Thursday, April 27, 2023

Rise Rules

From today's perspective, it's odd to remember that, for a long time, The Evil Dead existed only as a trilogy, a cult trilogy at that, one whose audience was once deemed to be so microscopically niche that the marketing for Army of Darkness was based on the belief of Universal Studios that it even wasn't worth acknowledging its connection to the previous two films. For many years it was generally accepted by fans that after 1992, we had seen our last Deadite and that we'd have to be satisfy our Evil Dead itch going forward by dutifully buying each new Special Edition of each film in the trilogy on every new home video format. Sure, there was always the hope that Ash would return in an Evil Dead 4 but it seemed more far likely that AoD marked the end of the road for all things Evil Dead, save perhaps in comics and games. 

But proving that nothing Evil ever dies, there was the Fede Alvarez big screen reboot in 2013, shepherded into existence by producers Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell, a movie that revived the hardcore spirit of the original in grand, gory fashion, followed by three seasons of Ash vs. Evil Dead on Starz from 2015 to 2018 that gave us more Ash than the movies could have ever given us and here we are in 2023 with yet more big screen ED action with Evil Dead Rise. What was once three films with a devoted cult following is now a still-thriving franchise. Not just still thriving but arguably, pound for pound, the finest modern horror franchise. We'll see that be put to the test if they start to pump out movies with more frequency but for now, you've got five movies and three seasons of a TV show without a single miss in the bunch. Whether you put Evil Dead Rise towards the top or the bottom of your ED rankings, it still kicks ass because they all kick ass.  

Arriving in theaters on the heels of the not bad but kind of ho-hum possession yarn The Pope's Exorcist, Evil Dead Rise is a masterclass in showing 'em how it's done. Director Lee Cronin picks up the gauntlet from Fede Alvarez and confidently puts his own bloody stamp on the ED franchise. As a horror fan who remembers the battles genre filmmakers fought throughout the '80s with the MPAA and how neutered much of the splatter output of the '80s was, it will never not seem crazy to me how much bloodshed a R rating can get away with now. For whatever reason, the MPAA long ago straight up stopped giving a shit about graphic violence and horror fans are reaping the benefits. I know some horror fans find gore to be a bore and, hey, that's fair but these recent ED films aren't made for that crowd. 

No, Evil Dead Rise is a movie designed to cater to gorehounds who bought their ticket secure in the knowledge that the people involved in making this movie weren't going to waste time getting cute with them or tease shit and then not deliver. This is a movie made for the crowd who, when they spot a tree mulcher in the background of a scene early on, know full well that the next time they see it, someone's going to be getting fed into it. Some might shrug at the promise of that kind of carnage and it's safe to say that if splatter isn't your thing, or if you just feel like you've already had enough to last a lifetime, Evil Dead Rise won't be your kind of party. For those whose enthusiasm for gore remains insatiable, though, EDR is cause for celebration. As an old school gorehound who always lamented the way that chainsaw mayhem was always teased in movies like Motel Hell, Pieces, and The Evil Dead but never really shown, I have to say I find the explicit chainsaw related gore in the modern ED's to be very satisfying to behold. Hey, we've all got our things, right?   

At this point, Evil Dead is a series comprised of five movies that form two trilogies. The first trilogy consists of the 1983 original, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. There the emphasis is on Ash and his adventures against the Deadites. The other trilogy is the original, the 2013 ED and now Evil Dead Rise and in that trilogy the star of the show is the Necronomicon itself. That evil tome is the linking device across those films and if you just watch those three, it's about people encountering that book and unleashing hell upon themselves and everyone in the immediate perimeter. 

In retrospect, the original has only become perceived as campy because of the turn towards comedy in Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness but that was not how The Evil Dead was seen in '83. Back then, it was serious hardcore horror, devoid of laughs (but not devoid of fun!) and I love that the two recent films have reclaimed that OG ED vibe. I love Ash and I love the splatstick humor of Evil Dead 2 and AoD (and the TV series) but I also love that Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell have been able to make Evil Dead a viable ongoing franchise without Ash while still being completely true to the "dead by dawn" spirit of the original. If we keep getting more movies like this where the Necronomicon wrecks havoc in different locations (and perhaps even different times!), I'm all for it. 

Most point to the change in location from a cabin in the woods to a apartment building in LA as being the big shake up in Evil Dead Rise but while that is notable, I think the bigger change is in having a family in peril. Sure, we've seen adult siblings pitted against each other, caught up in the throes of demonic possession but this stuff hits very differently when you see a mother and her three young children going through it. It's emotionally grueling and disturbing in a way that no previous Evil Dead movie has been. 

We spend enough time with Alyssa Sutherland as single mom Ellie and Gabrielle Echols as older daughter Bridget, Morgan Davies as brother Danny and Nell Fisher as the youngest sibling, Cassie, to feel genuinely horrified when this family literally starts ripping each other apart. Even though you know going in that this is where the movie is likely to go, it's still unsettling to see kids being tormented by their possessed mom and in turn being possessed themselves and trying to butcher their siblings. Beyond the bloodletting, it's strong stuff on a character level. Lily Sullivan as Ellie's sister Beth rises to the challenge of being the latest ED hero to stand against the Deadites and in true ED fashion, grows stronger through suffering. 

I know some fans balk at seeing Evil Dead becoming a slick commercial vehicle but Evil Dead was never art house stuff. It was always intended to be commercial. It's just that the audience for this type of material has grown beyond the cult cul-de-sac over the years, where what was once considered the extreme edge of horror has become more acceptable, and with decades of experience under their belts, Raimi, Tapert and Campbell have developed expert eyes for knowing what Evil Dead needs to be. They're doing a great job of bringing the right directors in and the loosening of the MPAA has meant that these new movies can go even farther than the original while still getting a R rating that allows them to play to a wider audience. It's impossible to have a new Evil Dead with the same raw energy of the original. What Evil Dead is now is a Book of the Dead that's still being written, chapter by bloody chapter.  

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