Evil Dead Rise Is the Nastiest Movie in the Franchise’s History

Movies
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This article contains Evil Dead Rise spoilers.

In 1982, Sam Raimi’s innocently titled The Evil Dead attempted to cross the Atlantic and find greener pastures in UK cinemas. What the movie instead discovered was the humorlessness of the British Board of Film Classification. There the film’s lurid imagery of possessed flesh being obliterated by axes, chainsaws, and even a tree branch in one especially grotesque sequence, was perceived as the very definition of obscene.

To receive an “X” rating in the UK, Raimi and company eventually agreed to shave off 49 seconds of grossness. That fight would be small potatoes though when compared to what happened after the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Organization, a pro-censorship group, got their hands on the VHS. Practically off the back of Evil Dead alone, the Video Recordings Act was passed in ‘84. The Evil Dead’s UK videotapes were removed from circulation until a further 66 seconds of the movie were exorcized, and a heavily censored version could be re-released under a new unofficial classification (as per the NVALA): It was a “video nasty.”

Ever since then, Evil Dead has been synonymous as a franchise with splatterfest imagery and violence so gratuitous that its depravity is the stuff of legend. And yet, no movie in the series has really challenged the first Evil Dead’s grotesquerie in the ensuing decades. Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992) were increasingly comedic premises where the gruesome turned into the goofy. Meanwhile Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake of 2013 came closer to that original sensibility by playing things a lot more sinister. Yet while I’m a fan of how hard that movie goes, it still can never be quite as shocking as the ’81 original because it’s once again about a group of twentysomethings in a cabin in the woods being massacred by demons. Plus, you’re allowed to take things only so far in a movie rated R by the American ratings board.

Then again, maybe you’re not? That was certainly part of my takeaway after watching Lee Cronin’s delightfully cruel Evil Dead Rise, a movie so malevolent, mean-spirited, and gory that its rating suggests the NC-17 rating has been retired (unless your film dares have too much nudity). Truly, Evil Dead Rise is a thoroughly depraved and fucked up piece of work, and possibly the nastiest thing the franchise has seen in the last 40 years.

On the surface, that isn’t necessarily a surprise. Like Evil Dead (2013), it features all the hallmarks of the series: innocent fools who dared open the Book of the Dead being possessed by demons from hell; those possessed bodies (or “Deadites”) then reveal a wicked sense of humor as they sing ditties like “dead by dawn;” and finally bodies are dismembered, usually by chainsaw.

Nonetheless, what makes Evil Dead Rise just a little sicker than the 2013 film and, perhaps even Raimi’s original video nasty, is who is transforming into those Deadites and what then happens to them. The young people of Alvarez’s 2013 movie are more plausibly believable as human beings than Raimi’s original cast. That time, they were out there to help a friend who was struggling with addiction, as opposed to being there to share booze and sex. Still, the film is playing in the sandbox of horror movie conventions and clichés that were already old hat in 1981: a group of nubile young people go to the woods and get massacred. The setup in Evil Dead joints has always been an excuse to reveal inventive and even innovative filmmaking while slaughtering a fresh-faced ensemble.

Evil Dead Rise, however, goes to a much darker and twisted place. Instead of the “fresh meat” being a jock and a nerd, or a reductive rift on the whore and the virgin paradigm, here we have a mother and her three children. A wounded and sad family struggling to get by. Even after the red-band trailers for Cronin’s movie, I went in skeptical that Rise could (or should) be as brutal as any of the earlier pictures in the series. All the marketing gave away that poor Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), the single mother of three, would be possessed by demons and taunt her children by saying, “Mommy is with the maggots now.”

But the unwritten rule of horror is that the kids are almost always safe. Inverting a bond as universally sacred as that between a parent and child is disturbingly perverse, but even Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick knew where to draw the line in their respective versions of The Shining, a story about a father who ultimately tries to murder his son with an axe (or croquet mallet in the book). Kubrick and King concluded that it’s hideous enough to see the threat of a murderous father on a rampage after the child, and rivers of blood flooding out from the elevator. Still, they have the good taste to never let Jackie Torrance or that bloody waterfall consume the kid.

