I don't have much to say about the Evil Dead remake that's opening in theaters today. It's a film that Hollywood has been threatening to produce for years and finally did and the final result is... fine. Neither an epic fail nor a bold reimagining that tops the original, Evil Dead 2.0 is content to go about its business with minimal fuss and maximum gore for its slender 91-minute runtime. And I suppose that's all Sam Raimi -- who produced the film along with fellow Evil Dead veteran Bruce Campbell and personally handpicked its director, Fede Alvarez -- really wanted from this unnecessary remake of the 1981 bloodbath that launched his career: a movie that kept the brand name alive without taking any significant creative risks that might scare away mainstream audiences and studios. I walked out of the movie moderately entertained, but also wondering "Is that all there is?"
Part of my lack of enthusiasm is probably due to the fact that I'm not the world's biggest admirer of the '81 Evil Dead, although I understand and respect its place in contemporary horror cinema. I'm far more enamored of its 1987 sequel/remake Evil Dead 2, which benefits from a terrific blend of scares and laughs, as well as more confident direction on Raimi's part. (1992's Army of Darkness is probably the film I've re-watched the most of the original trilogy, even though it barely qualifies as horror.) What the first movie does offer, though, is an object lesson in the power of pure guerilla filmmaking. Despite a lack of money and experience, Raimi and his absurdly dedicated cast and crew got their movie made, solving problems on the fly with whatever limited resources were at their disposal. And working without a safety net encouraged them to take some genuine risks, both in terms of content (that notorious tree rape sequence) and personal safety. That air of unpredictability and sheer go-for-it brio is felt throughout the original Evil Dead and compensates for the film's shaky production values, performances and screenplay.
For all the death and dismemberment on display in the new Evil Dead, the most striking thing about the movie is how safe it feels. Perhaps that shouldn't come as much of a surprise; after all, unlike Raimi back in the day, Alvarez made his movie in carefully controlled conditions on a major studio's dime. His movie isn't going to challenge the system, because it's part of the system. All of the bloodletting (even the brief nod to the original's tree rape) has been vetted and approved by the producers and studio execs and is specifically shot and edited to come thisclose to the line without crossing over. The only real risk Alvarez is taking on -- and it's not an inconsiderable one, I suppose -- is disappointing the fanbase for whom the title Evil Dead still means something. To that end, he honors the spirit of the original as much as possible, dialing way back on the comedy (which, as previously established, I sorely missed) that coursed through the sequels and relying exclusively on practical effects with no overt digital enhancements. The latter aspect of the movie is certainly appreciated -- you don't realize how inured we've become to shoddy CGI-generated gore until you see the Karo Syrup-derived blood flow here. Alvarez and his effects team particularly excel at separating characters from their limbs; there's one bit involving an electric knife and a demon spawn-infected arm that's quite ingeniously disgusting. Needless to say, the crowd went crazy for it.
But those moments of innovation are few and far between. Mostly, Evil Dead delivers meat and potatoes gore -- the right ingredients are there, but not the zest that separates great horror from merely okay horror. The first half of the movie is legitimately terrible, a deathly-dull, wholly half-hearted attempt to humanize the five personality-free victims (including Jane Levy's drug addict, Mia; Shiloh Fernandez's well-meaning dolt, David; and Lou Taylor Pucci's long-haired, Eric) who will be eventually dispatched by the malevolent spirit unleashed by the Book of the Dead that one of them unwisely reads from. (This 45-minute stretch made me appreciate Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods all the more; at least those walking stereotypes were gifted with pithy, self-aware dialogue to deliver.) Things improve considerably when the arms and legs start flying, but even then, I couldn't fully escape the gnawing sense of boredom that ran underneath even the movie's best and bloodiest scenes. Horror is a genre that thrives on catching you off guard -- unsettling you, disturbing you, making you laugh and scream at unexpected moments. No one saw Raimi's Evil Dead coming three decades ago and were unprepared for what it had to offer. This Evil Dead delivers what you expect... and it's the weaker for it.
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