With 2012's "Cabin in the Woods" still so fresh in the minds of moviegoers, Fede Alvarez's new remake of Sam Raimi's horror classic, "The Evil Dead," has its work cut out for it. It has to find a way to make fresh the tropes of the now well-known story that "Cabin" so cleverly sent up, as well as distinguish itself from the glut of poorly received horror remakes churned out over the past several years. Alvarez's solution seems to be doing away with the quirky tone of Raimi's film and amping up the gore to near absurd levels. But he manages to strike the right balance between staying true to the spirit of the original while still giving modern horror buffs exactly what they crave.
In "Evil Dead," five friends travel to a remote, yes, cabin in the woods to stage an intervention for their drug-addicted friend Mia (Jane Levy, the clear standout amongst the meat puppets) and help her kick the habit cold turkey. While there, they stumble across a book, bound in human flesh, entitled "The Book of the Dead," and naturally decide to read from it. No surprise, reading from this book awakens some demonic entities, allows them to possess the living, and generally makes things unpleasant for everyone in the cabin.
The new film diverts from the plot of the original in some major ways, but a couple of early changes have the effect of making this group of kids out to be severely stupid when compared to those in Raimi's film. The most significant of these changes is the characters actively deciding to read from the book as opposed to accidentally playing a recording of the demon-unleashing incantation. They're also possibly a little too slow on the uptake regarding the tipping point between detox and demon possession. Helpful hint: trying to boil one's own face off with scalding hot water is not typically a side effect of heroin withdrawal.
The new Exhibit No. 1 in the argument that you can put as much violence and bloodshed into a film and still get an "R" rating, just so long as there's no sex, "Evil Dead" is saturated with gooey, sticky gore. Alvarez's decision to use mostly practical effects instead of CGI adds a tactile quality that adds to the throwback feel of his film. Some of the most cringe-inducing moments, however, come from the sounds of actions happening off-camera. If there is any justice in the world, "Evil Dead" will be an Oscar nominee next year in the categories of make-up and sound design.
I've heard complaints that the new "Evil Dead" lacks the tongue-in-cheek humor of the original. Re-watching the first movie, I was struck by how straight it plays the material (for the most part). The goofiness everyone associates with the film doesn't really come in until the campy sequel, and it apparently seeped over in everyone's memories. Nearly all of the humor in the original is the byproduct of its inventively low-budget effects and unpolished acting.
What struck me most about the remake is its ability to maintain an atmosphere of fun while taking the material seriously. Lacking is the air of cynicism that I associate with a lot of recent horror, like the "Saw" franchise. Alvarez's main concern is that his audience has a good time; you watch the mayhem unfolding onscreen, squeal, and try to cover your eyes, but you laugh your head off all the while.