Fans of Sam Raimi's seminal "Evil Dead" movies from the '80s have to be amused that anyone would remake "Evil Dead," not least because "Evil Dead 2" was more a reprise of the super-low-budget original than a bona fide sequel. In the 25 years since the second "Evil Dead," leading jawline Bruce Campbell went on to bigger if not better things. So did Raimi. The director who scrounged to gin up a few hundred grand for his 1981 deep-woods supernatural slasher eventually got the keys to the Spider-Man films of the 2000s (total worldwide gross: around $2.5 billion). In that way, he's not unlike Peter Jackson rising from the B-horror likes of "Dead Alive" to direct the "Lord of the Rings" empire. Campy, dinky horror pics can be kingmakers nonpareil.
Funny thing about horror, though. More than any other genre, quality horror resists big budgets. (John Carpenter arguably never made anything scarier than "Halloween," even after that low-budget classic won him the right to spend freely.) The most frightening things in life are inherently rough-hewn and primitive, often making it damn hard to buy a scare.
Happily this "Evil Dead" cost a relatively paltry $14 million. That turns out to be enough to break away from its camp potential, alas, but what you get instead is a disturbing demon-themed dismemberment spectacle inflicted upon a cast of five unknowns. None of them has the charisma of Campbell, and this "Evil Dead" skates by on just a threadbare backstory. But when you're going into slow-mo conniptions in your seat, squinting and squirming in hard-cussing flinch-a-minute ecstasy, the lack of exposition won't uncurl your toes.
The setup seems so formulaic by now that the spoofy "The Cabin in the Woods" could be so named. Nonetheless: "Evil Dead" returns us to, yes, a cabin in the woods, where two young men and two young women have gathered, in an asexual twist, to help another young lady, Mia (Jane Levy), follow through on her vow to kick a persistent junk habit. Her brother's there, the Abercrombie-esque David (Shiloh Fernandez), plus his mostly pointless girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) and a nurse friend Olivia (Jessica Lucas).
Upon arriving, Mia picks up the scent of something dead in the house. Everyone writes this off as dope sickness until their dog sniffs out a trap door that leads to a basement ornamented with dead cats hanging from strings. There's also a book down there, shrouded in plastic and swaddled in barbed wire. The too-curious-for-his-own-good friend, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), decides to clip his way in with wire cutters and, as he browses this gruesome volume bound in human flesh, mutters some very ominous incantations he finds inside. An audience accustomed to yelling "Don't go in there!" to characters on-screen will find themselves calling out, "Stop reading!"
Of course he stupidly continues, summoning very bad things. He then has numerous opportunities to rue this decision, as when his variously demonically possessed friends repeatedly stab his face with a hypodermic needle, and riddle him with tenpennies fired from a nail gun, and bludgeon him with a blunt metal mattock, and perforate his guts with a utility knife, and shiv him with a slab of busted mirror — it goes on like this, really. And this is just Eric, one of only two characters who don't deliberately dismember themselves in any fashion.
Honestly, it's exhausting. Diablo Cody, of "Juno," wrote the screenplay along with newbie director Fede Alvarez, and it clicks along smoothly in a near-sprint for 90 minutes. Fan girls and boys should sit through the credits. Everyone else will stagger out into the daylight with these morals resonating: Never try to quit drugs, and never, ever read anything from a book.
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