Review: ‘Evil Dead’ reboot is uber-bloody, but is that enough?

AUSTIN – Okay, now it feels like an Austin film festival.

It seems fitting that as Sam Raimi does a victory lap around Hollywood this weekend to celebrate the mammoth opening for “Oz The Great and Powerful,” his original partners-in-crime Bob Tapert and Bruce Campbell are in Austin, where they premiered the new “Evil Dead” for the first time tonight.

Fede Alvarez made a short film a few years ago called “Panic Attack,” and that ended up landing him an overall deal with Ghost House Pictures, the company that Tapert and Raimi started to produce genre movies. The film he first tried to develop with them fell apart, so they asked him if there was anything else he might be interested in doing, and he pitched them his take on the classic that launched all of them in the first place.  It was a bold move, especially considering how often Raimi and Campbell continued to talk about the possibility of making an “Evil Dead 4” that would return Ash, their iconic main character, to the big screen.

Alvarez wrote the script with Rodo Sayagues, and I’ll say this for the film: they didn’t do anything by half-measures. This is an uber-gory update, and taken only on that level, it’s sort of thrilling to witness. Alvarez has a strong visual plan for the film, and I’m guessing young audiences who aren’t that familiar with the original films are going to be rocked by the experience. But if you’re looking for a film that works both thematically and viscerally, “Evil Dead” comes up a little short, and in ways that left me frustrated just as much as I was entertained.

The set-up for the film is a slow burn about Mia (Jane Levy), a heroin addict who is determined to go cold turkey and finally quit the habit completely.  She has to at this point because she’s actually died from an overdose, only to be revived at the last second. Her old friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) join her, and they’ve seen her try and fail before. They’re not sure they believe she’s every going to actually quit, but they’re determined to at least try their very best one more time before they give up. To their enormous surprise, when they arrive at the old cabin in the woods where they plan to join her for her detox, her older brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) is waiting for them, ready to chip in and help her through it. He hasn’t been home in a while though, and there are old resentments and emotional wounds between the four of them that they are struggling to deal with as they help her.

There are a lot of character details and behaviors in the first 45 minutes of the film that seem to be setting up things that will pay off in the second half of the film, but a surprising amount of it ends up going nowhere. It’s like once the film actually starts cranking up the horror, they just sort of drop everything else that they’re doing, which means that all the exposition of the first half’s set-up is just spinning wheels, en excuse instead of actual character development. The film also hinges on the actions of one character in particular, Eric, who is the one who accidentally releases and then summons the evil force in the film, and when I don’t believe for even a split-second that anyone would find a book that is wrapped in barbed wire and covered in human skin and start reading out loud from it, that’s a pretty big problem. It’s one of the most important beats in the film, and they botch it completely. Is Eric into the occult? Does he know of the history of those woods? Is he interested in ancient languages? It doesn’t even have to be much, but please… just explain why any human being ever would make the choice he makes, or do it a different way.

What I like about the film is the way things spin so wildly out of control in the second half, with Mia becoming the vessel for the evil spirit raised by Pucci’s tampering with the book, and there are sequences that are genuinely crazy and horrifying. But in some ways, I feel like they’ve sort of forced this into a more mundane “Exorcist”-style narrative, losing the unfettered creativity and punishing imagination of the first two Raimi films.  The film is positively awash in physical make-up effects and hundreds of gallons of fake blood, and it looks like the shoot must have been an endurance test for the small ensemble cast.  Levy and Fernandez do strong work, even if I have trouble believing them as siblings. Pucci’s got an impossible role to play, but he manages to make it work as well as anyone could. Both Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore are also good in many places, but both of them are saddled with tough dialogue to navigate and not much in the way of defined characters to play.

If you’re remotely interested in the film, the sound mix, the visual style, and even that tremendously affecting score all depend on you seeing the film in the biggest, darkest theater you can find. I would imagine that seeing this in a packed theater opening weekend will be pandemonium, and when you see it in the theater, trust me… you are going to want to stay until the very last image is off-screen.  All in all, “Evil Dead” may have been a perfect first night film for SXSW. It played to a capacity audience, it got a huge, huge response from the crowd, and it manages to contain indie films, mainstream hits, and the original in its DNA somehow. While I’m not convinced by some of the weak writing choices that are made, the visual choices are top-notch across the board, and the film builds to an image so insane that I’m surprised the MPAA let it get past them. It is truly the most graphic moment in the entire film, and Fede seems to stage great moments like that with a sort of glee that marks him as a talent to watch. And while he may have a big hit on his hands with “Evil Dead,” I’m not sure I’d say he has a great film on his resume yet. He will, but whatever it is, I’m betting it will be an original.

“Evil Dead” opens in the US April 5, 2013.