Warning: Spoilers Abound!
My memory has not served me well with the Evil Dead franchise. If you had asked me before I recently re-watched 1981’s The Evil Dead, I would have said it was “all right”, but mostly amateur with some cheap-looking, yet ambitious, special effects. I would have then said that 1987’s Evil Dead II was really just a remake with a bigger budget and better effects. I would have said it was superior to the original.
What I’d say now is that although Evil Dead II did some retrofitting of the story in its first few minutes, it is not a remake. It is, however, a reboot, spinning the story into zany new areas with manic trickery of its cameras and emphasis on humor rather than horror. This, of course, led directly to cult favorite Army of Darkness, which (sorry, fans) I do not enjoy at all. I now believe it’s the original The Evil Dead that is a filmmaking tour de force and should stand alone as a true horror classic.
Oddly, the trepidation I first felt when I learned The Evil Dead was being intentionally remade turned into eagerness. If it was going to return to the roots of the franchise and focus on the horror, with the creativity, energy and style that now make its inspiration such a thrill to experience, then maybe it was an endeavor I could support. My best hope was that by going back to the basics, it might actually reinvent the genre.
Oh, how I let my hopes lead me to unrealistic expectations! It’s not that I didn’t like the new Evil Dead, it’s just that, while solid and well-made with its own unique style, it falls short of being a modern day classic. I’ll leave a complete review to my colleagues; my job here is to compare it to the original. And I’ll try to do that without passing any more judgment than I already have. Luckily, the similarities and differences between the two are significant enough to fulfill my obligation.
Let’s start with their stories. Evil Dead (2013) offers a prologue that may or may not be the same as the “flashbacks” in The Evil Dead (1981). Both tell how the Book of the Dead came to be in the lonely cabin in the woods. It’s more gruesome and mysterious in the new version and I’m not sure you’d understand what exactly was transpiring unless you knew the story of the original. For me, it adds depth to the mythology of the entire franchise.
The story of the young men and women who visit the cabin is completely different in the remake. On one hand, it doesn’t matter because the point is not necessarily why they’re there; instead, just the point that they are there so the horror can begin. However, the embellishments of the remake are quite intelligent. That means that things get started slower, but you do care a little more about the characters. And, dare I say it, the possession of Mia (Jane Levy) might even be a metaphor for addiction.
In The Evil Dead (1981), five college students rent a cabin for spring break that’s “a little rundown, but up in the mountains” and wonder on their car trip why they got it so cheap. The story revolves around young lovers Ash (Bruce Campbell) and Linda (Betsy Baker) with a gift necklace as an emotional plot device. In Evil Dead (2013), five young professionals retreat to David (Shiloh Fernandez) and sister Mia’s family cabin for an extended intervention. The story revolves around the siblings with a similar gift necklace as an emotional plot device.
Next, let’s look at the special effects. I keep hearing that the new Evil Dead was made with virtually no CGI. (I could go off on a rant about CGI, but for the sake of argument here, let’s say CGI is bad.) If this is true, then the remake is quite an achievement. All the possessions, all the dismemberments and all the bodily fluids are as realistic as I could imagine. Technology for practical effects has no doubt improved in the last 32 years.
But in the remake, they’re more polished than they are in the original. I’ll never forget a disintegration scene in The Evil Dead (1981) that looked like a combination of stop-motion animation and claymation. It didn’t look like everything else in the movie; in fact, entire scenes varied in quality. But it all worked because of its guerilla style of filmmaking. It had charm. There’s no such charm in Evil Dead (2013). In fact, there is so much blood and gore that the movie is more squirm-inducing than fear-inducing.
And, for me, in the remake there is no “pencil moment”. In the original, the one scene deeply engrained in my memory is that of possessed Cheryl stabbing a pencil into Shelly’s foot. But not just stabbing… stabbing and twisting it around and around. It was fairly simple, but it made a lasting impression. I can’t think of one effect that stands out in the remake. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; they’re all good. But they’re also a little repetitive.
Technically, most other aspects of Evil Dead (2013) are superior to The Evil Dead (1981). Again, it has been 32 years, but even on a level playing field, the remake has a more robust script and better acting. What it lacks is the spark of creativity of the original. In an attempt to stand on its own by creating its own style, it loses some of the original’s magic. Lightning rarely strikes twice.
Finally, let’s talk about the tone. My favorite thing about the remake is that it mirrors the tone of the original rather than the tone of Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. There’s a notable lack of humor. Audience members were laughing from time to time, but perhaps only for the release of tension. Don’t fret, though, Bruce Campbell/Ash-lovers; stick around for a shout-out following the credits. I could have done without that. It has no relation to the movie itself and kind of pisses me off.
All in all, Evil Dead (2013) uses the same structure as The Evil Dead (1981) but quite successfully creates its own movie. The elements it chooses to modernize are all the right ones. While it’s not quite as effective as the original, it manages in one area to surpass the original: it’s climax and conclusion. No spoiler here, but after a particular event (you’ll know when you see it), the story branches into new areas. It’s unexpected and it’s thrilling (not to mention, gory as hell) because you truly don’t know what’s going to happen next.
It would have been impossible to make the entire movie as unexpected and thrilling as the original, but I believe it did the best any movie could do. Fans of the The Evil Dead need not worry that their beloved classic has been desecrated. For me, it’s ultimately a new spin on an old tale that works for today’s audience. If we get a sequel, though, I hope it stays grim rather than funny.