By contrast, Evil Dead Rise is utterly tasteless. Happily so.

As soon Cronin’s 2023 film introduces a coterie of neighbors and acquaintances for Ellie’s family, the movie lulls the most jaded viewers like myself into a sense of complacency: Here is the film’s cannon fodder. And sure enough, those tertiary characters die screaming. It’s a mockingly self-aware subversion, though, that possessed Ellie eviscerates them off-screen, with her sister Auntie Beth (Lily Sullivan) and the audience struggling to glimpse the carnage through an apartment door’s peephole as an entire tenement floor is sent home to Jesus (or the other place).

These characters add to the bodycount, but they’re not the source of the film’s main sense of horror. Rather Evil Dead Rise prefers going there—breaking a taboo that neither Kubrick or even Aliens-era James Cameron would dream of: It kills the kids. Not only does it kill the children, but it makes their corruption and eventual mutilation the result of a mother’s, err, affection. It’s also treated as a punchline in humor darker than a moonless night.

This begins with poor Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), the teenage daughter of Ellie and the audience surrogate who tells her brother Danny (Morgan Davies) not to take the Book of the Dead from that bank vault or to open it. She’s thus the first kid to be damned to the fires of hell. When her mother attacks, she initially comes close to losing an eye. Instead she is left with a scar across the cheek.

This would be the typical “close call” in wide release American horror movies…. and yet that nick across the face festers, molders, and within a few scenes is spreading over the rest of her body as she’s vomiting maggots in the kitchen. By the time her aunt discovers something is wrong, she’s chewing on a wine glass, vividly swallowing sharp broken shards while saying in a snickering demonic voice, “I have to kill the creepy-crawlies in my tummy.”

Next, Danny, as the dimwit who opened the Book of the Dead, is soon butchered by his sister and likewise comes back as a Deadite. And through it all, the youngest child, Kassie (Nell Fisher), lives to see her mother, her sister, and then her last remaining sibling turn into rotting ghouls cackling at the prospect of dismembering her.

The film, fortuitously, doesn’t go so far as to kill the youngest child, but all sorts of questions about psychological damage and therapy are raised. Evil Dead Rise even sinks to submerging the kid and her aunt in a full Kubrickian blood bath before it gushes out of an elevator, and the little girl then seeing her mother and siblings turned into a Cronenberg-like monstrosity of intermingled flesh that Aunt Beth winds up chainsawing and kicking into a metal-shredder. 

The violence of this climax is so over-the-top, so garishly blood-soaked that it left several colleagues visibly shaken. And I’ll concede this much to their complaints: there is certainly something to be said about the merits of tact… unless you’re watching an Evil Dead movie.

It’s the movie’s unapologetic ugliness that I think makes this a standout addition to the Deadite mythos. No one’s ever comes to these movies for their intricate plotting or character work; they’re here for the ruthlessness. And Evil Dead Rise has no mercy when it develops the characters just enough to make this feel like a real family.

Before Evil Dead Rise, Cronin’s sole feature-length effort was The Hole in the Ground (2019), a solid if aloof A24 horror that was lumped by critics into the questionable box labeled “elevated horror.” With his continued interest in character work by his actors, some might be reminded of that alleged movement currently going on in the genre. There are certainly more psychologically-tinged chillers eager to explore family dynamics these days, and in such efforts the death of a child might entreat the viewer to consider the existential despair of life on a Calvinist farm, or perhaps the horrors of an American family unit enduring mourning, guilt, and recrimination.

In Evil Dead Rise, it’s used purely, gleefully, to repulse the audience and taunt you. The movie is like a demon vomiting on the boundary lines drawn by those who might insist movies must have morals—if not a nationalized censorship board. It may never be released on a VHS cassette tape, but the story crafted by Evil Dead Rise just put some genuinely nasty video out into the world.

The post Evil Dead Rise Is the Nastiest Movie in the Franchise’s History appeared first on Den of Geek.

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