Vague Visages’ Evil Dead Rise review contains minor spoilers. Lee Cronin’s 2023 movie features Mirabai Pease, Richard Crouchley and Anna-Maree Thomas. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
The “Evil Dead” franchise carries with it certain expectations. But, nowadays, it’s a toss-up between whether new releases date back to Sam Raimi’s celebrated original trilogy (the first installment of which was infamously banned during the UK’s “Video Nasties” era) or the 2013 reboot, which remains beloved by horror fans despite its flaws. The Evil Dead (1981) is a scrappy, gory and shocking descent into darkness that’s charmingly held together by sheer ingenuity and force of will. The original franchise film wasn’t necessarily meant to be funny, but the comedic elements of the sequels — Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992) — is what makes the series such a cult hit. Fede Alvarez’s 2013 reboot, meanwhile, mostly dispenses with the humor in favor of a darker and more violent take. It still feels like a franchise movie, albeit one aimed at modern viewers who were sadly raised on torture porn. What to make, then, of Evil Dead Rise, another reboot that isn’t a direct sequel to the 2013 movie but has more in common with it than the other three films.
Evil Dead Rise inexplicably relocates the action to a dilapidated apartment building in Los Angeles, though one of its greatest failings is that the setting never feels believable. Principal photography took place in New Zealand, and indeed there are several actors in the cast from that side of the world, but Cronin’s film looks like it was captured on a soundstage, with ugly, jaundiced cinematography providing a further layer of hopelessness to the premise. There’s a near-constant blanket of rain, and even the brief sunshine glimpsed at a rushed, cabin-in-the-woods-style prologue doesn’t give the sense that the setting is California. And considering that the action never ventures beyond one apartment building, it’s puzzling why L.A. was chosen in the first place, especially since the franchise has such strong ties to Michigan. Why not just set Evil Dead Rise in Detroit, like so many other modern horror movies, and call it a day?
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Nevertheless, the heroine this time around is Beth (Lily Sullivan), a touring guitar tech who discovers she’s pregnant and has no other discerning personality traits beyond “reluctant mother.” When her estranged sister, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), becomes a Deadite, the stage is set for Beth to take charge of her three children — Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), Danny (Morgan Davies), Kassie (Nell Fisher) — and prove herself in the process. Suffice it to say, it’s immediately clear that Evil Dead Rise was written by a man (Cronin handled the screenplay too), with Beth plagued by debilitating stomach cramps just a short while after learning she’s pregnant, almost as though the writer-director confused period pains with pregnancy symptoms. Considering that plenty of women don’t even learn they’re expecting until around six weeks in, it’s a truly baffling choice. Never mind the fact that it adds nothing to the narrative and never comes up again. It’s also worth noting that this is the second film in a row, following 2019’s forgettable The Hole in the Ground, that Cronin has woefully mishandled the subject of motherhood (he should probably consult a woman before tackling it again).
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The other bizarre choice is also female-related and concerns Beth’s underwritten relationship with her sister. The two women have clearly had their issues over the years, with Beth gallivanting around while Ellie struggles to handle three kids by herself. But Ellie casually describing her sister as a “groupie” before she’s even possessed by an evil entity means that her yelling the insult at Beth once she’s fully transformed doesn’t really land. In fact, despite the impressive makeup and prosthetics, Ellie mostly acts like herself when she’s a Deadite, though that doesn’t excuse young Kassie letting her into the apartment almost immediately after Ellie’s been kicked out for trying to kill everyone. Unfortunately, Evil Dead Rise is one of those old-fashioned horror movies where the characters consistently make dumb decisions, from opening doors they’ve been warned to keep closed to reciting passages from the goddamned Book of the Dead (“It’s called the Book of the Dead for a reason!” yells a spirited Bruce Campbell, playing a priest in a voice cameo role).
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Of course, the complete lack of character depth or any semblance of an emotional arc for these people wouldn’t matter if the gore was memorable. Plenty of movies get by on awe-inspiring practical FX alone, even today. But despite the extensive marketing campaign surrounding a cheese grater, it barely features in Evil Dead Rise. Elsewhere, the lingering camera can’t cover up the fact that none of the violence has any real weight to it, and the deaths are so frequent and horrific — children are killed with a disturbing level of glee that isn’t justified — that the effect is dulled. Evil Dead Rise quickly devolves into a mean-spirited slog of self-consciously gruesome attempts at shocking an audience that will only be fooled if they’ve never seen another horror movie before. For everyone else, it simply won’t satisfy their bloodlust. Evil Dead Rise is so devoid of any style or wit that it’s unclear whether Cronin has a point of view at all, or if he just thought throwing enough viscera at the screen would do the trick. Regardless, it’s hard to care when none of the characters feel real and the ending is never in doubt (the less said about the half-assed attempt at a wraparound, and how illogical it is, the better).
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Evil Dead is by no means a masterpiece, but Alvarez understood that people come to these movies for more than just mindless gore. Raimi’s demented sense of humor is always present in the 2013 reboot, ensuring that the violence never feels cruel or exploitative (the infamous tree rape aside — a scene Raimi himself regrets including). There are several moments in Evil Dead that horror fans still excitedly discuss today, including the tongue-slicing and kitchen dismemberment. The imagery is hugely evocative too, with a gorgeously moody palette that perfectly complements the increasingly desperate situation and resonant sound design that makes every tear and crunch count. Add to all that Jane Levy’s committed performance as a drug addict dealing with symptoms of withdrawal and demonic possession and you’ve got a helluva reboot. Evil Dead Rise, on the other hand, is missing the essential components of what makes the other franchise movies so special.
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Sullivan and Sutherland do the best with what they’re given, but once Evil Dead Rise strands them in the apartment building, there’s nowhere for their performances to go. The kids, meanwhile, oscillate between irritatingly cutesy (Fisher) and bland non-entities with one-line descriptors like “social justice warrior” and “wannabe DJ” (the other two children). There’s also a desperate, cloying grab for sentimentality at one point that feels completely out of place. It’s included in the lengthy Evil Dead Rise trailer, which — as modern horror flicks are wont to do — spoils much of the movie. Moreover, a weird pro-life slant will make many viewers do a double take, regardless of whether everything else works for them, not least because of the recent dismantling of Roe v. Wade. Maybe this is one franchise that should’ve been left dead since there are no new ideas on display in Evil Dead Rise. At one point, there’s a blatant reference to The Shining, and unfortunately it’s one of the strongest sequences in the whole thing.
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Evil Dead Rise is even more disappointing because it’s only tangentially related to the rest of the franchise. Without that title, this could be any run-of-the-mill possession movie. The handful of attempts at tying it to The Evil Dead in any tangible way are cringe-worthy, particularly the use of a famous Campbell line. It’s all just so insipid and desultory — there’s no flavor to it, nothing to differentiate Evil Dead Rise from ugly, mid-2000s reboots. Despite the hard-R rating, which promises rivers of blood and body parts flying everywhere, Cronin’s take on the mythology Raimi established all those years ago, in the woods with his friends, is oddly restrained, joyless and unremarkable. The pacing is leaden, the violence is punishingly facile and the tone is utterly odious, giving the impression that the only reason to make an “Evil Dead” movie nowadays is to see how much you can make the audience gag. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the franchise will know that was never the point, which just makes Evil Dead Rise even less essential.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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Categories: 2020s, 2023 Film Reviews, 2023 Horror Reviews, Featured, Horror
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