By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Lilly Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland and Nell Fisher
Written and directed by Lee Cronin
New Line/Warner Bros.
The opening of EVIL DEAD RISE directly homages the original entry in this series while also offering a sly, funny comment on how the tropes and techniques of horror filmmaking have evolved in the 40 years since Sam Raimi’s genre game-changer first hit theaters. Writer/director Lee Cronin’s film (opening April 21 following a special screening last night at SXSW) is very much of a piece with the earlier installments while also taking advantage of a bigger budget and state-of-the-art technology. More than any of the EVIL DEADs since that initial one, it’s a stripped-down, relentless exercise in, well, grueling horror; in short, it very much feels like the movie Raimi and co. would have made way back then if they’d had a lot more money, and decided to set it in a Detroit apartment building instead of a Tennessee cabin.
EVIL DEAD RISE does begin with some house-in-the-woods shenanigans, but they’re just a tease (albeit a nasty and scary one) before we get to the meat of the story. That concerns Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), a single mom anxious to get out of the dilapidated LA flat she shares with her children, teenage Danny (Morgan Davies) and Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and little Kassie (Nell Fisher). With the problems she has to deal with, the time isn’t quite right for a visit from her long-absent sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), who’s just gotten news of her own that has upset her life. Beth needs shelter with family, even one who sees her as a “groupie” (excuse me, that’s “guitar technician”) who hasn’t had much time for her relatives in the past.
There’s a nicely tense yet familiar chemistry between Sullivan and Sutherland before all hell breaks loose, spurred by the discovery of a subterranean vault beneath the building’s parking garage. Of course, it has to be investigated, and of course, some malevolent-looking items have to be retrieved and brought home. These include a new take on the Naturom Demonto, or Necronomicon, which here has been reimagined to the extent that it has its own creepy “personality,” of sorts. The result of opening it is the same, however: Ancient spirits are released that take possession of the living and turn them into horrible, shrieking, bloodthirsty Deadites.
Cronin’s inspiration here is to double down on the sarcastic side of the possessees’ personalities seen in the previous pictures, and to have Ellie be the first one taken. Not only does she become a distorted, violent demon, she repeatedly and sadistically taunts her sister and her own offspring, and Sutherland really tears into this side of the role, becoming a truly memorable human monster. Left as the kids’ protector who must also literally save her own skin, Beth (given a compelling reading by Sullivan) becomes something of a new Ash, a screw-up who has to pull herself together and find her inner hero in the midst of extremely horrific circumstances.
That’s really all the plot there is to EVIL DEAD RISE; harking back to the original, it’s simply a matter of setting up its small ensemble, unleashing the evil, and then putting the protagonists through the worst and bloodiest night imaginable. Cronin demonstrated a real knack for slow-burn terror and rural atmosphere in his debut feature A HOLE IN THE GROUND, but none of that suggested the gusto he could bring to this more in-your-face, splattery brand of horror, and the success with which he pulls it off. Once EVIL DEAD RISE gets cranking, it sustains a pitch of intense, sometimes painful terror that’s leavened by just the right amount of black humor (largely conveyed in Deadite Ellie’s dialogue). If THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE hadn’t already used it, a good tagline for RISE would be “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”; the only one we can be pretty sure will make it through is Kassie, since she’s so young and innocent, nothing too horrible could happen to her…right?
The gruesome imagination Cronin demonstrates in coming up with the variety of grotesqueries on view is backed by a filmmaking team whose work is technically superb while maintaining the proper down-and-dirty vibe. And gory, too; Raimi’s first two EVIL DEADs had to go out unrated, but this one outdoes them in sheer volume of blood not only spilled, but gushed to the point of flooding entire spaces–yet somehow, RISE got away with an R. Prosthetic makeup designer Luke Polti supervised not only the spewing dark red and the properly ghastly looks of the Deadites, but a series of gags that truly hurt to watch (the cheese-grater bit excerpted in the trailer being just one). Dave Garbett’s cinematography and Nick Bassett’s production design transition the environment from a grungy urban dwelling to a nightmare realm where anything terrible can happen, and probably will.
Special note must be made of Peter Albrechtsen’s sound design, which makes the flesh-rending, bone-cracking, etc. as disturbing to hear as it is to watch, and the jittery cacophony of Stephen McKeon’s score. Among other things, EVIL DEAD RISE may be the loudest horror film to hit screens in a long time, and as such, it’s gratifying that it escaped a streaming-debut fate to see theatrical release, where its assaultive approach can have its fullest effect. Like Fede Alvarez’s 2013 reboot, RISE demonstrates that there’s still life in DEAD these four decades later, and that Cronin, along with creators Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tapert, who served as producers here, didn’t have to water down the guiding vision to get it into the mainstream. The mainstream, it seems, has caught up to them.