‘Twas the early 1980s when 21-year-old Sam Raimi paired himself with a camera, some willing friends, and a dream to make an experimental home movie in the forests of Michigan. Little did he know that he would end up birthing an iconic horror landmark for the budgeted and scrappy among us; a movie, which, against all odds, became a quintessential cabin in the woods joint, deemed as ripe and animalistic as Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
The Evil Dead (1981) is an impressive little movie to say the very least, with its legacy onset by its memorable sequels, Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), two movies that never let up in terms of entertainment value, even if their scares take a backseat. The follow-ups allowed Raimi and co to flex effortless fun and comedic aspects on mid-sized budgets, a trope of larger filmmakers that is almost completely lost now, with a cohesive plot to hang elaborate gore gags and set pieces on. It’s a trilogy many deem “perfect” for good reason.
So how and where would a new Evil Dead movie sit in 2023? From someone who was cautiously optimistic from first looks and trailers, I thought that taking another stab at the deadite canon was an interesting project to green light. Now I can say, particularly with the hindsight of the reboot’s quaint appeal, that Lee Cronin has done it, and that Evil Dead Rise is a strong new chapter in the Evil Dead lore.
It’s noticeable from the get-go, but the trigger switch in both tone and atmosphere from its counterpart original is quite different. Cronin trades in the foggy and sleepy cabin in the woods nightmare fable for a concrete slab of low-grade housing, twitchy fluorescent lighting and wet, LA suburbia. It’s an atmospheric movement that reminded me of a demonic survivalist cover of The Towering Inferno or even Die Hard. Where Rise finds likeness with its previous incarnations is its use of back-seated comedy and pure nihilistic horror, the latter of which leads the parade during its tight runtime.
“Nihilistic” is really the keyword to take away here. Previously, The Evil Dead saga was aware of its onslaught of brutality but still intent upon communicating its slapstick-ery. Rise, on the other hand, finds a new avenue by playing the horror, in large part, completely straight. That choice is a loaded shotgun blast to the chest of visceral impact in the realms of gore and emotion. I can’t stress enough how much a packed theater on opening night added to every nasty limb tear or skin impalement. We even get a big ol’ scalp rip in the first ten minutes, which fully brought the packed house down!
With Rise being part of a now-renovated franchise, you might be wondering how it corresponds with the legacy attire and momentum of the linear canon. It’s important to clarify that Evil Dead fans and general horror heads alike will have their fill. It was nice to see some direct imagery lifted from the 1981 film modernized for the setting, my favorite example being the mirroring of the evil stuck in the cellar from the original with that of an apartment complex hallway, finalized with a fishbowl lens from the peephole for our characters to voyeur unimaginable carnage outside the apartment. Cronin even manages to get an eyeball gore-gag from Evil Dead 2 in there.
It’s hearty, untamed fun. I, for one, lean in the opinion that it is actually one of the better-looking Evil Dead riffs we’ve had yet, with Cronin and co utilizing low-fi lighting and split-diopter galore to great effect. De Palma, eat your heart out!
The cast newcomers are a real draw too. Although it’s hard to beat the cartoonish yet charming Ashley Williams from the original trilogy, the dynamic explored with each family member not only brings something new to the deadite table, but injects a sense of genuine trauma and straightlaced sadness that the franchise has not yet seen before. Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) is without question the film’s scene stealer. Now helming the ship as the “leader deadite” in this conquest of ick and possession, Sutherland embodies both the trustworthy, hardworking single mother and the screaming and flesh-tearing deadite, weaponizing that very maternal aspect against her young children. On a separate note, I can’t wait to show this to the family on Mother’s Day.
Evil Dead Rise never flinches. A surreal moment occurred to me when I realized that something so joyfully mean-spirited is available in a large cineplex to an eager public, a pure piece of unholy popcorn mania. The film feels, more than anything else, like a dial-back to an effective genre splatterfest against the grain of the current trend of elevated horror. There is no denying Raimi will forever be The Evil Dead king, but with regard to the future – it belongs to Lee Cronin, baby.