The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness form one of the greatest trilogies of all time. They encapsulate a certain 80s zaniness, the bizarre and the baroque, full of blood and guts and, yes, sometimes real horror, but driven along with a wry wit all their own. With Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, you kind of know what you’re getting into. They’re technically horror movies, it’s true, but horror movies in the same sense that Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and Cabin in the Woods are horror movies. All have the same wink-wink nudge-nudge that lend the films a quality beyond your typical genre fair. They are gory, but it’s cartoonish gore, which fits in perfectly with the subversive, comedic tone they all have. I say subversive because without a doubt they all work as horror movies, but horror movies that go beyond the norm and bring genuinely fresh ideas to the table.
It has been 32 years since the original movie, and everything else under the sun has been rebooted or remade. We’ve had Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and now somebody has decided it was time for Evil Dead to rise again. The same trifecta of Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi, and Robert Tapert, who went into the woods with $90,000 in their pockets and emerged with the first Evil Dead have grown up and now share a producer credit, while newcomer Fede Alvarez is given directing duties this time around.
Before I start I want to make something clear. I’m probably going to use the term “the original movie” a lot. I mean it. “That’s not fair, you can’t compare it to the original”, some might complain. This touches on an interesting aspect of our culture now that we seem intent on rebooting every franchise that’s ever showed a modicum of success, which is our preoccupation with originality. I know I’ve hated a movie for lacking it, for not being original or being too similar to something else. Yet at the same time, if you are going to be reviving something as well loved as Evil Dead, or really anything with a cult following, the comparisons are inevitable and I would argue absolutely fair game. That is: of course you can compare the two. The act of rebooting a franchise with as much lasting power as Evil Dead demands justification; why are you remaking it, what are you going to be adding to it, how is this going to be different. I’ve already seen The Evil Dead, so why exactly should I pay my $10 and go back into the theatre?
It’s these questions I found myself thinking while sitting through the utterly boring and all too mediocre Evil Dead. Certainly the only thing new in this reboot is a bizarre sense of self seriousness that I would argue is lacking from the original movie. Evil Dead to me is synonymous with camp, with tree rape and chainsaw hands and boomsticks. It’s these images that make the originals so endearing, along with Bruce Campbells goofy charm, the kind of charm that makes a word as absurd as Groovy sound cool or even sexy.
So, I will lament again: why couldn’t they let this one rest in peace? There is nothing fun about this new movie. It isn’t funny, it isn’t charming, and in fact one of the inescapable aspects of it is that Alvarez seemingly took the source material too seriously. Which is strange, because at times you can clearly see the filmmakers harkening back to the days of yore. The demonic voice that the possessed adopt is ripped right out of the original, and you are treated to some nice callbacks to the first three. In particular, there’s some wonderful guest star performances from a shotgun and a chainsaw that it was hard not to get excited about.
As for the performances of the actors, well, lets just say that the props had better screen presence. It’s a no-name cast, which is sometimes ok (look at the star making roles in Chronicle), but in the case of Evil Dead I hope none of these people go on to better things. The only person who is tolerable is Lou Taylor Pucci as Eric, a teacher who fills in the nerd-slash-voice-of-reason archetype adequately. However, compared to Bruce Campbell’s Ashe, Shilo Fernandez as David just doesn’t have enough charm to carry a movie. He’s bland and uninteresting, as are the rest of the victims in the movie. Even Jane Levy, who as Mia (the main possess-ee) and is supposed to form the heart of the film, is just boring.
Besides The Evil Dead, the other movie who’s spector hangs like a malevolent fog over the film is Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s excellent Cabin in the Woods. Five people go out to a remote cabin, find a basement of horrors, pick one item and release an evil that picks each person off one by one, each soul a sacrifice to a higher evil. Seriously. Which movie am I talking about? It could literally be either. Now, when you have a movie like Cabin that so successfully lays bare the trappings of these kinds of movies, it becomes exceedingly difficult to take a movie like Evil Dead seriously. This is problematic, when one of its main failings is that Fernandez seems too afraid to poke fun at the absurd nature of these kinds of stories. You almost have to laugh as these situations play out again and again. “Don’t go in the basement!”. “Don’t open that door!”. We know what to expect from these movies, and to its credit, there are some moments of genuine suspense and terror in Evil Dead, they’re just unfortunately few and far between.
To many good ideas seem wasted. The reason our five main characters find themselves out in a cabin in the woods is to hold an intervention for Mia who it appears has a heroin addiction. Get it? She has a monster in her! I have this awful image of the writers congratulating themselves, high fives all around, at this allegorical triumph. Except it’s not. This plot device is only used to allow the rest of the cast moments of disbelief. “Oh, that’s not really Mia doing these things, it’s that she is going through withdrawal!”. Except as soon as she throws up blood on somebody after tackling them to the floor, I feel a demonic possession should be the next logical leap. And later, David and Mia have what one can only assume was supposed to be an empathy building conversation about their mother, who apparently was committed to an insane asylum when they were young. You see, their mom was schizophrenic. Another monster they might have inside of them! Monsters for everyone!
It’s ideas like that, who are hinted at but never expanded upon, that began to drive me crazy while watching Evil Dead. One the one hand, it’s nice that they tried to do something new. On the other, it would have been nicer if what they were trying to do was done well. Instead, they chained this new beast to the Evil Dead name and the result is resoundingly conventional. The old and new material are too tonally dissimilar, smashed together in an unholy fusion of comedy and terror. Which is why, more than anything, Evil Dead is so damn frustrating. If they had taken the original ideas here and gone off in their own direction, there could have been a decent horror movie to be had. Instead we ended up with this mess, which one can only hope will not result in a sequel. But who am I kidding, it probably will.
P.S. After watching Star Trek Into Darkness, I’ve realized that many of the problems that plague Evil Dead also plague J.J. Abrams newest effort. So, in a week look for “Star Trek Into Darkness Is Everything Wrong with Hollywood”, for how poor writing and ill thought out reboots are ruining blockbusters.