For a horror fan, the Evil Dead movies are a miraculous anomaly—there isn’t an outright stinker in the bunch. And the fourth entry—Fede Alvarez’s 2013 reboot—tried something even rarer: It kept the rotten soul of the franchise but jettisoned Sam Raimi’s knockabout humor. Granted, the relatively larger budget granted to Alvarez may have neutered the need to camouflage the series’ scrappy practical effects with wit, but Alvarez’s riff on an accursed book that summons evil spirits and equating it with the horrors of addiction effectively ushered the Evil Dead franchise into the age of elevated horror.
A big part of why the Evil Dead has kept its reputation pristine (well, as pristine as you can get showering gore on your characters) is that Raimi seems to have been selective about who he lets play in his blood-soaked sandbox. (How else to explain why there have only been five movies over forty-plus years?) And in this latest installment, Raimi the executive producer has turned the reins over to Irish writer-director Lee Cronin, who garnered acclaim with his creepy 2019 debut The Hole in the Ground.
Like Cronin’s debut, Evil Dead Rise deals both with motherhood and open pits. But first, there’s a bait-and-switch. The movie opens in a cabin in the woods like all the other installments, and then rewinds one day earlier to reveal its true setting: a condemned apartment building where groupie Beth—she’s actually a “guitar technician”, thank you very much—seeks refuge with her tattoo artist sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) and her three kids (in descending order of seniority, Gabrielle Echols, Morgan Davies and Nell Fisher) while she grapples with an accidental pregnancy.
The biggest clunker in Cronin’s script is the setting itself: Never has an environment been asked to do so much and not deliver enough. Cronin’s desire to transplant the Evil Dead universe into an urban setting demands that its apartment building serve many unlikely functions. It’s not just a creaky apartment complex, it’s also a former bank. And not just any old bank, but one that keeps a dangerous artifact like a book bound with human skin and fangs for clasps in its buried vault. Which then gets conveniently unearthed during an earthquake for an inquisitive teenager to discover. And it not only needs to have collapsible stairwells and malfunctioning elevators to turn it into a de facto prison, it needs to have an aura of decaying grandeur for maximum atmosphere. I mean, who lives in places like this?
A more subtle weakness is Cronin’s flat, masculine take on motherhood. Where Alvarez seamlessly blends the thread of addiction into the splatterfest fabric of his 2013 re-imagining, maternal instincts seem to be more a forced fit in this telling. Only a male filmmaker would imagine motherhood entailing being a good liar to your kids at best, and consuming your children at worst.
But once Evil Dead Rise gets past those elements that hobble it and into the action, the film soars with invention. While Sullivan is made to sell some bone-headed decisions (don’t get me started on wearing headphones while you’re in actively life-threatening situations that might need your undivided attention), Sutherland as the sister who gets possessed first is genuinely unnerving. Not content to let prosthetics do the work for her, Sutherland roots her performance in unnatural, spider-like motion.
And of course, the trademark body horror is pushed to resourceful lengths. If it involves shotguns blasting through torsos, sharp objects skewering soft palates, gangrene running riot from infected tattoo needles, or limbs getting pureed in woodchippers, you will find it lovingly staged in Evil Dead Rise. (By the way, the presence of a woodchipper in the parking garage of a condemned apartment complex is one of the more clever jokes in the movie—reminiscent of an anvil hanging from the ceiling of Alison Lohman’s garage in another Raimi joint, 2009’s Drag Me to Hell.)
There’s even a sequence with a cheese grater that might make you look askance at the parmesan on top of your pasta. Invention is not the problem with Evil Dead Rise; it is the film’s unfortunate insistence on fitting round elements into square, formulaic pegs. Body horror fans will find a lot to salivate over in Evil Dead Rise. If only there were slicker subtext to chew over.
Evil Dead Rise opens exclusively at Ayala Malls cinemas on Wednesday, May 10.
Photos from IMDB