When Sam Raimi made his 1981 classic The Evil Dead, he didn’t have much experience in the way of writing, directing, or producing feature films, but that didn’t stop him from creating a horror movie that is both beloved by fans and respected by critics. He’s certainly not the only inexperienced filmmaker to knock it out of the park, but that’s not exactly a recipe for success. You would think that if the powers that be think that the franchise is ripe for a reboot, they’d at least get someone experienced to handle it. Instead, they gave it to a first-time director (Fede Alvarez), a first-time writer (Rodo Sayagues), and a relatively inexperienced cast. And it feels like it.
On the surface, the new version is similar to the old: a group of friends go out into the woods to an isolated cabin, where weird and scary stuff starts to happen. This time around, it’s an intervention for Mia (played by Jane Levy) to help break a drug habit, and her detox-induced craziness is a great reason for the others to completely ignore her when she tries to tell them that something unusual is afoot. But they continue to hold onto that idea well beyond the point at which they have solid evidence that something really is going on, and they pay the price for that.
It’s really unfortunate for Evil Dead that The Cabin in the Woods came out only a year ago because comparisons between the two are unavoidable. It’s even worse luck that both of them have characters that kind of look alike – Evil Dead has Eric, played by Lou Taylor Pucci, while The Cabin in the Woods has Marty, played by Fran Kranz – but behave in completely opposite ways. Whereas Marty is consistently the voice of reason and tries to warn his cabinmates against doing stupid things like reading chants out of a weird book found in the basement, Eric is the guy who does the obviously stupid things and then adamantly denies any weirdness. In all cases where they overlap, The Cabin in the Woods is the better film, and I was acutely aware of that while watching Evil Dead.
The biggest problem you’ll notice while watching Evil Dead is that it’s completely uninspired. There’s a long period at the beginning of the movie when the characters are just standing around talking to each other, leaving the audience to wonder whether the movie seems bad because it was written that way or because it’s being acted that way. I can assure you that it’s both. The slow pacing and poor execution reappear several times throughout the film, usually accompanied by a soundtrack that frequently resembles a siren spinning up.
But Evil Dead does have one big bright spot, though: the effects. Someone at the studio clearly forgot to tell the effects people that they were working on a crappy movie because they pulled out all the stops. There is a lot of blood and violence in Evil Dead, and surprisingly much of it is practical rather than digital. It’s some of the most messy, excessive, and wonderful gore I’ve seen in quite a while. The audience at the sold-out opening night show I attended frequently punctuated the movie with that special kind of groan that signifies simultaneous pleasure and repulsion, and even when it was pretty obvious what was coming next, the movie frequently delivered something that at least met (and usually surpassed) expectations.
It may be worth seeing Evil Dead on the big screen just so you can fully appreciate just how impressive all the effects are, but that will probably just serve to emphasize just how unimpressive everything else is. Unfortunately, the movie has already earned back well more than its relatively small budget, so if you miss Evil Dead in its theatrical run, you can be confident that studios will want to pump out a lot more of the same.