I do not consider this review to have any major spoilers. Nothing I discuss in depth happens after the first 20 or so minutes of the film. These details are also not a surprise to anyone who has a passing familiarity with The Evil Dead franchise.
Though her name doesn’t appear in the actual credits of the film, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody’s work on the remake of Evil Dead is easily felt. Structurally, it’s one of the tightest horror film screenplays in recent memory. Everything is layered in from the start to create a strong sense of believability in the over the top paranormal mayhem to come. There are even times where her masterful use of slang and pop culture references are allowed through unfiltered. Who else would have college students sincerely use the phrase “bump uglies” in a horror movie?
After a brutal flashback demonstrating one way to eliminate the scourge of the Necronomicon, we jump to five college students arriving at a remote cabin in the woods. They are there to help their friend Mia (a masterful performance by Jane Levy) detox from a nasty drug addiction. Mia complains about a nasty smell for hours and is ignored until her brother David finds the source. The basement is filled with rotting animals, blood, and a book sealed in barbed wire. The friends have unwittingly woken up the evil of the Necronomicon. Now they are in a fight for their lives against a scourge that will stop at nothing to claim them all.
The original The Evil Dead film is a campy schlock horror masterpiece. It’s filled with disturbing imagery and really shocking plot twists that still hold up today. It was actually remade with a slightly higher budget as the first act of The Evil Dead 2, an interesting spin on horror sequels that has not been replicated with anywhere near the same level of success since.Calling Evil Dead a remake is perhaps a misnomer. It’s a reintroduction to the series by way of a completely new nightmare in a remote cabin. The characters, plot, and tone are almost completely removed from the original. There are no laughs to be had here. Everything is played straight and the effect is intoxicating. You want to look away but the next twist draws your eye back to the screen.
The strength and, sadly, greatest flaw of the film is the new drug addiction angle. As Mia begins to suffer from withdrawal symptoms, her friends refuse to believe anything she says. Olivia, a registered nurse who is leading the detox, warns everyone that Mia will say and do anything to go back home and use again. Even when Mia swears there is a strange woman in the woods and a tree attacked her, no one believes her.
But, that level of distrust is not wielded as effectively as it could be. Mia is the perfect unreliable narrator for the story. She’s flipping out over every imagined slight against her. She begins to behave in irrational ways, walking in circles in the rain and jumping out of windows. Yet the film doesn’t trust us enough to let the ambiguity linger once the book is in play. There is a clear shot of Eric, a school teacher, unwrapping the Necronomicon and invoking the spell that seals their fate. From there, we know every bad thing that happens is a result of the book, not Mia’s withdrawal symptoms.The incantation needs to come into play for Evil Dead to be a real Evil Dead story, but there has to be a more nuanced approach than shifting direction with a big flashing sign. The infamous tree scene–somehow more brutal here than in the original–could have been a lot truer to this film if they didn’t just announce “this is paranormal.” Imagine if Mia started seeing these things and we, the audience, didn’t know what was real. It could have been revealed later on, right before all hell breaks lose, that Eric used the book. Just having the open book on the table could have been enough to cue in more observant viewers before the big reveal.
That missed opportunity does make it seem like a very strong new concept for the series is just tacked on to be different. The results are too layered throughout the film to just be posturing of originality, but in the moment it seems ineffective. The film does regain its footing but there was no need to stumble at all. A moment of disconnect in a horror film can spell disaster by way of a lost audience. Evil Dead does enough to overcome this but should have been so much stronger than it is.
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