THE STORY – A woman finds herself in a fight for her life when an ancient book gives birth to bloodthirsty demons that run amok in a Los Angeles apartment building.
THE CAST – Lily Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland, Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols & Nell Fisher
THE TEAM – Lee Cronin (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
Horror films have always had a problem with women. While the “final girl” trope has an element of power to it, allowing female characters to show remarkable strength in surviving until the end, they only do so by undergoing massive amounts of trauma, and the violence enacted against those who don’t survive is often extremely violative. The films in the “Evil Dead” series are no exception, with the first big kill of the series involving a young woman raped by a demonically possessed tree. While Sam Raimi’s 1981 film was terrible in this regard, Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake is even worse, upping the brutality to almost unbearable levels and almost completely removing the original’s black comedy. 2023’s “Evil Dead Rise,” written and directed by “The Hole In The Ground,” writer-director Lee Cronin brings back that black comedy but is so relentlessly cruel to its female characters that it will be difficult for some audience members to enjoy. It begs the question: Why are we still doing this to women? Why do people love watching such uninhibited cruelty toward women? In addition to whatever sociological reason you can come up with, this film’s answer is: Because everything else is so well done.
After a suitably chilling cold open at a remote cabin in the woods featuring a neat twist on the original’s famous opening tracking shot, we flash back to one day before. Reeling from a pregnancy test, guitar tech Beth (Lily Sullivan) visits her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) and her three children at their cramped Los Angeles apartment. Beth has been out of touch and doesn’t know that Ellie’s husband has left them and that their old run-down building has been condemned, leaving them one month to move out. An earthquake opens a hole in the building’s garage, leading young Danny (Morgan Davies) to investigate the old bank vault that has just been unearthed. Amidst many crosses and Saints’ medallions, they find the ancient Natuom Demonto, along with ancient-looking documents, old pictures of three priests, and four vinyl records. Refusing to heed his sister’s warnings, amateur DJ Danny brings the book and records to their apartment and plays them. The priests in the recordings read the ancient text, unleashing the evil spirits of the book of the dead, which possess Ellie in the building’s elevator. Before long, Ellie has seriously harmed herself and talks about harming her family’s “titty-sucking parasites.” It’s now up to Beth to save her nieces and nephew before they, too, succumb to the demons’ evil influence.
As always, the characters are forced to make some idiotic decisions to get the plot where it needs to go, but as soon as the Deadites are unleashed, “Evil Dead Rose” plays remarkably fair. The vinyl recordings give us the backstory and explain the rules of this particular breed of demonic possession, including that this book is one of three, a clever piece of lore that sets up the potential (and likely inevitable) connection of this film to both the original trilogy and the 2013 film. The priest on the recordings warns that the demons only want to cause chaos, which is exactly what we get. Bloody, gory, and at times unsettling chaos. It starts with Ellie’s brutal first possession. Cronin emphasizes the pain she’s going through at every moment, first from being roughly tossed around the elevator and then tied up by cables so tight that they practically tear off her limbs. It’s gut-wrenching to watch, especially since Ellie doesn’t have the kind of background that most victims in horror flicks have. All the evidence on the screen points to her being a good person who has lived a tough life. She loves her children deeply and encourages them to follow their bliss within reason. She’s struggling to make ends meet, making the best of a bad situation. She’s not a junkie, criminal, or someone who has sex indiscriminately. To be fair, most victims in horror films don’t deserve what happens to them, but the way this scene isn’t just painful to watch because of how physically brutal it is (it’s not as much of a violation as the series’s previous tree rape), but how emotionally brutal it is. Sutherland is almost too good a performer, and Cronin practically fetishizes her pain with bloody close-ups and a sound mix that emphasizes her anguished cries. If the film were meant to be a brutal wallowing in misery, like the previous film or the “Saw” series, that would be one thing. But Cronin also wants to bring the series back to its darkly comic roots, and later scenes with the Deadite Ellie are clearly meant to elicit laughter in a way that doesn’t sit well next to the brutal violence inflicted upon her and her children.
Despite those faults, though, it’s hard to argue against the technical elements of the film. Littered with skittery tracking shots and split diopters, the film consciously calls back to the prior films in the series and throws in some references to other horror classics as well. An extended sequence of watching Deadite Ellie cause carnage in the hallway outside the apartment, filmed through the apartment door peephole, is a stroke of brilliance. The oppressive sound mix elicits chills, especially during the sequences where we listen to the vinyl recordings, which makes it feel like the voices are coming from within your own head. The devilishly demented gore effects manage a strong balance between squirmy body horror and gross-out comedy. Sutherland’s already elastic face is a perfect canvas for the makeup team to create a demonic mother figure of a Deadite. The whole film is an absolute marvel of makeup design, capturing the state of the art of makeup effects in a way every other film this year will struggle to match. The cheese grater is already famous from the film’s trailer, but that’s far from the film’s cleverest or goriest moment. One particular moment involving an eyeball perfectly encapsulates the best parts of the series – simultaneously brutally gory and blackly hilarious.
Horror fans, especially those who love gore, will most likely come away extremely happy with “Evil Dead Rise” – the setup is efficient, and once the carnage starts, it doesn’t let up for the rest of the film’s blessedly brisk runtime. Cronin and his team of A-list craftspeople deliver the horror, creating a genuinely scary film without always resorting to jump scares to elicit screams and gasps from the audience making the cinematic experience more entertaining. But when it comes down to it, this is a film about motherhood written and directed by a man, one that seems confused about what it wants to say about either of those things, other than the hardly revelatory message that being a mother involves giving yourself over entirely to your children, and that’s a difficult thing for even the best among us. The film makes some fantastic additions to the series’ lore and iconography (Staffanie, a ghost-scaring staff that Ellie’s youngest daughter makes, will indeed become as recognizable a part of the series as Ash’s chainsaw). When we finally reach the bloody end, it’s hard to argue that Sullivan is a fantastic final girl and Sutherland a terrifying villain. Still, the question remains: Why? Why must horror films wreak such brutal havoc on women, and why do audiences so enjoy watching them? I must confess; I don’t know. But for all that “Evil Dead Rise” does well, it’s a hard film to recommend because of it.