Thirty-odd years ago, Sam Raimi’s low-budget horror opus The Evil Dead emerged from the midnight-movie circuit – where its subversive energies had seen it hailed an instant cult classic – only to hit a brick wall in the UK in the form of the Thatcher era’s political tastemakers, who deemed it first obscene, then a video nasty, unsuitable to be brought into the home.
Having remade most of the other key horror titles of the 1970s and 80s (and started work elsewhere on Raimi’s own back catalogue by remaking Spider-Man), perhaps it’s inevitable the movies should get around to turning even its films maudits into saturation-release, mass-market fodder, the kind of Friday night popcorn fare no-one is likely to kick up too much of a fuss about.
Fede Alvarez’s competent redo Evil Dead proceeds from a similar set-up – Lovecraftian bad stuff happens after a group of teens repair to a woodland cabin – but tightens the internal logic: now there are reasons beyond beery partying for its young victims to be there, and reasons they can’t drive away when the carnage cranks up anew.
Addict Mia (Jane Levy) has been brought out to the woods by concerned friends and family trying to coax her off the drugs. No matter that there are a hundred cat corpses hanging in the cabin’s basement, no matter that the party stumbles across a book of spells bound in what looks ominously like human flesh, Mia’s compadres feel they can’t leave her behind, even as her addiction leaves them vulnerable to dark gathering forces: demonic possession is easily misinterpreted as an extreme form of cold turkey.
Though it’s become enshrined, Raimi’s film was a rough-and-ready proposition, with a snickering attitude to sexual violence that got it into trouble with the censors even before the judiciary stepped in. Dropping the “The” makes for a less definitive Evil Dead – Alvarez’s take might almost be retitled An Evil Dead, both a brisk reshuffling and an amplification of the original series’ ideas and images – but also suggests something sleeker, more manageable.
This version cuts its way through the kind of graphic material that wouldn’t have been allowed in multiplexes circa 1981, and sublimates its misogyny. The guys (Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci) furrow their brows while the women around them succumb to evil, their sudden reversal to sobbing little girls at moments of high tension earning them stays of execution that only make the situation direr.
Emerging from a series of successful Internet shorts, Alvarez proves respectful of the franchise, and appreciably careful with his set-ups and pay-offs, lingering on a wooden stair buckling just long enough for it to register a minute or so before it gives way with life-threatening consequences, and showing just enough of a blade grazing a bared kneecap for us to feel the character’s pain.
If it remains chiefly a fanboy item, too relentlessly splattery to say anything of substance, this Evil Dead at least means all its yucky, queasy and nasty effects, and – unlike last year’s winking deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods, which kept letting its audience, characters and leering director off the hook – it wants you to squirm in your seat rather than just sit there sniggering.
The cast, gore-soaked and suffering capably, must have been grateful for the proximity of a hot shower in this particular spiritual halfway house, until the scene where Mia uses it to scald her own flesh – and if you only know Levy as the droll, wisecracking heroine of TV’s Suburgatory, the biggest shock here may be seeing her playing Linda Blair, Sissy Spacek and Leatherface in one bloody go.
Evil Dead opens in cinemas nationwide from today.