There have been five Evil Dead films in the forty-two years since Sam Raimi’s deliriously unhinged 1983 cabin-in-the-woods demonic possession flick became an instant classic of gore and triumph of tone and craft, a shoestring horror outing made by friends that went on to become a legendary, definitive screen splatter classic.
Raimi and venerable star Bruce Campbell went on to make a pair of cult sequels, the bigger budget 1987 outing Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, perhaps the apex of comedy-horror, and 1992’s medieval throwback Army of Darkness, both regarded as genre classics. While a 2013 reboot by Fede Alvarez attempted to recapture the original’s mayhemic zest, it fell slightly short.
Now comes Evil Dead Rise, a fifth installment written and directed by Irish filmmaker Lee Cronin, and it’s as joyously blood-soaked and appropriately mean-spirited as one could hope for, and very worthy companion to Raimi’s original. Terrific performances, stellar make-up effects, novel sound and art direction and a gruesomely extravagant climax make this slick package a fun, nasty ride.
Dispensing with the rural sequestration of the original in favor of an soon to be condemned Los Angeles apartment complex, Cronin’s single location picture mines maximum dread from both urban and personal malaise in its tale of two estranged adult sisters—”guitar technician” roadie Beth (Lily Sullivan) and newly divorced tattoo artist and single-mother Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), coming to terms before hell literally breaks loose.
The sisters are alienated, Beth overlooking Ellie’s messages that her husband has left and Ellie always dismissing Beth’s band work as little more than hobby of a groupie, but after the possession begins there are stark and well-rendered role reversals as wayward Beth must step up and confront her more accountable older sister, quickly off the rails.
As a single mother trying to make ends meet, depressed Ellie has all she can do packing up belongings and wrangling three kids including budding teen activist Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and deejay Danny (Morgan Davies) and younger Kassie (Nell Fisher), whose hobby is cutting heads from her dolls and placing them on sticks (which turn out come in handy). The extended set-up allows each of these characters just enough distinction, and the fraught adult sister bond allows Sullivan and Sutherland a few substantive moments; clearly they are capably resourceful stars.
When an unexpected earthquake strikes, an old bank vault beneath the complex’s parking garage is revealed, and in mistake number one, Danny enters the unearthed grotto, retrieving the Necronomicon itself, the dreaded Book of the Dead—locked by sharp teeth and containing hideous sketches of the damned—and a handful of vinyl LPs containing recited cleric incantations that summon the deadly demons.
In an expertly staged scene cleverly nodding to 1982’s The Entity (and the menacing trees of Raimi’s original), Ellie is brutally assaulted and invaded by the unleashed “deadite” spirits—that’s short for demons that possess humans in order to steal their souls—her body bound in cords and cables, suspended in a hail of electrical sparks. This striking image is Cronin’s first bravura flourish.
If you’ve seen the other films you know what is coming, Ellie’s possession in extremis quickly graduating to bloodthirsty, taunting mommy dearest whose rabid lust to devour her children’s souls produces some of the best gore effects in a movie in ages, including an eyeball sucked from its socket then ingested by an unwitting bystander, glass shards being eaten and (not so well) digested, a cheese grater as a weapon of mass bodily destruction and much, much more.
Cronin is faithful to the franchise formula as one by one the children are possessed—think of it as the sins of the mother and her traumas being visited on her innocent children—each turning into a more grisly manifestation of evil. If “mommy is in hell with the maggots now” as Ellie informs them, the ante is significantly upped with each new demonic family takeover.
In some corners the picture has been criticized as poor taste (an Evil Dead movie!) for placing children in jeopardy (and, in some cases, death) but Cronin knows the stakes of such peril and make the most out of these sequences, deftly directing Sutherland, truly scary, through convolutions that include weary, depressed mom to animated, indomitable angel of death. And that’s just where the picture gets started as Cronin and special effects artist Tristan Lucas push the children through increasingly gruesome contortions.
The climax of the film is genuinely macabre and so beautifully designed in its Grand Guignol explosion of blood, terror and amorphous creature effects it stands with the very best set pieces of the series. Set during an attempted parking garage and genuinely unsettling in its use of buckets of blood and creature effects, Cronin and Lucas craft an over-the-top festival of gore so extreme you simply can’t help being wowed by its audacity; it’s that well staged and executed.
Smartly referencing Demons 2, The Shining, Hellraiser (the score sounds richly reminiscent) John Carpenter’s The Thing and even offers a bit of a hat tip to Aliens in its finale, this slick horror machine is good, gross, gleeful fun.