Happy families, as Tolstoy informed us, are all alike. But every Evil Dead family is evil and dead in its own way.
Or something like that. In any case, it's an observation that, to my surprise, is supported by Evil Dead, director Fede Alvarez's fresh yet faithful sequel/remake of Sam Raimi's 1981 indie-horror classic The Evil Dead.
Alvarez is treading on sacred (which is to say, accursed) ground here, but he does so nimbly. Raimi's familiar ingredients are all present: the five early twentysomethings and the remote cabin; the infernal tome and demon's-eye rush through the forest; the Dutch-angle camerawork and dark humor; the priapic foliage and living burial; the shotgun and the chainsaw; the slicings, burnings, dismemberments, and other sundry castigations of the flesh. But all have been diligently reshuffled, like playing cards in a chthonian game of Clue. (The girlfriend! In the bathroom! With a jagged shard of mirror!)
Alvarez opens with a creepy, cunning prologue featuring a decidedly Whedonesque reversal, before settling in for the main affair: This time out, the five victims-to-be are not out in the woods for recreation, but rather to support the effort of one among them (Jane Levy, from TV's Suburgatory) to kick her heroin habit. It's a sharp conceit—her friends are committed to forcing her to stay there in the cabin no matter what; her inevitable possession by forces unknown is initially mistaken for withdrawal—but Alvarez is wise enough not to carry it too far. Once the stabbings and the "you're all going to die tonight"s and the unlicensed oral surgeries begin, all questions of addiction are properly relegated to the back burner.
If I haven't yet made it clear, Evil Dead is not a film for the faint of heart. The gore is considerable (though often imaginative) and Alvarez's decision to forego CGI effects pays grisly dividends. That may not be a genuine tongue being slashed in half lengthwise (while still, it should be noted, in its owner's mouth) but damned if it doesn't look like one.
The young cast—which also features Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, and Elizabeth Blackmore—fulfill their sanguinary obligations capably, but they are ultimately, and correctly, puppets in Alvarez's gruesome Grand Guignol. The director himself, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rodo Sayagues (and an uncredited polish by Diablo Cody), directs with a self-assurance that is all the more remarkable when one considers that his most prominent work before this—and the one that got him noticed by Raimi—was a five-minute short, reportedly made for $300, in which giant robots destroy his native city of Montevideo, Uruguay.
I confess that I thought The Cabin in the Woods had exhausted the possibilities of the cabin-in-the-woods movie. Indeed, I'd thought that Evil Dead 2, Raimi's own semi-parodic sequel, had finished it off all the way back in 1987. But Alvarez's reboot demonstrates that there's still life—and, more crucially, death—to be found in the subgenre. Is it as good as Raimi's groundbreaking original? Of course not. But it is a stylish and worthy homage: inventive even as it is derivative, never quite jokey but never taking itself too seriously, and clocking in at an entirely appropriate 91 minutes. Any longer would be unmerciful; any shorter, ungenerous.