has unleashed, not all the residents of the Evil Worlds Beyond as in the original movies, but a singular demon, a stealer of souls (this demon remains unnamed, but in accordance with his illustration in The Book, I’ll be referrring to him as Candle Crown). Once Candle Crown claims five souls, “the skies will bleed again”. The only way to free the souls of Candle Crown’s victims and prevent him from rising is through the act of…
Bet you expected me to say “bodily dismemberment”, didn’t you? If you’ve seen the original, you did. Well, that’s one option, but this movie also gives the heroes two more: live burial and fire. There’s a reason for that.
You see, David, our Ash figure, is a coward. Not a funny, squealing coward like the original Ash, but the real deal. His mother died in a mental hospital, alternating between calling for him and believing he was already there (Mia once played his role for an entire day), and he never once came to visit, a fact he covers with the lamest of excuses. As hinted before, he hasn’t been there for his sister, either. The man has a hardwired inability to do The Hard Thing. Faced with three possible ways to “cleanse” his sister and free her soul, he chooses the method that leaves her body fundamentally undamaged, allowing him to resurrect her with Hollywood Bullshit Medicine.
Good thing, too, because he wasn’t as thorough about putting down the neo-Deadites as he should have been, and Mia is left to deal with the rising of Candle Crown by herself…with a chainsaw.
And now we know who’s the real Ash of this damn picture.
(I don’t know if that even counts as a spoiler. Just look at the poster.)
That last is a nice twist. Until this point, Mia has been the Cheryl of this picture – the helpless victim begging everyone to help her when she wasn’t busy being a monster (they even left the damn tree-rape scene in. What the hell, Raimi? I thought you regretted that). But the fact is, between her and David, the apparent “Ash” of this film, she’s the one with actual courage and will.
The movie ends more happily than the original in its way. Oh, Mia is absolutely going to die of shock and blood loss before she gets even halfway out of the woods, but at least she dies in triumph, with her soul and the souls of her friends free from Candle Crown.
So. Not a bad movie at all. As you can see, the plot is simple, but time-tested, sturdy, and well-executed. The low points amount to one minor continuity error (a plot-significant object is destroyed, then found to be whole later on) and two moments where characters have to make bonehead-stupid decisions to make the plot move forward. Enough to keep it from becoming a really good movie, but horror fans have seen much worse. Gloriously gruesome; Candle Crown seems to enjoy tricking or forcing mortals into harming themselves, and freaking out the unpossessed with the horrible wounds it inflicts on its hosts. Only the most hardened J-Horror or torture porn fans will be able to watch without squirming. Tongues are slit, faces are carved, and the hand-removal that you all knew was coming the second the character in question was bitten is performed with an electric carving knife (spoiler: a chainsaw is a much better tool for the job).
(Interesting note: I understand that none of the special effects are CGI.)
All well and good. But what about the question that’s really on everyone’s mind: how does it measure up to the original?
Pretty well, actually. Which doesn’t surprise me; Raimi may not have been writing or directing, but as the producer, you know he had to approve the final product somewhere along the line. You get the feeling that, to a large extent, this is the Evil Dead he would have made in 1979 if he’d had an actual budget. The characters are better-developed than the originals ever were – I mean, be honest: do you know anything about Ash except the fact that he worked at S-Mart? And other than him, the only other character with an actual distinguishing feature is Cheryl with her drawing. The other characters are bipedal chunks of Character Tofu. So is Natalie, to be fair, but one chunk of Character Tofu instead of three still counts as an improvement. What’s even better, this character development is delivered in a skillful way, in hints and references, such as old friends use when discussing things everyone already knows. When we do need larger blocks of backstory exposition, it’s usually delivered in the form of somebody telling David something he should already know, and would, if he’d bloody well been there when people needed him…thus revealing things about David’s character that may be more important than the exposition itself.
There are many shout-outs to the original trilogy, of course, but the filmmakers wisely decided to make them subtle: Sam Raimi’s Oldsmobile is parked outside the cabin, rusting away to nothing. The Naturam Demontum is bound in some kind of suspicious leather, but there’s no inhuman face on the front. Someone is possessed via a bite to their hand and tries to “self-medicate” by cutting it off with a power tool, but not the person (or the tool) you expect. Certain lines hark back to the original. If they had chosen to go the more blatant route, they could easily have ended up with Evil Dead: The Musical. Which, yes it is real, and yes it is awesome, but it is a comedy. You already have enough trouble with that, what with this movie playing seriously tropes that were parodied in last year’s Cabin In the Woods. It was unavoidable, given that the original Evil Dead was the source for half of Cabin‘s punchlines, but it’s still distracting.
In the end, I think comparing the two may be comparing apples and oranges. The original Evil Dead was a glorious piece of low-budget cheese, perhaps one of the best in cinema history. I know, I’ve seen it at a midnight showing in a small arthouse theatre like the Elder Gods intended. This movie is polished (like a gun or blade, but still…) and deadly serious, a grim and brutal exercise in grueling horror. This is the kind of thing you’re afraid will happen if you leave the safety of civilization.
Perhaps it’s best to think of it like I think of the 2002 Italian Job: not a proper remake, not a sequel, but a perfectly good movie in its own right, and a worthy spiritual successor.
PS – I’ve seen this a number of times in the past few weeks. Where does anyone get the idea that nail guns shoot like real guns, and with nearly as much force? Every nailgun I’ve ever seen requires you to push it up against the surface you want to fasten, to avoid exactly the kind of thing that happens in this movie. Are there any real nail guns out there that actually work like this, or should I blame it on Candle Crown’s magic and let it go?