Evil Dead Rise | VERN’S REVIEWS on the FILMS of CINEMA

EVIL DEAD RISE is a new installment in the EVIL DEAD saga. We weren’t necessarily expecting there ever to be another one, but here it is. I’ve seen it called EVIL DEAD 5, meaning the 2013 Fede Alvarez EVIL DEAD is a sequel, not a remake, and I can dig that. But the numbering is irrelevant – it’s a new standalone Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror produced by Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert, written and directed by the Irish filmmaker Lee Cronin. I watched his previous movie THE HOLE IN THE GROUND (2019), a totally different type of horror, and I thought it was decent, but I didn’t write about it. I did write a little bit about his episodes of the Raimi-produced Quibi series 50 States of Fright.

But he’s officially a guy to keep a (flying, swallowed) eye on after this one. It follows the basic template of the original THE EVIL DEAD: people find a Book of the Dead and some recordings of chants, they accidentally unleash demons that possess them one at a time, make them smile and cackle and puke and kill and climb on the ceiling and other weird shit. The novel twists are 1) instead of another group of young people on vacation it’s a single mother, her three kids, her visiting sister, and some neighbors. Different dynamic. And 2) instead of a cabin in the woods it’s an apartment in Los Angeles. (Filmed in New Zealand.) That’s a different dynamic too because instead of being stuck in an alien place yearning to get home, this is their home they need to flee from.

There is one cabin – an aggressively triangular one by a lake, where an opening occurence of evil deadness occurs, before jumping back to one day earlier. It’s not important how these incidents connect, but I like that it leaves us hanging on that for a while.

The story proper begins with Beth (Lily Sullivan, Picnic At Hanging Rock tv series), a touring guitar tech, taking a pregnancy test in a graffiti-strewn rock club restroom. Next thing we know she’s visiting her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland, BLOOD VESSEL, Vikings), who she clearly hasn’t seen or talked to in a while, trying to act like nothing’s up.

Ellie is a tattoo artist, which I like for two reasons: because I appreciate movies where the parents don’t have the obvious parent type jobs, and because as soon as you see her cleaning her ink gun you know that’s gonna be a weapon.

Her kids each have a quirky thing going for them. Bridget (Gabrielle Echols, REMINISCENCE) is into social justice, working on her sign for a climate protest. Danny (Morgan Davies, The Girlfriend Experience) is an aspiring DJ, who’s embarrassed when Bridget comes into his room while he’s on the wheels of steal moving the imaginary crowd. The youngest, Kassie (Nell Fishur, NORTHSPUR), is currently convinced that the building is haunted and has attached a severed doll head to a wooden staff to scare the ghost. Also they tend to wrestle each other and whack each other with the dollhead and stuff. I like these dorks.

In that portion preceding the collision between shit and fan there’s tension between the sisters, because Ellie is condescending to Beth about her profession/lifestyle but also Beth has some guilt because she realizes it’s true that she’s been incommunicado while her sister needed her. She arrived not knowing that Ellie needs to find a place to move to because the building’s going to be demolished in a month. Worse, she didn’t know Ellie’s husband left her months ago. When that comes up, Ellie sends the kids to get pizza so they can talk about it alone.

So the kids are all down in the parking garage when an earthquake happens. They’re fine, but then Danny notices a hole in the ground that leads to a vault from when the building used to be bank. He climbs down and finds a collection of religious artifacts including some dusty old records and a Book of the Dead. This is a different one, with no face on the front, but clamped together with rows of teeth somewhere between a snake’s and a venus flytrap’s.

I like the gimmick that Danny’s a DJ and therefore has a motive to take some weird records and the equipment to play them. They’re recorded at an unusual speed so he spins them manually, so they sound extra warped and creepy. They’re recordings from the ‘20s, at a church where some doofus presented his discoveries about the Book of the Dead, causing the congregation to gasp.

Of course he reads from the book, so playing the record summons the evil dead, who possess Ellie. Since the beginning this series has had outstanding performances by women modulating different levels of bizarre behavior, sinister smiles, strange voices, and herky-jerky movements, aided by excellent makeup effects. But I think it’s possible Sutherland as Ellie is the best one yet. I assumed she was a dancer, based on her movements, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. She does an amazing job alternating between a demon’s parody of a mother trying to act like everything’s fine and violent reactions like massive projectile vomiting. To me one of the great things in horror is when something being funny enhances the horror instead of watering it down. There’s something very funny about Ellie trying to fake a loving, motherly smile while looking absolutely ghastly, but it’s maybe creepier than it is funny.

