Evil Dead Rise Review: The Classic Horror Franchise Roars Back To Bloody Life [SXSW 2023]

Remember when Warner Bros financed an expensive "Blade Runner" sequel and everyone assumed it would eliminate the sharp, interesting edges of the original movie to deliver something more accessible and mainstream — and then they went and made "Blade Runner 2049," the most "Blade Runner" movie imaginable? Well, something must be in the water at Warner Bros., because "Evil Dead Rise" could've been a chance to tone down one of the most extreme horror franchises in Hollywood history, and instead someone with the power to do so said "F*** it" and let writer/director Lee Cronin make the nastiest, most extreme entry in a series that's pretty well-known for being nasty and extreme.

Yes, "Evil Dead Rise" is the most "Evil Dead" movie, from the mind-melting body horror to the outrageous creature design to the darkly comedic spring in its step. Here's a movie that invites you to treat the decimation of a family unit by demonic forces like a big ol' party. There is a select portion of the human population who will find that reprehensible. The rest of us freaks can just crack open the cursed book, read the cursed words, and enjoy the cursed ride.

Director Lee Cronin means business

"Evil Dead Rise" is the kind of horror sequel that gets to have its (maggot-infested, vomit-encrusted) cake and eat it, too. By moving the action away from a cabin in the woods and to a crummy apartment building in Los Angeles, it's free to twist out of the shackles of every entry that came before and make a clean break entirely the original trilogy's characters (no Ash to be found here, folks). At the same time, it knows what works, breaking out familiar beats to add spice here and there, knowing that some things just work, and pretending otherwise would be foolish. "Evil Dead Rise" loves being an "Evil Dead" movie, but it's not going to settle for just playing the greatest hits ... even though it knows those notes well.

The most unnerving aspect of the film is introduced fast and furious: horny college students in a cabin are replaced by a charmingly dysfunctional family unit, whose home is invaded by demonic forces when the wrong book is opened and the wrong incantation recited (stop doing that, people). Soon, it's mother against children, children against mother, and sibling against sibling as the flesh is torn asunder and household objects become weapons (cheese grater, anyone?). No soft edges here, no beating around the bush — Cronin goes hard fast and early. His movie means business, and he's not above letting a family destroy itself to make that clear.

Getting away with it

Making the cast of "Evil Dead Rise" relatives who find their home transformed into hell on Earth is Cronin's most twisted trick. There's an air of tragedy and danger present at all times, a sense of wrongness that permeates every moment. As his active camera spirals through hallways and careens into close-ups of mayhem that'll have audiences shrieking (and others chuckling), the film feels dangerous by default. Even as the film's tone employs a similar energetic jaunt to the original Sam Raimi-directed trilogy, it never taps the brakes and keeps poking you in the ribs. No one is safe because they're the innocent kid or the mom. Everyone in this movie is the innocent kid or the mom. And they're gonna be dead by dawn.

While the 2013 franchise revival from Fede Alvarez leaned into misery (to strong effect), Cronin rides his extreme choices like a surfer from hell, catching wave after wave as he yanks us into one deranged set piece after another, whittling down the cast and upping the ante at every opportunity. By the time the film enters its final stretch, and he unleashes the most extreme creature imagery seen across the entire "Evil Dead" series, you can practically hear him cackling behind the camera. A movie this grotesque has to be in on the joke or it would be an exercise in misery. "Evil Dead Rise" never forgets to be a good time, and its darkest moments feel less like an act of punishment on the audience and more like a playful nudge. Hey ... can you believe we're getting away with this?

The mother of all deadites

With Bruce Campbell firmly on the sidelines, "Evil Dead Rise" rests on the shoulders of two newcomers to the series: Alyssa Sutherland as Ellie, the mother who finds herself possessed by a demon hellbent on bloodshed and chaos at all costs, and Lily Sullivan's Beth, who returns home after an unexpected positive pregnancy test and finds herself acting as the only line of defense between her family and the forces that want to destroy their souls and bodies. There's a powerful "final girl" energy to Sullivan, who rises to the occasion and does exactly what you'd hope an "Evil Dead" protagonist would do in the dismemberment department.

But it's Sutherland who proves to be the real revelation, playing the most alarming "deadite" we've seen in the series so far. A few common tropes are repeated (these demons clearly have a recurring bag of tricks), but no "Evil Dead" villain has been so sinister, so darkly funny, and performed with such physical commitment by an actor willing to go all-in on embodying a force of malevolent evil that refuses to operate by coherent or human logic. It's a spectacular performance, and her every scene turns the pressure up on Cronin's already-tight pacing. She's not going to stop until everyone else in the movie is dead, and you believe she can pull it off.

The funhouse tour

Like the other "Evil Dead" movies, I'm not sure "Rise" has much more going on under the hood other than being a good time at the movies, even as it leans in the direction of being a tale about motherhood and the responsibilities one has to their family. But does an "Evil Dead" movie need to be about something beyond craft? I don't think so. And the craft here is frequently stunning, especially the severed limbs, devoured body parts, impalings, and skin-rippings that look tangible enough to feel like practical effects but startling enough to suggest quiet digital assistance (an argument for the best of both worlds when it comes to horror gore, naturally).

Cronin knows what made the first two "Evil Dead" movies in particular work and leans into it while being unafraid to leave a new mark. While certainly darker than Raimi's films, this is, like them, a hyper-violent tour through a nightmarish funhouse that pauses only to show off something gnarly enough that you can only scream or laugh. Hey. An "Evil Dead" film through and through.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10