I felt a great sense of relief walking out of the theatre last night after seeing Evil Dead for what was the first of likely many times. Relief in that I finally got a chance to see the thing, relief in that it was an absolute blast and really well done and relief in that all the buildup and hype and noise surrounding the project was justified in spades. It would have been a profound letdown to have been given a less-than-stellar film that didn’t live up to all the excitement, expectation and hysteria that preceded it.
I was actually supposed to see it Tuesday evening, having landed a screening pass via the CW Austin (of all places) but it fell through. Tuesday afternoon we were hit with a mother of a thunderstorm here in Austin and after I picked my son up from school, the deluge was so heavy that he and I had to pull off the road and wait a good twenty minutes before it was even remotely safe to drive. Considering the timing of getting him where he needed to go and the time back to the theatre, I decided it was better to be safe and smart and just go home. I hated making this choice because I was so excited for the film but also because I relished the idea that we’d have an early review on our site. I was frustrated to be letting our people down but ultimately resolute in feeling that being responsible was likely the better way to do it. Damn it.
Okay, onto the film itself. Most of you have read and re-read the basic framework of the story: Mia (Jane Levy) is brought to a remote, family owned cabin by a group of friends (Eric played by Lou Taylor Pucci, Olivia played by Jessica Lucas and Natalie played by Elizabeth Blackmore) and her wayward brother (David, played by Shiloh Fernandez) to help her break a heroin habit. They stumble upon the Necronomicon and, through a series of poor choices, call forth a vengeful demonic force that wreaks all manner of havoc on the group. This simple plot framework (kicking the addiction) I think actually works in a stronger way than just a recreational trip into the woods. Because her well being is on the line, these people are committed in a way casual friends on a booze and sex trip might not be. I felt this was smart in terms of a plot device and works well as a reoccurring reference point once things start to go downhill.
Before I get into lavishing praise on the bulk of the film, I do want to talk about a couple gripes I have in the first part of the film. At the start, we’re thrown into the middle of a scenario where a teenage girl is being pursued by a group of people intent on capturing her and ridding her of the demon. The visuals are really good and the cinematography is excellent but it is confusing to try to figure out when this might be happening, what the circumstances are etc etc. It felt uneven. On the one hand, it was arresting to have to watch a family destroy the living body of their loved one but on the other hand we don’t know these people so the impact isn’t felt as strongly as it was intended.
Second gripe, the introduction of our main characters over the first twenty minutes or so felt somewhat wooden and unnatural. While the choice by these people of committing to help Mia kick her habit is admirable, the way in which they interact with each other is somewhat stilted and clunky. I don’t know what to blame this on exactly but I would imagine it has something to do with trying to write a real human back story and struggle into the framework of five people heading to their doom in the woods. Hard to balance deep and shallow at the same time. The film’s only real direct attempts at humor come up at this time and for me were barely workable or good – again, stilted and off-feeling. I will say though that none of the characters are cardboard cutout types (was so happy about this): the bookish guy isn’t a flat out wimp, the seemingly arm candy girl isn’t a worthless ditz and the sibling relationship isn’t out of Lifetime family drama writing 101. So that was good, was dreading a potential jock/slut/nerd setup.
Beyond those gripes, that is it. Once Mia starts to go into withdrawals and is losing control we have the inevitable reading of the words you ought not read out loud and then it just all goes slowly and steadily to hell. What is great about this is that because of her previous behavior, the group is predisposed to dealing with her antics and don’t have their weird-shit triggers set off by the onset of the demonic possession. This was one of the more heartbreaking aspects of the story actually, because these people have been in the same position of having to try to help her kick the habit in the past, they have a slightly weary and pessimistic outlook on the outcome. If this was not a detox trip, I’d think people would start freaking out way earlier.
Anyway, once those words are said out loud we have a real turning point in the film. Mia is savagely attacked in the woods (by the woods) after a failed escape attempt and essentially brings the evil back into the fold to wreak all manor of destruction on these poor people. It builds slowly, steadily at that point with increasingly disturbing outbursts of violence and confusion. Once it becomes clear something otherworldly is afoot, any real attempts to fight against it are basically pointless. Mia is not Mia anymore and everyone there is going to pay the price.
And man oh man, do they pay for it. A lot has been said and written about director Fede Alvarez’ dedication to using practical effects versus CGI stuff especially when it comes to gore and blood. Thank the lord for this because I truly, sincerely believe that without this decision, Evil Dead would have devolved into a muddled mess of garbage effects and suspension of disbelief strong enough to hold up a bridge. Instead, as each successive thing happens, we’re drawn into it more and more precisely because of how real and how unpleasant it looks. If it was all computer crap, it’d be very easy to tell and even easier to check out of the story as the viewer.
But no, there is no audience relief to be found in bad effects. You are grabbed by the throat by the realistic and disturbing nature of the effects and given very little opportunity to ever catch your breath from about midway all on through to the end of the film. Also, it doesn’t feel like all we’re doing is jumping from one effects payoff to another – instead it feels like the growing force of the evil contained in the book and in Mia is getting stronger, meaner. It didn’t feel like a gimmick that each thing is progressively more violent and foul, it felt like it made sense. And I’m not (for your benefit as well as my own glee) going to get into the final act of the film and the utterly insane places it goes: just rest assured, there is a good chance you’ll want to stand up and cheer (like many in my audience did) at some of the latter moments of the final act. I’d rather you all get to see those beautiful things for yourselves.
The craft of the film as a whole is quite remarkable. I’ve talked about the effects and the shooting style (with loving but merely slight nods to the board-cam style of Raimi in the original) which are strong and confident and keep the pace strong from start to end. There is also a crafty play against our expectations of jumps and scares at times that renders you unsteady, anxious. It is damned brilliant and utilizes the preconceived expectations of the audience against them.
I think it is important to point out a few other aspects of the production that were impressive:
For one, the art direction was nothing short of perfect. It would have been so easy, SO EASY to just dress the cabin and area like 10,000 other horror movies and call it a day but they really took that part seriously and made the surrounding forest its own character, the cabin a real thing. They don’t overdo the props and they take advantage of every opportunity to add grit to everything without making it look like a soundstage all dolled up.
For another, the score is a thing of beauty. Roque Baños has crafted a steady, ballsy collection of music that dances around the scenes in always the right way. There is a delicate timber to some parts, a frantic static and crash to others but it all adds up to a very dynamic piece of music that fits beautifully with everything Alvarez is doing on screen.
Finally, the performance by Jane Levy as Mia is just absolutely badass. Watching her go from victim of drugs to doted upon loved one to unsteady addict to violent demon is nothing short of fantastic. The commitment to every stage is perfect. Perfect. She just owns the role in every way that matters and makes us invest in her survival. You really don’t have a choice. She could not have done a better job – mucking through water and mud and blood and all else to produce an iconic and, I might argue, timeless heroine.
So, bringing this all home, this was an utterly grand bit of filmmaking. While the early stages suffered from some clunkyness, the film as a whole is a triumph in that it delivers on the promise of living up to the legacy of the original. It does not let you down, it does not disappoint and it does not (I repeat not) pull any punches. This bloody, intense chapter in the Evil Dead legacy is not only a worthy addition to that group but stands alone as one of the best remake/re imaginings I’ve seen in many years. Hat is off to all involved and here’s hoping it brings some serious dollars at the box office. We all need more of Evil Dead’s intensity and creativity in the horror genre’ and since money talks, we as a fanbase need to do a lot of talking about this one. Get out and see it as soon as you’re able.