Tuesday 16 May 2023

Evil Dead Rise (Lee Cronin, 2023) Review

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Don't let it take my babies!” Sam Raimi's notorious 1983 film The Evil Dead was described by horror icon Stephen King as “the most ferociously original horror film of the year”, with the poster justifiably promising “the ultimate experience in gruelling terror”, and went on to spawn a decades-long franchise across all media platforms. A few years on from the unfortunately early and entirely unfair demise of the Ash vs Evil Dead television show, the original team return to exec produce a new tale in the soul-swallowing series. But considering the fan favourite pedigree of what has skewered audience eyeballs thus far, can Evil Dead Rise leave the track record unbroken...?

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You looked like you were gonna shit out a brick sideways.” Transported from the familiar woodland setting of previous Evil Dead films and into the crumbling structure of a city apartment building, newly-single mother Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) is struggling to keep her family on-track when her absent sister Beth (Lily Sullivan) returns from the road just as an earthquake hits the soon-to-be-condemned structure. Built on top of a former bank, a hole unveils a secret vault adorned with countless religious totems surrounding a cracked-open tomb that houses one of now three volumes of 'The Book of the Dead'. Accompanied by vinyl recordings of fascinated men of religion examining the book's text – inked in human blood upon pages made from human skin – Ellie's music-obsessed son Danny (Morgan Davies) makes the unwise decision to do some sleuthing in the netherworld, much to the disgust of climate protester sister Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) … and gosh, wouldn't you know it, but things don't go very well from there!

Who's the brainless meat puppet now?” So let's cut to the aforementioned chase – does Evil Dead Rise leave the unbroken track record of the franchise's ass-kickery intact? Well, as an affirmed lover of all things Evil Dead, it comes with a heavy horror fiend's heart to say that EDR is as plagued with fundamental problems as the Necronomicon is with passages unconducive to living a happy, soulful life.

A considerable fault with the film, which in-turn impacts one's investment in the events to come, is the cast of characters – most of whom offer little reason to care about them. One of the causes of this is simple: cast size. The main familial unit consists of five individuals (at least one too many), and then there's several neighbours – including Gabriel (Jayden Daniels) and Mr Fonda (Mark Mitchinson), whose characterisations both comfortably fit on a single postage stamp – plus the trio of bog-standard stock characters in the opening sequence: mousy book nerd Teresa, obnoxious tosspot Caleb, and empty vessel Jessica.

Other reasons for the dull and paper-thin characters are, ironically, a little more complex. The entire family unit are what one might call 'bohemian alternative', all burgeoning with spectacular creative abilities (tattoo artistry, DJ'ing), tech-savvy skills (build-your-own tattoo gun or impromptu power source), snarky mouths (some dialogue is eye-rollingly awkward), 'quirky' personalities or, tiresomely de rigueur for the 2020s, engagement in heavy-handed politics. Indeed, by far, Bridget is the most instantly frustrating character introduced to the audience, taking mere moments to be smug, selfish, and whiny. It's an odd talent to make a viewer desperate to see the demise of a character within seconds of screen time, and one that should never come within a sniff of a page of a screenplay. As an example of just how bad that can be, check out Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022.

It's not a clean sweep of dreadful characters, but the bizarre lack of diverse personalities on offer certainly doesn't help. If every main character is coming from the same outlook and background, the chance for conflict and clashing attributes dries up quick. However, guitar tech auntie Beth, tattoo artist mother Ellie, and mostly-endearing youngest sprog Kassie (Nell Fisher) do somewhat stem the tidal wave of blank vessels that otherwise dominate the cast. That said, there's still plenty of room for underdeveloped backstories and some mind-numbingly stupid decisions made so something interesting can happen. Most egregious, though, is that Rise struggles to make room for its protagonist, leaving the viewer wanting of a clear lead to root for until, at long last, they come to the forefront in the final act – by which point most of the audience's goodwill has long since dried up.

Look Mom, I'm a bad ass!” The movie boastingly references Evil Dead II a great deal throughout its running time, but ultimately all this does is remind the viewer that Evil Dead Rise fails to possess any of the wit, energy, or invention of Sam Raimi's 1987 film (or any of them, for that matter). Further to this, Rise also lacks the dizzying visual verve found in all the previous entries, as well as Ash vs Evil Dead, to the point that this 2023 film actually begins to feel rather pedestrian in its coverage, at times preferring to almost grind to a lazy stupor while supposed “terror through total chaos” occurs in a less-than-arresting fashion.

Indeed, for a film chock-full with demons from the depths of Hell, Rise plays things coy too often. Where's the twisted blasphemy and unrelenting mental torment? Then again, seemingly little thought has been put into the 'rules of the monster' here, exacerbating the confusingly low stakes. Further to this, there are some shockingly underwhelming reactions by some cast members to events that should be confounding on the most horrific levels. 'Shock' comes off as malaise, 'terror' as vague misfortune, and even the supposed reanimation of Ellie from beyond the grasp of death arouses expressions that wouldn't seem out-of-place at a convention of intrigued puppies.

