I’m not sure what I expected when I rented the 2013 Evil Dead re-make. Maybe I was hoping for a few scares, or at least a few laughs. Or maybe I’m just another aging nerd wallowing in nostalgia.
The original Evil Dead (1981) is often described as a cult classic, and it launched the careers of filmmaker Sam Raimi and B-movie star Bruce Campbell. Like most horror films of that era, Evil Dead was exploitative popcorn fare that was often more funny than scary. In fact, the Evil Dead franchise morphed into a deliberate horror/comedy in the second film and an action/comedy by the third film. If the original Evil Dead is remembered fondly, it’s a fondness for its excesses and failures. It was ultra-violent even by the standards of the time, but the filmmakers lacked the skill and resources to make the gore look believable. Instead, viewers were treated to buckets of obviously fake blood and corpses made of play-doh. To describe the characters as one-dimensional would be generous, and the acting was sub-par even by the low standards of the slasher genre. And, of course there was the infamous tree rape scene. It was gratuitous and sleazy (Raimi later stated he regretted including it), but it was hardly out of place in a film that was clearly pandering to the base instincts of its (presumably) teenaged audience.
Put simply, the original Evil Dead was an amateurish horror film produced for bored teenagers looking for a few cheap thrills. It was a surprising success and seems to have entertained its core audience back in ’81. In a sane world, that would have been good enough, and no one would have remembered Evil Dead except for a handful of horror buffs. But we don’t live in a sane world. We live in a world where Hollywood keeps producing expensive movies based on 70 year old characters from children’s comics. We live in a world where a movie franchise based on a line of children’s toys is one of the biggest hits of the past decade. We live in a world where the nerd is king and every piece of pop culture detritus must be re-packaged and re-sold (often to the exact same people who bought the first copy).
And so we get an Evil Dead re-make. By a few superficial measures, it’s superior to the original. The budget is obviously much larger, so the filmmakers didn’t have to cut any corners. It has the slick look of a major Hollywood production. The new cast are marginally better actors than the originals (and better looking, too). And the gore is far, far more realistic. The special make-up effects crew earned their paycheck.
And yet the film still feels like a pale imitation. Perhaps that’s unavoidable with most remakes, but I think it has more to do with the obsessive reverence for the original. Rather than simply make a new movie with some of the same ideas, the filmmakers went through a checklist of every big moment from the Evil Dead franchise and crammed them all into one movie. There’s the signature Evil Dead camera which chases the characters through the woods. There’s violence with a chainsaw. The heroine loses a hand because the original hero lost a hand in Evil Dead 2. Bruce Campbell appears and says “groovy.” Even the freakin’ car from the first movie, an Oldsmobile Delta 88, has its own cameo. And there’s a tree rape scene. It’s significantly toned down from the original, and yet it feels more gratuitous because its purpose isn’t even to titillate so much as to remind older viewers of the same scene in the original. Or to put it another way, the nostalgia is the titillation.
The sad thing is that nostalgia is about the only thing that the Evil Dead remake does well. On the few occasions when the filmmakers deviate from the source material, they fail badly. The remake spends far more time trying to get its audience to care about the characters, all for nothing because the characters are just as paper-thin as the originals. And the reason you go to a movie called Evil Dead is to see some violence inflicted on annoying people, not learn about their tragic mommy issues. Also, switching the gender of the hero might have been a great idea if executed well, but lead actress Jane Levy just doesn’t have the chops to carry the story. Bruce Campbell is not a great actor, but he had a goofy charisma which was, more often than not, the best thing about the Evil Dead franchise. Perhaps Levy will have that sort of appeal one day, but in 2013 she’s indistinguishable from every other starlet.
To sum up: not scary, not funny, not memorable on its own merits, and altogether a complete waste of time.