Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

‘Evil Dead Rise’ is a Relentlessly Good Scare

Morgan Davies and Lily Sullivan in 'Evil Dead Rise.' Courtesy of Warner Bros.jpg

Morgan Davies and Lily Sullivan in 'Evil Dead Rise.' 

One of the things I like most about the 40-years-running “Evil Dead” franchise is that, with the exception of the more expansive, Middle Ages-set “Army of Darkness” (1992), each entry is about as effectively to the point as its title. The thrust of each, more or less, is that a group of people in a space cut off from the rest of the world — typically a log cabin miles removed from anywhere civilized — finds itself suddenly terrorized by a very black-hearted spirit or two or three prone to possessing the bodies of various characters to sow violent chaos until there isn’t anybody left to terrorize. 

The original trilogy was directed by a young and eager Sam Raimi, and for those who could stomach its goopy gore, the overriding tone was that of goofy ghastliness — horror as slapstick, a fusion of scary and funny done so right that you get what Pauline Kael was talking about when in her review of 1976’s “Carrie” she called the marriage of those two characteristics “the greatest combination in popular entertainment.” You sensed Raimi as much wanting to freak us out as get us to have as much fun watching as he had making it. In his “Evil Dead” movies, screams almost always were tempered by laughs that took the edge off. Either that laughter came after the screaming — unself-serious delight at our own susceptibilities as viewers — or at the over-the-topness of Raimi’s approach to horror and to the accompanying gore. (The latter remains a triumph of charming, corn syrup-abetted, and cost-effective practical effects.)

The newer “Evil Dead” movies — 2013’s apathetically named reboot-cum-continuation “Evil Dead” and, now, “Evil Dead Rise” — prefer to eschew Raimi’s playful showmanship. Though various callbacks work to connect these movies together, they don’t quite tonally resemble their predecessors. The next generation of “Evil Dead” films has the approach of, “what if we made the ‘Evil Dead’ movies just scary?” There isn’t any laughter following our screams and shudders; their makers taunt us into considering hoisting a white flag prematurely. The violence is almost never tinged with body-horror comedy. The new “Evil Dead”s don’t want to show us a good night out at the movies; they pummel you in a way that reminds you what sorts of sensations are meant to be felt when you’re watching a horror movie that wants very badly to be an effective horror movie. The horror-averse ought to consider that a warning. Desensitized genre aficionados like me, who know how difficult it is to finish a horror movie truly frightened, conversely might respond to that like a point of intrigue.

I really liked but didn’t love the 2013 “Evil Dead.” Although I appreciated its blood-soaked audacity, which earned extra brownie points for supposedly all being done practically, it felt too much like the original over-competently put through filters of tonal seriousness and visual realism. But I found myself mostly loving “Evil Dead Rise,” which re-ups the last movie’s relentlessness but is more interested in shaking things up (though only so slightly) in more compelling, and genuinely sadder, ways. It also might be the most unhesitantly vicious of the series’ offerings so far. It can be a grueling watch, but for the horror-inclined that may be part of the appeal. “Evil Dead Rise” is the kind of horror movie that wants you to look over your shoulder, make sure there are no signs of the homicidal undead under your bed, after its time with you has run out. For me, at least, it worked over me exactly like it was supposed to.

Though the cold open (technically an epilogue) briefly goes through the motions of the franchise’s trademark cabin-in-the-woods shtick, “Evil Dead Rise” otherwise is set almost solely in a dilapidated, soon-to-be-condemned art deco-style apartment building in Los Angeles. Specifically, it spends much time on the 13th floor, in the unit belonging to a single mother and tattooist, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), and her three kids, Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and Kassie (Nell Fisher). Ellie’s sister, an always-on-tour guitar technician named Beth (Lily Sullivan) who’s recently found out that she’s pregnant, is visiting while in town, ostensibly motivated largely to get some maternal advice.

Nell Fisher in 'Evil Dead Rise.' Courtesy of Warner Bros..jpeg

Nell Fisher in 'Evil Dead Rise.' 

The reunion’s joys are cut short pretty immediately. An earthquake, which occurs while the kids are out picking up pizza, makes all the power go out and renders the elevator and stairs dangerous to use. It also makes the cement in the parking garage crack open. When Ellie’s children arrive back home, they come across a hole revealing both the sealed-up bank that used to live on the property and several creepy artifacts tucked alongside it. One of them — the one that the most screams out “don’t even think about touching this” — is a thoroughly wrapped up book whose binding looks veiny in an unsettlingly human sense and which is clamped shut by what can only be described as rows of fangs. This book definitely made out of flesh and blood comes with a trio of vinyl recordings, too. I can’t think of anything I’d rather listen to less, besides maybe the early albums of Diamanda Galás.

But the book and the vinyls don’t have that effect on Danny. He puzzlingly thinks both should be engaged with because they could potentially be worth something and therefore free his mother from her financial purgatory. But as “Evil Dead” history has let us know many times, opening this book, “Naturom Demonto,” will only cause problems of the malicious underworld variety. Danny will not only do the opening — a process that results in him pricking his finger on the spiky-tooth binding — but do some listening to the records on his ornate speaker system. Suffice it to say the rest of “Evil Dead Rise” follows the family’s apartment turning into a madhouse where its inhabitants are either getting possessed by whatever demons this book unleashed or menaced by the possessed. First in line is Ellie, who’s turned so thoroughly into a ghoulishly grinning momzilla who often scuttles on all fours that I sometimes forgot that it was still the same actress I’d met and come to like just a while earlier. Unlucky neighbors just trying to help out with what seems to be a medical episode unwittingly get in on the action, too.

Writer-director Lee Cronin’s has a merciless approach; he renders the safe haven of home into a hell on Earth where innocent items like cheese graters and wine glasses are turned into things you feel squeamish around. That the main characters are so sympathetic — a mom and her kids just getting by, a relative in an anxious transitional period — is key to making the film scarier, the villains so hungry for bedlam that it doesn’t matter whether the people being affected by it don’t especially deserve it. (Though does anyone really deserve what this posse of demons is capable of?) Save for Danny’s insanely stupid decision-making, the slasher movie’s tendency for karmic explanation is long gone here. “Evil Dead Rise” has the quality of a particularly potent short story in a horror anthology, where the concision of the narrativizing is part of what makes it linger. It has no wiggle room for respite; it’s almost exclusively nightmarish mayhem that won’t let up if it doesn’t have to. (Some set pieces — one involving a wood chipper and chainsaw a little too conveniently in the parking garage, another involving an eyeball flung around like a golf ball— might make you gasp.)

I’ve seen some criticism that “Evil Dead Rise” is lacking in effective rise-and-fall tension. I suppose that’s true, but it’s also true that a bombardment of that wouldn’t make a ton of sense — would maybe even get old — when the setting is this small and claustrophobic and when these demons are too eager to announce their presence to wait around for long periods of time to go “boo.” The never-letting-up kinetic energy of “Evil Dead Rise” is part of what makes it so rattling. When I say I couldn’t wait for the movie to end, I mean it as a compliment. I was more than happy to walk out of the theater with my teeth chattering.

Movie Love is 425’s film column. For more movie recommendations from Blake Peterson, subscribe to his newsletter.

Recommended for you