'Evil Dead' Review: Remake Has Gore To Spare, But Little Soul To Swallow [SXSW 2013]

When you watched Evil Dead II, did you feel pain when Bruce Campbell cut off his own hand, not because of any empathy for the horror, but because Sam Raimi didn't show the chainsaw actually hitting flesh? If so, then stop reading and order a ticket to Evil Dead, because Fede Alvarez's remake is the movie for you. Drenched in gore, the movie doesn't ever flinch away from violence.

Raimi's original The Evil Dead was calculated to appeal to drive-in audiences, but his irrepressible personality shone through the exploitation effort. With star Bruce Campbell and producer Robert Tapert, he produced a blend of horror and physical comedy — splatstick, working from an underlying principle that proclaimed "the gore, the merrier!" — that had obvious roots in Three Stooges and Buster Keaton comedies. Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert set out to make the screen run red with blood, but ended up creating something more unique than another horror quickie.

All of which is preamble to set up the fact that Fede Alvarez's skill with effects shines in his own Evil Dead. But look away from the gore and you'll see a confused movie that lurches in different directions from one step to the next. It barely establishes a personality of its own beyond the brutal gore.  Appropriately for a film that traffics in bodily dismemberment, Evil Dead '13 is less than the sum of its parts.

Evil Dead veers between being a tweaked but faithful remake of elements of Raimi's first two movies — like a greatest hits record that is also a collection of covers — and its own original film.

There's promise in the original elements, as the characters come together at an old family cabin to detox one of their own. Mia (Jane Levy) is a junkie, and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and their friends (Elizabeth Blackmore, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas) are ready to stage a final intervention to flush heroin out of her system. The metaphor is obvious: addiction becomes demonic possession, and each character's own failings play into the horror that soon besets the group.

A book of demonic incantations, annotated by warnings from a previous reader, is found in the basement, bound tight in barbed wire. Bookish Eric (Pucci) can't resist the lure of the book, and reads passages that give life to an old evil. Is it ridiculous that a guy reads from a horrifying book, despite insistent notes that tell him not to? Yeah, it is. But our own self-destructive urges often don't make sense, either. One could argue that locking a friend in a remote, rundown cabin to withdraw from heroin also requires ignoring obvious warnings and dangers.

So the script, by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, with an imperceptible polish by Diablo Cody, gets off to a decent start. But once the evil awakens, the story can't stick with its own impulses. New ideas are balanced by recreations of memorable setpieces from the first two Raimi films. Each is far more gory and icky than Raimi's originals, but few feel like they really belong in the story. I quickly formed a mental list of memorable Evil Dead scenes to check off, as it quickly seemed obvious that this version was doing the same.

The slavish revamped setpieces fit, I suppose, because this is a remake of The Evil Dead. So, for instance, Jane Levy has to be raped by a tree just as a character was in Raimi's original. But most of the recreations feel like little more than fan service. That is, they service fans such as Alvarez, who gets to ape the work of Raimi and his crew with a bigger budget and a shrug from the MPAA, and those audience members who'll cheer at any combination of elements such as a chainsaw, a cabin, a human-skin book, and so on. (For that audience I offer this advice: stick around for a post-credits moment.)

The approach we see in this version underlines why Raimi's movies appeal to audiences beyond die-hard gorehounds. Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert may claim that they were just goofing and working intuitively, but their intuition was sharp. They had a great handle on audience manipulation not only within a scene, but from one scene to the next, all linked by Campbell's winning presence. Alvarez crafts a few setpieces, both new and recreations, that trap the audience between dread and excitement. But the connective spark, that underlying intuition, rarely flares.

The director has a good lead in Jane Levy. She may not be willing to engage in the same physical abuse Raimi famously dished out to Cambell, but she really digs in to everything thrown her way. But this film shoehorns her into a several roles; she's victim, antagonist, and heroine. And yet she also spends a good chunk of the movie mostly immobilized, while the camera lingers with the less compelling Shiloh Fernandez. If Levy was more present throughout the film, she might help focus the effort and keep Evil Dead on track.

As a last gasp, the final setpiece does help this remake establish its own identity. If nothing else, Alvarez has a lock on giving the audience something to cheer for in the final frames. In those moments, when Alvarez finally taps in to Levy's energy, I started to really like this remake. And then it was over, and the evil retreated back into the woods to rest until the inevitable sequel.

/Film score: 5 out of 10(A note: Ultimately there's reason to question whether this is actually a remake, or a sort of semi-sequel to Evil Dead II. Elements in the film clearly suggest that this violence has all happened recently before, and the presence of a very recognizable car sets up a direct timeline between this and Raimi's films.)