Evil Dead Rise is a kindred unholy spirit to Fede Álvarez’s 2013 franchise reboot, leaning heavily into the gonzo camerawork and gnarly gore of Sam Raimi’s seminal horror-comedy trilogy while doing away with the demented humor that distinguished those illustrious predecessors and, moreover, made them (and star Bruce Campbell) so popular and influential. Astonishingly, though, a lack of wit turns out to be the least of the problems plaguing this sequel, which proves a de rigueur debacle only capable of clunkily playing the hits.
It’s not apparent from the start that Evil Dead Rise will be so deflating, since its demonic-disaster prologue—involving three twentysomethings beset by diabolical forces at an isolated forest cabin—operates as an effective homage-y riff on Raimi’s classic set-up. The shot that accompanies the film’s title card has a dark majesty that portends spine-tingling things to come, so it’s immediately disappointing when the story abruptly segues to an apartment building in what appears to be the dingiest, dreariest part of Los Angeles.
There, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) and her kids Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), Danny (Morgan Davies), and Kassie (Neil Fisher) are visited by Ellie’s younger sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), who’s fresh from the road working as a rock ‘n’ roll guitar technician—a profession that Ellie repeatedly dismisses as being a “groupie.”
Ellie is welcoming to Beth, yet not-so-subtly bitter about her sister’s failure to return voicemails regarding her husband’s abrupt departure. Beth feels bad about this, and her guilt is amplified by the fact that she’s just learned that she’s expecting a child of her own, thus bonding the two in single-motherhood solidarity. The sight of Beth staring with dismay at her pregnancy test in a cruddy club bathroom is writer/director Lee Cronin’s way of tipping off viewers that this will be an odyssey of blossoming maternal instincts.
As a result, Ellie’s kids all resonate, from the get-go, as potential proxies for Beth’s unborn kid. At the same time, though, they’re also defined as quirky alterna-outcast types, with Bridget the activist who wears “Eat the Rich” t-shirts, Danny the LCD Soundsystem-loving DJ, and Kassie a cherubic little blonde who cuts off her doll’s head with scissors, attaches it to a spike, and dubs her creation Staff-anie.
Evil Dead Rise doesn’t make these individuals interesting, but mercifully, it handles its introductory business in short order. Ellie’s messy apartment is in a poorly lit condemned building that used to be a bank, and when an earthquake strikes, it opens up a hole in the garage’s asphalt floor, revealing an ancient vault. Just back from picking up pizza, Danny ignores his sisters’ warnings and climbs into this subterranean space, where he finds two mysterious records, a photograph of three priests, and myriad crucifixes and St. Benedict coins hanging above an ancient coffin that houses a wrapped package.
Upon returning with these objects to his room, Danny realizes that his discovery is the Evil Dead’s favorite unhallowed item: the Book of the Dead, with pages made from human skin and prose and drawings written in blood. When he plays its accompanying vinyls, a voice translates some passages from the tome and, voila, all hell breaks loose.
Despite this being the same way every Evil Dead film devolves into madness and mutilation, Evil Dead Rise’s decision to relocate its action from the franchise’s favored backwoods stomping grounds to an urban high-rise severs its connection—tonally and visually—to its ancestors. Cronin takes a Jason Takes Manhattan-style approach for no ostensible reason other than that it’s a deviation from the norm.
Unfortunately, it’s not a creative one, nor does it afford opportunities for clever scares. Via a zooming, Raimi-esque POV shot, Ellie is possessed by a satanic entity and then sets upon her clan, determined—as she herself says—to rip them open and climb inside them so they can all be together forever. That’s a hint about the film’s climactic monstrosity, although before it arrives, Cronin makes sure to ape his superiors, with perfunctory nods to Zombie, The Shining, and A Nightmare on Elm Street (the last of which is overtly referenced) substituting for originality.
Once Ellie is inhabited by the malevolent demon, her mouth becomes frozen in a deranged grin that’s the spitting image of the one from Smile, and she pummels her relatives with sub-The Exorcist profanities. Somewhere buried in Evil Dead Rise is an interest in motherly devotion and resentment, as well as a related fascination with bodily invasion and desecration.
Cronin, however, doesn’t make even a passing effort at developing such ideas; throughout, his prime focus is on rehashing sights and sounds that lost their vitality right around 1992’s Army of Darkness. More damning still, he refuses to enliven his proceedings with personality. Together, Beth, Ellie and their pre-adult charges don’t have an iota of the dashing cockiness or goofy charm of Campbell’s iconic series hero, so when Beth eventually performs Ash cosplay (replete with a chainsaw and a “Come get some!”), the contrast between the past and the present is depressingly stark.
At least Cronin doesn’t pull his punches on the gore. Evil Dead Rise has no qualms about putting kids through the ringer—or, per the garage’s convenient vehicle, woodchipper—which leads to a few passable instances of gruesomeness. Nonetheless, dim-witted character behavior neuters any sympathy for these characters and, worse, stymies engagement with their ordeal. When Kassie opens the front door to let her mom back inside, this despite seeing that she’s become a cut-up ghoul with crazy eyes and a wicked voice, the film resorts to head-smacking idiocy to generate suspense. And when that doesn’t work, it merely falls back on tattered genre shout-outs.
Evil Dead Rises is confirmation that—like so many that have come before it—Raimi’s legendary horror saga has run out of steam, continuing onward only because its easy-to-market IP value remains relatively high. With Cronin’s dreary installment, it’s become an undead beast with no purpose except to brainlessly feast on audience’s goodwill and destroy memories of more thrillingly evil times gone by.
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