Evil Dead Rise (2023)

APRIL 24, 2023


I think I was about an hour into Evil Dead Rise when I realized why the film wasn’t working for me: like the 2013 remake (which I was also mixed on at best) it was aimed at the people who find Sam Raimi's first two films “cheesy” or “cheap looking” or whatever. On a technical level these two films – which admirably largely eschew digital effects in favor of practical ones – are flawless, no argument there. There's more money to play with, and it's all on screen, with professional actors to boot. But there’s simply no soul to these modern entries, and their relatively large budgets betray the whole appeal of the first film and its 1987 sequel: seeing what a creative and determined guy can accomplish with nothing (on the first one) and then seeing him truly cut loose when he had more money to play with the second time around. That is why the films make for such a great double feature (weird retconning aside due to ED2 not having access to ED1 footage): you’re seeing the progression of a filmmaker (and an actor in Bruce Campbell) on a technical level, while marveling that Raimi had lost none of his gonzo sense of humor in the intervening years.

But let’s face it: the story of the series is not particularly interesting. People read from a creepy book and supernatural forces come forward, killing all but one person, who usually grabs a chainsaw and takes out the immediate threat, but doesn’t stop it entirely. It's just an excuse to cut loose with whatever Raimi (or now, his successors) can dream up, and it's seeing that kitchen sink approach in action that makes them fun - when they're at their best, you truly have no idea what will happen next. Raimi seemed to understand the limitations of this concept, setting the third film in medieval times and turning it into more of a fantasy/adventure film than a traditional horror one, using our affinity with Campbell’s hero Ash Williams to smooth the wildly different tone and approach. For some it worked great – it’s their favorite one! I myself just find it OK, but there are others who wanted things to go back to the scarier roots of the first film. And to their credit, that’s what this film and the 2013 remake did – but they also seem content to recycle Raimi's ideas at the expense of coming up with too many of their own.

The biggest issue with this film (and the remake suffered from this too, now that I think of it) is that there’s no real sense of escalation or pacing. The first film certainly has its slower moments, but there’s a real buildup overall; every time another friend gets possessed things get more and more hectic until the final reel becomes just a nonstop frightfest, with Raimi’s camera constantly swishing around and Campbell being tortured with every turn. Here, writer/director Lee Cronin stages things more like a slasher movie for whatever reason; every time someone dies, there’s ten minutes of not all that much happening until the next possession occurs. And that might be fine if the other characters weren’t aware of the threat, but that’s not the case – the first possessed person makes their grand entrance to all four of the other characters right off the bat, which results in the film being repetitive on top of being poorly paced. A possessed person does something creepy (usually some sort of self harm and/or puking liquid everywhere) as the others watch in terror, then they run into another room of the apartment, regroup, make some kind of escape attempt that puts them in contact with the possessed person, who then does something creepy as the others watch in terror, then they run... you get the idea.

I mentioned the apartment, and that’s the other thing that kept the movie from ever really working for me: they totally waste the potential of the location. For the first time, one of these movies takes place in a big city (LA to be specific, though the New Zealand production obviously limits how much they can really sell us on that idea), with our heroes residing in a big apartment complex that is said to be falling apart and set to be torn down the following month. So one might be hoping for a real expansive romp around the building, like a modern update on Demons 2, right? Nope – we barely ever leave the protagonists’ apartment (and yet the layout for it remains hazy even by the end of the film, despite spending so much time there) and the only other people we see live directly next door. Don’t the other residents hear all of the commotion? Wouldn’t the Deadites roam around the joint looking for fresh victims to help when our heroes have themselves barricaded? I guess we can assume that the impending demolition has already scared off most of the residents, but since our heroes have two neighbors and we see several cars (not the Classic, however!) in the building’s shared garage before anything even happens, there should be at least a few others that could have gotten roped into the proceedings.

The lone exception is a millennial on the 4th floor (our heroes are on the 14th) who we meet as a possessed person in a flash forward prologue set in the woods, but she doesn’t show up again until the very end, showing how she got that way. This little bookend almost makes the movie seem like a prequel to the usual idea, showing how the Deadite force got from Los Angeles to the woods, and it’s rather pointless in the grand scheme of things, but I’ll allow it since a. otherwise we wouldn’t see anything exciting happen for a half hour and b. it has the only good joke in the entire movie, where a Raimi-esque “shaki cam” shot is revealed to be the POV of a drone one of the girl’s friends is using. But on the other hand, this opening suggests the movie will have a sense of humor, which it most certainly does not outside of a few darkly mean-spirited lines. The only other time I laughed was at an out of nowhere slam on the Freddy sequels.

