The latest installment of the Evil Dead franchise, Evil Dead Rise, opens with a sequence that will be instantly recognizable to longtime fans of the series. Under the opening credits, an unseen force propels itself, at breakneck speed, through a foggy forest, across clearings and creeks, hurtling itself toward an unsuspecting victim. It’s really a bit of cheeky misdirection: the ominous, quickly moving presence is a small drone being piloted by an obnoxious frat boy type, tormenting a young woman who’s just trying to read by the lake. This smartly undercuts the tension before things start to get grizzly, about five minutes hence, while at the same time putting its own spin on one of the more familiar visual tropes of these films. It’s also just a little bit clever — a quality that’s otherwise in short supply in a film that, while suitably gory and proficiently made, lacks any real sense of invention or personality.
That woods-set prologue notwithstanding — the film eventually circles back to how we even ended up there and who these anonymous victims are, and in a decidedly perfunctory manner — Evil Dead Rise differentiates itself from its predecessors by setting its deadite mayhem not in a cabin in the woods but rather in a dilapidated apartment complex in Los Angeles. It’s not quite putting Jason Voorhees in outer space, but for a franchise that leans so heavily on the isolation and vastness of the wilderness, moving the action to an urban center rife with modern amenities is an admirable upending of the formula. We’re introduced to touring guitar tech and absentee cool aunt, Beth (Lily Sullivan), who pops in to visit her older sister, tattoo artist Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), and her three children on a dark and stormy evening. Beth has only just learned she’s pregnant, and, whether she’s willing to admit it or not, she’s looking to Ellie to tell her everything’s going to be okay. However, she finds in Ellie a woman at her wits’ end; she’s been abandoned by her husband and the father of her kids while frantically trying to find a new place for everyone to live as the building, which is falling down around them, has been scheduled for demolition in a few weeks. With Beth never being around to offer emotional support to Ellie, cracks have emerged in their relationship, which lends the visit a bit of an edge (Ellie even has the cruel habit of dismissing her little sister’s career by calling her a groupie).
Speaking of cracks, a literal one opens up in the building’s basement, triggered by an earthquake (it is Los Angeles, after all). Undaunted by the shaky foundation or the notion that venturing into unlit, subterranean chambers is how one-third of all horror films begin, Ellie’s eldest child and amateur DJ, Danny (Morgan Davies), climbs down into an abandoned bank vault where he finds a spooky yet familiar book (bound in human skin, penned in blood, featuring incantations and horrifying illustrations… you know the drill) and, even more germane to his interests, some old records. Against the wishes of younger sisters Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and Kassie (Nell Fisher), Danny brings the book and the vinyl upstairs and plays the record on his turntable. Hoping he’s found an obscure beat he can sample, Danny instead is greeted by a hundred-year-old recording of a priest translating the “Book of the Dead,” and in the process unleashing an ancient, evil spirit into the apartment building and setting the stage for a long night of demonic possession and ultraviolence.
Directed by Irish filmmaker Lee Cronin (The Hole in the Ground), Evil Dead Rise doesn’t so much resemble Sam Raimi’s seminal 1981 film The Evil Dead or either of its two sequels as it does the dozens of disposable horror films produced under Raimi’s production shingle, Ghost House Pictures (which mostly churns out films in the 30 Days of Night, The Boogeyman, and The Grudge franchises). Gone is any sort of hand-tooled ingenuity or reckless disregard for the safety of the actors — the Raimi films, with their Three Stooges-inspired violence and a tendency to put star Bruce Campbell through the wringer without the benefit of a stuntman, often had more in common with the Jackass movies than your typical horror film — replaced with photo-realistic gore, CGI effects, and a cobalt and gunmetal gray color palette. In other words, the film is slick-looking and hits its marks, and when a possessed character begins masticating a wine glass, shards of glass poking through their esophagus as they swallow, it’s genuinely disgusting. As it is when another character has a cheese grater raked across their calf, and yet again when someone has one of their eyeballs sucked out of their skull. Is it scary, though? Viewers’ mileage will vary, but the more important question is whether any of this is especially fun. The answer, regrettably, is no.
Evil Dead Rise is under no obligation to match the punch-drunk energy of the Raimi films — honestly, good luck even trying — but its absence does underscore just how generic and kind of joyless this all is. It’s yet another well-lit tour of an abattoir. The sisterly angst and anxiety over Beth becoming a mother are only introduced to give assorted possessed characters something to taunt the living over — although the latter does allow the film to replicate the Ripley and Newt dynamic with Beth and Kassie, complete with lifting chunks of James Horner’s iconic Aliens score for its action finale. Nor is there much inspiration in the high-rise setting: the earthquake knocks out the power and cell reception, and takes out the elevator and stairs so that the characters might as well be stranded in the middle of the woods for all that the change of venue matters (you’d think some of the tenants on the lower floors might try and investigate all the shotgun blasts). Instead, Evil Dead Rise mostly gets its kicks by sneaking Easter Eggs into the film, some of which are more thoughtful (a gardener’s truck in the parking garage is attributed to Dr. Fonda’s Tree Surgeon, a simultaneous nod to the prominence of chainsaws in the franchise, malicious trees, and even the actress Bridget Fonda who cameos in 1993’s Army of Darkness) than others (Sullivan randomly repeating one of Campbell’s catchphrases by telling a deadite “come get some” before blasting it with a shotgun).
If there’s a saving grace to the film, it’s Sutherland’s performance. An Australian performer, like nearly everyone else in the cast (watching all the actors fighting a losing battle with their American accents is often more diverting than the story), the actress best known for TV’s Vikings does some of the best physical acting in recent memory. A tall, spindly beauty in a red Farrah Fawcett blowout, the actress — who’s the first to be taken by the evil spirit and is ostensibly the primary antagonist — spends the film alternating between ramrod rigidity and contorting her body in inhuman angles, at all times wearing a deranged perma-rictus (the actress spends much of the film staring into a peephole lens, the fisheye effect only further distorting her face). In a film where everyone and everything is so dreadfully grim, Sutherland, finding a middle ground between Mommie Dearest and Joker, comes the closest to capturing the anarchic spirit of the films in whose footsteps it follows. Why so serious, indeed?
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.