“This evil”, a priest from 1923 warns over phonograph, “creates terror through total chaos.” The newest instalment of the Evil Dead horror film franchise (directed and written by Lee Cronin) embraces the sadistic madness Sam Raimi pioneered over forty years ago. Once Evil Dead Rise’s Necromonicon is inevitably discovered and read aloud, the audience is given little chance to rest as the violent mayhem comes thick and fast.
In a film so unabashedly gory and brazenly bloodthirsty (requiring 6,500 litres of ‘blood’), it would be easy for such minor details as character development and storytelling to play second fiddle to a cacophony of supernatural horrors. Spirits are unleashed, souls are possessed, and jumpscares are aplenty. Fortunately, strong performances from the cast, led by Lily Sullivan’s Beth, ensure that while the brutality comes first, there are at least some remnants of personality to be uncovered once all the blood is wiped away.
The film is not overly hasty in unleashing the titular ‘Evil Dead’, known as Deadites, and in this interval we are introduced to Beth, her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), and Ellie’s three children, teenagers Danny (Morgan Davies) and Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and pre-teen Kassie (Nell Fisher). A name notably omitted is the franchise’s iconic Ash Williams, who is entirely absent from the film, though the groovy protagonist’s actor Bruce Campbell has a small audio cameo. It is not within the cramped confines of an isolated cabin in the woods that we become acquainted with these characters, though a brief prologue pays tribute to the series’ typical setting, but rather a condemned apartment complex in Los Angeles. It is probably inevitable that isolation is enforced upon the family involuntarily — through a series of architectural mishaps — though one can’t help but feel that the new metropolitan context is left woefully unexplored. Besides a singular passer-by, there is no real acknowledgement of the populous urban environment in which the action unfolds. How might the spirits have tried to prevent the police from being called? In what ways would they have avoided CCTV surveillance, or perhaps used it to track or intimidate their victims? Obstacles which the Deadites could have cleverly overcome are not engaged with but sidestepped altogether.
Long-time fans of the franchise will expect nothing less than the bloodbath which floods the film’s final act. The living are sent flying, stabbed, and otherwise assaulted in barbaric attacks (I may never look at a cheese grater the same way again). However, it is the undead who are subject to nearly-cartoonish levels of physical violence which perfectly fits this self-aware movie in a franchise which famously fails to take itself too seriously. Frequently, the cruelty inflicted by the film’s evil spirits pays homage to the franchise’s roots and this is not least evident in the deliberate use of practical effects; in fact, the audience’s first experiences of supernatural violence do not come in the typical form of computer-generated imagery but practical models. Cronin’s choice to employ practical blood effects strengthens the gritty realism of the film (simulated, artificial blood rarely looks convincing). The use of makeup, and avoidance of CGI disfigurement, when depicting possessed characters similarly imbues them with an unsettling resemblance to their human form and makes it much easier to empathise with them. The slightly uncanny nature of other props does not detract from the horror, however. Instead, they help to contribute to an eerie and other-wordly atmosphere and are a conspicuous nod to the techniques of the 1980s. Another sign that this movie is not intended to stray too far from its origins is the morbid humour which is a frequent occurrence, offering much-needed comic relief when the violence borders overabundance.
At times, it is clear that Beth channels the spirit of Ash Williams, but her well-defined motivations and personality nonetheless make her a unique lead who is both resilient and vulnerable. 11-year-old child actor Nell Fisher’s performance is particularly admirable, as Kassie responds believably to her horrible experiences. The rate at which some characters move beyond their tragic circumstances and accept their new absurd reality is not all that believable, but if the alternative is watching a group of traumatised wrecks all but offer up their souls to the hungering demonic forces around them, disbelief had better be suspended. It is also beneficial to approach the motivations and behaviours of the Deadites with a similar credulity — these awoken spirits fluctuate between impossibly-powerful predators who act with speed and clarity to fairly vulnerable and indecisive foes who can’t quite bring themselves to actually get the job done; this usually depends, understandably, on the significance of the character being targeted. This lack of rhyme and reason is no mistake: it is explicitly highlighted within the film. The explanation, of a deliberate chaotic terror being desired by the Deadites, may go some way to presenting a rationale but when there are so few clear rules or guidelines for the nature of Deadite behaviour and possession, the consequent randomness hinders immersion. Notwithstanding these limitations, Cronin’s take on the franchise, which is a staple of modern horror, offers a thrilling viewing experience from which, despite the gore, it is difficult to look away. Audiences expect a film from this family of frightful flicks to bombard them with blood — and in this regard it does not disappoint.
Evil Dead Rise is a strong addition to the cult horror franchise. The move from cabin to apartment complex and countryside to city, even if underexplored, offers a fresh direction for future instalments. Diehard fans of the series, and of horror more generally, are given various references to enjoy, whilst more casual viewers are presented with a movie which takes no shame in getting down to very bloody business. And as the dust (and myriad of body parts) settles, what emerges is an Evil Dead which has well and truly entered the 21st century.