This article appeared in the April 27, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here

Evil Dead Rise (Lee Cronin, 2023)

The cheeky cutaway to a dog-eared copy of A Farewell to Arms in Evil Dead II (1987) was a perfect emblem for Sam Raimi’s anything-for-a-laugh unpretentiousness in his splatter landmark—less a literary reference than a joke on the very concept of literary references, with Ernest Hemingway’s elegiac title recontextualized into a gory bit of gallows humor. It’s a sight gag worthy of the glory days of The Simpsons, except that Raimi and his trusty leading man Bruce Campbell—the one fated to wave goodbye to a disappeared appendage—got there first.

Evil Dead Rise, the latest entry in the now five-film franchise (which has also spawned myriad TV and video-game extensions) features a cameo by a paperback of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights—an homage to both Raimi’s enduring sight gag and the larger Gothic tradition into which this film, directed by Lee Cronin, interjects itself with a good-natured rictus grin. The book appears (and is read aloud from) during a prologue set in a proverbial Cabin in the Woods, which plays—purposefully and welcomely—like a double-speed compendium of Raimi’s greatest hits (jump scares, grievous bodily harm, and the like). The action then relocates to an ancient high-rise teetering precariously above downtown Los Angeles, a world apart from Brontë’s moors but still lonely, windswept, and conducive to ghosts. And just as the hero of Wuthering Heights suffers the consequences of desecrating a grave, Cronin’s characters are punished for exhuming things better left buried—specifically, the flesh-bound, blood-inked volume known to series fans as the Necronomicon, whose incantations have the power to raise hell.

The exact means by which the book’s dark powers are unleashed is one of several novel innovations in Cronin’s script, which offers the pleasures of surface variations while staying resolutely on beat. Obviously, the urban setting is a change of pace for a series that’s typically stayed lakeside (save for a detour to the Arthurian Middle Ages in 1992’s Army of Darkness), and the mise en scène is used well: when fortysomething divorced mom Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) gets overwhelmed by the demonic Deadites en route to the building’s laundry room—about 25 minutes into the gratifyingly swift film—she’s ensnared by elevator cables whose choreography recalls the grabby tree branches of the 1981 original. The queasy iconography of a bound, writhing woman as a helpless receptacle for a malevolent entity belongs to Raimi, but as in 2013’s effective Fede Álvarez–directed reboot, Evil Dead, here there’s far more emphasis on—and empathy for—the person who’s been lost in the process. (For Álvarez, it was the phenomenal Jane Levy, who delivered a tour de force of dissociated terror.) We see just enough of pre-possession Ellie to recognize her as both an ornery, self-styled survivor and an authentically Cool Mom™; taking in her wayward, secretly pregnant guitar-tech sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), she’s duly supportive without eschewing skeptical humor (or a few long-simmering resentments). We not want to see her suffer, and when she reappears after her laundry-room ordeal in saucer-eyed, zombified form, she cuts a tragically menacing figure: a lonely ghoul who tells her three bewildered children that she’d like to cut them up and climb inside them so they can be a family again.

Given Evil Dead Rise’s claustrophobic setting and complete seclusion from the outside world, the question facing the characters—as well as the filmmakers—is how long the humans can reasonably hold out against a wall-climbing, physically impervious monster before taking on casualties or straining credibility. Cronin, whose 2019 feature debut The Hole in the Ground delivered a few good brute-force shocks within a derivative horror framework, displays admirable ruthlessness in answering it: nobody is safe, and not everybody makes it out alive. If the main gambit of both his film and Álvarez’s is to inject some wounded humanity into the proceedings—as opposed to the Raimi original, which milked Campbell’s existential punching-bag persona—Evil Dead Rise gets closer to squeezing real feelings out of the scenario without ever going soft on the gory trappings. It may seem perverse to offer a filmmaker kudos for plausibly imperiling—and then impaling—underage characters, but the carnage feels sanctioned by the rules of the franchise and the gleeful tastelessness of the staging, which peaks during a supremely gnarly set piece involving a cheese-grater.

Such self-consciously revolting moments—including also a late bit of business with a wood-chipper indebted to Fargo (1996)are, of course, the point of an exercise like Evil Dead Rise. And as exercises go, it’s a limber one, slickly assured without feeling impersonal, and funny without putting every other line reading in italics. It’s also a showcase for some very good actresses. In addition to Sutherland’s affectingly mournful comportment, which keeps switching into snarky bursts of emotional terrorism, Sullivan has a steady, grounding presence, and she navigates the film’s most action-packed passages with athletic aplomb. A certain amount of fan service is de rigueur in a movie like this, and Sullivan maintains her dignity amidst it: when Beth finally mouths Campbell’s most famous (and, it should be said, most Hemingwayesque) one-liner, it feels right. It’s as if the chainsaw she’s picked up is actually a torch, and she’s ready to keep running with it from here.

Adam Nayman is a critic, lecturer, and author based in Toronto. His latest book, David Fincher: Mind Games, is available from Abrams Books.