Evil DeadPromotional posters for Evil Dead, the remake of Sam Raimi’s 1981 cult classic, bill it as, “THE MOST TERRIFYING FILM YOU WILL EVER EXPERIENCE.”  The tagline is bold enough for a pedestrian to do a double-take, and condenses the appeal behind horror films down to a single sentence.  Evil Dead’s tagline is reminiscent of a carnival attraction daring you to enter; curiosity sells no matter how many times you’ve seen the show.  The reincarnation of the original franchise has not lost the tongue-in-cheek sensibility that helped define Raimi’s trilogy.  Sam Raimi, and Bruce Campbell – who played Ash, the original films’ knight-errant – step into production roles on this remake.  In his directorial debut, Fede Alvarez manages to wring every last drop of blood from a cabin in the woods.

Alvarez makes an effort to insert a semblance of complexity into the motivation for the film’s young adult protagonists to drive from away from civilization and off into isolation.  Mia (Jane Levy) is taken to an old family cabin by her friend, Olivia (Jessica Lucas), and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) in a merciless effort to help Mia kick her heroin addiction.  Rounding out the cast’s five victims are Mia’s brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore).  The horror begins with Mia’s addiction, making the threat of self-harm ever-present.  Mia receives only brief respite after tossing her heroin down a well, before Eric recites some magic words from a very bad book discovered in the basement (with covers that are neatly tucked into a jacket sewn from human skin), and the battle against demons begins.  Alvarez drops the original’s focus on the haunted forest and builds terror in the domesticity of the cabin.  Despite Raimi’s remarkable 1981 scare tactics, this time, I don’t think the cameraman was running through the woods ducking branches, and the demons don’t attack in the form of falling trees.

The brutal intimacy of Raimi’s original came from a horror story that only needed five characters and a location.  Both Raimi and his characters were put in an inescapable position of fighting their hardest with limited resources.  Alvarez’ tricks aren’t quite so visible on screen as Raimi’s, but he manages to draw the most utility from the original’s thematic essentials.  The foremost desire of Alvarez’ characters is survival.  The young horror director Ti West has also been developing a stripped down method for scaring the audience, although his scares are much more subdued than Alvarez’.  The sexual tension between the friends from 1981’s The Evil Dead is, here, practically nonexistent.  Even the ambiguous eroticism between tree and woman has been deemphasized to a moment of straight-faced slithering.

The antagonists in Evil Dead are the friends, forced to fight the bad spirits that progressively possess each one.  The film escalates at such a quick pace, that it is a relief to hear Eric reject the proposition to take Mia to a hospital, and opt to continue the fight in the woods.  The friends are resigned to destroy themselves for some greater good (a dilemma in which Alvarez revels with the subtlety of an electric carving knife).  The conflict is timeless yet effective, whether externalized in a needle, or a book of spells.

Demons aside, Alvarez maintains a sense of urgency in his portrayal of violence by showing in full its bodily toll.  He moves the film briskly from one blood splattered set piece to the next.  The characters’ weapon choice is like a sadistic version of “I Spy.”  Alvarez should be recognized in contemporary horror for risking a story that demands more than merely heightening the same taboos that would have upset parents in the 1960s.  The social criticism in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), sexual psychology of Repulsion (1965), and emotional excess in Eyes Without a Face (1960) helped bring horror into a familiar context.  Evil Dead employs a similar tactic of confronting the terror that exists in the human body.  Alvarez depicts a struggle of man versus man that is not novel, but succeeds in its direct approach to visual impact and character-driven conflict.  The horror of the past decade is distinctly modern in its vivid rendering of any shock the director could possibly concoct.  Unfortunately, this invites horror filmmakers, Alvarez included, to rely on spectacle, a technique of storytelling that’s been exploited and critiqued since the days of Aristotle.