Review: “Evil Dead”

Jane Levy stars in Fede Alvarez's "Evil Dead," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.At the exact same time that “Evil Dead” first unspooled on over 3,000 screens across the country—last Thursday at 10 p.m.—NBC premiered another new spin on a horror staple, the series “Hannibal.” This was perhaps the most gruesome hour in the history of network television, complete with a murder re-enactment, the discovery of corpses, the culinary preparation of a pair of human lungs, and two graphic throat slittings. The point being, American culture has become so desensitized to violence in popular entertainment that “Hannibal,” a show that would have outraged the public at large as recently as 15 years ago, can now run over-the-air with little protest.

This widespread acceptance of bloodletting poses a challenge for “Evil Dead,” in that it’s a re-imagining of a cult classic whose success rested largely in its ability to shock audiences with gore and related perversity — a near-impossible task today, in the era of “The Human Centipede.” It would seem that writer/director Fede Alvarez is aware of this, as he and co-writer Rodo Sayagues rework the premise into something that’s more implicitly terrifying and he ensures that the production values are uniformly tip-top, a departure from the low-budget Sam Raimi original. But Alvarez’s ability to creatively transform “Evil Dead” into a new film for contemporary audiences only extends so far; ultimately, he succumbs to battling our desensitization by simply making the film as violent as he possibly can. Needless to say, he loses this battle; not even the graphic ripping of limb from live body seems remotely taboo-busting, it just seems gross.

But let’s focus on the positives first: primarily, the ingenious new setup. The original film featured the now-default genre trope of college kids heading to an isolated cabin in the woods for spring break. This time, they’re using the cabin not for R&R, but as a way to imprison their friend, protagonist Mia (Jane Levy, taking on a character who’s the polar-opposite of the plucky high-schooler she plays on TV’s “Suburgatory”), as she detoxes from an opiate addiction. We know, of course, that if Mia sticks around long enough—and she will, as her friends are determined to hold her until she’s sober—she will be possessed by the demons waiting to be unleashed in the woods. Conveniently, possession and drug withdrawal apparently have similar initial symptoms. These circumstances create one of the richest senses of impending doom I’ve seen in a contemporary horror film, cleverly exploiting the universal human fear of captivity and our knowledge of the original movie’s plot.

The filmmakers’ overall execution of the first act is strong, as well. Director Alvarez keeps the pacing crisp by refusing to dote on any one element, including the obligatory tree-rape, an image that a less confident director would have played up due to its iconic status for fans of the original. Roque Baños’ temperamental score isn’t overused, and cinematographer Aaron Morton’s widescreen compositions both pay tribute to old-fashioned horror and create a fresh, clean look of their own (forcing a rugged B-movie aesthetic on the film in spite of its $17 million budget would have been a hollow gesture). The technical elements are well-supplemented by the acting work of Levy, who initially manages to come across as an authentic junkie mourning her mother’s death rather than just a cardboard damsel-in-distress.

But as soon as Mia’s possessed reign of terror begins—that is to say, barely more than a half-hour into the movie—it becomes clear that “Evil Dead” is nowhere near as ambitious as Alvarez originally projects. A near-nonstop spree of gore begins — not scary (though not really trying to be), not tense (the aforementioned sense of impending doom gives way to mindless action), and as I wrote earlier, not effective in conjuring the spirit of the original (the violence itself has lost its intrigue and the campy humor is missing). The final two acts of “Evil Dead” are a basic bloodbath — certainly better crafted than your average torture-pornos like “Saw” and “Hostel,” but not that fundamentally different. To enjoy the film, you must find glee in people getting hurt.

I wish the setup belonged to a different film, an original which had the freedom to stage Mia’s possession later on and milk the real horror of the premise, which lies in our fear that Mia will become possessed and not be able to do anything about it, not her actions while possessed. This is an anxiety firmly planted in the current American zeitgeist, far scarier than graphic film violence, which stopped daunting us more than a decade ago.