The Evil Dead is a seminal classic in the world of horror cinema. It announced the existence of Sam Raimi to the world, became embroiled in controversy due to what was considered graphic content at the time, and initiated at least two generations of horror fanatics into the idea that a horror film could also be joyously creative. If there's one thing that drives the original film, it's the feeling that Sam Raimi was completely intoxicated by the opportunity to try many of the things that had been lurking in the back of his imagination for years, and not just in the way of gore and gross out, but even in the nuts and bolts of cinematography, sound design and so on. It was a feeling of hysterical glee, as if Raimi himself had been trapped in some unseen dimension for centuries and was finally free to pour all of his creative energy into something. It's two sequels became increasingly goofier and were instilled with more and more of Raimi's love of The 3 Stooges, but the first film is a horror film through and through, and some of the sense of danger that it conveyed was due to the audience being completely unsure of where the madmen behind the camera were going to be willing to take them. It served Raimi and the film well that it had a barely perceptible aroma of sleaze about it as well. It's the kind of film, especially at the time, that upon first viewing, truly left all possibilities open. The audience could not be at all sure they were not going to end up seeing anything they would want to "unsee." Luckily, the film hits hardest in that particular way early on and then abandons it for the rest of the film, relying on tension, creative camera work, the charisma of Bruce Campbell and it's over wound energy to deliver all of the things it does.
Evil Dead, the remake/reboot just released this weekend, is a very different experience. Experience is the key word as well. The word was featured prominently in the marketing for the film and having finally had the opportunity to see the film, I now completely understand why. It is exactly that, an experience, and though it might not quite live up to what the first poster for the film claimed (that it was "The Most Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience"), it is by far, the most thoroughly horrific American horror film released in a long time. This film has no interest in dragging itself into theaters and going through the same routine the original did. It has the same general ideas in common to the original, but it is, absolutely and completely it's own film. Fede Alvarez isn't drunk on his ability to throw ideas at the audience, he's drunk with the idea of attempting to create the most authentically "horror" film American cinema has released in quite some time. And he succeeded. In the parlance of today's internet denizens, "He succeeded like a boss."
Evil Dead is genuinely intense. It takes about twenty minutes to begin driving that intensity home, but once it begins, it never stops. It's comprised of a full 91 minutes, and by the end, it's almost grueling. It uses just about every kind of horror. There are a few perfectly placed and timed jump scares. There is a whole lot of grinding suspense. It also employs ample amounts of absolutely, breathtakingly gruesome gore, and there are moments of psychological/emotional horror that are just crushing. It doesn't "have you on the edge of your seat" as is so popular to say of more conventional thrillers. Evil Dead reaches out and tries to yank you out of your seat, until your holding on to the arm rests and trying to decide whether or not to continue looking at the screen.
All of that being true, Alvarez somehow manages the minor miracle of never really crossing the line into pure exploitation. It truly is a horror film. It is tense, shocking, bloody, brutal and horrifying. It's never sleazy. It never goes for the cheap moment of turning stomachs with the audacity of the taboo it's breaking. It may turn some stomachs through the success with which it employs tension and suspense and then clobbers it all home with an abundance of gore, but it earns every moment.
It's not unusual for films dealing with demons and possession to focus on the demon/entities being after the human soul, and that's true here as well. One of the main differences between Evil Dead and most of those films is that there is never a reference to the characters being "meat suits" or "meat puppets" or any such thing. Instead, Alvarez chooses to go the route of showing and not telling. There can be absolutely no doubt that the dead in this film are indeed evil and that they have no regard for the flesh and body. That approach also makes the gore of the film more than just a convenient way to add the occasional gross out or to somehow disgust the audience. It's actually part of developing the character of the demons themselves and laying out the degree of danger they pose to the protagonists. This leads to Evil Dead being one of the goriest films given a major nationwide release in decades. It is bloody, and unapologetic about it. Unlike the original film, which got unfortunately swept up in Britain's "video nasty"controversy, this film isn't trying to slide by through the addition of a kind of campy, clownish aspect to it's gore either. It's hardcore, blood red, and plentiful.
Alvarez and company also succeed by using story to eliminate some of the problems that the titular "cabin in the woods" films suffer from. Like many of the films that follow that general story structure, this one too has one character who is sounding the alarm that something is very, very wrong, and none of the other characters are taking them at all seriously. In this case, that character is Mia (played by Jane Levy in a performance that is guaranteed to become a horror fan favorite), and the entire reason the protagonists are in the old "cabin in the woods" is that they've brought Mia there so that she can go through a heroin detox. Heroin detox is a particularly nasty business, and it can involve hallucinations and every variety of ranting and raving one can imagine, which is why the other characters pay Mia no attention when she starts telling them things like, "The woods are alive. There's something out there."
That particular story element also helps to give the rest of the characters some real identity. They're all reacting to it differently, but they are all there because they care about their friend, and this is the best way they know of to attempt to help her. Where it seems that way too many horror movies in the last decade have been filled with characters that are actively unlikable and that the audience is almost left with no choice but to hope they're creatively slaughtered, Evil Dead is filled with characters that are decent people, in a hard situation they've chosen to put themselves in so that they may help someone they love (even before all the demonic lunacy starts). They're all likeable characters and basically all of their actions and reactions make some degree of sense. Their motivations make sense, and in turn, so does everything they do. There's only one example in the film that can possibly qualify as the "nobody would do that" variety of horror film cliche. It can be read that way, but it also does make complete sense in the context of what we know about the character.
Then there's the special effects. All of the effects in the film are practical, no digital effects, and there may not have been a film in the last decade that so perfectly presents itself as an example of what practical effects can do that digital can't. Digital effects are great when it comes to certain aspects of fantastic worlds that can't ever actually exist. But, because of the storyline here, we're never actually shown things that can't exist. Sure, there are people possessed by demons, but they're still people, and practical effects can take people through innumerable transformations more convincingly than digital effects have been able to. Everything in the film feels real and solid, like it exists It will never happen, but when this film isn't nominated for an Oscar in the practical effects category, it will add more proof to just how little the Academy Awards have to do with the quality of the actual work, and instead are concerned with the way the film, producers and marketing are perceived. The effects work is simply outstanding. From the prosthetic effects applied to the "possessed" to the various gore set pieces, everything is astoundingly well done. In combination with the cinematography, they give this reboot one very particular leg up on the original. All of the effects in the film, and the entire way that the visual presentation works, creates a sense of reality that was missing from the first film. It never feels or looks like it should have as many fantastic elements as it does. It's grimy, dark, rich and beautiful in it's own deeply twisted way.
This is not The Evil Dead that many of us grew up with. It's Evil Dead, a similar set of ideas filtered through a different creative lens and mind. That alone is guaranteed to disappoint many fans of the original series, but that disappoint shouldn't be taken as a reflection on this particular film. As it's own stand alone film, it's a ferocious, harrowing cinematic experience that is very much like it's predecessor in one important and wonderful way. It's going to serve as an announcement to the horror community that there is a new writer/director on the scene who understands the genre to it's core and has a great respect for it.
Evil Dead is a must see theatrical experience. This isn't a film audiences should wait to see when it's released digitally and on DVD. This should be seen in theaters, where the full effect of the sound design, the cinematography (which is very good, without being at all showy, it still manages to use the image to convey the sense of the environment and the characters perspective extremely well), and the unhinged energy of the film can be most effective.
This is one kick ass horror film.