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Evil Dead Rise Review: The Franchise Bounces Back With Buckets Of Blood

  • Evolves the franchise in useful ways
  • Strong work from the cast
  • Tons of gore if you're into that sort of thing
  • If you're not into gore, there's not as much here to hold onto if the "Evil Dead" branding alone hasn't done the heavy lifting first

At SXSW, during a post-screening Q&A session for "Evil Dead Rise," longtime franchise frontman Bruce Campbell felt compelled to curse out a naysaying heckler for shouting "this movie f****ing sucks!" Campbell's vitriol was warranted and well received, as he was perceived to be shielding the new film from both this audience member and a theoretical contingent of entitled fanboys who would balk at how much of a departure this, the fifth film in the series, would be from what came before it. But that begs the question: what constitutes an "Evil Dead" movie anyway?

For decades, it meant a film directed by Sam Raimi, with his quirkily dynamic approach to horror and comedy; starring Campbell as Ash Williams, the everyman turned iconic hero; and featuring a lot of gore, inventive camera work, and a sort of winking tone. But 2013's "Evil Dead" from director Fede Alvarez took the basic premise of the original — a group of cabin goers discovering a book that conjures demons that possess and kill them — and centered it around a story of grief and addiction. Writer/director Lee Cronin takes "Evil Dead Rise" even further afield of the series' recognizable iconography. Sure, he pays homage where necessary and anyone who has seen the earlier films will have little difficulty seeing the tether connecting them all. But Cronin clearly has a story to tell all his own.

It's one that will likely appease the majority of this IP's fanbase, no matter how removed from Raimi and Campbell's babies it may be in terms of execution and theme. It just remains to be seen how satisfying or engrossing it will be as its own endeavor. As impressive as Cronin's unique mixture of franchise fealty and indulgent diversion prove, if the trappings of what came before it is stripped away, how much is really left in its wake?

The only good Deadite is a dead Deadite

"Evil Dead Rise" opens at a lake near a cabin, precisely the way viewers expect an "Evil Dead" film to begin. But its sharp and mood-setting prologue is a bookend swerve from the main thrust of its narrative. Lee Cronin's chief idea here seems to be removing the Deadites and the Necronomicon from the woods for good and transporting the horrors they bring to a dilapidated high-rise apartment building. The central locale for much of the film's runtime is so rundown and threadbare as to be strangely reminiscent of the branches and leaves from whence we came. It's the cast we follow this time out, however, that proves the biggest change.

This time around, the book finds its way into the possession of a small family. Single mother Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) is adjusting to her husband abandoning her and her three children, elder teen and aspiring DJ Danny (Morgan Davies), Gen-Z prole Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and the strange but precocious youngest Kassie (Nell Fisher.) Ellie's sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), a touring band tech who has just found out she is pregnant, returns to their clan at the worst possible time — hours before an earthquake reveals their apartment building exists atop the ruins of a bank, with vaults used by the church to hide the book of the dead and vinyl recordings about its destructive power.

So, naturally, we're all one spin on Danny's turntables away from some portentous Latin incantations to do the inevitable "Evil Dead" thing and turn Ellie the matriarch into a terrifying and otherworldly antagonist determined to strike the same fate on her progeny, her neighbors, and her sister. But where Fede Álvarez used the dynamic of loved ones conducting an intervention on an addict to carry the torture, mutilation, and possession elements, Cronin seems very invested in this little familial drama.

His script takes the time to establish each of the characters and their relationships with one another so that the audience is sufficiently invested when the increasing likelihood of their gruesome deaths will provide the most tension and suspense. Even the one-note side players who live on the same floor get their little moments to feel fully realized before they start getting maggots, roaches, and entrails spewed in their respective faces.

The two leads are both aces, with Beth having to step up and fill the mother role her sister abdicates by virtue of being the vessel for an ancient evil, and Ellie chewing the scenery underneath all the make-up as that ancient evil, itself a tragicomic extrapolation of every single mother's repressed frustrations. Hearing Deadite Ellie call her kids "titty-sucking parasites" is about as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, but that whiplash is only matched by Sullivan's arc as Beth. Watching her transcend "fight or flight" to slowly realize she does in fact want to survive this and be a mother is pretty incredible.

However, realistically speaking, very few people reading this review or pre-ordering tickets for opening weekend care about that side of things.

Breaking the Muta Scale

There's a big contingent of people for whom "Evil Dead" is just Bruce Campbell with a chainsaw affixed to his arm, but for those who can live without Ash's presence, the gaping maw that is his notable absence must be filled with violence. The more gruesome the better; in that regard, Lee Cronin brings the goods. This movie is wall-to-wall filled with blood, gross-out moments, and just all manner of high-level heeby-jeebies. Horror enthusiasts whose personal taste runs closer to Abu Ghraib might yawn, but for those of us who aren't so desensitized as to occasionally be squeamish, "Evil Dead Rise" definitely pushes the right buttons. 

As much of a jerk as that aforementioned heckler was, there is something missing here, and it's not Ash working at S-Mart. Sam Raimi's work at the beginning of the franchise had such a unique way of working in humor that allowed for the absurdity of the proceedings to live alongside its horrors, without one diminishing the other. Fede Álvarez didn't even really bother trying to make meaningful attempts at comedic relief back in 2013, yet that fit how harrowing the underlying conflict was, Deadites aside. Cronin here allows room for laughter, for sure. But it's largely just the Deadite versions of characters going full "Exorcist" and saying super garish things.

Cronin's visuals, when they're not directly homaging Raimi, just leave a little to be desired as well. There are a handful of scenes that feel like they could be from any number of other recent horror reboots and requels, as if every five years as a pre-ordained cinematic aesthetic we just accept as modern, no matter how interchangeable or repetitive it is. For as much is being made about Cronin doing his own thing and moving away from what Álvarez did 10 years ago, he still arrives at a climax deeply similar to that film's conclusion, only somehow less impactful despite being gorier.

All of that begs the question — if it's more important to go your own way, stylistically, and keep things fresh so a franchise doesn't get stale, why not just make an entirely new movie? Every other positive review of this film so excitedly praises it for keeping the banner alive. Obviously, there are certain market forces at work for why movies have to be this way. But at some point, if you're making "Evil Dead" movies and are moving further and further away from the style and tenor that made them special in the first place — why?

"Evil Dead Rise" arrives in theaters on April 21.