Evil Dead Rise: SXSW Film Review
Evil Dead Rise has plenty of gory goodness, but it fails to go above and beyond, and its storytelling doesn’t elevate it above other typical horror fare.
Okay, so when Evil Dead Rise was over at SXSW, I was thinking to myself how bad I would feel for being seemingly one of the only people who didn’t like it. I never enjoy giving films negative reviews or chastising people’s hard work, especially when it’s clear everyone else had a good time. But then, after the credits, when the cast and crew came out, someone thought it’d be oh so pleasant to curse and shout at them that the movie sucks, throw his popcorn bucket, and flip them off as he stormed away. And … suddenly I don’t feel like such a jerk anymore.
Evil Dead Rise is the fifth entry in the Evil Dead franchise, a staple of body horror that was launched with Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic. This one stands as its own contained story, shifting settings to an apartment complex where Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), a mother of three, reunites with her estranged sister Beth (Lily Sullivan). The night is harshly interrupted when one of her kids finds the Book of the Dead and accidentally unleashes an evil spirit. It takes over Ellie, forcing Beth to take charge and defend the rest of the family and neighbors from the grotesque, deranged former mother.
So, how can I be such a lousy stick in the mud when everyone else is clearly loving what they got with Evil Dead Rise? Well, let me first make it clear what I expect when going into an Evil Dead movie. I know these aren’t the strongest in story, character, or depth. Most of us who watch these movies are there for the extreme, creative carnage and gore that would have non-fans look at us and consider calling a mental hospital. Really think back to the first Evil Dead and remember how balls-to-the-wall insane it got. All the shambled body parts, all the gruesome and creative kills, all the ways it felt like it was innovating to bring us something both stomach-churningly disgusting and technically unforgettable. It has a very basic story, but the main attraction is so amazing that I don’t mind.
Even on the rare occasion when the envelope is pushed, the coolest parts are often shot in a way that’s either too dark, too cluttered, or too quick to make them out. The climax has a great concept for a monster that looks disgustingly awesome … but you almost never get a good look at it because it’s either obstructed from our view or onscreen for one second at a time. A good chunk of the mayhem is like that, and I just didn’t like the look or cinematography of Evil Dead Rise as a whole. The lighting isn’t playfully dark like the original trilogy or even depressingly dark like the 2013 reboot. It’s just … blandly dark and muted.
Normally, I’d call it superficial to complain this much about the gore in a horror film. But for one thing, when a film has the Evil Dead name attached to it, I expect more than just slightly above average kills. And for another, I would be far less picky if the story had any noticeable substance. There’s something to having the main monster be the mother and the victims her children, but it’s only played with a little. I like the idea of Beth, who wasn’t there for her sister in the past, now having to step up as the protector of the family. But that’s so scarcely touched upon that it’s essentially meaningless.
My imagination again started going much farther than the film itself. Maybe there could be some more uncomfortable family conflict before the attack. Maybe Ellie’s struggles and bitterness in raising her kids alone could be explored more before she’s possessed, making it ambiguous how much of her curse-filled taunts are from the demon and how much are her own repressed feelings. Maybe the family could start tearing itself apart and pointing blame, indicating preexisting dysfunction that’s now pushed past its limits. Yeah, that all might turn Evil Dead Rise into a borderline rip-off of Hereditary, but it’d be Hereditary with rivers of blood. I think that’d be a win.
I know it’s more important to look at films for what they are as opposed to what I’d like them to be. But I think the fact that I’m so preoccupied with all these what-ifs speaks to how underwhelming both the writing and the gore are to me. If one of those two areas were more fulfilling, I’d be fine. But Evil Dead Rise feels like any other horror/slasher I could see anywhere else, and that’s made even worse when I see so many opportunities that aren’t taken advantage of. There’s not even really that much black humor, and when it does pop up, it feels out of place with the rest of the look and tone. The score and jump-scares are also annoyingly overbearing (which would be fine if they were in service of something on par with the other movies), so I couldn’t even enjoy the atmosphere or tension.
At least I can say the actors are all great, which would be impressive on its own without considering how much they clearly had to go through. While the practical gore is the softest of the franchise, there’s still quite a lot that must have been a nightmare to shoot. A sequence in an elevator that I’ll just call Shining 2.0 looked particularly stressful and draining, which contributes to it being my favorite scene in the movie. That’s not even mentioning the rest of the crew that set it all up, got the actors in makeup, and gathered enough gallons of fake blood and vomit to fill a slaughterhouse. That, combined with hearing director Lee Cronin’s clear passion for this film, makes it unmistakably clear that a ton of effort and love went into Evil Dead Rise.
And all of that hard work seems to be paying off in regards to the initial audience reactions. Most people seem to like or love Evil Dead Rise, one particular drunken troll notwithstanding. I would love to be among them. I’ve gotten the privilege of seeing an anticipated film early, and I’d love to say it’s great and get everyone else excited leading up to its official release. That’s one of my favorite parts of going to these festivals. But I just can’t bring myself to do it for this one. I completely understand why many others would like Evil Dead Rise. It gives you exactly what it’s promising: a frenzy of heavy violence and bloodshed. I don’t even consider it a bad film. It’s just not that good. But don’t let my misgivings stop you from seeing Evil Dead Rise if you’re interested. You’ll most likely get what you’re looking for, and that’s great! All I’m here to do is hopefully help people understand why I personally didn’t.
Evil Dead Rise premiered at SXSW 2023 on March 15, and will be released in theaters on April 21, 2023.