Motherhood is a bloody nightmare in Lee Cronin’s confident addition to the horror franchise

Evil Dead Rise

Source: Warner Bros

‘Evil Dead Rise’

Dir/scr: Lee Cronin. US. 2023. 97mins

As Evil Dead Rise opens, we are hurtling through an isolated forest, the camera just off the ground, the ominous (and, to fans, familiar) drone of the soundtrack suggesting we are riding on the back of some malevolent force. This first person POV has been used to terrific effect throughout this demonic possession franchise which kicked off with Sam Raimi’s original in 1981  — and it’s a gleefully familiar note on which to begin this latest instalment. With this story of two estranged sisters who come up against an ancient evil in an LA apartment block, Irish writer/director Lee Cronin entertainingly updates the formula with confidence while remaining true to what has come before. 

Genuinely scary and unapologetically gory

Raimi’s original trilogy, which also includes Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), has remained popular enough to spawn a video game, comic books, a musical and a TV show, Ash Vs Evil Dead. Fede Alverez’s 2013 refresh, Evil Dead, took over $97m at the international box office. It’s likely that Evil Dead Rise, which premiered in SXSW and opens in multiple territories on April 21, will be at least as successful, particularly given the evergreen appeal of this franchise and the current appetite for big screen horror evidenced by Scream IV and Smile. The fact that this film is genuinely scary and unapologetically gory will also help positive word of mouth. 

That opening forest sequence — featuring its own arrestingly off-kilter cabin in the woods, a nod to the original’s setting — proves to be a brief but unsettling prologue, after which the action jumps back 24 hours. In a grimy rock club bathroom, guitar technician Beth (Lily Sullivan) discovers she is pregnant; an unexpected turn of events which sends her back to LA and the reassuring arms of her older sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland). Yet Ellie is undergoing her own crisis: her husband has recently left her and her three children, Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and angelic youngest, Kassie (Nell Fisher), while her home is about to be demolished. 

Ellie’s atmospheric apartment — housed in a former bank — is the self-contained setting for all that follows, and production designer Nick Bassett effectively utilises the building’s shadowy, claustrophobic nooks and crannies. (The rundown flat, with its cracks and peeling paint, has much in common with Raimi’s original low-budget approach.) The film leans heavily into the terror of a personal sanctuary turned bloody battleground, with everyday items — scissors, frying pans, cheese graters — becoming weapons of war. There are also myriad nods here to Evil Dead’s roots; elevator cables as restraints, for example, recall the woodland vines of the original. And Dave Garnett’s camerawork, including shallow focus disguising background horrors and a well-used fish-eye door peephole, echoes Raimi’s inventive visual style. 

Evil Dead Rise takes this home invasion idea one step further, the horror infiltrating not only the building, but the most sacred thing in it — a parent. When an earthquake uncovers the bank’s old vaults, Danny investigates and discovers the ancient Book Of The Dead and some old vinyl records. When played (of course), the records summon an ancient evil which quickly possesses Ellie, turning her from loving mother to psychotic demon bent on consuming the souls of her children. “Don’t let it take my babies” Ellie implores Beth in an early, fleeting moment of lucidity. Beth is going to have her work cut out keeping that promise.

The severing of the sacred bond between mother and child is familiar fodder for genre films like Goodnight Mommie, Mom And Dad and The Babadook. Cronin himself trod similar ground, albeit reversed, in his assured 2019 feature debut The Hole In The Ground, in which a mother becomes convinced her young son has been somehow altered. Cronin confidently upscales these themes for this high-profile second feature, his screenplay toying with ideas of maternity that go deeper than the blunt premise of a demonic mother attempting to kill her own children.

Indeed, the whole thing is underpinned by the suggestion that — whisper it – caring for children is its own kind of possession, that it takes over your life and consumes your identity even at the best of times. Beth is fuelled by anxiety that she will be unable to be a good parent, fears her sister plays upon while also jeering about the failings of their own mother. The suggestion is that bad motherhood runs in the blood. Demon Ellie also tells her children with some relish that her horrifying fate offers something of a “freedom from all you titty-sucking parasites” — extreme, sure, but a sentiment that’s undeniably rooted in largely unspoken truth. 

While the film may pull at the psychological threads of motherhood, it is largely knitted in far more overt horror tropes. To that end, Ellie’s demonic transformation is fantastically handled, excellent effects and make-up work combining with Sutherlands’ own physicality to genuinely disturbing effect. The trio of kids are also great, shouldering the immense emotions of this situation with believable sibling chemistry; blame and resentment bubbling under their fear and grief.

Stepping into the role of demon-slayer, Sullivan proves a worthy predecessor to Bruce Campbell’s beloved OG hero Ash. Her vulnerable loner Beth finds an unexpected new purpose over the course of the film - to shake off the demons (both of the past and the right-now), protect these children and embrace an uncertain future. That she does it all while pregnant, largely covered in blood and, in the film’s most satisfying fan-friendly nod, brandishing a chainsaw turns her into an instant horror icon.

Production companies: Pacific Renaissance, Wild Atlantic Pictures

International distribution: Warner Bros

Producers: Rob Tapert

Cinematography: Dave Garbett

Production design: Nick Bassett

Editor Bryan Shaw

Music: Stephen McKeon

Main cast: Lily Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland, Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols, Nell Fisher