movie review

Why Are We Doing This to the Evil Dead Movies?

Alyssa Sutherland in Evil Dead Rise.
Alyssa Sutherland in Evil Dead Rise. Photo: Warner Bros.

When 20-year-old Sam Raimi first showed his ultralow-budget 1981 indie film Evil Dead to the local dentists and merchants who had helped finance it, he was met with some disappointment. These people thought they had put their money into a horror flick, but Raimi, they claimed, had made a comedy instead. Indulging in their fondness for Three Stooges slapstick, the young director and his college chums had combined goofy pratfalls and visual gags with homemade special effects and patently artificial gore to create something grotesque and silly.

Those investors would ultimately be richly rewarded, as Evil Dead became a cult hit and, along with two sequels, Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), helped perfect a new subgenre, one that could be simultaneously funny and scary. In the past, crossing horror and comedy usually meant just making a comedy with a few horror trappings — think Young Frankenstein or Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. But the Evil Dead movies delivered Looney Tunes high jinks with the same verve they doled out genre thrills. This was a series in which the hero’s girlfriend’s skeleton could rise from the dead and do a ballet routine with her severed head, in which eyeballs accidentally lodged in people’s mouths and innards and limbs flew around and exploded with unchecked abandon. Audiences laughed, but they also screamed. It was glorious.

Which might explain why Evil Dead Rise, much like 2013’s tepid Evil Dead reboot-remake-reimagining, feels like a desecration. Obviously, it’s a law of nature that any and all successful horror films must be endlessly regurgitated and monetized into grim, dim franchise schlockfests. Still, you wish they’d left the original Evil Dead trilogy, which was unique and weird and hilarious and perfect, alone. Raimi continues to be involved in the series, as an executive producer, through his Ghost House horror shingle, so these new movies do have his blessing. Original lead Bruce Campbell also has a brief voice cameo in this one, so he’s evidently onboard, too. But still, it’s hard not to watch these new Evil Dead movies and get the debilitating sense that something important and essential has been lost.

Written and directed by Lee Cronin, Evil Dead Rise does begin promisingly with a lakeside slaughter involving Wuthering Heights, a scalping, a beheading, a ridiculous amount of vomit, and a facial shredding by an unmanned drone. It then jumps back one day to a completely different cast of characters in a completely different place. Rock-band roadie Beth (Lily Sullivan) shows up at the condemned apartment where her tattoo-artist sister, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), lives with her three kids, Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and Kassie (Nell Fisher). Beth, it appears, is kind of the fuckup of the family (she’s a guitar technician, but people keep calling her a groupie, and she has also gone and gotten herself pregnant), but Ellie, too, has fallen on hard times ever since her husband left her.

Then an earthquake opens a hole beneath the building. Ellie’s idiot DJ son wanders down there, finds the Necronomicon (the demonic “book of the dead” that Raimi’s original trilogy treated almost like a comic MacGuffin but which these new studio-based Evil Dead movies take annoyingly seriously), and summons the forces of darkness by playing an old-timey LP of spells. Poor Ellie gets possessed, and the rest of the movie basically involves her terrorizing her family in their apartment and slowly picking them off one by one while her hapless sister tries to summon the fortitude and maternal protective instinct to save the day.

There was probably a good idea in there somewhere. The two grown-up leads, Sutherland and Sullivan, do an admirable job of trying to lend these loosely drawn sisters some depth. But really, after its first half-hour or so, Evil Dead Rise settles into just another drab chiller about a creepy, stare-y possessed mom staggering around the house and croaking out lines like “Mommy’s with the maggots now.” We’ve seen plenty of those over the years, even a couple of good ones (The Conjuring comes to mind), and Evil Dead Rise brings almost nothing new to the table other than slightly elevated gore.

Considering that this series once ran on goofy, gearhead inventiveness, that’s a problem. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself imagining an alternate universe in which this film actually embraced its Evil Dead–ness and had fun with its premise instead of just being another anonymous possessed-parent thriller. If Beth is a guitar technician, where is the scene in which she jerry-rigs an electric guitar to a chain saw to fight off the demons or figures out a way to use an amp to blow them away? (There certainly don’t appear to be any consistent rules about how to fight these forces of darkness, which should have given the filmmakers the liberty to try new things.) Ellie is a tattoo artist — surely she can do more than just point a tattoo gun menacingly in one standoff? Yes, this is asking Evil Dead Rise to be a different movie. But it should be a different movie! Why is there even an Evil Dead in front of its title?

Still, Cronin does appear to be a proficient horror director, and he comes up with some nifty, over-the-top creature effects late in the film; he’s likely to have a decent career in this world. He certainly does more with the whole Evil Dead concept than the truly lousy 2013 film, which seemed to think that it could just replace the playful gore of the original series with buckets of blood. Evil Dead Rise also has plenty of blood — an elevator full, in fact — but at least it’s got a couple more visual ideas. It even has a scene in which an eyeball is bitten off and then flies into another character’s mouth. As noted earlier, that’s an image straight from the originals. But it also underlines what’s wrong with this movie because it doesn’t feel like it belongs here. The Evil Dead films were defined by their exuberant, colorful creativity. We don’t need allusions or Easter eggs. We need new ideas.

More Movie Reviews

See All
Why Are We Doing This to the Evil Dead Movies?