In the decade-plus since the remake became the dominant strain of mainstream horror movie, fan reaction to every new project has been consistent: How dare they? How dare they take this sacred franchise, loved by so many, and try to improve on it with slick CGI and bonus brutality? (That the trend continues means somewhere down the line they're also saying, "Two for Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, please.")
But aren't the unlikely successes worth a discount DVD bin full of bleak missteps? Think Zak Snyder making his most enjoyable film to date out of George Romero's zombie watershed Dawn of the Dead, or Gore Verbinski bringing superb taste and production value to The Ring when he was hired simply to replace Japanese actors with English-speaking ones. If films with such suspect motivations can result in something special, why be too cynical about a remake of 1981's micro-budgeted The Evil Dead produced and enthusiastically endorsed by the original filmmakers themselves?
After all, The Evil Dead cries out for revisiting—on the surface, anyway. Originally shot for less than $100,000 at a cabin just outside of Morristown, Sam Raimi's debut is a textbook on (mostly) transcended limitations. But its scenario—five college kids trapped in the woods with a demonic force they've stupidly unleashed—has become a horror holy grail unto itself, cribbed from for decades but arguably surpassed only once, when Raimi himself revised it for the more comedic Evil Dead 2.
Now Raimi has turned the keys to the cabin over to Uruguayan rookie Fede Alvarez, and his faith is justified early on. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues (with an English-language assist from a thankfully restrained Diablo Cody) show reverence for the material but make a crucial tweak to the set-up; instead of collegiate revelry, the group has traveled to the remote woods to help young Mia (Jane Levy) kick a heroin habit. This is helpful in explaining why they'd put up with such foreboding conditions in the first place (the cabin is now an old family retreat, not the Worst Rental in the Smokies) and in keeping the group's reactions believable once some randy vines get ahold of Mia, and their presumably dope-sick charge begins behaving—well, evil. And possibly dead.
What follows is by equal turns novel and familiar to fans of both The Evil Dead and the extreme-horror trend it had a lo-fi hand in predicting. Though Alvarez gained Raimi's attention through his CGI-heavy short film Panic Attack!, Evil Dead shows a clear preference for practical effects pushed to an intense and thoroughly disgusting degree. The fair share of scares and buckets of gore are worthwhile in comparison to what recent competitors have to offer. But, because it more or less plays along with the beats of the original, the middle section of the film feels like a heavy-metal cover of a pop song—the hooks are the same, but the volume calls the sincerity into question.
The result is an Evil Dead that doesn't seem concerned with living up to the franchise's good name. Most of the same fans who spot the requisite in-jokes—like the Delta 88 nestled in the leaves behind the cabin—may become impatient waiting for Alvarez to shout out the wit that so deeply informs Raimi's original, from its goofy rhythms and energy to the heroic cowardice that made Bruce Campbell's Ash an icon of self-aware horror. Alvarez does make the right choice to structure any Ash-like character out of the story altogether—recasting the role would have sunk the film from the start—but its reluctance to engage in the cartoony glee of the original stinks of missed opportunity. As scary as Raimi's film is, despite and even because of its tone, there may be no good way to reconcile the remake's fashionably oppressive tenor with its jags of amusement. But we'll never know until someone else gives it a shot, because Alvarez opts for boring success over the possibility of interesting failure.
Still, my own first impression was that Evil Dead might be an effective remake for what the premise offers outside its legendary wrapping. If we're not faulting it for what it doesn't even try, there's a fair amount to recommend. Jane Levy's performance—if not those of her less capable castmates—is a valuable rarity, hopefully made good on soon in the sort of movie that can actually make a young actress a star. And the film is wonderfully extreme in both its recycled kills and impossibly bloody climax, which ups the stakes by diverging from the original. Evil Dead is a credible reimagining—they just happen to have imagined all the fun right out of it.