A few cliches remain, but ‘Evil Dead’ is genuinely scary

Jane Levy in TriStar Pictures' horror EVIL DEAD.
Jane Levy in TriStar Pictures’ horror remake of “Evil Dead.”

‘Evil Dead’
Director: Fede Alvarez
Stars: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Because the sequels took a goofier stance, it’s easy to forget that Sam Raimi’s first, scrappily no-budget 1981 film “The Evil Dead” is a serious, harrowing experience that only masochists would consider a fun time. The new sorta-remake of Raimi’s breakthrough, unexpectedly co-produced by him — one could say inexplicably, considering the Diablo Cody screenplay credit — retains the intense, genuinely nightmarish tone of the original. Here, as there, being forced to perform self-amputation doesn’t, a la “Evil Dead II,” result in an amusing Ernest Hemingway joke.

As with the original, a quintet of collegiates visit a creaky cabin, where one of them finds — and very foolishly reads aloud from — a mysterious book made of human skin and written in dried blood. Inevitably, a demon latches onto the one (Jane Levy) who’s supposed to go cold turkey from a smack habit, who promptly goes from sickly to a super-carnivore prone to “Exorcist”-y obscenities.

“Cabin in the Woods” was supposed to end audiences’ preoccupation with the titular horror cliche, and this new “Evil Dead” gets major brownie points for playing it completely straight anyway. It also, alas, subscribes to the notion that characters ought to behave idiotically, none moreso than Levy’s dedicated brother (Shiloh Fernandez), whose insistence that his sister’s merely in the grips of withdrawal extends well past being monstrously delusional.

Director Fede Alvarez powers through the inanities and inconsistencies, cranking up the dread with a pukey color palette and an army of fog machines. There’s few bodies to rip through, so the final survivors are kept inhumanly spry. It’s safe to say few screen characters have sustained this much physical damage and (almost) lived, with one taking hits from a kitchen knife, a syringe (to the eye!), a nailgun and a crowbar.

Is it the most terrifying film you will ever see (as per the ads created by the studio)? No. That would be the “Up” documentaries. But it’s effective, despite the inevitable fan service, including a post-credits gag that isn’t quite in keeping with the grueling tone. Its uneasy gender politics do prove interesting. The demon-parasite (or whatever) first enters the picture as a tentacle-thing crawling into Levy’s nether regions (in an equivalent of the original’s notorious tree-rape sequence). The women go first, leaving it up to the dudes to sort out — but don’t think it won’t find a silly way to get itself a Final Girl.


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