Cast: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore
Running time: 91 mins
The lowdown: First time director Fede Alvarez and Jennifer’s Body writer Diablo Cody tackle the seemingly impossible task of remaking one of horror cinema’s most cherished shockers. But, what looked like another moronic retread in the tradition of those Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th botch jobs emerges as a darkly effective and grueling experience. Needles, nail guns and, yes, chain saws are all misused in an atrocity exhibition that stays just the right side of fun. It won’t be everyone’s cup of entrails and the FX make Raimi’s original look like Wallace and Gromit, but if you go down to the woods today you’re in for a big surprise.
The full verdict: Minutes into Evil Dead (the remake drops the original’s ‘The’) it becomes evident the filmmakers are out to make a compendium of classic horror movies, hanging bits of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist and The Shining onto the frame of Raimi’s original story.
Later comes nods to Evil Dead II, French bloodbath Frontier(s) and even The Raid, but this pick n’ mix approach is a wise move after Cabin in the Woods punctured the hoary old tale of teens holidaying in a rundown woodland shack.
It is the early stages of Evil Dead that are most shaky. Discounting a violent pre-credits exorcism presumably tacked on in post-production to get an opening shock, the first act follows the original’s basic structure.
Five young, attractive middle class chain saw baits venture to a cabin owned by the dead mother of brother and sister David and Mia (Fernandez and Levy) to help Mia kick her heroin addiction.
Joining them is pretty trainee nurse Olivia (Lucas), bookish boyfriend Eric (Pucci) and David’s girlfriend Natalie (Blackmore). When they investigate a noise in the cellar and uncover a book bound in human skin, evil is set loose (in a manner far clunkier than the original’s accidental incantation via tape) and it’s all aboard for a ride in which not everyone gets off intact.
The heroin addiction subplot is a smart story addition from Alvarez, Cody and third scribe Rodo Sayagues, forcing the group to put themselves in the middle of nowhere so Mia can cold turkey, while her violent withdrawals are not greatly different from the demonic possession to come.
But, the film’s trump card is in living up to its title: these dead truly are evil and set about physically destroying their host bodies in a variety of wince-inducing ways. Remember the original’s pencil in the ankle? Try a needle below the eye or a tongue down the razor. How about the bodily dismemberment? Here we have amputation by electric carving knife that begs the question, “Why cut straight into the muscle?”
None of this is new or, crucially, scary. And there is no moment of playful surrealism to match Raimi’s set-piece in the original when the entire cabin begins mocking hapless Bruce Campbell.
But the punk spirit of the 1981 classic is retained in the relentlessly outrageous visuals, including the infamous tree-violation that here has a little more narrative justification and a moment when one post-amputee assures aghast onlookers, “I feel much better now.”
Most importantly, debuting director Alvarez understands genre cinema (check out this short on Youtube), knowing when to put the horror in shadow or throw harsh light on it, employing sound to build nervous tension and giving the fans what they want (including drawings in the Book of the Dead based on the poster art from Raimi’s movie, plus Raimi’s ubiquitous Oldsmobile).
And with the oceans of blood, rain, river water, bile, slobber and tears he crams into the 90 minutes, Alvarez has surely crafted one of the wettest movies ever made.
Cabin in the Woods this ain’t, but it’s remarkable to watch thinking the Play-Doh visuals of the original once landed that film on the UK Director of Public Prosecution’s banned list.
Horror fans here can smile with relief as they’re showered with gallons of uncut grue, and even the closing suggestion of a sequel does not seem such a bad idea.