Cronin also makes a miscalculation with his group of victims: a woman named Ellie and her three children, plus her sister Beth. Beth is a typical slacker type who fails to keep up with her sister’s phone calls, managing to miss that Ellie’s husband (and the childrens’ father) has left them, and she has just discovered she got pregnant during one of her (suggested frequent) casual hookups, so we have our character arc: she’s not exactly planning to be a mother, but thanks to the film's events she's going to get a rather intense crash course on being one! That’s fine, but not since Hereditary have I seen a casting director seemingly go out of their way to find people who couldn’t look less alike to play a family. There’s enough of a resemblance to pass the son and the younger of the two sisters as siblings since they at least have the same color hair, but otherwise it was honestly distracting – I kept waiting for some sort of explanation that they were all adopted or something. And Ellie and Beth don’t look anything alike either, so when the inevitable “I have to kill my sister” kind of stuff comes into play, it doesn’t land as well as it should – they might as well be strangers, since they barely interact prior to Ellie's possession. We also know that this big screen Warner Bros movie won’t be killing the little girl (or her protector), so that also betrays the “anything goes” spirit of the first film, where Ash wasn’t any more prominent than the other characters and thus had just as much chance of survival as they did. All of the neighbors are wiped out too early too, another thing that could have helped add some suspense to the proceedings. Sure, we know they're all goners, but the WHEN of it all can generate some tension. Alas, they all die within seconds of their first encounter with Ellie.

Weirder still, there’s not really anything all that inventive with the gore and violence. There’s a big scene set to someone chewing glass, but it’s not even as unsettling as the one in Oculus, a movie that wasn’t being sold on its gnarliness. Most of the effects involve the possessed person puking blood or bile or some kind of goo on another character, which is effective enough the first time but by the 3rd or 4th one might wonder why it is no one tapes the possessed folks’ mouths shut whenever they’re temporarily subdued. The only time it ever starts to feel like there’s a genuine IDEA behind a sequence is when Beth watches some slaughter occurring through the front door’s peephole, which leaves some of the carnage off screen and allowing a quick scare when a body is tossed back into the fishbowl style POV. I also liked the final form of the Deadite menace (I won’t spoil the particulars), the appearance of which is boosted by Beth and the little girl finally leaving their apartment for a change of scenery, but couldn’t help but wish it had appeared sooner. Plus, said scene is in the garage, which just reminded me that there were a bunch of residents who weren’t being utilized, an hour or so after the idea of “the Deadites infect an entire apartment building!” was suggested and never delivered upon. But for each of those scattered good ideas, we're given eye-rolling references to the others (including a "Dead by dawn!" chant), which I'm sure made someone with a Bruce Campbell tattoo cheer on opening night, but left me just wondering why in 35 years the best idea they could come up with is "what if someone else ALSO did this?"

So I dunno. It’s got good reviews and audience scores, and several friends have loved it, but it just didn’t work for me. I kept waiting for things to kick up a notch, but the final scenes (save for the aforementioned "final form" and accompanying obligatory chainsaw bit) aren’t any more intense or imaginative than the ones we saw a few minutes into the runtime during the prologue, and far too much of the movie is devoted to people simply giving “oh my GOD what IS HAPPENING?” kind of looks at the possessed characters (after a while I started wondering if Beth had some kind of Memento like amnesia, since she repeatedly seems shocked to see things she’d already witnessed in the previous scenes). And when it ended, I was aghast to realize that both Renfield and Pope’s Exorcist have more inventive examples of both splatter and dismemberment than this Evil Dead movie, which to me would be like if Ed Sheeran or someone like that was opening for Metallica and somehow managed to put on a more exciting show. Due to the lack of rules for Deadites (which is otherwise fine), it's hard to say what exactly makes this an "Evil Dead movie" as the evil force lacks a repeated presence (meaning a calling card "boogeyman" figure one could slap on mugs and T-shirts), and our new hero doesn't stand out. Even the remake knew enough to play with the idea of who the new hero might be, but here it's clearly Beth from the start and she is never given all that much to do until the final moments. So there’s no Ash (or "Ash"), there’s no cabin, there’s no Classic... the only thing left to live up to the title that they were coasting on would be the “splattery Three Stooges” type of physical action, but they kept dropping the ball and settling for restaging Raimi's moments far too often, content to coast on his ideas while bringing precious few of their own to the table. Just a huge letdown.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. I seem to have liked this one a bit more than you, but I agree with what you mean about how the premise is a little limiting and the big appeal to this franchise was never the story/mythology. It was about seeing Raimi and Campbell stretch the boundaries of the franchise despite the obvious limitations. Like even though Army of Darkness is more of a studio production, you can see all of the seams, and it's part of the charm. I appreciate that Rise at least tried to throw a layer of grit and grime over everything, but I feel like these things are just missing some of the magic when they're so polished and not little lo-fi productions.


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