It’s great to see a horror franchise find new avenues to explore while remaining true to its spirit. Just last month, Ghostface took Manhattan for a fun new installment in the ongoing Scream series. Evil Dead Rise is once again ditching the cabin in the woods and now settling on an LA high-rise apartment building. For a series that usually bases itself around the ideas of characters trapped in a remote location and challenging the filmmakers to dump as much blood and gore as possible on everything within that space, it’s great to see how much of a success this film was in delivering in this new setting. For all the effort to remix the formula a bit, Evil Dead Rise is a blast, leaning into all the fun ways to (literally) get under one’s skin.
A curtain raiser of an opening sets up a bit of what can be expected, but the story, as stated, primarily takes place on the top floor of an apartment building. Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) and her three children (Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols, and Nell Fisher) get a surprise visit from her sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), who’s taking a break from touring with a rock band (as a guitar technician, not a groupie). When the kids go out to grab a pizza, an earthquake hits, cracking open the ground in the garage, revealing an abandoned bank vault. Wouldn’t you know it, the Necronomicon (the Book of the Dead), along with some old vinyl records, were hidden in that vault, prompting the eldest child to give it a spin. Of course, these recordings feature incantations that should not be spoken aloud, leading to evil forces entering the building and possessing the innocent mother.
In a different reality, Evil Dead Rise could have been a straight-to-streaming release on HBO Max. While part of what works about this franchise is how it can be appreciated on a small scale and with a crowded audience, this entry feels like one made for audiences to enjoy in a communal fashion. I’ve been an Evil Dead fan for decades for this point, but the energy that comes from seeing both crazy demon action, as well as our heroic characters picking up a weapon and giving it back to them in gory detail, is a big part of what this is all about.
Sure, one can look to the core themes of this film that involve family, the challenges of motherhood, and the decision to become a parent in the first place, but that’s not always at the top of one’s mind when watching a character shove a chainsaw into the head of a deadite. Does that mean Evil Dead Rise would suffer without the sensation that comes with being among an excited crowd? No, as this has always been a meat and potato series that constantly plunges forward to maintain a visceral level of thrill. If anything, it works both ways. If they want, one can find the answers to what this all means, just as they can find appreciation in being amongst crowds of fans enjoying the buckets of blood being utilized.
At a time when a newer class wants to dictate thoughts on certain kinds of horror as if the genre has only just discovered subtextual layers involving grief, trauma, abuse, etc., Evil Dead Rise is here to completely stab the notions of what horror can and can’t do in the face and continue marching to the beat of its own drum. The Raimi sequels certainly aimed for a comedic angle to go with the horror taking place, but much like the 2013 remake, Evil Dead Rise is looking to keep the tone of the 1981 original in mind as far as delivering on being a ferocious horror experience.
Especially given that kids (mostly young teens) are involved this time, the series’ notion of being brutally mean-spirited is designed to hit hard. The deadites (possessed undead victims) do whatever they can to play with their prey before ending them, and this film follows through with that in cruel and painful ways. I can often bristle at how mean some horror films can be, but it’s when there’s not much of a stance it’s trying to take. Evil Dead films have always been much more explicit: these demons really like to mess with people for the hell of it.
Adding to all of this is the film’s sense of humor. Writer/director Lee Cronin (The Hole in the Ground) is not out to make a comedic horror feature, nor is he adding in tributes to the Three Stooges like Raimi’s films, but he knows this series well enough to understand where dark comedy can play its role. While there are no outright jokes, many setups and implications will elicit a chuckle to break up the tension. Plenty of work has been put in to play on what horror fans know about these movies and mining plenty of suspense from where certain bodies or objects are in relation to others. This kind of care makes a film as gruesome as this fun to watch. Yes, the drama of the situation still resonates, but the film is not above finding ways to make the audience smile amid the chaos.
Of course, none of that chaos would work without the right people behind the camera to capture the full-steam-ahead energy that makes this series so lively. Signature first-person shots of a camera rushing through forests, or in this case, through hallways and garages, are here, as are the canted angles and other off-putting shots. Characters are thrown all over various rooms. The practical effects are used to deliver some of the gnarliest forms of body mutilation one will see this year, let alone in the past few. And all of it occurs in service of what needs to happen in a film like this. Excessive is a silly word when it comes to the world of Evil Dead, as that’s a necessary part of this recipe for success.
And who is out in front of the camera, pulling this off? Several performers stepped up from a ridiculous tough shoot (par for the course with this series) and delivered what they needed regarding physicality, let alone how they managed to hold onto a sense of fright. Lily Sullivan gets a lot of good work as basically the film’s lead. Like the remake, there’s no attempt to recreate Bruce Campbell’s Ash. Instead, this film goes in an entirely new direction, pushing Sullivan’s Beth to make decisions that will ideally keep her nieces and nephews safe, taking lots of brutal punishment in the process.
In the other corner is Alyssa Sutherland’s Ellie, the main tormentor of the family. Between her and the stunt performers being tossed across floors, climbing up ceilings, and other craziness, there’s plenty to enjoy about an unhinged, undead, demonic maniac going after her own children in an apartment. The close quarters afforded by this setting make Ellie an interesting challenger, as the film finds plenty of ways to keep her close and deadly yet has the family try to keep their distance.
Through all this, it’s clear that producers Rob Tapert, Sam Raimi, and Bruce Campbell know what they’re looking for when picking fresh talent to take the wheel on this legendary horror series. Cronin not only had a pitch that worked for them, but the right kind of effort was put in to deliver a terrific display of horror mayhem. In what I consider a remarkably consistent franchise, regardless of the swerves it takes (medieval times, a Starz TV series), it’s an absolute joy to continue seeing this thing going strong and hard on being such an entertainingly wicked universe. So here we are with another Evil Dead movie, and audiences are welcome to come get some.