‘Evil Dead Rise’ Review
As a longtime fan of The Evil Dead and its sequels—one of the few set of films I’ve owned in four different home video formats over the years—it’s always interesting to me to see which variety of the Sam Raimi classic people prefer. Is it the original’s relatively straightforward low-budget horror about a group of campers plagued in the woods by an unseen evil awakened following the recitation of some evil words? The first sequel’s deft mixture of comedy and over-the-top gore that featured, among other things, a man cutting off his own hand and then strapping a chainsaw to the stump? Or Army of Darkness’s dive into action-comedy, something akin to the Three Stooges by way of Ray Harryhausen?
The fans’ knock on Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake, Evil Dead, was that it was a fairly straightforward horror movie, bereft of the original’s absurdist horror. I’ll be curious to see how folks react to the tone adopted by Lee Cronin, the writer-director of Evil Dead Rise, a timbre that might be described as something like “gleeful sadism.” I enjoyed Evil Dead Rise more than Alvarez’s remake, but I think both films make a fairly fundamental mistake in trying to get us to care about the central figures being plagued by the Deadites.
Alvarez’s film reimagined the horny campers as a group of friends trying to help a compatriot kick a heroin addiction, an attempt to earn some gravity and sympathy. Cronin, meanwhile, moves the action out of the woods and into the urban jungle; the victims are newly single mom Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), her estranged-ish sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), and Ellie’s three kids, Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and Kassie (Nell Fisher).
Ellie’s apartment building is about to be condemned and she and the kids have nowhere to go; Beth, meanwhile, is pregnant and scared, unsure what to do about this unborn life inside of her.* Needless to say, all of those decisions become more difficult once Danny accidentally awakens the Evil Dead after an earthquake uncovers a hidden vault beneath the apartment building.
I understand the desire to give these characters little things like “real problems” and “motivations to survive” and “loved ones whose danger will add to the drama.” Neither of the new Evil Dead pictures could escape modern horror’s compulsion to put trauma—of addiction; of divorce and looming homelessness—at the center of the scares. But part of the charm of the original is that we don’t actually care about any of these people, really. They’re sketched-out archetypes, at best. Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are both genuinely great not because we care about Ash’s (Bruce Campbell) love life or the people who stumble into his haunted cabin or the medieval kingdom he has to defend from the undead (it’s a long story, I’ll explain it when you’re older), but because Bruce Campbell is fun to watch.
He is charismatic and magnetic and it is pleasurable to watch him call peasants “medieval screwheads” while firing a shotgun and shouting “This is my boomstick!” Indeed, I think it might actually be detrimental to the film to care too much about side characters and their problems, since much of the lurid charm of this series derives from guffawing at the calamities that befall them.
I’m probably splitting too many hairs too finely here, since I did enjoy Evil Dead Rise. The absolute MVP of the proceedings is Alyssa Sutherland, who plays reanimated evil Ellie with chilling devilry, snapping from a grotesquely wide rictus grin to a softer, more motherly approach when she’s trying to goad her wards into letting down their guard.
Cronin, meanwhile, is clearly taking great pleasure in some of the twisted stuff to which he subjects his characters. There’s also one really great shot/sequence in Evil Dead Rise, a sort of panoramic murder spree watched through the warped fisheye lens of a peephole, violence moving left and right and out of the frame and back into the frame. It’s a pretty neat little sequence, creative and appropriate to the setting without being flashy or calling attention to itself.
*As an aside, while pursuing Beth, Deadite Ellie says killing Beth will claim two souls, meaning that, canonically, life begins at conception in the Evil Dead universe. Evil Dead Rise: the first great pro-life film of 2023!