Call it the luck of the Dead, if you will, but here's a franchise that appears to have been especially well-managed, in the main. Since Sam Raimi's original trilogy concluded in the early 1990s, the Evil Dead series has given us a solid 2013 reboot, running through a similar neck of the woods with fresh faces and an improved budget, and - better yet - the gloriously splattery Ash vs. Evil Dead for cable TV, catching us up with Bruce Campbell's series talisman. Evil Dead Rise, which presents as a further reboot, hews closer to the former than the latter (it's not really going for laughs, which is both its strength and a limitation/flaw), but what it actually suggests above all else is what an Evil Dead movie might have looked like had the series been initiated within the studio system in that window of time separating The Exorcist from Poltergeist. It's some way slicker than anything Raimi signed his name to, the money it saves on actors having been spent elsewhere on sets and state-of-the-art sound design, but it's also more of an ordeal, in a way I fear is likely to scare newcomers (and possibly even some long-term fans) off. The lakeside opening is but mere feint, frontloaded action; the bulk of the movie takes place indoors, around an expensive-looking recreation of a tumbledown apartment block marked for imminent demolition. The focus is now on a tight but lopsided family unit: two sisters (Alyssa Sutherland, who could pass for Olivia Wilde, and Lily Sullivan, who could pass for Parker Posey), three kids, one of whom stumbles across that book with the Ed Gein cover and the outré illustrations (and, in this iteration, Venus flytrap-like binding, a del Toro-ish organic flourish) while exploring the basement in the wake of an earthquake. Of course opening it proves ill-advised: the wind redoubles, the camera does that low charge across the ground that Raimi encoded in the series' DNA, and we wind up with an Evil Dead movie in a setting just different enough from what's gone before to get at least the suits interested.
The writer-director is the Irishman Lee Cronin, and the film is at its strongest early on, when demonstrating what Cronin learnt on his impressive 2019 breakthrough The Hole in the Ground. The opening half-hour sets up a promisingly gnarly, fraying set of relationships - and that earthquake generates another, literal rupture - while pulling the franchise in the direction of a new dynamic. Instead of Raimi's solitary, indomitable, overburdened and underqualified hero - and don't forget Campbell was just about all the series could afford back then - we now have a group of concerned women of various ages attempting to pull one another out of the void. Pity, then, that the second half only makes one wonder what the point of this extended set-up was. The film doesn't get any deeper for it; the women are allowed flickers of personality, but mostly remain empty vessels, to be possessed, bashed about and finally reduced to offal. Carnage takes priority over character development. If you're showing up purely for that, you'll be fine, but even here, it's clear there's been some kind of trade-off. Bringing the Evil Deads indoors ups the intensity, while losing the wildness and fun. Cronin evidently has the technical clout, keeping his widescreen frames busy, and his details (flies on eyeballs, cheesegraters on legs) suggest very precise storyboarding. Yet he hasn't as yet got Raimi's flair and showmanship. Instead, Evil Dead Rise finds itself possessed by a deadening fanboy seriousness that expects to elicit applause for having the characters chant "dead by dawn" at a pivotal juncture, and for engineering the kind of slavishly obvious Kubrick homage for which critics used to deduct stars back in the day. Points for spraying multiplex screens with more grue than they've witnessed for many years; points off for being so grimly mechanical about it.
Evil Dead Rise is now playing in cinemas nationwide.