By Bob Grimm
Evil Dead Rise does just enough to be decent movie. It’s gory; it’s intermittently scary; and it has enough franchise Easter eggs to get the vibe right—the darker side of the vibe, that is.
Rise plays a little like the Fede Alvarez 2013 Evil Dead reboot in that it is gloomy, gory and almost humorless, much like Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead, a brutal 1981 film which starred Bruce Campbell as horror icon Ash Williams.
The franchise turned toward horror comedy with Evil Dead II (1987), a trajectory that continued through Army of Darkness (aka Evil Dead III) and the tremendously fun TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead, which, from 2015-2018, gave us 30 episodes of Campbell in all his glory.
Before the show debuted, Alvarez’s Evil Dead tried to re-establish the film franchise. While it was not a failure, it never spawned a sequel, with Raimi and company deciding to go the Ash/TV Exorcist-meets-the-Three Stooges route. I rewatched the 2013 Evil Dead recently, and it’s better than I remembered, perhaps the strongest Evil Dead movie other than Raimi’s.
That’s not to say Evil Dead Rise isn’t any good. It feels like the filmmakers are going through the motions rather than advancing the story and the lore—although those motions involve some first-rate gore and scares. As a horror aficionado, I can say Evil Dead Rise delivers as a pitch-black splatter-fest that I’m happy I experienced, even though it left me feeling a little unfulfilled.
The film starts, inexplicably, at a lakeside cabin, where some typical blood-spilling takes place before the opening credits. This is a bit of a fake-out, because the action immediately shifts to one year earlier, in a Los Angeles apartment inhabited by a mom, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), and her two kids, Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and Danny (Morgan Davies). They are visited by Ellie’s sister, Beth (Lily Sullivan); everyone is going through some form of internal or family turmoil.
Danny stumbles upon a strange, nasty-looking book bound in human flesh, as well as some old vinyl records—and Evil Dead fans instantly know this spells trouble. Some incantations are read aloud; a POV camera representing a demon force races into the apartment building; and Ellie finds herself gruesomely possessed.
Writer-director Lee Cronin does a good job of isolating the family in the apartment building, much like all of those prior Evil Dead film victims were doomed in lonely cabins. Yes, they are in L.A., and yes, they have neighbors, but it might as well be a cabin in the woods, because they are basically stuck in their small apartment with nowhere to go. There are a few scenes of carnage seen through a keyhole that count as the film’s best moments.
The movie does feel a little small, and its lower budget is evident in its low number of set pieces; this is probably due to the fact that it was meant to go to HBO Max rather than theaters. Positive receptions at film festivals and a general change of philosophy at Warner Bros. led to the movie getting a theatrical release. What might’ve felt quite big on TV feels a little downplayed on the big screen.
The movie does its job of creeping you out and blasting you with some nicely orchestrated mayhem. Its relative level of success bodes well for future installments; perhaps there’s a “this time it’s gloomy; next time it’s wacky” future plan at play here.
While Campbell has vowed never to play Ash again, he and Raimi remain producers and are involved with everything Evil Dead. Perhaps new interest in the franchise will convince Campbell to strap on the chainsaw one more time for a future installment.
That would be fun, as opposed to completely demoralizing and terrifying, which can be OK, too, depending upon your Evil Dead mood.