Longtime fans of the Evil Dead franchise may find Evil Dead Rise a step back after Ash vs. Evil Dead expanded the mythology to include many types of Deadites, from minis to kaiju, with a more detailed backstory for the Kandarian Demon and the Dark Ones. The new movie takes matters back to basics. Cursed book read aloud awakens evil spirits, who possess anyone they wound, turning their human hosts into sadistic projectile vomiters of blood and bile. It’s more of a jumping-on point for newcomers than any kind of story progression, with some heavy fear-of-parenthood metaphors thrown in.
Writer-director Lee Cronin’s first film, The Hole in the Ground, explored the fear of children turning bad. Here, he doubles the disturbance by offering up both that and a parent’s other major fear – that they’ll be killed by something bad. All because of a mother’s inadequacy. In pitting a good-but-insecure mother-to be against a supremely confident evil mom, he gives us the franchise’s first really memorable villain that isn’t a Bruce Campbell doppelganger.
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That would be millennial cool mom Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), who doesn’t start out as a monster. A tattoo artist living in a soon-to-be-condemned city building, she raises three kids, with their dad having skipped out. Ellie is surprised by a visit from sister Beth (Lily Sullivan) a rock n’ roll roadie who recently discovered herself pregnant and terrified. There’s some hostility between them, but the three kids love their cool aunt.
When an earthquake opens up a previously hidden vault in the building, Ellie’s son Danny (Morgan Davies) discovers it contains the Necronomicon, and some records. Being an aspiring DJ himself, he gives the discs a spin, and naturally they contain the evil incantations needed to raise the Deadites. They start with Ellie, who gets attacked by cables in the elevator in much the same way previous victims got assaulted by tree branches in the other films.
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Now a demon, cool mom becomes ultimate narcissist mom – the extreme nightmare version of a mother who wants her kids to be exactly like her, which in this case means dead and murderous. For anyone interested in this film who somehow avoided all the others, the key difference between the Evil Dead and the Walking Dead or Living Dead is that they’re intelligent, they love to torture, and they’re damn near indestructible. Particularly in this movie, they seem so overpowered that it takes some serious plot loopholes to come up with a way to survive.
Following a rural opening sequence that adds a neat twist to a longtime signature visual effect, you have about 30 minutes in which it’s safe to go the bathroom. Cronin takes the time to slowly establish Ellie, her family, and her neighbors, in the hope that this will make you care more when they (mostly) inevitably get massacred in horrible ways. It doesn’t quite work out that way. Without an amusingly oblivious dork like Bruce Campbell’s Ash, or a compelling conflict like Mia’s drug addiction in the previous reboot, we’re left watching a family being a so-so family. Cronin teases a few scares, but they’re nonstarters for any Evil Dead fan who knows nothing’s going to happen until the book gets read aloud.
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Now the good news. Once the book’s finally found and read, all hell breaks loose and doesn’t stop. Ellie’s demon is at the center of the chaos, but one by one, everyone else begins to turn, spewing fluids red, white, and black over anyone in the vicinity. It might not propel the mythology forward much, though we do learn there are at least three Necronomicons. But it earns its place in the Evil Dead pantheon with unrelenting gore and dismemberments.
Evil Dead remains distinctive among ’80s gore franchises for the fact that its primary hero became a horror icon, rather than the villain. That’s down to both a combination of design – that chainsaw hand! – and the slapstick performance of Bruce Campbell, who becomes a human cartoon. Even as the first film intended to terrify, the repeated pummeling and abuse of Campbell’s Ash by demons added an element of Three Stooges humor that the subsequent sequels latched on to and played up. There’s a lot less of that here, but Sutherland’s Ellie is the closest thing to a new Ash the franchise has offered. Though she’s unabashedly evil, her physicality and manipulative tricks (emotional and otherwise) make her a compelling monster, and one we’d love to see return if there’s a continuation with this group of characters.
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Bruce Campbell officially retired from playing Ash a while back, and the character doesn’t even exist in the present-day timeline any more. However, Ash versus Ellie would make a dream match-up. In the meantime, while it may not ascend to the same level of horror-comedy master class as its predecessors, Evil Dead Rise makes a delightful gorefest for the bloodthirsty viewer. But it’s rarely more than that.
Evil Dead Rise is now playing in theaters.
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