3.5 out of 5 stars

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise comes in two flavours: his own original trilogy of films starring Bruce Campbell that became increasingly comedic in the pursuit of mainstream success, segueing into a cult television series, Ash vs Evil Dead; and a modern cinematic revival where Raimi essentially gifts promising new horror directors an opportunity to play in his Evil Dead universe to sharpen their skills behind the camera.

Fede Álvarez was the first to benefit with his blood-soaked reimagining of the 1981 original, Evil Dead (2013), before going on to make Don’t Breathe (2016) and The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018). His version grossed $97M and was a critical success but, at the time, longtime fans were disappointed it wasn’t the Evil Dead sequel they’d been waiting decades for with chainsaw-handed hero Ash. This bad feeling was the impetus to give fans what they wanted with the aforementioned TV series that saw Bruce Campbell finally return to his signature role. However, in the intervening years, a greater appreciation for Álvarez’s nastier Evil Dead has grown, mostly due to how outrageously violent and gory it wasn’t ashamed to be.

It’s taken a long time for another sequel to emerge, but Irish filmmaker Lee Cronin (The Hole in the Ground) was handpicked to helm Evil Dead Rise, and wisely decided to shake things up with core changes to the usual formula. Gone is the isolation of a cabin in the woods, as we’re now in a big city, and a dysfunctional family having become the prey instead of a group of hedonistic teenagers or lone wiseass.

Guitar technician Beth (Lily Sullivan) visits her sister and single mother Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) in her soon to be demolished Los Angeles apartment building, where she lives with her three children—teens Danny (Morgan Davies) and Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and the much younger Kassie (Nell Fisher). After an earthquake rocks the city and creates a hole in the parking lot, Danny finds a hidden basement containing weird religious artefacts… including the iconic Book of the Dead and three phonograph records. Inevitably, once the flesh-bound tome is opened and the records spun on a turntable, a demonic force is unleashed and Ellie herself becomes possessed by pure evil… becoming a malevolent threat to her own family.

There’s much to appreciate and enjoy about Evil Dead Rise. Cronin’s two biggest changes work nicely, as we’ve never seen the Deadites cause mayhem in an urban environment, and the decision to put a young family in jeopardy is easily the best creative decision. You instinctively care more for the safety of three kids than you do horny teenagers taking drugs and having sex. Even making the lead villain a twisted maternal figure is an excellent way to make the story hit deeper on an emotional level, and Cronin’s own screenplay takes the time to make us understand the familial dynamics before the descent into pure horror begins.

Horror fans will also be pleased Rise doesn’t want to make itself more accessible to general audiences by being coy with the violence and bloodshed, as the film contains graphic scenes of bodies being mutilated by various household appliances. It’s nowhere near as bloodthirsty as the 2013 film was, but you nevertheless won’t be disappointed if you want an Evil Dead movie to end with characters literally turned crimson by the end.

The issues with Evil Dead Rise are relatively minor, but I was disappointed more wasn’t done with the big city location. Lamberto Bava’s Demons 2 (1986) had a similar idea of having evil creatures attack an apartment building, but Rise doesn’t achieve the same level of entertainment in its same environment. There are a few moments inside an elevator and an empty parking lot, but for all intents and purposes this could have been another cabin in the woods. There’s even an admittedly good excuse for the building being mostly vacant, when it would have been fantastic to see the Deadites possessing more and more neighbours.

The geography of the family’s apartment also isn’t communicated too well, and while The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead 2 (1987) often lefts its primarily location to explore the woods outside, keeping things feeling fresh… Rise is more claustrophobic with most of the action kept inside a single apartment and hallway. Couldn’t we have gone to a few other apartments, or up on the roof at least?

Amping up the claustrophobia isn’t a bad idea, of course, but Cronin’s screenplay occasionally struggles to ratchet up the action and sense of terror. Raimi’s Evil Dead films were quick to unleash hell and go wild with the filmmaking opportunities of having his characters assaulted by all manner of possessed ghouls and bewitched items.

Cronin’s story takes more time to build empathy towards these characters, which is perfectly fine, but once the evil force is released the story has a tendency to ebb and flow more than keep building This is mostly because the film chooses to focus on undead Ellie as our main antagonist, with other victims only slowly added to the mix, so there’s always a need to keep her at bay until her next attack. This results in many pauses once Ellie’s locked outside the apartment or physically restricted for a while, when I’d have preferred a sense the apartment is under constant bombardment from demons and not just one unhinged mother with a ghoulish grin.

Of course, Sam Raimi’s unique sensibilities is what kept the original Evil Dead trilogy balanced between terror and levity. Lee Cronin is a different kind of horror filmmaker and this is only his second movie, so he does an admirable job continuing what Álvarez paved the way with more than anything else, with amusing references to the Raimi films sprinkled in. I just can’t pretend Evil Dead Rise didn’t disappoint me by not delivering a similar sense of unbridled madness and chaos, even in the home stretch when things do get more outrageous. Cronin isn’t as talented a filmmaker as Raimi, I’m sure even he’d agree, so his camera-work and sense of pacing lags behind the peak of Evil Dead 2.

The performances are all great, especially from Alyssa Sutherland (Vikings) as the mother who goes mad. She has an unsettling smile, clearly relishes the darkly comic lines she gets (“mommy’s with the maggots now”), and uses her body to great effect striking unusual poses and communicating how a spiteful demon is puppeteering her around and having fun scaring her children. Lily Sullivan is also good as Beth, our ostensible hero, as she struggles to save her nephew and nieces to become a protective maternal figure sooner than she’d expected after learning she’s pregnant herself. The child actors don’t let the side down and all come across well, although one could argue their reactions to the insanity of what’s happening is a bit too subdued at times. The script shares some of the blame for that.

Overall, Evil Dead continues to be one of the most consistently strong horror franchises, second only to Scream. There isn’t a terrible movie out of the four, although for me Evil Dead Rises is the worst of the bunch despite injecting fresh ideas into what could have been another stale retread. I still wish they’d get back to the deranged and oddly comical tone of Evil Dead 2, but it feels like Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert have decided their early films only worked because of Bruce Campbell’s performance, so these modern updates are best used as proving grounds for horror filmmakers taking a leap into the big time. And that’s groovy.


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Cast & Crew

director: Lee Cronin.
writer: Lee Cronin (based on characters created by Sam Raimi).
starring: Lily Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland, Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols & Nell Fisher.