It is hard to overstate how truly magical the Evil Dead saga has become. What started as a bunch of drunk college kids trying to make a cheap movie to prove their skills as filmmakers has erupted into a worldwide sensation. While the original film is still banned in several countries, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell’s brain child has resulted in two sequels (both inexplicably and wonderfully comedies), an underrated 2013 reboot/sequel, a short-lived television series, and an unauthorized-yet-wildly-popular musical adaptation. Now, Evil Dead is back, this time in the hands of up-and-comer Lee Cronin. And while Evil Dead Rise is something of a departure for the series, it more than understands why Evil Dead is so beloved, and delivers on the thrills and chills that bring audiences to the theaters.
Guitar technician Beth (Lily Sullivan) is in a tough spot. Having sacrificed so much in terms of family and friends to become a leading guitar technician in the music industry, she is left reeling with the discovery that she is pregnant. With no one else to turn to, Beth decides to visit her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) for advice. Unfortunately, Ellie has her own issues to deal with – her apartment has been condemned, and her husband recently abandoned her and their three kids, musician Danny (Morgan Davies), wannabe activist Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and youngest child Kassie (Nell Fisher).
However, soon the entire family will have bigger fish to fry. An earthquake not only leaves their entire apartment floor stranded with no cell service, no stairs, and no elevator, it also unleashes the Naturom Demonto, the Book of the Dead. And suddenly, Ellie is killed by the book’s demonic power, transformed into those fearsome, loathsome, wise-cracking deadites that swallow the souls of the innocent. And there just so happen to be four such innocents trapped inside her apartment…
The reason that Evil Dead has endured as a franchise for so long while franchises like The Conjuring, Friday the 13th, and beyond have fallen apart, is that no matter how you frame the story – as a low-budget exploitation film, a campy comedy, or a big budget extravaganza – it always boils down to an incredibly basic formula. You keep the story simple, but elevate the horror. Unlike slashers, which exploit our fear of the known, or supernatural horror, which exploits our fear of the unknown, Evil Dead blends the two in a unique, satisfying way: using supernatural forces that force our protagonists to grapple with our subconscious fear of bodily harm.
Evil Dead is about ghouls that don’t just want to kill us – they want to torture us first. And to do that, they have to come up with new and terrifying ways of exhibiting bodily harm on film. There’s nothing inherently unique in this story about a family trying to survive being trapped on an apartment floor with demons. It’s all in Lee Cronin’s execution that makes us squirm and shake and cheer in our seats. Every scalping, beheading, dismemberment, and beyond that is witnessed feels unique – it certainly did to my audience, who gasped at a brutality the PG-13 horror has hidden from them for over a decade. It feels visceral, it feels excessive, and yet it feels new – and therefore, it feels exciting, dare I say titillating?
Yet Cronin isn’t just interested in gross-out scares. No, he knows this is his big break, and he uses every opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of every aspect of horror. You want that type of dramatic irony that made Raimi and Carpenter celebrities in their own right? There are moments of deadites quietly following characters in the background meant to elicit screams of “She’s right behind you!” from the audience. You want lines so utterly disturbing you shudder even without violence? I can’t think of anything in this film more terrifying than Sutherland’s delivery of the horrific line “Mommy’s with the maggots now.” Hell, when necessary, Cronin can even deliver the hero moment when needed. It’s a masterful display that will surely book him projects for years to come.
I will say, when it comes to the acting, that Rise accomplishes something of a rarity amongst this franchise: letting the antagonist outshine the protagonist. This isn’t to say that Sullivan isn’t outstanding as Beth. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and delivers her big moments with aplomb. I simply mean that whereas Campbell so clearly outshone his costars across three films, and even Jane Levy’s maligned Mia Allen dominated the 2013 reboot, Sullivan is forced to compete with Sutherland’s masterful performance as Ellie in each and every scene. Sutherland is strong when Ellie is, for lack of a better word, alive, but man does she sing once her character becomes possessed. Each line is deliciously chewed upon, each gesture is perfectly projected; it is the type of horror villain audiences long for, and man is she incredible here.
I don’t have much to say about the rest of the cast. There are three child actors who never feel real when they’re supposed to be “normal” – they talk more like a group of Gen-Zers written by an X-er. But once they’re supposed to be scared, and they start fighting for their lives – and some of them losing, it’s not a spoiler to say – they start to stand out. As the eldest sibling Davies is fine enough in the role. However, I’d argue that despite the most experience amongst the child actors, he’s outshone by Gabriele Echols and Nell Fisher, who shine as the sarcastic middle sibling and the youngest daughter (the youngest victim of deadite menace to date) struggling to understand why mommy is trying to cut their tongues out with scissors. With better early dialogue, they could have been all-star scream queens for years to come.
Evil Dead Rise is the type of icky, squishy movie that deserves to be seen in theaters, with the biggest crowd possible. It is gloriously over-the-top, with real thrills of every kind. Director Lee Cronin clearly made this film as a form of proof-of-concept, a demonstration of his skills for horror films to come. And yet, that’s exactly why Evil Dead movies are so fun. They’re meant to prove exactly why a rising director is one to watch. But more importantly, they stand on their own as an experiment in true terror. And from the cast to the direction to the magnitude of this story, Evil Dead Rise checks all the boxes.
Evil Dead Rise is now playing exclusively in theaters