Mommy's with the maggots now.” Similarly, EDR's cast seem to relatively cruise through the film, struggling to summon up the convincing terror that oozed from every blood-caked pore of the cast in Fede Alvarez's snarling 2013 remake (the thoroughly impressive Jane Levy chief among them) - my opinion of which has grown over the years with repeated viewings. Where did the “ferocious” and “gruelling” Evil Dead go, the franchise that started out adorning the top spot in moral guardian Mary Whitehouse's list of the most despicable 'video nasties'?

Even after ten years, the gut-wrenching impact of Evil Dead 2013's spectacular gore-doused set pieces still manage to make me, a decidedly hardened horror hound, wince and squirm – broken syringe needle to the eyeball or self-dismemberment by electric carver, anyone? Evil Dead Rise, on the other hand? Not even Hannibal Lector has been this sedate amidst the carnage. Sequences that are supposed to make the viewer glance away from the screen are, instead, surprisingly dull affairs. There isn't a single shock in the entire film – quite the accidental achievement when we're talking about the likes of vomiting-up of wriggling mounds of bugs, the trachea-shredding ingestion of broken glass, and the intensely-promoted cheese grater scene – the latter perfectly summing-up the biggest problem that Rise endures. The notion in itself is terrific, but the execution is decidedly disappointing – one quick grate down someone's leg to reveal a rather dodgy looking effect (possibly CGI) and that's it … seriously?!

Then again, undercooked ideas is the order of the day here. The retcon notion of three Books of the Dead offers opportunity, but how is this book any different from what we've already seen? Seemingly, there's no difference – so what was the point? Speaking of which, the opening portion – and how the events in the apartment building connect to it – has no purpose whatsoever, adding nothing more than several minutes to the running time.

I'm free now – free from all you titty-sucking parasites.” All said and done, Evil Dead Rise is a big 'so what?' of a movie. There's a few good ideas and moments scattered about, but the whole endeavour feels malnourished and undersold as concepts and set-ups that are pregnant with juicy possibility are left to wither on the vine. Case-in-point, during the climax of the film, a wood chipper is utilised for some good old blood gushing – and yet, true to the established form, it becomes a bit of a damp squib. The spout that expels the mulched mess begins to turn, as if by some unseen hand of evil, rotating the crimson geyser towards the now finally emergent protagonist, only to halt and just spray a random car a bit.

This is an Evil Dead movie, right? The spout should've rotated around to fully douse the chainsaw-wielding protagonist with gallons of gore – but once again, Lee Cronin mysteriously shies away from an open goal and deflates the ball for good measure. Heck, for the myriad of ever-so-clever references to the previous films, Cronin misses the biggest and most wanted one of all: the sickly yellow Oldsmobile Delta, which had – until now – featured in every Evil Dead project. If Sam Raimi can sneak it into The Quick and The Dead (a western!), then how on Earth can Lee Cronin fail to include it in – of all places – a parking garage?! If you're going to douse a vehicle in blood – instead of your lead, for some bizarre reason – then at least hose down the right vehicle!

Evil Dead Rise makes a frustrating habit of limiting itself continually, through its terribly underwritten characters, its underutilised apartment building location (Critters 3 made far more of such a setting) – save for the generally entertaining use of the building's elevator – and its total inability to execute any of its good ideas in a satisfying manner. Even the use of a drone (now everyday tech since the remake was made), in the switch-up opening shot of the film, just feels like a cranky old franchise trying to be hip and down with 'da yoof'. Despite the best attempts of Lily Sullivan and Alyssa Sutherland, the latter of whom certainly makes some memorable marks during her demonic possession, EDR is – quite sadly – a swing and a miss.

For a franchise that has knocked it out of the park on a consistent basis across three films, a remake, a TV show, and a whole slew of assorted media, this seems to be the unfortunate exception to prove the rule. Cue the inevitable rise/fall juxtaposition. Even the supposedly game-changing shift in setting hits weakly, especially considering the variety of locations offered-up in Ash vs Evil Dead (trailer park, militia bunker, school, a Floridian bar, apocalyptic future!) There is one very important thing that an Evil Dead movie must do – make it seem to the audience that the film itself is unbound by decency and liable to deviously run out of control … Evil Dead Rise, however, for all its bloody posturing, is relative restraint incarnate and neither ferocious or original. I so wanted to dig this flick, but even its genuinely good ideas are tarnished by the underwhelming execution. It leaves plenty to talk about between horror hounds – but for all the wrong reasons.

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