starring Lily Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland, Gabrielle Echols, Morgan Davies
written and directed by Lee Cronin
by Walter Chaw Lee Cronin's Evil Dead Rise is mean. It's that scene from The Exorcist (1973) where little Regan McNeil masturbates with a crucifix and then shoves her mom's face into her crotch mean. Vicious. But it's not Ari Aster mean, where you infer it hates its characters and/or its genre. Rather, it's mean in the sense that demons are mean, and it makes people we like do terrible things to other people we like. Evil Dead Rise is the line separating a horror film from a horrible film. It's closer in tenor to its immediate predecessor, Fede Alvarez's similarly vicious--brutal, really--Evil Dead (2013), than to Sam Raimi's original trilogy, though more to the point, it's exactly as mean as the first two entries in that trilogy but without Raimi's sillier visual affectations and Bruce Campbell's beloved caricature of a hambone persona. Indeed, most of the "fun" of those Campbell/Raimi pictures is the amount of humiliation and abuse heaped upon Campbell, with Campbell's physical resemblance to a cartoon character becoming the central gag of the third film, Army of Darkness, as his features are stretched and multiplied, shrunken and deformed to fit whatever comic-strip setup is required of him in that moment.
The ghost of Campbell haunts the film, however, in more ways than just his voice cameo during the playing of a key recording. When a cheese grater is suddenly centred mid-fight, I swear I could hear his voice boom, "Aw, great." Yet even without Bruce, I laughed a lot during Evil Dead Rise, mainly when possessed mom Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), trapped in an L.A. tenement after a deadite-caused earthquake cuts off all avenues of escape, says unbelievably scarifying things to her gonna-need-some-therapy kids. I think that's what these last two films, Cronin's and Alvarez's, are about: the limits and pitfalls of familial love. I was surprised that Alvarez's film reached for resonance in a frayed brother/sister relationship, seeing in its demonic shenanigans a metaphor for when things finally fall apart between siblings torn asunder by drug addiction. I'm surprised again that Cronin's picture looks for metaphorical depth in its tale of two sisters: responsible, motherhood-bound Ellie and her free-spirited sister Beth (Lily Sullivan). Mostly, I'm surprised because, for the most part, both gambits succeed.
Beth is pregnant but fears this will make all the years she's devoted to being taken seriously in a male-dominated profession--as a guitar technician for touring bands--amount to naught. She's a roadie, not a "groupie," she has to constantly reiterate, and the inability of her family to appreciate the difference lands with me; I think if you're insecure about the choices you've made, when the people who have to love you confirm your fears it's a particularly sharp twist of the knife. Nevertheless, Beth visits sister Ellie and Ellie's three kids, teens Danny (Morgan Davies) and Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and little girl Kassie (Nell Fisher), for advice, maybe comfort? The only thing that's really clear is that when things go badly for either Beth or Ellie, no matter the distance separating them, they're each other's first call. Beth hasn't been a very good sister, it seems, dropping out of contact after Ellie's husband left her--and their mutual resentment is as nicely played as the love between them that allows for a continued relationship even after what we ken are years of betrayals and disappointments. Later, when Danny and Bridget find an old record and a human-leather-bound Necronomicon, Danny suggests they sell it because "mom could use some cash right now." I'm not mistaking Evil Dead Rise for George Bernard Shaw, but obvious care was taken in sketching out strong characters and interpersonal relationships without long, expository sequences. Evil Dead Rise does everything well save a framing story that is fine in and of itself--and pays proper respect to Wuthering Heights--but feels unnecessary and distracting. Except for the leaps required to fit that into the narrative, the picture doesn't take its audience for granted.
Once the bloodshed begins in earnest, it's choreographed with fervour and uncompromising commitment. Children are harmed, psychologically and physically, and it's glorious. Not because I think children should be harmed, but because I believe demons would harm children. I love the moment where Ellie says series catchphrase "I'm gonna swallow your soul," then smells long and deep between her sister's legs and amends, "Two souls." That's so invasive, so cheesy and awful, that I was moved to laughter. There's a great moment in Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot where the vampire fucks with a priest by not only not relenting to a crucifix but pretending to be afraid of the Star of David as well, and I thought of that here because surely a demon has other ways of knowing if someone's pregnant without indulging in a deep crotch dive. I think it does this because it's horrible and demons, especially Evil Dead deadites, are fucking assholes. There's a lot of this in Evil Dead Rise. Ellie, for instance, supernaturally boils iced bathwater her family has used to try to "bring her temperature down" and climbs up the wall to banshee screech at her loved ones for a full minute. Through a peephole, she coos at her youngest in saccharine, reassuring tones while not bothering to change her possessed appearance. ("You don't look so good," Kassie says. "Nothing a hug from you wouldn't fix!" Ellie barks.) And at her most compromised, when she's essentially a shred of beef, she takes the opportunity to assure Beth that Beth is going to be a terrible mom. It's...mean as shit.
Which is to say, Evil Dead Rises is a tough flick about two sisters who took different paths in their lives and find themselves, at the same time, in what each perceives to be her own dire straits. Only one of them is right, though. Getting suddenly cast in the role of single mother with three kids and money troubles is bad; getting pregnant while not being taken seriously as a guitar tech is only bad when you're avoiding the rest of your life. I suspect if I were 25 and watching this for the first time instead of 50, my allegiances might be different. The tension of the piece, then, is rooted in how Beth is forced to confront real horror after being blinkered by her narcissism and consumed by petty melodramas. The final showdown between Beth and what is essentially a Cerberus Frankensteined together from a mom and two of her children is not just the kind of augmented karo syrup/puppet monster for which old-school and hipster horror fans pine--it's a powerful visual representation of what all the Grand Guignol and Sturm und Drang was about. Best, it can be read as either Beth being right--motherhood is giving up your identity to a monstrous group mind--or Ellie being right, i.e., true power and belonging coming from family, natural or constructed. Evil Dead Rise is sharp and disgusting, has a sense of humour, and, in shout-outs like the pizzeria called "Henrietta's" or an exchange of eyeballs, is respectful of series lore. It's a strong entry in a strong franchise. I hope Raimi does the next one.