Let's just get this out of the way up front: Fede Alvarez's remake of Sam Raimi's horror classic The Evil Dead can't hold a candle, shotgun or revving chainsaw to the original.
Raimi's 1981 debut is a masterpiece of punk filmmaking, a bunch of young enthusiasts who barely knew what they were doing, going out into the woods and stumbling blindly into the creation of a ragged landmark — largely because they didn't know, didn't care or didn't have the money to do it the way it was supposed to be done.
Luckily Alvarez, for whom Evil Dead is also a debut feature, doesn't try to replicate the practically accidental glory of that film. With studio money, and Raimi and original star Bruce Campbell on board as producers, this Evil Dead is polished and meticulously planned, and it benefits from the attention to detail as well as from Alvarez's obvious love for the spirit of the source material.
The basic, archetypal framework is the same: Five 20-somethings head to a remote forest location, accidentally unleash unspeakable evil via a flesh-bound book of rituals and incantations, and fall prey to malevolent, soul-devouring demons. But the first major shift that Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues introduce is giving these characters a little more depth and purpose.
Eschewing the usual recreational reasons for the cabin-in-the-woods template, their purpose here is a forced detox for Mia (Jane Levy). Shiloh Fernandez plays Mia's brother David, who'll emerge as the closest analog to Ash, Bruce Campbell's original hero.
Making the two leads family instead of romantically involved opens things up for all sorts of easily established family baggage that, while it sometimes tips toward the maudlin, does give the film higher emotional stakes and a greater sense of purpose than its predecessor. Fernandez wears a near-constant expression of brow-furrowed concern that makes sense for the guilt-ridden brother he's been written as.
But when things start to go bad, one does miss the oversized B-movie charisma of Campbell, who's a big part of why the near-wordless latter third of the original works so well. Fernandez is an interchangeable protagonist: present to take his considerable lumps, but never a driving force or an unforgettable center for the chaotic storm of blood and mayhem that the film becomes.
The long-suffering Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), a bookish schoolteacher responsible for unleashing the demons in the first place, winds up being far more memorable, if only for the severity and quantity of carnage that's inflicted on him.
But it's Mia who winds up as the central figure here, despite spending most of the movie possessed by demonic forces so vulgar and brutal that they make The Exorcist's malevolent entity look like a Catholic schoolgirl.
But all these comparisons with the original and all the dithering over whether the increased plot complexity works or not are really secondary. The important question is the simplest: Is it scary?
On the surface, that looks like a bone-crunching yes: The number of people visibly cringing, shrinking into their seats, hiding their faces and reacting audibly during the screening I attended rivals any other horror film I've ever watched with an audience.
But making people cringe is easy; any third-rate Saw knockoff can manage it. Alvarez combines a talent for genuine skin-crawling creepiness with an unhinged sense of the gruesome — qualities that demonstrate exactly why Raimi hand-picked him to make this film. So while the film is bathed in buckets of blood and torn flesh, Alvarez's heavy chumming of the water never feels like its only purpose is to show how far he's willing to push the envelope.
And while the overriding mood is desperately grim, Alvarez, like Raimi, does have a sense of humor. This is no horror-comedy, like Raimi's Evil Dead sequels, but it does match the original in creating occasional and surprising moments of well-timed humor amid what is otherwise straight horror. A particularly effective sequence involving a weaponized nail gun and a grisly sight gag following a self-amputation quite effectively blur the line between the two, while a cameo of the '73 Oldsmobile from the original ends up being a laugh-worthy moment of pure fan service.
Effective scares, respectful nods to its inspiration and a few new twists make the question of whether this new Evil Dead succeeds in matching its inspiration superfluous. This is one remake that succeeds on its own blood-soaked terms.