When you stop to really think about it, the longevity of the Evil Dead franchise is quite remarkable. It’s hard to think of another film series which both spans decades and has such distinct entries. Its best remembered outing, 1987’s Evil Dead II, was a bloody, blisteringly-fun ode to camp horror. The 1981 original? A ultra-low budget tale of undead dread. It was probably inevitable to no one but director Sam Raimi that the third effort, Army of Darkness, would head to the middle ages. Fede Álvarez’s underrated 2013 reimagining of the original then added a grotesque grit to the gore in a pitch-black take that was mean-spirited but also breathlessly maniacal.
Irish filmmaker Lee Cronin, handpicked by Raimi himself, must have been aware of the enormity of the task at hand. How to make yet another entry in this eclectic series that keeps the innate elements that make it Evil Dead? Cronin, thankfully, has mostly met that challenge. His more female-centric Evil Dead Rise understands that the real trappings of these movies are not the spooky book or the many, many demonic possessions but rather utter relentlessness of the visceral bloodbath we’re thrown into. Raimi can rest assured that he has placed the reins into safe hands.
After a (quite literally) hair-raising prologue at a lakeside cabin, we soon meet Beth (Lily Sullivan), a guitar technician who has been on the road for too long. Looking for a much needed break, she arrives at a run-down apartment habited by her more level-headed sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), who is raising three children as a single-parent following a recent separation. At this stage it’s plainly aware here what’s new for the series. Following that bait-and-switch opener in an isolated woodland–a familiar setting for fans–things are moved to a grimy Los Angeles high-rise on the verge of demolition. In another first, we have the added stress of children being potential victims.
Although it takes a little longer than we might be used to, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis is sourced by eldest child Danny following an earthquake. This time out, the incantations are spoken via a haunted record player in an electrifying, brief sequence that somehow updates the film to today’s vinyl revolution with antiquated technology. Intentional or not, It’s a clever way of setting up that Cronin is taking an “analogue” approach and avoiding over-reliance on digital recreation.
Thankfully it then takes a lot less time for mother Ellie to be possessed and begin picking off the inhabitants of the condemned building. Cronin’s screenplay and direction sets out its stall early in connecting the summoned evil preying on the tight-knit family with maternal anxieties about our inability to truly protect the next generation. Our introduction to lead Ellie even finds her looking at a positive pregnancy test in a grubby toilet stall at an even grubbier dive bar. The sinister presence coupled with structural dilapidation also suggests an examination of urban decay and those it leaves behind.
While searching for new thematic avenues is commendable, Cronin’s efforts are hampered by the runtime demands of these movies. Similar to how Alvarez tried to cram in an addiction subplot in his remake, don’t expect any meaty exploration of the ideas here. Still it would be sacrilegious (no pun intended) to have an Evil Dead movie coming anywhere close to the two-hour mark. That being said, it’s reassuring that Cronin is also aware that’s not why you came.
Of the parts he gets right it’s thankfully the ones that matter most. He shares Sam Raimi’s gleeful excitement at showing us batshit carnage with an eye for frenzied filmmaking. There’s no doubting his talent with the camera or with his ability to create tension with every household appliance under the sun His commitment to practical, near palpable gore and ear-screeching, ferocious sound design will have you wincing like you’re watching a root canal.
Save for one eye-popping throwback to the first sequel, the comedy is certainly toned down. Cronin more than makes up for it however, by reaching some new and truly depraved depths for the series. We haven’t even mentioned Alyssa Sutherland yet, whose physically imposing presence is used to great effect by Cronin and the actor. In a demanding performance, she commits fully and uses every inch of her surprisingly agile frame to offer up a menacing creation.
Ash Williams may no longer be the focal point of this series but there’s plenty of life left in it, even amongst all the death. The king is (un)dead, long live the king.