There was a moment in Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead when Lou Taylor Pucci is bashing in the brains of one his friends, now possessed by a demon, where I couldn’t help but think, “This would be so much better if I cared.” An assured film debut by first-time director Alvarez, Evil Dead delivers on blood-splattered ultraviolence in ways that are shocking and impressive, but unfortunately the technical merits of the demonic mayhem only take it so far.
Alvarez remakes Sam Raimi’s original film, keeping the buckets of blood and outsized violence for which the original franchise is fondly remembered. Where Alvarez (who also co-wrote) fails is that there are no interesting characters, no one to root for, and no one to really care about as they become either the brain bashers or the brain bashed. On the one hand, the movie should be commended for stepping away from the clichéd tropes of bimbo, jock, and all the rest that litter these types of films (as masterfully demonstrated in The Cabin in the Woods) — but by removing those stereotypes, there is instead here a vacuum.
These characters gather in a forgotten family cabin to help ostensible lead, Mia (Jane Levy), kick heroin by going cold turkey. Eventually a Book of the Dead is discovered, words are read aloud, and a malevolent force possesses Mia that leads to gruesome consequences for all involved. Blood is vomited, limbs are severed, promises are made to swallow souls — the usual fare. And that’s the problem: the interactions and dialogue feel like the perfunctory steps that need to be performed like the arcane rituals written in the Book of the Dead itself. There’s awkward and heavy-handed references to a backstory of regret and abandonment that is meant to give some depth but instead feels like something out of a high school play. The closest to an interesting character is the cursed teacher, played by Pucci, who quickly figures out what’s going on and yet still seems to suffer the most physical trauma for his hubris. (Although some of my enjoyment of his character came from the fact that he looks exactly like David Van Driessen from Beavis & Butthead.) Ultimately, there’s no reason given as to why we should care about any of them. There’s not even a surface charm that you’ll miss once they end up bludgeoned or dismembered.
Despite all of this, Evil Dead manages to succeed in other areas. The film is well shot, with Alvarez demonstrating confidence in composition that belies this is his feature-length debut. The sound design is especially effective, using the surround sound to unleash whispering madness and approaching dread. There are some inventive jump scares, and the gore — most of it practical with some CGI tweaking — is impressively accomplished. The finale is as over-the-top as the original The Evil Dead, although this time it makes sense and utilizes less claymation.
Evil Dead offers up some great moments and future iconic shots, but is too often bogged down by the fact that the bold designs of body mutilations wasn’t carried over to crafting the characters. While hard for a film like this to shine in the shadow of the brilliant deconstruction of the genre found in Cabin in the Woods, Evil Dead does occasionally sparkle, and it makes me curious to see what Alvarez does next. Unless it’s Evil Dead 2.