I love horror movies—specifically, the queasy challenge that comes alongside a scary movie. Will I make it through without screaming? Will I be forced to watch most it through my fingers? Am I going to be able to sleep afterward?
The answer to all of those is almost always a resounding “Yes!” When you see so many horror movies, you start to become accustomed to the macabre. And while every film has its own frights and challenges, the more familiar you are with horror tropes, the easier it is to survive watching them.
The best horror can often feel like a brutal endurance test, but it’s also a wonderful (and healthy!) way of processing your deepest fears and traumas on screen. But I’d always been able to shake the terror off when the credits roll, and while moments are sure to linger, I could always sleep soundly afterward.
That’s what I thought, anyway—until I watched the latest release in the Evil Dead series, Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise, which hit theaters April 21. I’d been creeped out by previous entries, sure, but none of them crawled their way under my skin like Rise did. I found it affecting me in the worst possible ways that a horror movie can make you feel; I even had a brutal nightmare that I—like the people in every Evil Dead movie do—had found a book and wound up inadvertently raising the dead.
Cronin’s film is downright disgusting, a full-bodied (and blooded) celebration of horror’s scariest elements. It’s absolutely going to be one of, if not the, scariest movies of the year. And it takes virtually no time at all to earn this title, delivering the most horrifying opening scene in ages.
(Warning: Spoilers for the opening scene of Evil Dead Rise ahead.)
The film’s first shot wonderfully nods to the legacy of Rise’s predecessors, while paving the way to establish this as its own uniquely mortifying creation. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) opened with an uneasy handheld shot over a lake, imitating a monster emerging into the fog from the depths. A similarly spooky shot features at the beginning of Evil Dead 2 (1987), as the camera violently shakes its way through a dark forest. Both uber-unsettling shots are designed to mimic a dread-inducing harbinger of the undead’s point of view.
The ante is upped in Rise, which opens with a shaky, lake-skimming tracking shot, just like the original ‘80s classic. But this time, there’s no murky fog. Everything unfolds under the bright, warm sunlight: No dark, stormy weather is needed to scare the crap out of you.
Unlike the film’s low-budget predecessors, Rise is able to take advantage of technological advancements, using a drone to film this first shot. The camera can twist and contort itself over the lake in ways Raimi could have only dreamt of when making The Evil Dead. Cronin’s opening shot impressively swerves around the environment in more monstrous ways than ever seen in an Evil Dead film before. It’s frantic yet purposeful, lurching towards its subject with frightening speed.
If you’re a fan of the Evil Dead franchise, you’ll have a warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia while watching these initial unsteady moments—before that rapidly fades, making way for unrelenting dread.
Things only get wilder after the nausea-inducing opening shot. The camera makes its way to Teresa (Mirabai Pease), who’s minding her own business on the dock, reading Wuthering Heights, and enjoying what she thought was going to be a quiet getaway. We’re met with our first big twist: This shot isn’t from the perspective of some cretinous creature, like in the previous Evil Dead movies. Instead, it’s that of a literal drone, operated by Caleb (Richard Chrouchley), whose sole purpose seems to be annoying Teresa. But if horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that a mild annoyance will be the least of her problems.
The message is clear right from the start: Evil Dead Rise is a film that knows where it’s coming from, but while it understands its past, it’s going to do things on its own terms—disgusting ones.
Justifiably frustrated with Caleb, Teresa makes her way to the cabin (an Evil Dead staple) to find Jessica (Anna-Maree Thomas) lying in bed, presumably hungover. Teresa complains about Caleb to her friend, who lies there and responds with the odd grunt. Even when Teresa starts calling Caleb a brainless meat puppet, Jessica fails to react.
The metaphorical alarm bells soon start ringing in the viewers’ heads as Teresa continued speaking to her unresponsive friend, as we can tell something bad is going to happen. Does Teresa not know she’s in a freaking Evil Dead movie? (While horror can often be deliciously meta, thankfully Teresa does not, in fact, know she’s in a horror movie.)
Annoyed, Teresa stays in the bedroom and resumes reading Wuthering Heights. The film’s creepy atmosphere starts kicking into full gear, as Cronin’s camera takes us to a close-up of the calming presence of Emily Brontë’s writing. These few milliseconds of peace are interrupted by a chilling narration of the words we see on-screen in the book. Except the narration isn’t coming from Teresa—instead, it’s delivered by Jessica, who is turned over, completely unable to see what her friend is reading, yet repeating the lines aloud perfectly.
Teresa is every bit as horrified by this as the audience, and she looks up to discover Jessica is now sitting up, back to the camera, centered in the frame. Evil Dead is nothing without world-class sound effects, and Rise is certainly no exception: Jessica’s voice has been altered with sinister, demonic, inhuman effects.
With the tension at fever-pitch, Jessica suddenly reaches out toward Teresa and, in one fell swoop, tears her friend’s scalp off—literally. Teresa screams, brain exposed, while Jessica says, with a demented grin, “Who’s the brainless meat puppet now?” It’s the kind of moment that’s classic Evil Dead, delivering both shocking gore and hilariously blood-curdling dialogue.
Teresa runs back to the dock, as Caleb, still playing with his drone, is shocked by her scalp-less appearance. Jessica follows swiftly after, grabbing the drone and shoving it directly into her own head. Jessica falls into the water, and Caleb foolishly jumps in after her to save her, prompting healthy shouts of “Don’t go in there!” from everyone watching. Moments later, a terrified and dying Teresa watches as Caleb’s head, severed from his body, plops onto to dock. (Cronin is quick to establish that there’s going to be a lot of head trauma in this movie, and it’s glorious and vile.)
With Stephen McKeon’s downright-petrifying score cranked up to 11, Jessica floats menacingly above the water. It’s an already spine-tingling image, but Cronin’s ready for one last hideous punch. The film’s title, Evil Dead Rise, literally rises behind Jessica, crawling up the screen, like a monster ready to feast. It may just be the best title drop in recent cinematic history.
It’s clear that this scene is meant to set the tone, with Jessica, Teresa, and Caleb having virtually no impact on the rest of the film otherwise; things kick off with an entirely different cast of characters once that title fades away. Instead, in just a few short minutes, Cronin has established Evil Dead Rise as a celebration of everything that’s come before it, while taking things in a bold new direction.
A wink and a nod to modern-day horror
This sequence also feels like a veiled criticism of “elevated horror.” Though nobody’s really pinned down exactly what elevated horror is, it’s a term that’s been bandied about since the rise of A24-produced movies like Hereditary, The Witch, and Midsommar. Films of this nature prioritize storytelling, creepy metaphors, and sustained dread over classic jump scares and buckets of gore. Whether this more intellectualized type of horror is effective or not has become something of a hot-button issue, even discussed in recent horror films themselves—particularly in the rebooted Scream movies.
With elevated horror becoming the thing du jour of the movie scene, classic, scream-your-face-off horror has taken a backseat. But Evil Dead Rise is a riotous celebration of straight-up terror, a throwback to the classics that helped popularize the genre in the 1970s and ’80s. While elevated horror-type movies can take ages for the tension to mount, focusing on world-building and character development, Rise takes a whopping 0.1 seconds to get the scares started. With a film like this, it’s perfectly clear that there are still many ways to approach horror.
While those so-called elevated horror movies are going for something “deeper,” Evil Dead Rise only has one real goal: to scare the ever-living shit out of you. And it accomplishes this with some of the most disgusting, outrageous, and grotesque moments I’ve ever seen in a film, a veritable cornucopia of blood and guts. And it’s all established with its ingenious opening sequence, a true testament to the Evil Dead franchise’s staying power.