Movie review: the 'Evil Dead' remake

I caught the remake, reboot, reimagining, whatever, of the horror classic “Evil Dead” on DVD the other day.  It’s an interesting test case for remake-mania.  I watched the original, which I hadn’t screened in years, on Netflix immediately afterward for comparison purposes.

The virtues of the remake are clear enough: higher production values, particularly in the sound and special effects department; a real character arc for the brother and sister who serve as protagonists, with an interesting parallel drawn between drug addiction and demonic possession; and vastly upgraded acting.  I say that with all due appreciation for the great Bruce Campbell, whose magnificent buffet of ham and cheese didn’t really open for business until the “Evil Dead” sequels.  In the original, he’s young, earnest, and stiff, only loosening up a bit towards the end.

The director of the remake, Fede Alvarez, is respectful to the original, but not afraid to tweak and firm up the plot in a few crucial places.  The summoning of the Evil is a more straightforward act of willful negligence, as one of the characters reads the dread incantation from the Book of the Dead (creepily re-imagined as a crazy soup of margin notes and clumsy redaction efforts by readers it has tormented over the years.)  In the original, the kids play a recording of someone reading the incantation, and all hell breaks loose.  That always seemed like cheating.  (“Yeah?  So what?” I can imagine the sarcastic, taunting demons saying, right before Bruce Campbell pokes them in the eye.)  The Evil spreads to its victims in a less random manner as well.

But still, it is a remake – unless you want to read extra layers of meaning into the post-credits stinger – and I’ve just plain reached my remake limit.  Also, there’s always been something astonishing about what young Sam Raimi and his crew of commando filmmakers were able to accomplish on a shoestring budget in the original.  One of the best things about watching the remake on DVD is browsing through the behind-the-scenes extras, getting a look at the expensive modern cinematic hardware that was employed, and wondering how the heck Raimi and company did so much with a van full of random junk.

It’s also strange to watch the “Evil Dead” story unfold again, after Joss Whedon’s “Cabin in the Woods” so thoroughly deconstructed and satirized its genre and imagery.  It feels like the “Evil Dead” remake is trying to retell a story that “Cabin in the Woods” already had the final word on.

Alvarez doesn’t try to mimic Raimi’s unique visual style, which is to his credit, but watching the old “Evil Dead” on Netflix made me miss the old Raimi flair for weird angles and comic-book shot framing.  The kid who made “Evil Dead” still comes out to play occasionally – the scene in “Spider-Man 2” where Doctor Octopus attacks the doctors working on him, the first Wicked Witch of the West appearance in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” where she’s zipping around and shrieking at people like one of the “Evil Dead” demons.  But we don’t see young Sam as often as I’d like.  Take his zillion-dollar budgets away, strand him at a cabin in the woods with Bruce Campbell and a few cameras, and let’s see what happens.