A cabin in the woods...five beautiful (but none too bright) teenagers...a mysterious force lurking in the forest...where have we seen this scenario before? In a million horror films, of course -- some inspired, some rather less so -- all stemming back to the same source: Sam Raimi's feature directorial debut, the no-budget horror classic The Evil Dead, which showcased its creator's penchant for wild moving camera shots and gleeful gore and made star Bruce Campbell into a cult icon. Raimi's film may have been made for modest means (its budget was estimated at somewhere around $400,000), but it was successful enough to launch a thousand imitators, rip offs and satires; Raimi himself got into the act when he essentially remade his own film as Evil Dead II, recasting it as a flat out horror comedy. The Evil Dead "formula" is by now so cliche (or so primal, if you prefer) that when Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods satirized it, the filmmakers were able to assume that even audiences who weren't horror buffs would get the joke. All of which begs the question: at this point, is there much reason for an actual, honest to God, legitimate remake of The Evil Dead?
The answer, it turns out, is "not really" -- not that writer/director Fede Alvarez doesn't give it the old college try. His Evil Dead is (if this word can be used in conjunction with such a cheerfully grisly franchise) a handsome production, arguably better made that the original, and certainly better acted; it's also arguably even more violent than the often censored original, with several set pieces sure to have gore hounds drooling. But all the technical polish in the world can't conceal what is an essentially empty technical exercise, one that lacks the beating heart and "let's put on a show chutzpah" of the original movie. The original Evil Dead may have had a budget the size of a postage stamp, but its slapdash nature was part of its charm, the sloppy energy of film students stumbling their way through a first film. Alvarez's film may not have the clumsiness or youthful inexperience of Raimi's, but it also lacks the original film's energy, verve and spirit; going for grisly, it settles on inert.
The basic premise is the same as in the original -- a group of friends (two guys, three girls) trek out to a remote cabin in a desolate looking set of woods for the weekend, and while there, one by one, they are possessed/overtaken by a mysterious spirit, located in the woods and manifesting itself in a ratty looking books of spells. (When will horror movie characters realize that reading ratty looking books of spells is a bad idea?) In the original film, this trip was simply a weekend jaunt; in the remake, our protagonists go to this desolate, rundown cabin in order to nurse their friend Mia (Jane Levy of TV's Suburgatory, quite good) through drug detox. This is a clever twist on the part of screenwriters Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, helping to at least partially explain the typical horror movie idiocy whereby characters don't realize they're in a demonically possessed hell house until it's far too late -- it's a little more believable these characters wouldn't immediately bolt for the hills, believing the initial signs of demonic possession are simply drug with drawl. The new plot angle also makes for some potentially interesting character interaction; Raimi's characters were largely disposable ciphers, but Alvarez is able to sketch his characters with a little more nuance, building a backstory of abandonment and regret between Mia and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) that threatens to become involving...
...until Mia starts "acting out", and the film descends into a special effects show. The truth of the matter is that nobody goes into a movie like Evil Dead expecting deep human interaction -- they go expecting outlandish kills, sequences of gore so wild they became simultaneously horrifying and comic. Raimi's stick puppet characters were perfect for this milieu, disposable faces with so little personality that we were less horrified than fascinated by their grisly deaths. Alvarez and his (surprisingly capable) cast put a lot of work into fleshing out their characters in the first third of this Evil Dead, but all that work is ultimately, arguably, counterproductive; we've invested enough time in the personal stories that it's annoying when the film drops them so the carnage can begin, and it's hard to derive much joy from the scenes of horror when we're watching actual characters put through the wringer.
That was the perverse thing about the original Evil Dead -- there was a real infectious spirit to the original, even with its sequences of tree rape and hands clawing flesh off bone. Evil Dead 2013 seeks to up the ante: here we have a needle sticking into a man's eye, we have a nail gun put to gruesome effect, we have a young woman sawing off her own arm...but Raimi's film announced itself up front as a riff on genre expectations, staging sequences of horror almost like slapstick set pieces, daring its audience to peer through their fingers and wonder that "They did that...?!" Alvarez never quite finds the right tone for his iteration of Evil Dead; we feel jerked around, and not in a good way, asked in the first third to take these characters seriously and then to sort of take a gleeful pleasure in watching them get torn apart in gruesomely clever ways. To take us from a semi-realistic portrayal of drug addiction to an apocalyptic scenario where the sky rains blood, corpses crawl from the ground and a girl has to literally rip her arm out of its socket is a pretty big arc. Alvarez doesn't manage it.
Alvarez is ultimately hurt most by the sheer futility of the whole enterprise. Even when the first Evil Dead was released, the "scary cabin in the woods" scenario smelled a little musty; by now the idea has been worn so thin that just the film's opening shots, of a car driving through Northern wilderness, seem like self parody. (The fact that the aforementioned recent Cabin in the Woods was a sort of brilliant satire doesn't help.) We've seen this before. We've seen it done well, we've seen it done badly, but we've no real reason to see it again. Alvarez certainly doesn't provide one.