Written and by: Lee Cronin
Starring: Lily Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland, and Nell Fisher
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Destroy it! It's called the Book of the Dead for a reason!"
For 30 years, The Evil Dead was synonymous with—if not immutably tied to—the talents of Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi, a duo whose hucker sensibilities thrived on escalation and subversion. Not content to simply mount a series bound to formula and expectations, they consistently zigged where you might expect them to zag, interjecting slapstick humor and screwball antics into their grand guignol gross-out. Beneath it all rumbled a devious playfulness: The Evil Dead may have been hailed as “the ultimate experience in grueling terror,” and Raimi may have turned Campbell into a human pinball, but there was never anything really mean about it. You couldn’t help but delight in these two provocateurs gleefully tearing through their own sandbox, nor could you ever imagine anyone else having a turn. This wasn’t a franchise so much as it was two lifelong friends goofing off to their own whims—everyone else was just along for the ride.
And while they did reunite to give their story some semblance of closure with Ash vs. Evil Dead (its abrupt cancellation notwithstanding), it’s clear they’ve had a larger vision for the series to grow beyond them, with Fede Alvarez’s 2013 effort representing the first stab at it, an admittedly bold reimagining that I remain somewhat mixed on, simply because it misses the franchise’s signature playfulness. Now, a decade later, director Lee Cronin has taken up the reins with Evil Dead Rise, a movie that not only understands the assignment a little bit better but also moves the series beyond its cabin-in-the-woods milieu. Simply put, this one has just about everything you expect from an Evil Dead movie: demented demons, gratuitous gore, and characters getting beat to hell and back. Cronin dutifully plays the hits but indulges plenty of grace notes, giving us the best of both worlds: a sequel that’s both familiar and fresh, proving that The Evil Dead is a spacious sandbox with plenty of room to explore.
Cronin begins in familiar backwoods territory, with a quartet of lakeside vacationers whose idyllic weekend retreat is about to be fucked up by a demonic presence. Heads roll and scalps split in what amounts to a wicked Evil Dead short film that cleverly upends conventions and heralds the film’s bold move to an urban setting. Following the killer title reveal, we’re taken back one day earlier to a ramshackle Los Angeles apartment complex, where Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) lives with her three children. A surprise visit from her estranged sister Beth (Lily Sullivan) calls for an impromptu pizza dinner, so she sends the kids out to fetch a pie from a local joint called Henrietta’s (natch). On their way back up, however, an earthquake erupts, splitting the floor in the parking garage open and revealing a hidden passage. Middle child Danny (Morgan Davies) can’t help but go exploring, and he turns up evidence of cult activity that once unfolded in the building, with a particularly ominous looking flesh-bound book and come vinyl records proving to be too cool to leave behind. His curiosity once again gets the best of him when he pries open the book and plays the records, inadvertently summoning a demon horde that begins terrorizing their entire floor.
When that familiar Raimi cam wooshes in, signaling the arrival of the titular evil, you can’t help but get swept up in the mania that’s about to unfold. Something about that particular, ingenious camera movement feels like a primal rush of adrenaline, a demonic bull about to run amok in a carefully constructed China shop. Like Raimi and Alvarez before him, Cronin meticulously arranges his pieces on the board, establishing a loving family that’s fraying at the seams: Ellie’s husband recently left her, and Beth’s job as a guitar technician keeps her on the road (and out of the loop), so this demonic intrusion comes at the worst possible time. When it claims Ellie as its first victim, it feels like a cruel twist of the knife since Beth has come seeking guidance after discovering her own unexpected pregnancy. Cronin lingers on this beat, capturing in agonizing detail Ellie’s possession, which appears to be an inexplicable illness to her horrified kids before she suddenly dies, leaving Beth to perform somber, impromptu funeral rites with one of the neighbors.
But just when she tearfully laments how she’ll never be able to speak to her sister again, Elle jerks awake, giving Sutherland a chance to follow in some fairly sizable footsteps given the franchise’s history of memorable Deadite performances from women. She does so with aplomb. Thanks to the marketing, you’re no doubt already familiar with the moment she emerges from a grungy bathtub and reassures her kids that “mommy’s with the maggots now; however, just know that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this delightfully unhinged, star-making performance. Sutherland immediately cements her place as an Evil Dead icon here, modulating her voice, contorting her body, and twisting her face into a wry, menacing demonic presence. The series has always been at its best when it’s playfully twisted, and Sutherland harnesses that demented spirit on her own, coaxing both laughter and puke with her unhinged exploits.
For his part, Cronin matches Sutherland’s energy by delving into a proven bag of tricks that includes inventive camera angles, clever editing, and a willingness to go explore the depths of his own wild imagination. If it sounds like he’s just doing a Sam Raimi impersonation, you’re not exactly wrong—in fact, he even borrows gags (like a flying eyeball) from previous films here and there, putting it closer in spirit to the original films than Alvarez’s. Where the 2013 film took an extreme, blunt force trauma approach that dialed up mean-spirited gore outbursts, Rise has a little bit of a lighter touch. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think you can ever make an Evil Dead movie that isn’t genuinely fucked up on some level, but Raimi’s funhouse spookablast sensibilities are what make them so special. Likewise, this one seems to get, well, a rise, out of pushing its own boundaries as its director and effects crew dream up new ways to mangle his cast with household items like scissors, a cheese grater, and even a child’s makeshift staff.
