Last year’s “Cabin in the Woods” loved the titular horror subgenre enough to place the pillow on its face and put the poor beast to rest. But if there’s one constant in horror, it’s that death never comes easily, and the monster always wants the last word.
“Evil Dead” descends upon us then, courtesy of the men who first made the forest getaway as unattractive as showering in a motel. Producers Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, the director and star of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, respectively, have entrusted their property to first-time director Fede Alvarez and a cast of just discovered TV actors. The cabin, you may have guessed, is still inside the woods. It’s still the number one destination for young, attractive BFFs in their mid-20s, despite sharing its real estate with a voodoo-redneck cult and body snatching, evil-eyed demons. The screen is still splattered with every shade of red. Even more shades. $14 million can afford a lot more dye and corn syrup than 1981’s “The Evil Dead” could with $300,000.
It’s a walk across familiar ground, dirt run thin from all our return trips. Splatter freaks will know what to expect. There’s no revolution here. But even the same cloud starts to look different the more you stare at it. Can audiences make “Evil Dead” feel new?
This time, there’s more to the cabin than beer pong and skinny-dipping. One of the girls, Mia, played by “Suburgatory’s” Jane Levy, is trying to kick a heroin addiction after a near-fatal OD. Her friends, among them a recently-registered nurse as well as her older brother, take her to her mom’s old cabin, hoping a change in landscape will help her go cold turkey. Of course, nobody bothered to check up on the cabin before the trip, so when they arrive the door is broken, the inside in shambles and the cellar stuffed with dead cats hanging from the ceiling. I guess it’s the thought that counts.
The cats are only a slight damper on their already dour mood when high school teacher Eric, played by Lou Taylor Pucci, finds a conspicuously fleshy book in the cellar. Annotations scribbled in blood — the film’s most subtle and funny touch — scream out from the pages: “DON’T READ THIS BOOK!” “KILL IT WITH FIRE!” “DON’T SEE IT, SPEAK IT, HEAR IT!” Eric is happy not to oblige, and from his recitations pour frenzied demons obsessed with testing the limits of human anatomy.
Once the blood spills, formula kicks in. Out of duty to his benefactors, Alvarez throws in the obligatory “Raimi-cam” zooming through the woods, the camera eye aligning with the demon’s as it seeks flesh to infest. The demons — called “Deadites” in previous films — stare out of the darkness with glowing vampire eyes. They crack one-liners noted more for their profanity than wit. “Why don’t you come down here and I can suck your pretty c-ck!?” one Deadite demands with Mia’s body, talking to her brother.
It’s a futile effort, since nobody can capture Raimi’s essence except Raimi, and “Evil Dead”’s aesthetic favors cold, marble characters set against grimy but clearly manufactured woodland. Raimi filmed his massacres inside real forests, wherever was cheap and convenient. Alvarez can’t help turning his cabin into a del Toro-esque museum display, no matter how many screw guns he fires, jaws he saws off or tongues he cleaves in half. Attempts at goofball black comedy evaporate in a film dispassionate about everything but the intense physical discomfort it inspires.
Mostly, “Evil Dead” is content to abandon humor and hear its audience cringe and groan rather than laugh. This is a grimace film, exploiting abuse with such expertise, the filmmakers could be accused of secondhand torture. Its greatest effect doesn’t come from geysers of blood, but the moment when a crowbar comes down and splits a hand in half, and the practical special effects leave no room for the imagination to fill in the blank between the fingers. It is an immediate, visceral distaste. For anyone who walked out of the film — I can’t blame you.
But I stuck around. I tolerated the stony acting. Shiloh Fernandez as Mia’s brother David is a presence without a personality to back it, and his girlfriend, played by Elizabeth Blackmore, lacks both before losing a limb to boot. I accepted that Olivia, the nurse, could have five gallons of blood vomited on her face and decide a sedative is the best medicine for possession. If this is the face of sobriety, than Mia might be better off pumped up on opiates.
Maybe knowing that “Juno” writer Diablo Cody did uncredited script revisions colored my viewing. A sharp hostility pervades the film towards its woman, not just from the Deadites but the rest of the cast. That infamous scene involving trees and a certain bodily violation returns from the first “The Evil Dead,” far less surreal now that its shown as one step removed from literal rape. The character is suffocated, bound, made helpless – and dismissed by her friends. In response to the markings: “She did it to herself.” It’s not the first time in recent months that a woman has bore the blame for how others use her body.
The women are the first victims, mutilated by their own possessed hands. The men are the immediate moral guardians, eager to justify murder in the name of self-preservation and the women’s own good. Lou Taylor Pucci’s Eric is, with the unpredictable Jane Levy, the still-beating heart propelling “Evil Dead.” He’s the film’s most despicable character, and its most entertaining one. It never seems to bother him that he summoned these forces that are brutalizing his friends. Once it’s his body being penetrated with sharp things, Eric almost looks relieved. It’s the demonic lady’s fault now, not his.
Whether Diablo Cody’s contributions persist in the final product or ended up scrapped, regardless if “Evil Dead” set out intending to critique a wounded masculinity obsessed with building an Eve archetype to shoulder its guilt, this is not so much a step back from “Cabin in the Woods” but its natural progression, and it’s worth watching to wonder why a tree rape scene inspired someone in my theatre – a female audience member! – to yell, “That’s so awesome!” while runny blood dripping down between a woman’s legs drew a collective “Auugh.” Yes, it’s gory, exploitative and a physical adrenaline-trip, and on all these counts it excels admirably. By the last scene, two women are stalking through the woods while the sky rains blood, wielding phallic blades against the other. It’s a stunning climax, a series of cause-and-effect and rising stakes worthy of Spielberg. And it matters all the more once read through the lens that “Cabin in the Woods” established as the norm. Horror will never die. But we will always experience it anew, never taking the same things for granted, valuing what describes our most modern terrors.