Before I kick into full gear with this review, I feel it's important to point out that I went in really looking forward to this movie. Evidence of my enthusiasm and anticipation can be found here, here, and here. I grew up with the original Evil Dead trilogy, and even bonded with my future husband over an appreciation for all things Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. So when the original film's director and star joined forces to produce a reboot of Evil Dead, I was hopeful rather than outraged. Sitting down among an audience giddy and eager to see gore and horror, I was primed for the scare of my life. Unfortunately, overwrought with tired clichés, entrenched in a thoroughly somber tone, and peopled with barely there characters, Evil Dead was far from the nightmarish yet entertaining ride I hoped for.
You know the plot: friends go to a remote cabin, encounter something sinister, struggle to escape with their lives. As a reboot, the major obstacle Evil Dead has to overcome is making fresh a storyline that countless movies have mirrored since the landmark original. But in the wake of Cabin in the Woods, which expertly skewered and subverted many horror clichés, the "new" Evil Dead feels dated and painfully predictable. Even the cabin and its layouts are very similar with the same decrepit exterior, mournful windows, and ratty basement door that leads to a room filled with odious artifacts. Regrettably, writer-director Fede Alvarez's adheres too closely to the expected tropes of this subgenre and iconography of the franchise, so little about Evil Dead feels new or unexpected.
One noteworthy innovation is why they've come to the woods. This is no worry-free vacation. These five friends have come to help one of their group (Jane Levy) overcome her addiction to hard drugs cold turkey. So when she starts seeing strange things in the woods—like a ghostly pale girl covered in viscera—they assume these are hallucinations, the side effects to her detoxing. It's a clever play on facing demons, and reflects the film's tone, which is far grittier and darker than its predecessor.
From the start Alvarez introduces a level of gore that is cringe inducing if not outright nauseating. While Raimi's Evil Dead was gory, it was comically so. This Evil Dead takes itself very seriously, and in doing so kills the kind of fun I associate with these movies. This is the Evil Dead mythos through the torture porn imagery made popular by Saw and Hostel, and the results are so grisly that it caused much screaming, gagging, and even outright walkouts. Honestly, if I weren't assigned this review, I would have left too. Not because of the gore-- I've seen worse. But I hit a point where I was so disconnected from these characters that I was numb to their peril. What unfolded was disgusting, but not impactful on an empathy level.
Their introductions are so fast that the characters are barely formed before being thrown into a screamy struggle to survive the night. There's a strong-willed nurse (Jessica Lucas), a dangerously curious teacher (Lou Taylor Pucci), a conniving junkie (Levy), her long-estranged brother (a gratingly flat Shiloh Fernandez), and his girlfriend (Elizabeth Blackmore) whose only defining characteristic seems to be her blonde hair. Stereotypes are common in horror, but these characters aren't even easily categorized. So when the plot gets rolling their actions and motivations are totally baffling. For instance, the teacher discovers a book, bound in barbed wire and trash bags in a basement ridden with the corpses of skinned animals. He knows it is a book that must have some ties to witchcraft, so he opens it and begins reading it aloud because…well, because…your guess is as good as mine.
Typically with genre movies I will forgive a lack of sensible plot if the pace is fast-moving and the spectacle is wildly entertaining, but Evil Dead is neither. The pace is gruelingly slow as gruesome set pieces with disturbing close-ups of mutilation cut to moments of calm that are probably meant to build tension, but come off as dead air. I fully thought this movie must have been two hours long, especially the way the ending drags on and on, yet Evil Dead is only 91 minutes. Much of that time is spent setting up plot points that have no payoff, like establishing some redneck witches in the opening who will never resurface. Similarly, there's lots of attention paid to setting up the backstory of this sinister force that's turning friends into murderous fiends, but little of it makes sense, and even less matters in the events of the story. So why bother?
By the final film's climactic battle, I just wanted it to be over. This Evil Dead was shocking in its gore and overtly graphic violence, but not scary. It's gross, but not fun. In attempting to break away from Raimi's shadow, Alvarez willfully abandoned the sick joy of Raimi's movies, making this Evil Dead feel soulless and sadistic. To her credit, Levy is pretty stupendous in this film. Bruce Campbell is a tough act to follow, but Levy does admirably, gamely transforming from brooding twenty-something to raging hell puppet with an impressive zealousness. She's a bright spot in the mess of blood, projectile vomiting, and brutality, but she's not enough to make it enjoyable. Ultimately, my favorite moment came after the credits, and only reaffirmed that the original Evil Dead was both the reason I wanted to love this movie and also the reason I couldn't.