Evil Dead Rise: A Soft Shake-Up for the Franchise

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

Our sister site Horror Obsessive recently published an article ranking the films of the Evil Dead series that, despite praising it, put the 2013 remake by Fede Alvarez at dead last. It’s not an uncommon perspective and I think most franchise fans will feel the same: no manner of modern, glossy, grungy remake is going to stand between them and the iconic ’80s franchise of their ‘too-young-to-be-watching-this-type-of-thing’ childhood. For myself, I rewatched Evil Dead in preparation for the release of Evil Dead Rise and…man does that thing hold up! It’s easily my favorite horror remake or legacy sequel of the last what? Thirty years…forty? I’d have to have a think about whether it’s better than The Fly. That’s how great it is, legitimately terrifying, well paced and plotted, great performances and the best gore effects onscreen since John Carpenter’s The Thing. Perhaps most heretically, I’d place it at the top of my own Evil Dead rankings. Nothing against Raimi’s vision, but the full-bloodied gory terror of the remake is just more my vibe than the rough-and-tumble, tongue-in-cheek vision of Raimi’s world.

So, to say I’m open to the idea of more Evil Dead movies would be an understatement and after ten years, we finally have a new Evil Dead movie, and one riding a wave of acclaim from fans and critics no less! Newly hyped up on excitement for the franchise, Evil Dead Rise became one of my most anticipated releases of the year. So…it’s a bit of a shame that the movie fell short of my hopes for it. Don’t mistake my feelings for outright disappointment; it’s still a very, very solid horror movie that ticks all the boxes that fans could want. But…when Evil Dead came out in 2013, the horror remake trend was very different to what it is now. Nowadays, everything’s a damn self-parody.

Jessica floating above the lake
Image Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

Of course, self-parody is integral to the Evil Dead brand, but the sense I got off of Evil Dead Rise was a desire to one-up everything about the previous movies. Perhaps it’s because of the change in setting, maybe its a matter of one time too many, but the callbacks to the original trilogy—and to the 2013 movie—felt more forced and inorganic this time around and it got to a point where it became distracting and took me out of the movie. I became less scared for the characters and more aware I was experiencing the cinematic equivalent of a haunted house ride. ‘One for the fans’, as it were, and it so happens that I am a fan, but I never like to feel fan-serviced. It makes me feel condescended to. It started to feel predictable and by the third act, I started to realize that I didn’t really care about the characters—with one notable exception, I’ll get to her—and my engagement was based more on a morbid desire to see what’ll happen next. Again, if that’s the level of engagement that you, as a fan, want, then you’ll probably love Evil Dead Rise, as so many clearly have. But for me, it felt a touch too hollow. An Evil Dead movie should feel differently from a Scream movie, at least in my opinion.

The weakest part of Evil Dead Rise really is the story. After a prologue that feels way more of a non-sequitur than in really ought to, we jump one day backwards and meet our actual heroine for the movie. This is Beth (Lily Sullivan) a backstage engineer for a rock band who’s just discovered, to her distress, that she’s pregnant. Hoping she’ll gain some foundation and perspective, she seeks out her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), perhaps as a single mother of three herself, she’ll be able to help decide what to do? But then, of course, demons happen, and she’s forced to protect her sister’s kids once Ellie becomes possessed. It’s the Jurassic Park story, basically: person who doesn’t want kids  or doesn’t feel ready to have them has to protect someone else’s kids through a disaster until they realize, ‘hey, maybe I’m ready after all!’

I’m not alone in thinking that’s a sucky story right? Fine for the ’90s sure, but in 2023? Isn’t there a bit of an icky pro-life subtext to it, especially with a woman at the center of it? Maybe I’m being harsh, of course women of any generation debate whether to become mothers and many decide, ‘yep, motherhood’s the life for me’! And people make the same argument of A Quiet Place and I don’t really see it there. Nor is it a surprise that writer-director Lee Cronin should go this direction given his previous work on The Hole in the Ground, a film whose main flaw is that its ambition outstrips its reach, which is not something you could ever say of this. The point is, this story just didn’t draw me in, be it the writing or the performances. I’m sorry to say that although she’s fine in the role, Lily Sullivan just doesn’t have a part with the main character intensity or personality of an iconic final girl.

Beth (Lily Sullivan) covered in blood, wielding a shotgun
Image Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

Unlike Sutherland however! Now I’ve erred on the side of negative so far but one place I have nothing but praise is Alyssa Sutherland’s performance. As Ellie, she’s a strong enough character with a decent amount of presence and personality, but as the possessed Ellie? She’s phenomenal!  Getting to play one of the possessed characters in an Evil Dead movie is one of those opportunities actors must lie awake dreaming about and Sutherland takes full advantage. She chews the scenery every chance she gets, humorous, frightening, throwing herself into the role, striking a perfect balance of funny and creepy. She absolutely carries the movie and whenever she’s onscreen your eyes are glued to her. I think that’s partly why I found the last third so anticlimactic, she’s not in it much and the energy level kind of dips whenever she’s not around. The actors playing the kids, Morgan Davies, Nell Fisher and Gabrielle Echols are really good too, but everyone is frankly acted off the screen by Sutherland. It’s one of my favorite performances of the year.

The change in setting is one of the film’s more successful innovations of the formula, with the top floor apartment of a crumbling LA tenement a fresh take on the series’ haunted house setup. It could’ve perhaps made more of it but the atmosphere and look of the storm battered building are great. A film looking and sounding the part is a big part of its appeal and Cronin’s film certainly passes muster there. The makeup is a particular highlight and although not as good as the 2013 movie, that’s a high bar and the gory effects are appropriately extreme and bloody. I meant what I said about it trying to one up previous entries and this is a noteworthy example, the climax in particular does provide a fresh addition to the Evil Dead lineup of monstrosities and it’s a welcome, unexpected addition.

I don’t aim to come off overly negative, as if I’m looking for things to complain about. I mostly enjoyed Evil Dead Rise, but having seen so much effusive praise for it, I felt somewhat underwhelmed by the final result. For all its effort to shake up the franchise, Evil Dead Rise plays it pretty safe where it counts. When it leans on its strengths, it’s a lot of fun, but it spreads itself too thin when the series has always been strongest at its most contained. Maybe its the sense that it’s almost the great horror movie I’d heard it was that makes my only marginal disappointment sharper than it would otherwise be. There’s still a lot of fun to be had from Evil Dead Rise, but manage your expectations and you’ll receive it better.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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