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SXSW Review: 'Evil Dead'

No more kidding around in a cult classic's new version

By James Rocchi Mar 9, 2013 10:33AM
Rating: 3.5/5

Less a remake than a cover version --  with the original stripped-down, sped-up but still with a catchy chorus of gasps and screams -- Fede Alvarez's "Evil Dead" transforms Sam Raimi's 1981 debut by raggedly amputating the goofy humor in the first film and drenching what's left in blood and adrenaline. There's no Bruce Campbell on-screen, and the five friends trapped in a run-down cabin in the middle of nowhere aren't just on a getaway but instead helping one of their number kick drugs; the lack of fidelity amps up the fear. When "Evil Dead" and its quotes and tropes have been appropriated, mocked, quoted and riffed on in everything from "Duke Nukem" to "The Cabin in the Woods," you have to wonder how, exactly, Alvarez would retrieve this material from a coffin of age-burnished nostalgia lined with velvet-soft goodwill and stuffed with popcorn cliches; the answer seems to be that you simply do it, pumping violence and viciousness into the film until all the blood rises up to float the story above the landscape of memory the original now resides in.

Bing:More on 'Evil Dead'

This is not to say that this new "Evil Dead" -- scripted by Alvarez and Rodrigo Sayagues, with additional work by "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody -- lacks laughs; all great horror films contain as much bleak comedy as they do brutal violence, with laughter as natural response to the over-amped tension and hyperbolic horror. But the cast and filmmakers never wink or raise an eyebrow to the camera, and their taking it seriously helps immeasurably. Mia, played by Jane Levy ("Suburgatory"), has a serious problem with serious drugs; her older brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) and friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas) gather at the family's abandoned cabin to help her, as nurse Olivia sagely notes, "play 'Cold Turkey'." Once they find that the basement's stuffed with dead animals and a package wrapped in plastic and barbed wire that contains a book bound in human skin, Mia's problems become a lot less important, real fast.

Thanks to the guiding hand of producers Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell, "Evil Dead" has plenty of aesthetic fidelity to the original -- demon-possessed characters speak in the same exact growled low notes as in the original, the camera speeds through the woods like the viewpoint of an avenging spirit, objects and people are shot from the same vertiginous, insane angles. But the effects -- mostly practical when it  comes to people -- are far better, and the re-make also extends far more consideration to the why's and wherefores of the attacking demons than the original, with substantial effect. (One of the first films' more infamous scenes - the sexual assault of a woman by, yes, a tree, complete with sproooooing! sound effects -- gets re-cast here as what it always was, a grim and terrifying invasion; The films' mechanism of evil as something like a virus owes a nod to Cronenberg, but if you're already on a roll, why stop with one horror auteur?)

As in the original, much of the fun of the film comes as the cabin's residents are taken over by soul-destroying demons and turned into engines of destruction; unlike the original, the "fun" here is in quotes, a byproduct of terror and not a counter to it. None of the leads here have Campbell's jut-jawed resilience, but Alvarez gives his cast far worse to handle than Ash ever faced. Levy, extensive make-up on the outside and demonic evil on the inside, gives a superb, tonally-perfect performance; Pucci, as the one voice of reason -- or, rather, voice of insanity -- who realizes that things have gone beyond the normal, is also a stand-out. Again, this new-school remake is a cover version of the '81 film -- with the same chorus of shrieks turned up louder and the second violent verse same as the first -- but this "Evil Dead" feels like it comes from the expression of passion as much as the expectation of profit, and while it's kick-started by memory and name recognition, it most assuredly goes the doomed, dammed distance on its own.

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