After you've watched Evil Dead, come back and listen to Slate's Spoiler Special:
I have a thing about hand trauma—many of my nightmares, the really gnarly kind you have when you wake up too early and drop restlessly back to sleep again, involve horrible things happening to my own or others’ hands. So Evil Dead, Fede Alvarez’s remake of the 1981 no-budget cult classic directed by Sam Raimi, robustly carried out its mandate of turning my stomach: In it, characters’ hands are sawed off with electric carving knives, shot full of nails from a nail gun, infected with demonic viruses that cause their flesh to blister and boil, and in the movie’s climactic girl-on-demon battle—no, I won’t tell you that last hand story, not for fear of spoilers but because it’s just too freaking gross to revisit.
Yet, like many of the people surrounding me in the screening room—some of them decked out in Evil Dead cosplay outfits—I was also laughing out loud as I peered out from behind my own (thankfully unsevered) fingers at the ludicrous bodily harm inflicted on the movie’s characters: five pretty young people stranded in a remote cabin, in the classic setup familiar from countless movies including Raimi’s original (and parodied in last year’s slasher send-up The Cabin in the Woods). This new Evil Dead doesn’t mix comedy and horror with quite the cheeky verve of the original, but to be fair, that would be a pretty tall order. Raimi and Bruce Campbell—the lantern-jawed star of the original Evil Dead and its follow-ups, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness—serve as co-producers and handpicked the director Alvarez, a visual-effects specialist from Uruguay making his feature-film debut. The resulting 91-minute screamfest will appeal to young splatter fans unfamiliar with the series’ history, while alienating only the most unforgivingly hardcore Raimi-heads.
This new Evil Dead makes two important changes to the five-kids-in-a-cabin template. First off, it foregrounds the sibling relationship between two of the demon-bait youngsters, David (Shiloh Fernandez) and Mia (Jane Levy), who have been semi-estranged since the recent death of their mentally ill mother. And second, the script (by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, with an uncredited writing pass by Diablo Cody) makes Mia a heroin addict whose friends have spirited her off to this gloomy place in an attempt to shepherd her through the withdrawal phase of her recovery.
Turning the demon-possession angle of the original into an allegory for addiction was a smart way to update the Evil Dead story—it not only grounds Mia’s struggles against Satan in a recognizable psychological reality, it also gives the other characters an at least vaguely logical reason to stay in that dank, spooky cabin (seriously, this is not a well-appointed cabin) even after very bad things start to befall them. After all, aren’t glazed eyes, foaming at the mouth, and shrieks alternating with guttural curses just par for the course from a junkie in withdrawal? The gang of friends even includes a registered nurse (Jessica Lucas) armed with hypodermic needles and powerful sedatives, just in case Mia gets hard to handle. What could go wrong?
Well, for starters, the vegetal rape. In one set piece lifted almost wholesale from the original, as Mia attempts to escape through the woods she’s attacked by a malevolent vine that, after shooting out tendrils to shackle her at the wrists and ankles, wends its horrifying way up her skirt. Though penetration is only implied, not shown, it’s nonetheless a tough scene to sit through—and one that’s clearly meant to feel painful and disturbing, not luridly “sexy,” for the viewer. In general, this Evil Dead (centered, unlike the earlier trilogy, around a female protagonist) feels curiously unsexist, even at times weirdly feminist. Sure, several attractive women (along with some cute if somewhat anemic guys) get maimed and dismembered before our eyes, but this time, sisters are doin’ it for (and sometimes to) themselves.
Later, possessed by the ancient demon/biological virus/ineffably evil whatsit that invaded Mia’s body in the woods, another luckless protagonist will robotically slice off a chunk of her own face—only to have another character slip on the bit of errant flesh like a dropped banana peel. What kind of a sicko am I that I let out a simultaneous laugh-scream (that patented Sam Raimi crowd reaction) at the sheer hyperbolic gore of that whoops-I-stepped-on-a-cheek pratfall? (The same kind as everyone else in the audience, I guess.) It was like a gag two sick-minded fifth-grade boys would come up with on a sleepover—what’s the grossest thing you can imagine?—and laughing at it felt cathartic and funny and freeing.
Though it never channels the raw DIY energy of the original Evil Dead series—what big-budget version could?—this polished, clever remake remains true to the spirit of the original, which was at once viscerally terrifying and weirdly lighthearted. If, like me, you’re a viewer repelled by the sadistic “torture porn” trend in horror (Hostel, Saw, etc.) this romp might remind you of the cleansing properties that are still to be found in a good old-fashioned B-movie bloodbath. If you’re someone who just plain doesn’t like horror, one of those people who feels like passing out at the sight of even clearly fake gore on-screen (no judgment here—I live with one), then you’d better get out of the cabin and make a run for the car right now. Wait, I’ll get you the car keys. Let me just open this creaky trap door down to the basement …