If you're not lazy, remaking a cult classic like Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead must be an awfully tricky business. On the one hand, you'll want to do enough things differently to make it your own. No one wants to see a shot-for-shot, slavishly devoted rehash when they could just put the original in their Netflix queue. On the other hand, you'll want to pay appropriate homage, both to appease the fanboys who will have their knives sharpened should there be even a marginal perceived slight and to pay tribute to the film that, y'know, made this whole thing possible.
Director Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead is pretty obviously caught between these two minds, so much so that there's a jarring shift in tone over the final third (or so) of his film. Even if you haven't seen Raimi's campy original, you ought to be familiar with the basic premise. A group of twentysomethings head to a remote cabin in Michigan where they unwittingly unleash demons that inhabit the surrounding environs and torment the five unsuspecting interlopers.
There are plenty of nods to Raimi and co. -- the cabin seems to be a carbon copy of the original, the book that brings about all this evil, the Necronomicon, has been freshened a bit but is still there, so is the car driven by Bruce Campbell's iconic Ash character and shotguns, a chainsaw, and chains over a trap door. But for much of the film there are no corresponding winks. With The Evil Dead, you always felt in on the demented joke, thanks especially to Campbell and the writing of Raimi. Not so with Alvarez's reimagining, which is an unflinching and mostly unhumorous gorefest for most of its 91 minutes. The fact that you're more likely to jump out of your seat than chuckle should tell you all you need to know if you're going to compare the two films.
Yes, Alvarez engenders genuine terror in his audience by what he is willing to show them -- someone sawing off their arm with an electric carving knife or slicing their tongue in half with a razor blade, etc. But to fixate on that alone is to rob him of some cleverness. How do you make the kids-in-a-cabin trope fresh? Well, one way is to make the reason for them all being there to help one of their friends kick a nasty drug habit. Mia (Jane Levy) is trying to get clean, so when she starts to talk about demons in the woods, everyone else assumes she's lying because, well, that's what drug addicts going through withdrawal do. The evil spirits might not be so believable, but the reactions of Mia's brother and friends to her hysteria sure are. There's terror in people you trust not believing a word that you say.
Though it's not immediately apparent, Mia is our stand-in for Ash, or at least the closest Alvarez comes to giving us one. She has her semi-humorous moments toward the end of the film (that's the jarring shift I mentioned earlier), but mostly she's representative of Alvarez's darker twist on Evil Dead. I can't say I enjoyed it as much as the original, but I also can't say I didn't enjoy it at all.