SXSW Review: Evil Dead

We’ve all heard the story before.  There’s a cabin in the woods, off the beaten path.  It’s alone and isolated – the perfect place for some kids looking to get away from it all. Little do they know that something dark and hideous is lurking in those woods.

It’s not just because this is a remake of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead that we know this story.  It’s the basis for more scary campfire stories and ’80s horror movies than you can shake a sharpened, gore-drenched stick at.  As horror plots go, it’s somewhere up there with “it was a dark and stormy night.” It’s not for nothing that the original Evil Dead picked that particular cliché to build its story around. There is little quite as entertaining as the familiar doing what you expect exactly as you expect it. Raimi and company back in the 1980s counted on that fact to make their first feature financially successful (a film’s primary goal after all). Raimi and company in 2013 are still counting on that fact.

That said, director Fede Alvarez’s new Evil Dead is not a recreation of or homage to the original. Beyond the basic plot and the return of a few of the most well-known sight gags from the first two Evil Dead films, it is generally its own animal.

Yes, it’s still a group of 20-somethings holed up in a cabin in the woods. Rather than looking for a party, young David (Shiloh Fernandez) and a group of friends he hasn’t seen in quite some time have gathered together to help his sister Mia (Jane Levy) kick drugs cold turkey, even if it means being locked up in  a cabin in the middle of nowhere.

Which is a good start as far as it goes.  Unfortunately, it’s as far off the beaten track as anyone is willing to get, and it’s not long before the script by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues (with an uncredited polish by Oscar winner Diablo Cody) starts heading back to very safe genre waters.

Bad things have been happening in the cabin it seems. Bad things which can be traced back to a book written on human skin, sealed in plastic bags and wrapped in barb wire to keep anyone from opening it and reading from it. So naturally, intellectual teacher Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) immediately does just that.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a good horror movie if characters tried to avoid making obviously bad decisions in order to advance the plot. Wait, scratch that.  It would be a good horror movie if characters stopped doing that.  But it wouldn’t be what audiences want, which is all Evil Dead is really about.

Instead you get characters reading books which literally have “Don’t Read Me” written across them in big bold letters, walking down into dark basements where they have just imprisoned the demonically possessed Mia and continually falling for the “I’m normal now because I’m talking in my normal voice” trick no matter how many times it is pulled.

It’s also got lots and lots of gore, quite a few scenes of self-harm and dismemberment and the requisite punch line before the villain is finally chopped to bits for good and all. In other words, exactly what fans would ask for from a horror film, but nothing more.  It is extremely well-staged – the new version of the infamous tree rape sequence in particular is quite harrowing. But that’s also all it is, with little inventiveness on display besides the visual. Evil Dead is perfectly content to tread in the footsteps of the other recent remakes of ’80s slasher films.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to just make an entertaining movie.  You don’t need to do more than that and frequently if you manage that much you’ve passed a huge milestone.

But there are levels of “entertaining.” One level is to do something new and different no one has seen before.  The other is to just repeat what has been seen to work over and over again ad nauseum, like vodka martinis in James Bond films.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Evil Dead is slickly put together, but it is also vapid and vacuous. It wants to be an entertaining film because that’s its job, but it’s only willing to try so hard at it. For horror fans, that’s probably enough.  There is gore aplenty and over the top violence.  But you’ve seen all that before, and recently. How much is a variation on the theme really worth to you?

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