Lee Cronin’s “Evil Dead Rise” calls to mind those items we used to read before every “Die Hard” sequel, about how each had begun its life as a completely different story having nothing to do with “Die Hard” that was hastily re-written into another John McClane movie. That is not, as far as I know, the origin story of this “Evil Dead” sequel. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find it began its life as an entirely unrelated tale of a dysfunctional family fighting an evil force in a condemned apartment building before writers threw in a Book of the Dead and a chainsaw to help fill the opening weekend tills and keep the “Evil Dead” IP alive. Around the half-hour mark, I scrawled in my notes, “Why am I still in an apartment building?” Unfortunately, the movie never provided much of an answer.
But almost every other element of Cronin’s film feels tacked on. Take the movie’s prologue, for example, which gives us what these pictures typically deliver: a bunch of attractive young people at a cabin in the woods. In fact, Cronin opens by aping the original films’ signature lightning-speed handheld dolly shots – and revealing it to be an image shot by a drone. It’s a nice touch, albeit one of the few. But the bulk of the action takes place a day earlier, as Beth (Lily Sullivan), out on a worldwide tour as a guitar tech, comes to visit her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland). This is one of those movies where people constantly refer to each other by their familial relationships, like “sis” and “cuz” and “Auntie Beth,” (y’know, like real people do).
Ellie is a Cool Mom, because she’s a tattoo artist, and she dyes her hair red. She and her three kids live in a messy apartment in an atmospherically creaky building about to be torn down. Dad recently flew the coop, and Beth hasn’t been there For Ellie because she’s going through “her own shit.” So much time is spent on this woefully dull family drama that you’d think Cronin wants to make this “Evil Dead” installment some kind of elevated horror, failing in the process. “Please, Ellie, we need to talk this through properly,” Beth insists, and so they do; and that’s around the time viewers start to wonder if they’ll get to see an “Evil Dead” movie anytime soon.
And one looms when an earthquake opens up a hole in the adjoining parking garage, leading into an abandoned bank vault, where Ellie’s teenage son Danny (Morgan Davies) decides to go scavenging. He’s a DJ, so he finds and steals a bunch of old albums but, oh yeah, there’s Book of the Dead in there, too. “You think it might be worth something?” he asks his sister, who replies, sensibly, “weird shit like this gets locked away for a reason!” Well, it turns out the records are a series of sermons, from the early ‘20s, concerning incantations from the Book of the Dead, which Danny blasts through his giant DJ speakers. Commence the evil spirits and several more inexplicable – and sometimes unbelievable – decisions from the movie’s heroes.
Cronin, who is not without talent (he helmed the 2019 Sundance favorite “The Hole in the Ground“) posts up some eye-catching compositions, and he can dutifully orchestrate a set piece. He actually has two good bits here: one in the building’s ramshackle elevator and another clever sequence of kills through the fisheye of a door peephole. And the performers do their best, too. Sullivan gets a couple of good moments as this picture’s Final Girl, and Sutherland looks like she’s having a great time playing Ellie once she turns from a dissatisfied mom to an evil force (“Mommy’s with the maggots now,” she cackles to her young daughter, who will need a lot of therapy after this).
But ultimately, at the risk of turning every recent entry in the genre into an existential question, “Evil Dead Rise” asks the viewer what they want their horror to be. Is it gross? Frequently! The movie’s practical and special effects are a rogues’ gallery of gougings, stabbings, shavings, and scalpings; those who like to have their stomachs turned will find much to cheer about. But is it actually scary – suspenseful, tense, trafficking in more than the cheap shock of a jump scare or vivid effect? Not really, no.
And that already subjective situation gets deepened this film’s tenuous inclusion in the “Evil Dead” series; a viewer’s experience depends disproportionately on their personal expectation of what an “Evil Dead” movie should be. Those who loved Fede Alvarez’s 2013 installment (and, apparently, such souls exist) will probably have a good time here too. But Cronin’s film is also burdened by that the core issue of what Alvarez did: there’s no wit to this thing whatsoever. Alvarez turned Sam Raimi’s delightfully eye-poking comic-horror franchise into another grim slog – arguing, along the way, that the first one wasn’t funny, so he’s going back to the series’ roots, man. Any reasonable person, of course, would retort that Raimi subsequently evolved, and the subsequent off-kilter tone and style are what makes the series so special. Drain that out, and what’s left?
Nothing special; or, it seems, a film like this. “Evil Dead Rise” isn’t as dourly humorless as Alvarez’s flick, but the comic beats here are few and far between. And Cronin just doesn’t have the dizzy comic ingenuity to pull those that do arise. The fundamental problem with these new “Evil Dead” reboots or reimaginings, or whatever the hell they are, is the same one the Wes Craven-less nu-“Scream”s suffer from. These series are so imbued with the original filmmaker’s sui generis personality that making one without that is ultimately a futile enterprise. Whatever blessing Raimi may give Cronin’s film, and whatever (presumably minimal) participation he may have as an executive producer, “Evil Dead Rise” is not a Sam Raimi movie. Boy, oh boy, is this not a Sam Raimi movie. And that makes Cronin’s take not much of an “Evil Dead” movie either. [D+]