It was risky for Evil Dead Rise, the latest entry in a series that set the standard for “cabin in the woods” horror, to choose a Los Angeles high-rise as its principle setting. But that risk pays off in writer-director Lee Cronin’s new film, which balances reverence for Sam Raimi’s classic with an entertaining exploration of its own turf.
After a prologue that does involve a cabin in the woods — wink! — we plunge into the story of Beth (Lily Sullivan), who finds reality rudely intruding into her rock n’ roll lifestyle when she realises she’s pregnant. She promptly flees to the one refuge in her life, her older sister Ellie (Vikings’ Alyssa Sutherland), but finds a lot’s changed since she last bothered to check her voice mail. Ellie’s been raising her three kids — teens Danny (Morgan Davies) and Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and tween Kassie (Nell Fisher) — on her own since their dad split, and they’re on the verge of having to move out of their apartment, a ramshackle monolith set in an L.A. beset with earthquakes, blackouts, and near-constant rainstorms.
It’s a bleak situation all around, but the kids — a quirky trio who relate to each other with varying degrees of exasperation and affection, as most siblings do — are handling the stress pretty well, at least until the latest earthquake gives them a fright while they’re down in the building’s crumbling parking garage. Evil Dead trouble always begins when a character encounters a certain cursed book (here rendered in excellently ghoulish form; it’s not Ash Williams’ Necronomicon, but it’s just as creepy) and certain phrases are read aloud, and Cronin keeps with that tradition. We’re filled with dread, knowing this vulnerable family unit is about to fall soul-first into a world of hurt — and since Evil Dead Rise knows we know, it makes great, agonizing use of that anticipation.
That awareness is an important part of Evil Dead Rise — starting with the cabin in the first scene, there are several references to earlier films, of both the subtle and “chainsaw” varieties. But you also need not be a Raimi devotee to follow the story here; while it follows the familiar trajectory of Deadites (who are of the same vicious, taunting breed we’re accustomed to) possessing multiple unfortunate characters, Evil Dead Rise is also consciously trying to find its own path through this madness. The apartment setting obviously helps with this — who’s up for some elevator horror? — but Cronin is also fascinated by how this supernatural devastation might rip through a family that wasn’t exactly thriving in the first place.
The tradeoff with hinging the plot on estranged sisters reuniting under less-than-ideal circumstances, and then also putting kids in peril, is that Evil Dead Rise finds a tone more in line with the other Bruce Campbell-less series entry, 2013’s Evil Dead. In other words, a few one-liners aside, the horror-comedy stylings that Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness (and excellent TV continuation Ash vs. Evil Dead) are especially treasured for are not represented here. This is a far darker tale, but that more serious tone keeps from being too serious by keeping a breakneck pace (bless this movie for only being a shade over 90 minutes) and unfurling a near-perfect array of creatively repulsive gore effects. That cheese grater scene you’ve heard so much about? Try not screaming your head off when you see it. Just try.
Evil Dead Rise is in theatres now.
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