Never Read from the Book
Evil Dead Rise
What should we expect from a horror film? I wouldn't necessarily call horror a tricky genre to pin down -- if it scares you, it's horror -- but I don think there are conventions for horror that people expect. There's always a hero, there's a final girl, there's clearly defined good an evil, and the monsters (or whatever) get defeated in the end. That's what people want, and expect, and as long as those things happen while the audiences gets scared, it's been a successful horror film and everyone leaves happy.
Sam Raimi, though, has never been a conventional film director. The Evil DeadStarted as a horror cheapie to get the foot in the door for three aspiring filmmakers -- Raimi, Tappert, and Campbell -- Evil Dead grew to have a life of its own, as well as launching the "splatstick" genre of horror-comedy. franchise got its start as a low-budget cheapie that purposefully did what it could to scare the audience, in the process creating its own sub-genre of horror: the cabin out in the woods. But it's never felt like Raimi's works, and the Evil Dead series in particular, were all that concerned with following the expectations of genre. The good guys don't always win, the monsters aren't always defeated, and all those precious darlings of the horror genre can happily be killed (in giant gouts of blood) all to make the most disgustingly over-the-top horror film possible.
When the original The Evil Dead came out all the way back in 1981 it quickly gained a reputation for its gross-out effects and over-the-top scares. In the U.K. it not only had to be trimmed down slightly for release (and then just to get an X rating), but the home video edition had to be trimmed again in the country due to how "offensive" their viewing public found it. Of course, it became a cult classic here in the states, and launched a pretty successful little franchise that, over time, veered more towards comedy than straight horror. Sure, there were mildly comedic elements of the original film, but the comedy became more pronounced as the series went on, with both Army of Darkness and Ash vs. Evil Dead being fantasy comedies, not horror.
Some might argue that 2013's Evil Dead tapped into that original film's edge, and it kind of did. But it did so from a darker, more sinister perspective. That gleeful, demented energy that the original 1981 film had was missing here, replaced with a punishing and brutal sense of dread. The film is interesting in its own way but it didn't feel like a proper successor. Finding that right energy, the delight in the horrific, is needed to truly be a proper Evil Dead film. Thankfully, a decade later, we have the proper successor: Evil Dead Rise.
From its opening minutes, the film absolutely sets down the gleeful terror you expect from the series. It's opening sequence, set at a cabin on a lake, has some absolutely awful moments that are then juxtaposed with an absolutely over-the-top title sequence that made me laugh out loud in the theater. And from there, the carnival of delights picks up. The action moves to Los Angeles where guitar technician Beth (Lily Sullivan) goes to visit her sister, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland). Beth had just learned that she was pregnant and needed to get some time away from her rock star life on the road. Ellie, though, has her own issues: her husband had left, leaving her with their three kids -- Morgan Davies as Danny, Gabrielle Echols as Bridget, and Nell Fisher as Kassie -- and an apartment about to be condemned. Oh, and Ellie is pissed tat Beth has been on the road for two months and didn't come home once to help the family.
Things take a turn just as the sisters are finally starting to make amends. An earthquake strikes, shaking the building and scaring everyone. While exploring the parking garage after the quake, Danny finds an old bank vault and, deep within, a room absolutely covered in crosses and religious items. In that room he finds an old, creepy, leather-bound book, along with a collection of records. Once he gets the records upstairs, he plays them. The voice on the record reads from the book, revealing it to be the evil Book of the Dead. The incantations read knock out the power, and then cause Ellie to go all demonic, and that's only the start of the fun. The demons from Hell have been unleashed, and the Deadites have risen again, and if the survivors aren't lucky, they'll all be dead by dawn.
For this new film, director Lee Cronin sets down a proper template for how to build out this franchise going forward. He sets the film up as a faithful homage to the original without necessarily copying the characters, setting, or set-pieces that we've seen in the franchise before. Sure, there are the obvious nods to past continuity -- a cabin out in the woods for the opening scene of the film, a shotgun and a chainsaw that show up later, a few repeated lines of dialogue you know by heart -- but by moving the action to the city and giving us a family as our cast of characters (and not just drunken teens in the woods), the film finds a new angle to attack (in bloody fashion) for this story.
Truly, the family angle adds a lot to the horror for this film. Because it's not just friends or acquaintances being attacked but people with obvious deep connections (which the film spends its time in the first act developing) you care a lot more about what happens to them. That means that each time they get attacked, injured, or possessed, you feel it sting even more. These aren't fodder character (at least not among the core five cast members) so the hits hit harder and the scares scare deeper. It's an absolutely brilliant way to handle the setup.
The setting also adds to the horror. The characters end up trapped on their floor, stuck in their apartment building with no way to escape, and thus everything feels more constrained and claustrophobic. Previous films have let the characters off into the woods nearby, coming up with (frankly contrived) ways to keep them stuck in and around the grounds. None of that contrivance is needed here as the demons take over the building and lock everyone inside. How do you escape a force when it's blocked all your exits? It adds to the dread and keeps you locked in with the characters. It's great!
Cronin, though, is willing to borrow a bit of what made 2013's Evil Dead scary. He doesn't shy away from skin-crawling moments (a scene of a deadite eating glass is certainly up there for shudder-worth moments). Wisely, though, he doesn't linger on the pain the way director Fede Alvarez did in the 2013 film. There are plenty of awful moments, here, but the film wisely cuts away once the point is made so that you have time to breathe, to collect yourself, and get ready for the next scare. It doesn't beat you over the head but, instead, keeps the terror and gore balanced.
And, yes, there are just enough moments of levity to keep the film from feeling oppressive. Humor in horror is needed to aid in the balance, and this film knows just when to bring out weird little moments that work. The opening title is one, with it rising high above the lake in gloriously stupid fashion. There are other little moments, like a defensive toy that Kassie makes (with a doll head strapped on top), or the absolute gallons of blood the film throws around, which help to break the tension just a little. This is a tense movie but it knows how to keep the action going without overloading the audience. It finds that balance properly while still having all he demented glee it wants.
That, I think, is what really makes this a winner: just how demented in its delightful way. There's a go-for-broke attitude here, a delight in seeing just how far things can be taken. No one is safe, everything is on the table, and the viscera will fly in due time. And all the while you can almost hear the direct cackling as the deadites do their work. This is what we expect from the Evil Dead, and Evil Dead Rise manages it with aplomb. it a low-budget horror film that delights in giving audiences the kind of sequel the 1981 original always deserved. I love the other movies in the series and enjoy the dumb comedic horror that is at the core of the franchise. This film, though, feels like a movie purposefully designed to tap into the manic energy and demented horror of the original film, and it does it so very well.