As much as I love horror films, it’s a sad reality that it’s nearly impossible for a franchise to stay on top of their game forever. Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street are all huge, notorious horror properties, giants of pop culture, and yet, there’s probably only three or four truly great films between them. Inevitably, no matter how stellar an opening entry in a horror series is, greed and corporate meddling will nearly always end up poisoning the well by the time the sequels start outnumbering the braincells of the average studio executive. A long-lived IP that maintains a consistent level of quality is a unicorn within the horror genre.
Truthfully, there’s really only three examples within the genre that it could be argued that this applies to: Child’s Play, Scream, and The Evil Dead. And, frankly, of those three, it’s only the latter that’s genuinely managed to squeak by without any duds. I adore Scream with all my heart, but there’s no denying that Scream 2 and 3 have some wonky bits. And don’t even get me started on Seed of Chucky. But Evil Dead, from its very first installment to it’s quasi-remakes and TV spin-offs, has consistently and unfailingly delivered on the gory goods that fans have come to expect from the series, without compromising quality.
But the problem with tracking any real consistent legacy surrounding the Evil Dead films is a complete lack of tonal consistency between various installments. The original Evil Dead is a pure-blooded horror experience, no question about it. And it’s this tone that the 2013 remake/reboot/whatever-the-hell-it-was adopted as well, exhibiting a stark, no-holds-barred spectacle of blood that was downright humorless. To some people, this is what The Evil Dead is: Cruel, mean, and shockingly – excessively – violent. But then you have Evil Dead 2, which is essentially a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon. Full of slapstick gags, physical comedy, and a far less serious tone than its predecessor, this film also set the stage for both Army of Darkness – a medieval adventure epic – and Ash vs Evil Dead – a serialized TV continuation – both of which kept Evil Dead 2’s goofy tone and outlandish set-pieces. To other people, this is The Evil Dead: A campy, silly, messy good time.
The truth, obviously, falls somewhere in between these two camps, which is the beauty of the series as a whole. Of course, there are unifying elements – the Book of the Dead, the malicious Deadites, a fair smattering of possession and subsequent dismemberment – but the presentation of these elements can vary greatly.
And it’s within this dichotomy, between the funny and the frightening, that my excitement and apprehension for the newest installment, Evil Dead Rise, was at its most concentrated. I’m a huge fan of both the franchise’s hats, and would be perfectly satisfied either a ridiculous deadite romp or a nail-biting, visceral nightmare, but truth be told, I was really hoping for a genuine blend of the two tones. Something brutal and savage, but with a sense of humor and personality.
And Evil Dead Rise, miraculously, manages to straddle that line better than perhaps any other film in the franchise thus far.
Is it mean? You bet. Evil Dead Rise takes absolutely no prisoners. There are certain rules in horror, certain archetypes that the audience subconsciously knows is safe. This film apparently read that handbook, laughed, and threw it in the furnace, because everyone here is on the chopping block. Kids, teens, the elderly, even unborn babies are all put in genuine, mortifying danger. And when the kills come, they’re every bit as messy as you’d want from a franchise that gave us such hits as “Woman is flung into a tree at 400 MPH” and “Lady saws off own arm with a turkey carver.” Eyes are chewed out, limbs are hacked off, faces are stabbed, you name it. If it exists on the human body, odds are it was mutilated in some way during Evil Dead Rise’s brisk 90ish minute runtime. Even better, the film eschews current trends in the genre by skimping on the CG, and instead opting for gruesome, old-school practical effects. The result is a visceral, tangible bloodfest in which you see every gory detail on screen, in frame.
The trade-off here is that, while violent, the film isn’t nearly as cruel as 2013’s Evil Dead. Whereas that particular installment veered almost into Saw-esque torture-porn territory, Rise instead opts for a slightly more merciful approach. That cheese-grater scene in all the trailers? Yeah, that’s pretty much the extent of it. To some, this may feel a bit cheap, especially given all the hype surrounding how “sick” and “twisted” the film supposedly is, but I personally felt it still delivered plenty of hurt to go around.
