Supernatural horror doesn’t get more gleefully, gorily over the top than Sam Raimi’s original “Evil Dead” trilogy. A nubile camper falling victim to lascivious deep-woods overgrowth, another girl getting a mouthful of a dislodged undead eyeball, cult fave Bruce Campbell sawing off his demonically possessed right hand — all realized with a minimal budget and maximum splatter. It was dementedly inventive enough to eventually elevate Raimi to “Spider-Man” and “Oz the Great and Powerful.”
We hear Raimi may yet be delivering a “Dead” sequel that picks up where the medieval third installment, 1993’s “Army of Darkness,” left off. In the meantime, he and the franchise’s other gatekeepers opted to hand over the keys for a square-one remake. The new directing pick: Fede Alvarez, a Uruguayan filmmaker who made his own microbudgeted splash with 2009’s “Panic Attack!,” a giant-robot-invaders short that virally propelled him to Hollywood.
The thinking here is to see what all those funky chills play like when they’re reworked with a sleeker look and tone. (Never mind that that’s already been done: Raimi’s “Evil Dead II” wasn’t actually a sequel, but a do-over, with Campbell’s “Ash” Williams enduring a tweaked version of the same ordeal.) The problem is that Alvarez’s new take, while proficient, lacks that old, kooky distinctiveness. You’d think they’d be striving for something as unexpected as last year’s bait-and-switch homage “The Cabin in the Woods,” not just one more funereal, generically contemporary creepfest.
The polishing does benefit the story to start. We learn through a gradual, capably played reveal that Mia (Jane Levy, TV’s “Suburgatory”) has retreated to that familiar eerie cottage to try to kick her drug habit. She’s getting a soft-intervention assist from her semi-estranged brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez); a nurse pal (Jessica Lucas); their intellectually curious (uh-oh!) mutual friend (Lou Taylor Pucci); and David’s girlfriend (Elizabeth Blackmore). So the group does have a good reason for being there, for sticking around, and — after Pucci’s character pries open a flesh-bound satanic text they find — for initially doubting Mia’s traumatized insistence that dark spirits are among them.
But are we really looking to “Evil Dead” for gnarly possessions played straight? That’s what Alvarez gives us for an overlong stretch, until his reinterpretation of the malevolent-hand gag kicks off a last act that’s more freewheelingly, twistedly grisly. (Don’t skip the credits, because the fan-energizing momentum peaks at the very end.) Good thing it all finally picks up; we were about to check whether we had somehow wandered into a holdover screening of “Dark Skies.”Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.