Lee Cronin’s debut feature, The Hole in the Ground, told of a mother whose child encountered something strange in the woods, and came back changed. Cronin now flips those roles as he tells of a mother who begins to behave in a peculiar manner in his second feature, Evil Dead Rise. The film forms the fifth movie in a series that Sam Raimi began in 1981 with The Evil Dead. Raimi’s original trilogy is held in high esteem by horror fans. The director’s blend of gore, giggles, and gasps made the series a classic threesome. Then in 2013 came Fede Álvarez’s remake, which positioned itself firmly onto the more serious side of horror. Whilst some fans didn’t care for the shift in tone, others embraced it; fans of Álvarez’s film are going to love Cronin’s work.
With the exception of Raimi’s third film, Army of Darkness, which was set in the past, every other Evil Dead movie has taken place in a cabin in the woods. It is one of the default settings for any horror, the location being suitably isolated for shenanigans to occur. The setting has however, been done to death, and when faced with creating Evil Dead Rise, Cronin opted to leave the wilderness behind. He doesn’t forgo the cabin location entirely as Evil Dead Rise opens with a holidaying trio of teens. Their cabin isn’t the cabin that fans are used to and is an early sign that this will be a rather different entry into the series. As the trip starts to take a turn for the worst, the title card is revealed (in what has to be one of the coolest ways so far this year) and the action quickly jumps back in time.
Starting a day earlier, Evil Dead Rise introduces guitar technician Beth (Lily Sullivan). After receiving some life-changing news, Beth returns to Los Angeles to visit her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) for some advice. Her homecoming exposes the distance that has grown between the siblings, Beth preferring life on the road to keeping up with Ellie and her children. Before broken bridges can begin to mend, an earthquake hits the city, rattling the decrepit high-rise apartment building in which Ellie lives. In the aftermath of the quake, Ellie’s kids, Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and Kassie (Nell Fisher) discover a secret underground structure. Danny investigates and stumbles across the iconic skin-dressed Book of the Dead. The book’s discovery summons those pesky deadites once more and after Ellie is overtaken, it is left to Beth to save her nieces and nephew.
The high-rise setting is a dynamic environment for an Evil Dead story. Thanks to the earthquake, the family becomes suitably cut-off from potential sources of help and so it becomes just as isolated as the usual cabin. The location even has added potency as audience members are far more familiar with high-rise structures than they are of wooden buildings in the wilderness. The shift to an apartment moves the story into a more domestic setting, helping the transition from partying friends to family night make sense. By bringing the deadites into family life one could argue that Evil Dead Rise also fits into the home invasion subgenre of horror.
Motherhood played an integral part in Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground and the theme is present again in Evil Dead Rise. Ellie is a recently single mother of three and whilst she might have the mum side of life down, she’s struggling to take on the responsibilities of both parents. Her biggest problem is their building’s impending demolishment, and finding somewhere new to live. As the older sister, Ellie is also looked up to by Beth as a mother figure. All the pressures and responsibilities weigh on Ellie and so when the deadites take over, one can’t help but feel a slight sigh of relief from her. In a manner of speaking, Ellie is somewhat freed by her possession, and watching the character revel in the torment of her family is thoroughly entertaining to watch. Home invasion stories are frightening, but mother’s changing and distorting into something menacing are downright terrifying. Sutherland is spectacular in the role; her face conveys a multitude of emotions with the smallest shift of muscles. Similarly, she can contort her body into a variety of disturbing formations for ultimate nightmare fuel.
Ellie is not the only mother in Evil Dead Rise, Beth happens to be newly pregnant. It is her inability to process the news that has led her back to Ellie, the younger sister hoping her older sibling can provide clarity. Before the news can be relayed, all Hell literally breaks loose and Beth finds herself in charge of a further three children to the one growing inside of her. Stories of non-traditional mothers coming to terms with their maternal instincts is not a new story, but Cronin handles the idea well within Beth. She’s not as anti-children as other characters of her ilk, and from their first encounter, it’s clear that Beth makes a great aunt. Her transition from aunt to parent is a tricky one, but it works beautifully. After shining on her own in Monolith, Sullivan sizzles here, her portrayal of Beth a complex mixture of Ellen Ripley and Laurie Strode, with just enough traits of Ash Williams to delight franchise fans.
The children that Beth is protecting are played by a trio of future stars. The chemistry between Davies, Echols, and Fisher is effortless. The threesome feel like an authentic sibling unit. They bicker, but they care, and are forever unified by the shared trauma of witnessing their mother get weird. Each child has their admirable qualities, Cronin side-stepping the irritating child pitfall that afflicts so many movies. By making the unit so tight-knit and charming, Cronin is able to squeeze maximum empathy for the children, and unlike so many films before it, none of them are safe. Cronin opts to not hold back the horror from the younger generation, his decision perfectly pitched for the Evil Dead, a series in which few, if any, make it out unscathed.
Cronin is a clear fan of Sam Raimi’s series and as such his creation is peppered with wry nods to what has come before. The obligatory chainsaw has a very specific paint job, the pizzeria’s name has meaning, and there’s even an appearance from Ash actor Bruce Campbell (though you’ll have to pay a lot of attention to catch it). Cronin’s attention to these details pays respect to the origins of the series and placates any fans concerned that Raimi’s work will be forgotten.
But it’s not just the Evil Dead series that Cronin pays respects to. At several stages, clear homages to famous genre films are made, demonstrating Cronin’s knowledge and horror credentials. Interestingly though, as Evil Dead Rise progresses, it morphs into something closer to James Cameron’s Aliens. Beth’s maternal journey mirrors that of Ripley and Newt, the final act a fantastic horror heavy spin on the iconic battle between Ripley and the xenomorph Queen. Stephen McKeon’s score is especially good at communicating the similarities between the two movies. His piece ‘Final Confrontation’ could have been lifted directly from James Horner’s Aliens score.
Made for around $20 million, it is apparent that Cronin utilised much of the Evil Dead Rise budget for the special effects. A high percentage of what is seen on screen was achieved practically, something that lifelong fans of the series will appreciate. Cronin follows in the footsteps of Raimi and Álvarez and fully embraces his gory side. It’s a departure from the style and tone that Cronin crafted in The Hole in the Ground, but it is a component that is intrinsic to an Evil Dead film and as such Evil Dead Rise is a very messy affair. Blood oozes from every orifice (both human in origin and from the building itself), and the carnage so intense there will be the occasional involuntary turn of the stomach.
Though this outing is far darker than Raimi’s source, the wry humour is retained, serving as a welcome respite from Cronin’s relentless barrage of terror. These sprinklings of light relief are the final ingredient in Cronin’s creation and help to solidify Evil Dead Rise as one of the best in the series. Horror comes home in Lee Cronin’s reweaving of the Evil Dead lore; the result is a finely-tuned, expertly executed, genre film that is destined to be a future classic.
Evil Dead Rise is out in UK Friday 21st April 2023.
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