She scares the family but they treat her as sick at first. Then she dies.

In addition to the family, there are neighbors Gabriel (Jayden Daniels, WHINA) and Mr. Fonda (Mark Mitchinson, MORTAL ENGINES) who try to help out, adding a little scope to the story. Oh, and there are two kids (Billy Reynolds-McCarthy and Tai Wano) who have a really funny line about watching Freddy movies that I now realize is in the grand tradition of Raimi and Craven referencing each other’s movies (I’ve also been told there’s a HILLS HAVE EYES poster in a bedroom). Anyway, Gabriel is nice enough to let Beth put Ellie’s body in his bed, away from the kids. That’s a hell of a neighbor. But then all the sudden she seems to be alive again, and things get way worse.

I’ll avoid any specifics about the particular gross outs that happen in this movie, but they find many imaginative ways to make us wince, in addition to the particularly revolting kitchen utensil one given away in the trailer. I will say this: Cronin really seems to recognize the importance of sound design to the EVIL DEAD movies. The vegetable crunching sounds of possessed bodies bending and twisting are especially effective. Also it was smart to have so many young people in the movie because as soon as you see something nasty happen to one of them you know that some lines will be crossed and no one is safe.

Cronin cleverly turns the apartment and the building into the cabin and the woods. Just as the woods attacked Cheryl in the first film, the elevator attacks Ellie to possess her, tying her up with its cables. So there’s no leaving the building that way. And just as the road disappeared and the bridge broke, the stairs have disappeared (because of the earthquake, or maybe not?). So they’re stuck.

For a while they lock Ellie out of the apartment, so the front door acts as the trap door to the basement, with the possessed woman outside changing voices and trying to sweet talk her way back in, then peeking through the door held only by the chain lock. EVIL DEAD turned sideways.

I appreciate that the more direct references to the other films are mostly small and inobtrusive. The only one that crossed a line for me was when Beth says “Come get some,” but since she then slips backwards and drops her chainsaw I mostly forgave it.

There’s a strong Raimi energy to the camera angles and moves without directly mimicking him; it probly doesn’t hurt that director of photography Dave Garbett got plenty of practice doing 14 episodes of Ash vs Evil Dead, including the Raimi-directed pilot. Production designer Nick Bassett also worked on the show, and editor Bryan Shaw did the show and the 2013 remake, so they all really know this world. And it’s not all re-creation; Cronin has his own inventions. A standout is the way he stages mayhem in the hallway that we see only from the view of the peephole in the door.

I’m under no illusions that I’d ever like EVIL DEAD RISE as much as THE EVIL DEAD or EVIL DEAD 2, but I can give it this compliment: the pre-evil-deadness section had me more genuinely invested in its characters than those other ones did. I wouldn’t trade this family for Ash in part 2, but he’s doing something different – playing archetypes for a laugh more than offering relatable human behavior or emotions. And I think the original THE EVIL DEAD is an all-timer, but I honestly tend to forget the names of the other characters besides Ash and Linda, and would have a hard time describing them to you. That’s okay. It works. But I appreciate that Cronin seems more dedicated to giving his characters personalities, needs, and arcs.

That said, the one thing I struggled with a little is really the emotional center of the movie. The motive for Beth suddenly visiting her sister is panic about her unexpected pregnancy. She only gets as far as telling Ellie she screwed up and needs help, so we don’t know for sure if she’s looking for advice, or maybe she wants an abortion, but needs to borrow money, or needs emotional support. I don’t know. But while going through all this and protecting her youngest niece Kassie, the kid puts it together that she must be pregnant. “Are you going to be a mother?” is how she asks. Beth takes a long look at her and says – realizing her decision in that moment, it seems – “Yes.”

It’s a nice bonding moment, but doesn’t it seem to validate Ellie’s disdain for Beth’s lifestyle, touring with bands, close to becoming the first woman to be lead tech on her crew, something she’s worked hard for and is proud of (and good at, judging from how she uses her skills to power the record player during an outage), and doesn’t seem to think is compatible with having kids at this age? Yeah, sis, you thought you were passionate about all that, but actually I was right that you should be a mother instead. The most important thing for all women to do, according to movies.

