In Evil Dead Rise, Lee Cronin shows the depth of his twisted mind and a commitment to the spirit of Sam Raimi’s franchise.
Contrary to the protests of one viewer, who yelled “This movie sucks!” and stormed out after its SXSW premiere, Evil Dead Rise isn’t terrible. The film flaunts the talents of its promising director, while playing plenty of homage to the predecessors. Gore, blood, jittery perspectives and strong performances from Alyssa Sutherland and Lily Sullivan make this film a worthy franchise entry.
Evil Dead Rise
The Bottom Line
Both a bloody good homage and an effective corrective.
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)
Release date: Friday, April 21
Cast: Lily Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland, Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols, Nell Fisher
Director-screenwriter: Lee Cronin
1 hour 37 minutes
Sutherland and Sullivan star as Ellie and Beth, respectively, two sisters whose relationship ebbs and flows according to tour schedules and childcare duties. Beth is a guitar technician for bands (although her sister secretly and cruelly refers to her as a groupie) and Ellie is a tattoo artist living in Los Angeles with her three kids. Their relationship has a loving foundation but the surface shows cracks from their mismatched levels of communication. On the road, Beth, consumed by tour life, tends to miss calls from Ellie, who is unexpectedly going through a divorce. Cronin’s screenplay paints their bond in broad but efficient strokes, setting up the dynamic between the older, more responsible figure (Ellie) and the younger sibling perpetually seeking advice (Beth).
In some ways, Evil Dead Rise is as much an homage as it is a corrective to Raimi’s original low-budget treat, which has been called out for its shallow and misogynistic treatment of women. They are not only widely considered underwritten, but also endure the most sadistic scenes. The women who populate Cronin’s film don’t suffer any less at the hands of the demonic spirits, but at least they have the chance to lead the charge in their own salvation.
After an appropriately alarming cold open, Evil Dead Rise begins with an anxious Beth taking a pregnancy test in a gritty night club. A knock on the door briefly interrupts her, but Beth is more preoccupied with the results of her test. We never see what it says, but we can guess when the younger sibling shows up at the door of her older sister. Close-ups of Ellie’s tattoos and ink station introduce us to her quiet life in L.A. Her three kids — Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and Kassie (Nell Fisher) — buzz around her, attending to their own preoccupations. They are an eclectic bunch whose interests reflect their mother’s trusting parenting style: Danny, a DJ, spins in his room; his sister Bridget creates posters for a protest; and Kassie, the youngest, decapitates a doll.
Fans of the franchise can guess what happens when an earthquake reveals an underground tomb beneath Ellie’s soon-to-be-demolished building. Curiosity overtakes her kids, whom she sent out to get pizza. Danny is especially keen on exploring the mysterious lockers and dusty artifacts in the cavern. Against his sister Bridget’s protests, the audiophile grabs a few records and the Necronomicon, that familiar flesh-bound book. Cronin (The Hole in the Ground) uses the full capacities of FX to elevate almost every element of Evil Dead, including the book, which contains pages of blood-inked drawings and whose incantations are only revealed with the accompanying vinyl discs.
Cronin sets his version of Evil Dead in in Ellie’s city apartment, creating a more claustrophobic, chamber drama-esque horror. His style — a destabilizing mix of camera tilts and zooms, a color palette dominated by an eerie blend of navy, berry, cobalt and indigo — conjures an atmosphere of fear and distrust. There’s also a haunting, staccato experimentation with the sound design (by Peter Albrechtsen), which seesaws between brash noises and complete silence.
But it’s the performances from his cast that give the film ballast. Sullivan plays Beth as a tense figure — a person whose cool exterior betrays frayed nerves and general insecurity. When she comes to Ellie’s door, she’s seeking both the advice and comfort of her older sister, who, in her words, always knows what to do. Sutherland (Vikings) is assured as the collected older sibling, but she is even better as a demonic mother. The unleashed spirit immediately possesses Ellie, and for the film’s 97-minute runtime Sutherland transforms into a maternal nightmare.
A possessed Ellie drags herself back to the apartment, her steps creating menacing thuds, and heads straight into the kitchen, where she methodically cracks eggs into a cast iron skillet. Cronin’s screenplay is light on character development, but there’s a deep interest — in the tradition of Rosemary’s Baby or the more recent Huesera — in teasing out the terrors of motherhood. The satanic spirits inside Ellie manipulate the bond between mother and children to trick Danny, Bridget and Kassie. Cooking, singing lullabies and bath time all adopt sinister undertones because of Sutherland’s limber and frightening performance.
Cronin’s skilled direction extends beyond his actors. It wouldn’t be an Evil Dead installment without maximum gore and blood, and the director doesn’t disappoint. He ratchets up tension by making each act of torture more inspired than the last. Cookware and other kitchen finds become perverse tools for maiming flesh and wreaking havoc. Each room in the apartment teeters between safe haven and battleground. Blood is everywhere — penetrating the walls of an elevator and dripping from various orifices. Evil Dead Rise is unrelenting in this way, even with the touches of pressure-alleviating humor. Cronin’s film is a wonderfully sick series entry, deftly calibrated to satisfy fans and traumatize the uninitiated.