Review: "Evil Dead Rise" keeps the deadite hot streak going strong
This film messed me up and I love it
My fingers are still shaking a bit as I start typing this out – the lingering effects of the genuine fear and discomfort Evil Dead Rise generated in me, but also from how jazzed I am to have just watched a horror film this gnarly, passionate, and original.
Evil Dead Rise is a deeply surprising film in all sorts of ways. That is exists and is so good, first and foremost, and that it kind of came out of nowhere, having been in development as a straight-to-streaming release from a relatively unknown filmmaker (Lee Cronin) before it was suddenly a theatrical event, slipping in under the cover of the Super Mario Bros. Movie behemoth to get tons of positive word-of-mouth. It’s surprising in that it keeps the unbroken Evil Dead hotstreak going – this is the rare, and maybe only, horror franchise that’s still batting a thousand – and even more surprising that it does so while finding a pretty fundamentally new and different way into the series’ style and mythology. And it’s incredibly surprising in boundaries it crosses and how far it’s willing to go, even in the midst of an American horror renaissance that hasn’t been marked by squeamishness.
Other than Army of Darkness – which is very much its own weird and wonderful thing – every Evil Dead film up to now has played a variation on the same basic shape. Evil Dead 2 is either a remake of or a sequel to the first film, depending on who you ask (the best answer is it’s a little of both), taking the same story structure of “asshole demons torture Bruce Campbell in a creepy cabin” and inflecting it with an anarchical sense of Looney Tunes cartoon mayhem. The more straight-faced 2013 remake by Fede Álvarez is the same basic idea again, combining the most creepy and gruesome ideas from the first two films while dramatically upping the gore quotient.
Evil Dead Rise bucks the trend. Apart from a fun cold open, it isn’t set in a cabin in the woods, but on the 14thfloor of a half-condemned apartment building; and its characters aren’t teenagers or Bruce Campbell-style knuckleheads, but a single mother, her three kids (two teens and a child), and her
groupie guitar technician sister. It asks us to invest in and like these characters on a much more grounded, down-to-earth level than past Evil Dead films (Ash is likeable because Bruce Campbell is charismatic, but you also don’t mind seeing him lose an arm or undergo crazy amounts of psychological torment – he’s a down-on-his-luck Bugs Bunny more than he is an actual flesh-and-blood person). And like a lot of the best horror films, it starts from a place of very basic human anxiety – Beth, the sister, is unexpectedly pregnant, we learn in our very first scene with her, and she’s scared to hell about it – before building its nightmare scenario out of a terrifying Nth-degree vision of that fear, where the protagonist is chucked into the deep end of what motherhood might mean or represent. The film is still recognizably Evil Dead – the Book of the Dead is here, the Deadites are still monstrous assholes, and the rules for dealing with them are basically the same as they’ve always been – but it’s Evil Dead put towards a notably different setting and cast of characters than we’ve seen before. The resulting film feels remarkably fresh, familiar in some ways but new in so many others, an Evil Dead film that can play on more primal childhood fears and adult anxieties over child rearing as fluently as it can feature contorted zombies vomiting filth – both literal bile and vile verbal assaults – from their mouths.
What shocks me most about the film is not only how truly scary it is, but that it honestly feels pretty transgressive, much like the original Evil Dead film did (and, frankly, still does). Evil Dead 2 is the entry that has been most influential and imitated over the last 40 years thanks to its pitch-perfect blend of horror and cartoon comedy, which I think has led many people – myself included – to be pretty surprised when they revisit the original film or see it for the first time. The Evil Dead, with the definite article, isn’t much interested in comedy at all, and remains for my money one of the most brutally effective horror movies ever made. Like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, something about it just feels wrong, like these images shouldn’t be allowed to have been captured or exhibited, like the filmmakers were getting away with something in making it, and the viewer is too by watching. I’m not a horror aficionado, and I don’t generally feel ‘scared’ by movies, but The Evil Dead is one that truly unsettles me, one that feels like a bit of a gauntlet to get through.
Both of the 2000s-era attempts to revive the franchise – the 2013 remake and now Rise – are more interested in going after the uniquely disturbing tone and atmosphere of that first film than they are the sillier stylings of its sequel, perhaps because so many films outside the franchise have already stripped it for parts. Alvarez’ film got there by doubling down on the intensity of the imagery – it remains one of the bloodiest, most graphic films released by a Hollywood studio in my lifetime – and while Rise is plenty gruesome, what feels transgressive about this one is who it’s happening to. One of the unwritten rules about horror films – and action movies, and video games, and so on – is that kids are usually exempted from the mayhem. You can put adult characters through the wringer, but the kids are usually there to get spooked and then survive to tell the tale. Evil Dead Rise thumbs its nose at that idea, gleefully crossing the rubicon into having much of the violence and terror happen to or around the kids. Two of the three are teenagers, but they read very young, and when the film goes for the jugular (sometimes literally), it’s honestly hard to believe what you’re watching. The movie isn’t sparing, and whether it’s literally having the kids suffer unspeakably gruesome torment, or seeing the youngest child have her innate trust in her mother and older siblings twisted into something so distressing, that sense of transgression is one of the scariest things about it.
It helps, of course, that director Lee Cronin’s sense of horror staging is so creative and effective, recalling and paying homage to Sam Raimi’s early accomplishments while also charting its own path. Other than one very funny gore gag involving an eyeball, Evil Dead Rise, like the 2013 film, tends to play things pretty straight with its horror imagery, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of invention here. Some of my favorite images involve those framed through the peephole of a door, and Cronin gets a ton of mileage out of the relatively small apartment set. The film takes a little while to ramp up into its gnarliest imagery, but once it’s cooking, the amount of blood and viscera on display is shocking, both from a gross-out standpoint and an appreciation of the craft on display (first-rate make-up and prosthetics, another Evil Dead tradition, is definitely honored here). There’s a creature skulking around for the film’s climax that is easily one of the most disturbing inventions of the entire series, and a major mic-drop moment homaging Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that’s roughly 20 times more interesting than what Steven Spielberg did in Ready Player One.
And yes, there is a chainsaw here, and it is used well, although I’m even more enthused by the positively Chekovian deployment of a wood chipper, glimpsed in the first act and whole-heartedly fired in the third.
Evil Dead Rise really is the complete package. I like the 2013 film, and feel it’s become weirdly underrated since its mostly well-received release a decade ago, but this is definitely a cut above what Alvarez pulled off in how it wields those extreme horror aesthetics towards a story and point-of-view that feels entirely new to the world of Evil Dead, tapping into fears and anxieties the series hasn’t touched before. It feels like a new set of possibilities for the franchise have been opened up, where more filmmakers working from a broader range of stories, characters, and settings could come in and do their own thing with the franchise. The 2013 film proved the series could work without Sam Raimi or Bruce Campbell, but Rise suggests a much larger canvas still, and makes me excited to hopefully see more creative visions for what Evil Dead could look like in the years to come.
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