More than forty years ago, a merry band of college students gathered in the Tennessee woods to make their first, feature-length film together, The Evil Dead. Chief among them were writer-director Sam Raimi (who went on to do the original Spider-Man trilogy), producer Rob Tappert, and star-of-the-moment (and franchise), Bruce Campbell. Following a notoriously lengthy and arduous shoot, The Evil Dead premiered at Cannes and gained a high-profile endorsement from horror novelist Stephen King along the way. That success launched two direct sequels followed by a decades-in-the-making reboot/remake/sequel in 2013, Evil Dead, a Campbell-led cable series (2015-2018), Ash vs. the Evil Dead, and now, another standalone entry, writer-director Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise.
Making the jump to studio-backed horror, Cronin (A Hole in the Ground) opens Evil Dead Rise with a self-aware homage to Evil Dead’s unseen, malevolent force. It’s POV shot that seems as if the camera flies and floats. In this iteration, it ends with a joke and a punchline rolled into one. (One of the few laughs in a grim, dour film.). It’s a tone-setting prologue, a bloody, gore-filled scene involving a trio of twenty-somethings at a lakeside cabin. In a slight wrinkle on a familiar, well-worn formula, the cabin has been updated to an A-frame, but the results remain the same: A demonically controlled member of the trio wreaks bloody mayhem on the other two, unsuspecting vacationers before the title, Evil Dead Rise, flashes on the screen to a crescendoing, overly loud soundtrack.
It’s a bit of a psyche-out that’s meant primarily as a loose bookend to the central story. More importantly, where the rights-holders are concerned, it sets up for a continuation for the series beyond the main narrative. It’s set not in a cabin or even a medieval castle, but in an abandoned LA apartment building. One of the apartments in that building provides shelter to Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), a thirty-something tattoo artist, and her three children, Danny (Morgan Davies), a wannabe DJ; Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), a left-leaning social activist; and Kassie (Nell Fisher), a preteen moppet with a curious habit for dismembering her dolls.
Cronin sketches out the family’s background in broad, caricature-skirting strokes before introducing Ellie’s younger sister, Beth (Lily Sullivan), a guitar road tech. Needing the advice and support of her older sister after discovering she’s pregnant, Beth appears on Ellie’s doorstep unannounced. Her appearance quickly exposes fractures and fissures in their relationship, mostly due to Beth’s self-centeredness and inability to reciprocate Ellie’s need for comfort and support. All that, of course, serves as background — and ultimately, background noise — as Danny, Bridget, and Kassie, returning from a pizza run, encounter an earthquake firsthand. They survive unscathed, but a curious Danny, eager to explore a newly exposed underground vault, finds a copy of the flesh-covered Necronomicon (aka, Book of the Dead) along with a collection of vinyl records.
Danny inevitably brings the book back to his room and plays the first of several records. This move, of course, unleashes a body-possessing demon bent on creating as much pain, anguish, and mayhem as inhumanly possible before moving onto another unsuspecting human host. The demon finds and possesses Ellie first, turning her from a slightly harried, concerned mother into a monstrous, flesh-ripping creature. With the effects of the earthquake making escape nearly impossible, the demon-possessed Ellie has the upper hand. That, in turn, sets up Beth, an accidental mother-to-be, to embrace an unfamiliar protector role even if it means engaging in blood- and gore-soaked ultra-violence to save what’s left of her family.
Like its 2013 predecessor, Evil Dead Rise leaves all but the blackest of back humour behind, exchanging the Three Stooges-inspired slapstick of Raimi’s original trilogy for a series of unrelenting horror-themed set pieces. Although it’s closer in tone and execution to something out of the Hellraiser franchise, Ellie’s initial transformation inside an elevator calls back a similar scene from the 1981 original. It’s well-executed by Cronin and his key collaborators (makeup, cinematography, set design), punctuated by a possessed Ellie’s silhouette in a doorway as her family looks on in shocked, numbed disbelief.
Later set pieces lean hard into body horror, specifically bodily mutilation as a demonic Ellie culls the survivors one by one, inexorably leading to a predictable third-act climax pitting the flesh-wearing demon against Beth in survivor mode. In true “final girl” fashion, Beth has to set aside any fears or doubts about herself or whether Ellie can be saved. She uses whatever implements happen to be lying around the kitchen or elsewhere. Because an Evil Dead entry isn’t an Evil Dead entry without it, a trusty chainsaw makes a potentially life-saving appearance in the third act. As fans of the Evil Dead series can attest, sometimes the best defense is an offense led by a chainsaw-wielding hero.
The comparatively best set piece, however, relies less on dollops of gore or gallons of blood than it does an inventive use of a static peephole. A possessed Ellie lays waste to everyone and anyone on her side of the door and viewers simply peer through the hole. It’s a relatively straightforward, simple shot, accentuated by means of a fish-eye lens and Sutherland’s out-of-body, go-for-broke performance as Ellie. As Beth, Sullivan matches Sutherland practically beat-for-beat. She meets the latter’s intensity as needed, but also grounds Beth and imbues the character with emotional depth. She helps Evil Dead rise above its basic, bare-bones screenplay.
Evil Dead Rise is now playing in theatres.