In this respect, Evil Dead Rise truly does feel like a newcomer rifling through a sandbox; more importantly, Cronin definitively marks his own territory within it as he straddles the line between homage and innovation, leaning on familiar refrains (a host of Deadites reprise the “dead by dawn” sequence) but introducing his own wrinkles. One of the more memorable bits here finds the possessed Ellie locked out in the hallway, desperately trying to force her way back into the apartment (a play on the usual “deadite emerging from the cellar” routine), much to the bewilderment of the unsuspecting neighbors. Cronin captures the sequence through the door’s peephole, leaving some of the carnage to the audience’s imagination until revealing the gory payoff later on. Slowly but surely, Cronin molds Evil Dead Rise into an exciting new riff on the theme, one that summons new, creepy-crawly Deadite variations to feed to a woodchipper. We end with the familiar sight of a blood-soaked protagonist brandishing a chainsaw, but we take a crooked path that involves filthy apartments, claustrophobic air ducts, and the most crimson-splashed elevator this side of the Overlook Hotel. True to huckster form, Cronin has been eager to hype the thousands of gallons of blood he spilled on-set, and, rest assured, all of it shows up on screen. Like its 2013 predecessor (which used even more on account of sporting a climax where it literally rains blood), Evil Dead Rise should serve as a gory jolt to multiplex audiences who aren’t used to seeing directors paint the walls red with such reckless abandon.
Cronin has plenty more to be proud of, most notably his work with the stellar cast, which arguably sports the strongest cast of characters in the series so far. Of course, everyone will forever be in the iconic shadow of Bruce Campbell’s Ash, and there have been some other standout performances (Ellen Sandweiss’s Cheryl, Jane Levy’s Mia, the recurring stars of Ash vs. Evil Dead), but this series has often felt like a one-man show. Rise takes a different approach that leans on a terrific ensemble of characters with just enough depth of characterization to make its horrors resonate on a more emotional level. Where the 2013 film tackled substance abuse and addiction in order to distinguish its cast from the blissful spring breakers in the original film, this one features a running thread of familial drama and maternal angst to give its horrors an even more unsettling dimension. Cronin is more invested in the interpersonal dynamics than any of his predecessors, so it’s genuinely disturbing to see this doting (but visibility stressed out) mother turn on her children. Don’t worry: Evil Dead Rise isn’t one of those highfalutin meditations on trauma or motherhood or whatever, but its ultimate premise—a woman reckoning with an unexpected pregnancy protecting her sister’s kids—gives it an emotional sincerity that mostly feels like a first for an Evil Dead movie, and it’s Cronin’s strongest contribution.
He gets quite an assist from his cast. In roundly praising Sutherland, I don’t want to overlook Sullivan’s excellent turn as Beth, a badass aunt who strolls into the kids’ lives with cool tales from her life on the road. She’s eagerly assumed that role for her nieces and nephews, but she’s visibly overwhelmed at the prospect of becoming an actual mother, much less a surrogate one that has to defend her nieces and nephew from her demonic sister. Her journey towards this role provides Evil Dead Rise more of a deliberate character arc than previous films, which is not meant to diminish those efforts—it’s just that this one has a different sense of purpose because Beth has to protect these kids. And you really want her to succeed because they’re such a wonderful trio, brought to life with young actors who share an easygoing, natural chemistry. They might have their typical sibling squabbles, but their current situation has forged them into a resilient brood, instilled by their mother with an “us against the world” mentality that pays off when their apartment is under siege by demonic forces. The older kids’ personality quirks—Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) is a social justice activist, while Danny is an aspiring DJ—are nice little flourishes that add a touch more humanity to the mayhem (let’s be real—how much do we ever learn about most of the supporting characters in previous movies?).
Youngest sibling Kassie (Nell Fisher) is precious but not precocious, an important distinction to make with this kind of material: you wouldn’t think The Evil Dead would be germane to a story where a little girl fashions a weapon to ward off the spirits haunting her home, but Rise happily proves me wrong. Pitting a woman and her 9-year-old niece against Deadites might be Cronin’s boldest choice because it’s hard to imagine something more diametrically opposed to Campbell’s signature Lotharian bravado—which is not to say Beth doesn’t get her chance to spit some badass lines herself.
Of course, this being an Evil Dead movie means anyone’s up on the chopping block, and Cronin delicately hits all of the right notes in this respect, allowing the audience to become invested just enough in his characters before he starts knocking them off. Maintaining this balance is as crucial as anything when it comes to The Evil Dead, and Cronin pretty much nails it: yes, nearly a dozen people meet a grisly demise, but it still manages to feel more playful than it does genuinely disturbing, putting it right in that Raimi goldilocks zone. Whatever issues I have from it stem more from the pacing down the stretch, where it settles into a predictable rhythm and struggles to go completely full throttle and capture the manic, chaotic energy of its predecessors. It’s still plenty gnarly but needs a slightly more pronounced sense of out-of-control escalation, something the 2013 film had no trouble with.
Further comparisons between it and Rise are inevitable, but this one as a whole is more consistently my speed—it just feels like what I want from an Evil Dead movie. Where Alvarez’s vision was more singularly his own, Cronin feels more like a fantastic pinch-hitter who turns in an entry that feels more of a piece with the original films, right down to its various nods (it even continues the franchise’s interplay with A Nightmare on Elm Street with an exchange of dialogue that feels like it could have been written for me). If Alvarez’s movie was an alienating, doom metal rendition of The Evil Dead, then Rise is like a jangly, eager-to-please garage band paying a loving tribute to their idols. Luckily, it’s a damn good one, and as much as I wouldn’t mind Cronin coming back for seconds, I’m even more intrigued to see him hand off the baton himself. With Raimi and Campbell’s story seemingly wrapped up (you know Bruce is never going to miss an opportunity to troll us about doing more, though), I hope The Evil Dead becomes an anthology going forward, with each new creative team putting their own spin on the series with standalone entries. One of the franchise’s most striking features is the “anything goes” mentality that took us from The Evil Dead to Army of Darkness, and I have to think there’s no shortage of time periods and settings for people to crack open a Necronomicon and unleash hell.
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