Synopsis: Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) is having a difficult time. Her husband has abandoned her, leaving her to take care of her three children Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and Kassie (Nell Fisher) by herself. The crummy apartment building she stays in is scheduled for demolition in a month. Her guitar technician sister Beth (Lily Sullivan) is barely contactable, until she arrives one evening at Ellie’s doorstep with life-changing news. That same evening however, an earthquake reveals a secret vault beneath the building containing a familiar looking book bound in human flesh and clasped shut with sharp teeth. Oh, and also a recording of incantations, which when played, releases … something from the depths of hell and into Ellie’s body.
1. This is an interesting time for Evil Dead Rise to be released. Not only has it been a decade since the last movie in the Evil Dead franchise, Fede Alvarez’s reboot of the original Evil Dead, but the interim has also been quite the boom period for horror. Aside from the rise of A24-style ‘elevated horror’ 1, seemingly dormant 80s and 90s franchises like Halloween, Scream and Hellraiser have also been resurrected to general critical and audience acclaim. Both of these trends owe more than a little something to the Evil Dead – while no one in their right minds would call these movies ‘elevated’, there is much to be said about how its DNA of low-budget ingenuity and so-smart-it’s-stupid tone has been passed down to the new generation. And so here we are, at a moment when both the descendants and the contemporaries of the original Evil Dead trilogy are not only surviving, but thriving. What was once bold and new has become ubiquitous. How then is Evil Dead Rise supposed to stake this franchise’s claim to being deserving of attention in such a crowded landscape?
By being a fucking fantastic horror movie, obviously.
2. The funny thing is that for the first thirty minutes (barring the prologue), Evil Dead Rise resembles one of those ‘elevated horror’ pictures if you squint a little. The film is liberally salted with a motherhood motif, from Ellie’s stress as a single mother to Beth’s pregnancy to hints that their own mother had pretty serious issues. When coupled with the oppressively gloomy atmosphere (thanks to some excellent set and production design) of the building, it would not be surprising if this movie turned out to be another in the line of ‘the monster is a metaphor for trauma’ movies that seem to come out every year. Slow, thoughtful, foreboding. Y’know, for grown-ups. But then Danny plays the recording of the Naturom Demonto, and writer-director Lee Cronin oh-so-gleefully proceeds to remind us that this is very much an Evil Dead film, with its inimitable blend of Looney Tunes slapstick and gory violence. And by golly does this film deliver on the latter. Cronin seems to have set himself a challenge to see how many stabbing implements his characters can wreak havoc with, from knives (duh) to shards of glass (obvious) to a tattoo gun (ok, we’re getting somewhere) to a broken wooden stick with a doll’s head impaled on the blunt end (now we’re cooking with gas). And lest you think Rise is satisfied with simply stabbing, just know that there is plenty of nasty business involving teeth, elevator cables, and even a goddamn cheese grater.
3. But gore is easy. Anyone can do gore. And gore done wrong results in the sadistic ‘torture-porn’ fad of the 00s, with your Saws and your Hostels attempting to outdo each other in terms of suffering and depravity. Evil Dead Rise nimbly sidesteps this potential hurdle through two strategies. Firstly, it adopts the perspective of Beth and the kids throughout its entire runtime. Unlike torture-porn and slasher movies that largely serve up paper-thin or even straight-up dislikable characters on a platter to sate the bloodlust of the viewer, Rise takes the time at the start of the film to establish some depth in its characters in order to humanise them. As such, our sympathies and our allegiances lie very much with the characters rather than rooting for the Deadites to dismember as much as possible. Furthermore, Rise threads the needle between the traditional Evil Dead tones of horror and hilarity better than almost any other film in this franchise aside from Evil Dead II. Evil Dead (2013) was an excellent movie which chose to veer in the direction of brutal body horror, which means that as well-made as it was, it was (by design) a difficult watch. Rise is far more in tune with the campier aspects of the franchise, and writer-director Cronin deserves massive kudos for how perfectly he injects levity and camp into proceedings without downplaying the terror or thrills. There is a deceptive subtlety to Rise, and yes, I am saying that about the movie that has a literal elevator filled with blood and a scene where a character eats glass. It’s most obvious in the ‘peephole’ scenes, where our terrified characters watch a possessed Ellie tear through the entire floor, which is a masterclass in how to escalate horror to the point of comedic absurdity. I mean, once Ellie bit out someone’s eye and spat it (in a nod to Evil Dead II) into the mouth of another character, causing him to choke and slip in a pool of blood, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here, right?
4. This delicate balance of humour and hilarity is, needless to say, a very difficult tone to get right. But Lee Cronin, in only his second feature film, establishes himself as a sure-handed and very promising filmmaker through his confident and assured direction. The humour is achieved not through pulling punches or winking at the audience. There are no MCU-style ‘well that just happened’ quips to deaden (pun!) the impact of what we just saw. Instead, Cronin puts full faith in his audience that they will understand that the unreality of the film’s violence is what makes it funny, and that pushing the intensity so far over the top makes laughter almost a safe respite from what is happening on screen. 2 Aside from tone, Cronin proves to have a masterful control over everything else in his toolbox, with the first ten minutes in the apartment a fine showcase of how to set a location up for maximum payoff, as the camera establishes not only the spatial geography of the apartment, but also nicely clues the viewer in on all the many (many) possible weapons that will soon be wielded by human and demon alike. And of course, there is the fantastic climax of the movie, which careens wildly (but never randomly) from high tension to utter terror to the cheer-inducing hero shot of Beth wielding an iconic weapon (you know the one) against the ‘final boss’. Cronin is also ably assisted by his cast, who do largely fine jobs (barring some not-so-well-disguised Aussie & Kiwi accents) creating sympathetic characters that a viewer would root for. The standout is clearly Alyssa Sutherland, who plays her Deadite matriarch with a demonic glee that seeps through in every aspect of her performance, from her stilted, shuffling gait to her unnerving smile. Deadite-Ellie is one of the more memorable horror movie villains in recent memory, and Sutherland’s committed performance is a big reason as to why.
5. I wouldn’t exactly say that Evil Dead Rise exactly brings fresh life to the old corpse though. It does what it does well, but there’s nothing terribly new or unique about it when seen in relation to the rest of this series. I prefer this entrant to Alvarez’s Evil Dead (2013), but there’s no denying that that film was more ambitious in attempting to return to the splatterhouse shock of the first movie, as opposed to Rise, which does play as somewhat of a Greatest Hits collection. Rise stands out in the current landscape largely because it is rare to find its ilk these days – an unpretentious horror movie that is meticulously crafted. That, along with the decade-long dormancy of the Evil Dead franchise, is what makes me greet this film with quite a fair bit of enthusiasm. Whether or not this enthusiasm wanes is largely dependent on what happens from here on out. The three principle custodians of the Evil Dead brand (Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tappert) have pledged to make a new film every two to three years, which does create the possibility that what still seems fun and exciting in Rise might easily become old hat by the time we arrive in 2023. Hanging on to Lee Cronin seems like a good starting point for the franchise, as this film certainly establishes his directorial bona fides. With any luck, Evil Dead Rise is the starting point for a new resurrection of this beloved cult series, a proof-of-concept for how Evil Dead can grow and thrive over two decades since Sam Raimi dragged a couple of friends and a cheap camera to a mouldy cabin in the woods. But for now, it is exactly what it is – a damn fine horror movie, and better yet, a damn fine Evil Dead movie. Come get some.