Of all the eras in the history of horror, we’re arguably in one of the least exciting on a creative level. The Monster Movies of the 1930s and ‘40s are some of the most recognisable films from Hollywood’s Golden Age, the Slasher movement of the 70s and 80s is an almost literal treasure chest of cult classics, and even the dark age of the 90s started the found footage and metacontext movements. Aside from some fantastic original work by the likes of Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse, The Witch), and Ari Aster (Midsommar, Hereditary), we’re currently a bit lost in the wilderness of reboots, sequels and requels.
Horror franchises that live far beyond the point where they cease to be any good aren’t exactly hard to find. The problem now, though, is that they also tend to live beyond the point where they have any new ideas. This isn’t exclusive to horror, of course; a large chunk of big releases over the last few years can be accused of the same. In the past, films like Jason X and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare would at least try to do something that their respective franchises hadn’t before, even if it didn’t always amount to much of a film. Late-stage franchise additions now tend to be little more than a greatest hits set with a sentiment along the lines of “Do you remember that thing you liked? Here it is again.” Ghostbusters: Afterlife even took that as far as to show multiple YouTube clips of footage from the original Ghostbusters…
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Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise starts off in quite a difficult position because of it. There aren’t many examples of a horror franchise without any stinkers in its repertoire, but if you were forced to cite one then Evil Dead would certainly be a good candidate. From Sam Raimi’s original trilogy of cult classics to the 2013 reboot, they’re all films with tremendous individual merit. So Evil Dead Rise simultaneously carries the expectation of a series of films that have always been good previously, as well as the weight of a late-stage franchise instalment in a sea of sloppy nostalgia-bait disappointments. It does do the greatest hits set, and there are plenty of easter eggs for long-term fans to cheer and applaud for, but it balances it with so much originality that it naturally becomes a very refreshing take on a genre classic.
The story beats and aesthetic are very similar to Raimi’s original The Evil Dead, and there’s plenty of connective tissue to Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn as well. There’s still a Book of the Dead, and there’s still a recording of a priest speaking the cursed words inside which leads to chaos for everyone. This time though they’re in an urban high-rise rather than a cabin in the woods, and in a way it starts something potentially quite satisfying for horror nerds.
In Wes Craven’s film The Hills Have Eyes, there’s a scene where we can see a ripped Jaws poster, something which Raimi saw as a jab towards Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster. In retaliation, Raimi inserted a The Hills Have Eyes poster with a similar rip in the basement where The Evil Dead’s protagonist, Ash, finds the Book of the Dead. Raimi completely intended the same jab that he interpreted from Craven towards Jaws, saying that he’d intended it as a message to say “No, this is the real horror, pal.”
The back and forth continued for a number of years, with Evil Dead next making an appearance in A Nightmare on Elm Street as a TV movie that the characters never finished, which was retaliated by Freddy Krueger’s glove being hung in the tool shed of Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. The last reference that Craven was able to make before his death was in Scream, with a VHS copy sitting on top of a TV at a party where the characters choose to watch Halloween instead.
Just as Scream has moved on from Wes Craven directing films focusing on Sidney Prescott’s encounters with a masked assailant of one description or another, Evil Dead has now done the same in moving on from Sam Raimi’s stories about Ash. In a fitting twist that cements the bond between them through their legacies, Evil Dead Rise appears to be at the forefront of what’s becoming a new era in horror, arm in arm with the latest two instalments of the Scream franchise. Just like Scream, Evil Dead is continuing in a form that isn’t quite a sequel or a reboot, it’s just a continuation of the heart of where it all started. Just as interestingly though, the Evil Dead franchise specifically has begun to reflect the changing nature of what scares us. The fear of isolation through escape has now been swapped out for the bleakness of everyday normality.
The new set of characters is a modern family of three siblings headed by a lone parent. They’re living in a condemned apartment building somewhere in Los Angeles, the father of the house has walked out on them, and they haven’t found anywhere else to live yet. The dynamics between them are already a bit more complex than the traditional group of friends on a road trip, and given that this is an urban recontextualisation of the Evil Dead lore, that feels entirely appropriate. Because of its new setting it has a different challenge to other modern franchise instalments, and that’s to make it feel like an Evil Dead film in a completely new environment.
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There are some elements from the first two films that have made their way into this one to achieve that, from objects to camera angles, but for the most part, it doesn’t rely on cheap thrills to find its place in the series. It’s clearly obvious that Lee Cronin and the rest of the team behind this are fans of Raimi’s work, as they manage to do something far more meaningful in capturing the tone of the originals. The only complaint might be that it can become quite overwhelming, as it is by far the goriest Evil Dead film yet. Where Raimi’s trilogy had one or two huge moments per film, this is absolutely littered with set pieces that make the pencil-to-the-ankle sequence look relatively tame.
Evil Dead Rise is a more than worthy addition to a series of cult classics. It appears to understand exactly what made Sam Raimi’s films special, and it dials that up to a level beyond anything that the Book of the Dead has given us before. Both new fans and old will surely find enough to love about this, but in a more general sense, it’s just so refreshing to see a franchise expand in such an original way.
Evil Dead Rise is out now in cinemas.