SXSW Film Review: Evil Dead Rise

The possessed cabin franchise takes a gruesome trip to the city

credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Mel Brooks once famously said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." When people talk about the Evil Dead franchise being horror-comedy, what they mean is the open sewer is especially dark and fetid, making the joke even funnier. That's wisdom that Evil Dead Rise takes to heart.

The fifth film in the franchise, after the original Sam Raimi-directed trilogy and Fede Alvarez's 2013 remake/reboot, finally breaks with a simple tradition. The earlier films are rural affairs, kicked off by the discovery of the Book of the Dead in a cabin. Not so this time, where it's not the Book of the Dead but a Book of the Dead, and this copy of this limited print run grimoire was sealed up in a vault under what is now a condemned apartment building in Los Angeles.

All it takes is an earthquake, and said malevolent tome falls into the hands of a loving if dysfunctional family: mother Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), wannabe DJ son Danny (Morgan Davies), sulky but wise-beyond-her-years middle kid Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and little sister Kassie (Nell Fisher). If earthquakes, unearthly evils, and impending eviction weren't troubles enough, they're also contending with a surprise visit from aunt Beth (Lily Sullivan), a traveling guitar tech whose life is being thrown into disarray even before big sis Ellie gets possessed by everyone's favorite soul-swallowing entity.

Writer/director Lee Cronin seems like a natural fit for this somewhat changed-up addition to the franchise, having already handled supernatural maternal horror in his 2019 debut, the sadly underseen The Hole in the Ground. However, there's a giddy inversion here. His last film was about a mother risking magical malice to reclaim her child: this time, Ellie is physically and mentally corrupted by the things unleashed from the book, and spits the angry truths that every mother has muttered under their breath at some point. Sutherland rips into the flesh of the script's obnoxiously hilarious dialogue, making her the most memorable Deadite since Lou Hancock as poor, doomed Henrietta in Evil Dead II.

That's the verbal abuse accounted for: so how about the gore? The franchise has always taken real pleasure in pushing envelopes, and while it can no longer embrace the levels of underground depravity found in surprise mainstream hit Terrifier 2, Cronin still opens the floodgates. Evil Dead Rise is an all-out assault on the senses, best played loud and on a big screen, with severed limbs, torrents of blood, and every available item shown in the first 20 minutes given the full Chekhov's Gun treatment.

Yet Evil Dead Rise falls down in two areas. First is the intrusion of that Raimi-style slapstick - a big reason why Army of Darkness is the most divisive of all Evil Dead films, and why no one talks about Crimewave. There's a sudden eruption of that style of humor midway through the film, and it's a weird tonal misfire that doesn't mesh with the crueler laughs that are the series' trademark. Maybe if there was a Bruce Campbell-style gonzo comic actor in the mix, this sequence would work better, but up to that point Cronin has leaned into the bloodier, more disturbing style established by Alvarez, and given a sardonic twist by Sutherland.

The second weakness is in Cronin's failure to really take advantage of the claustrophobia and limited space of the location. There are too many scenes where the survivors simply lose track of each other - quite an achievement in a two-bedroom apartment. When what's established between them is highly-bonded chaos, there are just too many moments when a character wanders off just because it's narratively convenient. No one is expecting air-tight scripting and characterization here (gore'n'laffs first, logic second) but can no one keep an eye on Kassie for two minutes?

Yet Cronin's film still feels very Evil Dead-y - no mean feat considering these films have evolved from low-budget gore fests to comedies to high-budget gore fests. There are elements of all those prior summonings, making Evil Dead Rise a chimera that is somehow unique.

Evil Dead Rise

Headliners, World Premiere

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