[This is a re-post of my review from SXSW 2013. Evil Dead opens today.]
If your goal is to give the people exactly what they want, then you better give them the best you’ve got otherwise it’s obvious pandering. Fede Alvarez‘ remake of Evil Dead does not pander. It fiercely grabs the audience by the throat, and vomits as much blood and viscera as we can stomach it, and not everyone will be able to stomach what the horror flick has to offer. Alvarez and cinematographer Aaron Morton set a creepy vibe, but their primary interest is in gleefully laying out the implements of destruction. “We know what you came for,” the film says with a devilish smile. And then it lets loose violence beyond all reason. The fear eventually fades, the emotions recede into the background, but Evil Dead delivers on the bloody mayhem that needs far more than an MPAA rating. It needs a warning label.
Mia (Jane Levy) has gone to her family’s remote cabin in the woods with her friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas), Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), and his new girlfriend, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). She’s there to detox from her heroin addiction, but the cabin is no longer the quaint home she and David remember. A blood trail leads to the cellar, there are dead animals hanging from the cellar ceiling, and on a table is a book. Bound in human skin, the book bears evil words, and when Eric reads them aloud, he summons a demon that begins possessing each member of the group, and makes them engage in horrific acts that bring new meaning to the phrase, “bodily harm.”
Sam Raimi‘s 1981 film The Evil Dead is not a masterpiece. It’s a personal movie showing a filmmaker trying to find his voice. You’re watching a director play with various influences, and trying to craft them into a cohesive whole, so the film swings wildly between scary and campy (Raimi would get the mix right six years later with Evil Dead II). Alvarez has no such indecisiveness. His vision, guided by the general plot elements Raimi laid out in the original, is single-minded in its drive to terrify the audience while also playing into their bloodlust.
Desiring so much violence is arguably perverse, but that argument is worthy of its own editorial, and goes far beyond the bounds of this review. I will simply say that Alvarez knows his audience, and his goal is to rush far beyond cinema’s current level of horror violence (I would also say shame on the MPAA for allowing any child to see this film as long as they have a parent, but that argument also deserves its own piece). Eventually, someone will push past him, but for where we are right now, Evil Dead works as hard as possible to be gorier than anything audiences have come to expect. Hollywood might be out of fake blood because Evil Dead used it all up. Furthermore, these aren’t the crass effects Raimi used in 1981. This is as believable as it gets. If you were wondering how a limb would rip off, now you’ll know (also, you’re probably a) a burgeoning serial killer; b) an aspiring doctor; c) both).
This singular focus robs the film of its humanity even though Alvarez’ patiently takes the time for far more character development than Raimi’s picture. We do care about Mia and David’s relationship, but Alvarez gives their story as much weight as a close-up on a meat-slicer or nail-gun. We’re not really here for the characters; they just have to be acceptable enough so that we’re not rooting for their demise. At this point, we can only be so scared because we don’t really care what happens to them as much as Alvarez has to work to build the tension with the visuals and the sound design. The movie has its fair share of jump scares, but its main goal is to cut to the flesh cutting.
Post-The Cabin in the Woods, a literal cabin-in-the-woods film has to up its game in some capacity. The point of Drew Goddard‘s comedy-horror flick was to note how audiences no longer go into horror films expecting to be scared. They know the genre too well, and the genre has become lazy. Evil Dead rises to the challenge by making sure we’re not bored, and having all jokes on our part come from a need to create distance rather than a sense of smug superiority over the material. When watching Evil Dead, I was screaming in my head, “Just give her the heroin! It’s better for everyone if she’s addicted to smack!” As the film progresses, it provides more opportunities for this kind of mocking distance and when paired with the unrelenting violence, we almost become numb. But then Alvarez hits us with a finale worthy of the slaughter that’s come before.
The most disturbing thing about Evil Dead isn’t a moment in Evil Dead. The movie could serve as a twisted mirror for our desire to see a level of violence rarely shown on the big screen except Alvarez isn’t judging his audience. He’s indulging them. That’s not to say he should be preachy or restrained. By the metric he has laid out for his picture’s goals, Alvarez’ film is a wild success. It’s a crowdpleaser that will leave gore-hounds stuffed, but we should all be somewhat shaken by the gruesome feast Evil Dead asks us to devour.