Obviously numerous people including artists love being parents, and they should share that through their art if they’re moved to, but do we need to set up these women characters who are interesting because they don’t fit into those slots, and then treat it like a happy ending when they decide to conform after all? Do we really need to push these traditional values even in our transgressive horror gorefests? It’s okay not to want to be a parent!

That’s what was on my mind while watching the scene. But in thinking about it afterwards another interpretation occurred to me. Maybe when she answered Kassie’s “Are you going to be a mother?” Beth wasn’t thinking about the pregnancy as much as that her niece is an orphan now and she’s gonna be the one to step up. She’s obviously a better aunt than the Allison Williams character in M3GAN so I could get behind that. But in thinking about it more I realized Kassie’s dad is still alive, unseen in the movie, so I’m sure he’d get custody.

Anyway that’s what happens when you put somebody besides Ash against the Deadites: you end up being sincere about stuff. Or maybe not? I’ll go ahead and be Deadite’s Advocate against my own complaint here and admit that it’s kinda funny that she would be inspired to become a mother after seeing her sister get possessed by demons, make a terrible breakfast and try to kill her own children. And that her maternal experience with her niece consists of running around together, both covered from head to toe in blood and (SPOILER) throwing their family members into a woodchipper. So I should appreciate that.

I’ve seen a few people say there’s no point in doing EVIL DEAD without Ash. I don’t agree. He is of course a one in a million character and series of Bruce Campbell performances, but he’s not the only thing that makes those movies great or that makes them Evil Dead. That the mythology and spirit of THE EVIL DEAD has value on its own is a given to those of us who enjoy Fede Alvarez’s barn-burning 2013 remake, but I think the proof is also in the original 1982 film. Ash is a pretty different character each time he returns – in EVIL DEAD 2, then in ARMY OF DARKNESS, then in Ash vs. Evil Dead – and most of the qualities people associate with those characters were not very present in the original THE EVIL DEAD. So if you watch that movie as often as I do you know it’s still the real deal with a straight face and without the one-liners or Three Stooges sound effects.

I know it was violently unpopular around here, but I still love the 2013 remake (or whatever we want to call it). I think it was very much in the spirit of the first film in its willingness to go balls-to-the-wall with its demonic savagery and literal rain of blood. It’s true that it’s not as jokey or cartoony as the series became, but I like that. And at the same time I think some people aren’t picking up that there is a certain amount of humor and good-spirited mischief to how hard it goes. It’s not HENRY: PORTRAIT OF THE SERIAL KILLER, it’s undoubtedly a spookablast. Maybe not a funhouse ride spookablast, but a rollercoaster one with some extra loops and a seatbelt that feels loose. But that’s the appeal.

Anyway I’m happy to report that EVIL DEAD RISE captures that spirit of not-fucking-around-ness, but with a little more quirk and a little more laughter of the non-nervous kind, so it seems to be going over better with some of the 2013 dissenters. Maybe more of us can share in the enjoyment of this one. We can be a family again. Let’s all hold hands and give birth together.

P.S. I’ve read that Raimi and company would like to produce a new EVIL DEAD every couple years, and that seems more likely now that this movie that was originally announced as straight-to-streaming was instead released in theaters and made about three times its budget in its first week. If they do make more I lean toward wanting them to only be loosely connected, at least at first. Maybe bring some of the characters together later, but not immediately. But if they decide to do a direct followup to this one here are a couple ideas.

1. EVIL DEAD ROSE. Ellie’s husband shows up to apologize moments after this ended. He would be played by Justin Long, I guess.

2. EVIL DEAD RICH. The building is demolished, as planned, and they build some fancy luxury dwelling there, which subsequently gets evil deaded.

3. EVIL DEAD ROCKS. Beth goes on a tour (little Kassie and Beth Jr. come along wearing ear protection) and the guitars and amps get haunted? This one might need more work.

Of course she could also have a Deadite baby. That might be interesting. EVIL DEAD in a hospital. Throw in some HARD BOILED homages.

If unrelated, I would like to recommend EVIL DEAD RIDE. Some dude reads the Book of the Dead on the subway on the way to work. And you can imagine where it would go from there.

P.P.S. SPOILER comment for those who have seen EVIL DEAD RISE: Man, I love that they did a human rat king!

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on Thursday, April 27th, 2023 at 12:51 pm and is filed under Reviews, Horror.
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