So it’s got the gore, great. But what about the camp? Does Evil Dead Rise have that signature Sam Raimi deadite goofiness factor? Yes, but not nearly as much as, say Evil Dead 2 or Army of Darkness. The summoned demons in the 2013 film were terrifyingly ruthless and efficient, but were somewhat lacking in personality. They were threatening, sure, but they didn’t quite play around with their prey as much as some of their early cousins. And while Rise doesn’t quite take us back to the slapstick levels that Raimi himself was operating at by the later installments of the franchise, it hits much closer to that target than Fede Alvarez’s go at the source material. The deadites here are assholes, in glorious, snarky fashion. They alternate somewhere on the level between a particularly vicious insult comic and a bitchy high school girl, which, frankly, feels absolutely perfect for Rise’s brand of mom-and-sister-centric conflict. Creepy nursery rhymes and hysterical laughing fits abound. They’ll attack your innermost insecurities and mock your stupid hair: No notes, 10/10 demonic dickery.
And the reason the deadite debauchery works so well in this film, outside of the stellar, pitch-perfect writing, is 110% owed to Alyssa Sutherland’s fantastically malicious turn as the meat-puppet mom Ellie. Known for her role as the gleefully-unlikable Aslaug in Vikings, Sutherland has a face that was absolutely made to be paraded around as a scenery-chomping matriarchal monster. She’s perhaps the most morbidly entertaining villain in the entire franchise here, gracefully and effortlessly dancing around the increasingly blurred lines between hilarious and horrifying. As the alive-and-well Ellie, she gives her character some much-needed warmth and sympathy, coming across as a cool, level-headed single mom just trying to make ends meet. She sticks around just long enough to endear her to the audience before her inevitable transformation into an undead terror, at which point she shifts gears entirely and gives one of the most unhinged and chaotic horror performances in ages.
Luckily, the rest of the cast is able to keep up. Made up almost entirely of relative unknowns (well, unknown to me), the victims of the deadite’s playful wrath in Evil Dead Rise consist of Ellie’s kids, her rocker sister, and the various other residents of the doomed apartment complex where the most recent book of the dead is unearthed. The kids do a fantastic job at handling all the heaviness that is predictably thrust upon them as the film progresses, taking the blows in stride as they have to make the transition from plucky (but not overly precocious) youngsters to traumatized victims of supernatural abuse. Likewise, auntie Beth, our Ash Williams-expy played by Lily Sullivan, brings all the required reluctant badassery to make her worthy of the chainsaw that she obviously ends up wielding by the end of the film. There are elements of the aforementioned Ash in her character, including a knack for mechanical tinkering, as well as 2013’s drug-addict-in-recovery Mia, reflected in her troubled work life and messy relationship circumstances. In a lot of ways, she feels like a perfect synthesis of everyone that came before her, deftly blending the new and the old into a composite Evil Dead protagonist that fits her world like a bloody puzzle piece.
In a similar fashion, the look and feel of this film combines the kinetic, unconventional camerawork of Sam Raimi’s earlier entrees with a slick, modern color pattern and cinematic smoothness to create a beautiful patchwork of homage and reimagining that feels much closer to what I imagine a contemporary Evil Dead film to look like compared to the 2013 reboot. The sets, while urban and recent, echo the same sinister unease as the cabins of the past, and the POV camera shots of the deadites on the hunt feel like they were shot by Raimi himself. It’s a wonderful amalgamation of everything that makes both retro and modern horror so much fun.
And while Evil Dead Rise works perfectly well as a discrete entity on its own merits, there’s plenty of easter eggs for longtime fans of the franchise to get a kick out of. You’ve obviously got your boomstick and your chainsaw, and the deadites go through a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation of their menacing catchphrases. Souls are threatened to be swallowed, dawn is given as the deadline to be dead by, and our bloodied heroine obviously has to tell the final boss to “Come get some.” Not to mention the fun vocal cameo hidden somewhere in the Naturom Demento’s translation recordings. The film is worth seeing multiple times just to try and catch all the nods to previous films.
No sign of Raimi’s trademark Oldsmobile though, which frankly feels like a genuine crime.
Honestly, Evil Dead Rise feels like a borderline perfect horror experience, my own personal fondness for the franchise notwithstanding. It’s fun, frightening, and fast-paced, never lulling any longer than it absolutely has to before delivering another dose of undead doom. You’d be genuinely hard-pressed to find a better time at the movies anytime soon if you’re a horror fan.
Go see Evil Dead Rise as soon as you can. I want ten more of these things, people.