“NO! You must not read from the book!”
The setting: a family vacation cabin deep in the woods. The setup: Mia (Jane Levy) is a junkie trying to get clean with the help of family and friends. The twist: the missing squatters who broke into the cabin were possibly into witchcraft, and they left something behind. Faster than you read magic words from a book of the dead bound in human flesh, five friends find themselves in a fight for their lives and their souls to prevent an evil entity from being brought into this world, and they’ll need all the luck, chainsaws, and boomsticks they can get.
Horror fans are almost certainly familiar with the original Evil Dead series directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bruce Campbell, but director Fede Alvarez paints his film not as a re-imagining but as a fresh installment complete with James Bond-esque pre-title setup. The premise is purposeful, an intervention where some old friends who’ve drifted apart are bound in a common cause. What works here is that none of these characters seem particularly important or even likable until everything falls apart. Character begins to ooze out (often literally), giving us heroes to cheer and for more than just their survival instinct.
First, the big answers to the big questions. Yes, there’s a tree rape scene, and no, it isn’t gratuitous. No, there isn’t a character named Ash and no one is trying to fill The Chin’s sizable shoes. And yes, there’s something after the credits. Homage is paid to Raimi and Campbell (familiar props and costumes, for example), but the new Evil Dead carves out a niche of its own. This isn’t an excuse for torture porn; something evil is corrupting those within because it was invited, and the demon’s best trick is to get those victims to target one another.
It may seem like there are only five characters: Mia, the aforementioned junkie; David (Shiloh Fernandez) the unreliable junkie’s brother; Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), a hippie school teacher, Olivia (Jessica Lucas) a hospital nurse, and David’s out-of-sorts doe-eyed girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). But the most interesting character is the setting itself: the cabin in the woods. After Joss Whedon’s film of the same title, it was a given that this popular horror location needed to be turned up a notch (or three) going forward. Fortunately, the practical effects team succeeds in creating a setting ripe for the gore to follow. This is also where the new and improved Book of the Dead really shines, using it as a device to suggest what is happening, why it is happening, and what is about to happen.
Still, not all is well in the Land of the Deadites. Natalie the girlfriend’s back story feels like it was either unimportant or cut for time, relegating her to a disposable character before her mandatory gore scenes grant her a brief moment to shine. Our convenient nurse also seems more of a plot device and future victim than anyone important. The hippie teacher is unable to resist the found book wrapped in barbed wire, inked in blood, and bound in human flesh, and yet he, too, is annoyingly uninteresting until much later.
The payoff is how it all comes together, giving a single survivor the opportunity to earn redemption for the rest. We’re also never told what substance was being abused, and its nonchalant disposal is one of several clever details to seed interesting possibilities for an already discussed followup. It’s hard to imagine what added footage the unrated Blu-ray will contain that kept the theatrical cut down to an R-rating. Enjoy but be warned: you might need a tetanus shot and stitches just watching it.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)