The spirit of the original trilogy of “Evil Dead” films is on display in Irish writer and director Lee Cronin’s reboot “Evil Dead Rise” which moves the horror from an isolated cabin in the woods to a seedy high-rise in Los Angeles. It’s scary as hell with gruesome Deadite makeup, practical effects, and small increments of humor, deadpan not slapstick, proving it’s a blood relative of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell’s brood. Biological horror yet with its own identity that feels fresh giving fans the opportunity to fall in love with the franchise all over again.

Lee Cronin’s debut feature, 2019’s “The Hole in the Ground” dealt with a strong mother-child bond, an isolated wooded area, and the fear of possession. You can see why Raimi hand-picked the Irish filmmaker to take the “Evil Dead” franchise for a spin. The 2013 film by Fede Alvarez was effective with memorable scenes, yet it resembled a remake, not a reboot. The characters were different but the déjà vu atmosphere, which never reached its full potential, felt like “Evil Dead”-light.

Cronin takes the strongest elements from the first film in the series, “The Evil Dead” (1981), and uses them as a base for his interpretation of Raimi’s story. The film opens in familiar territory, an isolated cabin in the woods occupied by young adults. When the parasitic demon shows up with David Blaine’s mind-reading skills (“Wuthering Heights” substituted for a deck of cards) you know the horror is about to go from 0 to 100, and it does. The scene serves as an introduction and the film’s ending, as the timeline jumps back 24 hours, and the setting moves to a high-rise (which resembles the Flatiron Building) in Los Angeles.

Ellie (Alysa Sutherland) is a single mom and tattoo artist (her husband recently split) raising three kids, an activist, Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), a DJ, Danny (Morgan Davies), and an adorable little girl named Kassie (Nell Fisher) who beheads her doll Stephanie and turns it into a totem named Staffanie. It’s a hip family.

Before the demons come a-knockin’, Ellie’s estranged younger sister Beth (Lily Sullivan) shows up. She’s a guitar tech who just got off a tour (this family gets cooler by the minute), and Cronin’s version of Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams. The sibling theme recalls the original 1981 film that featured Ash’s sister Cheryl. When Ellie was dealing with her husband bailing, she reached out to her younger sis several times for support, but the calls went to voicemail and Beth never replied. So, when Beth shows up needing a little support, there is noticeable tension in the air.

An earthquake strikes, ripping a hole in the foundation which uncovers a secret basement in the apartment building that used to be a bank. Danny decides to crawl into the hole where he discovers the vault room which resembles a church with a huge crucifix (and many smaller ones) guarding the dreaded Necronomicon or Book of the Dead whose incantations can summon demons. He swipes it along with a stack of vinyl records featuring 1923 recordings of a priest’s interaction with the ancient text (voiced by the one and only Bruce Campbell) and takes them back to the apartment. You can guess what happens next. Let’s just say, he should have stuck with spinning New Order’s “Blue Monday” or maybe other “less-evil” vinyl like Skinny Puppy’s “Dig It.”

While Cronin makes subtle changes to Raimi’s story, vinyl instead of audio tapes and wires instead of tree branches, there are plenty of franchise staples to comfort fans including a chainsaw and Beth’s evolution into a viable adversary against the Deadites; she even spouts the famous Ash phrase, “Come Get Some.” There are other Easter eggs in the film including flying eyeballs plus the phrases “Dead by dawn” and “I’ll swallow your soul” (all “Evil Dead II” references).

The “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise gets a nod when neighbor kids Jake (Billy Reynolds-McCarthy) and Scott (Tai Wano) invite Ellie’s kids over to watch a Freddy Krueger marathon noting there are no bad entries in the franchise. And finally, Cronin must be a huge fan of Kubrick’s “The Shinning” as an elevator filled with blood makes it into the film and then there’s the bathroom scene where a possessed Ellie spouts lines that include “Mommy’s with the maggots now” that is reminiscent of Lorraine Massey in the Overlook Hotel’s Room 237.

“Evil Dead Rise” moves into total chaos once Ellie becomes possessed with Cronin quickly establishing a “no one is safe” motif that includes children and pets (poor Jonesy). A cheese grater becomes a weapon (hard to watch), and soon a whole army of Deadites are plaguing the family showcasing the grisly prosthetics and practical effects with Cronin using CGI to enhance the Deadites’ eyes.

The claustrophobic apartment setting raises the tension to an all-time high and there is a terrific POV peephole scene that lets the audience watch Deadite Ellie deal with her neighbors. Most of the horror happens off-screen but once the action moves from the apartment to the hallway, we get to witness the carnage firsthand. The hallway scene pays homage to “Evil Dead II” and when you see a victim getting their eyeball munched on just remember it’s the same sound that Bruce Campbell makes while eating an apple (yes, he’s also a talented Foley artist).

Alyssa Sutherland and Lily Sullivan deliver spirited performances, but it’s the film’s youngest actor Nell Fisher as Kassie, who gets a special acknowledgment for being the film’s badge of innocence in dealing with such horrifying events. Watching her being put through the wringer is heart-wrenching and Fisher’s natural response to the horror stirs up empathy while keeping the audience grounded in the story’s domestic roots.

Spiritually, “Evil Dead Rise” is closer to Sam Raimi’s trilogy than Fede Álvarez’s 2013 film, yet writer-director Lee Cronin brilliantly gives the audience a fresh perspective on the source material. Under 1,717 gallons of fake blood, the characters manage to stand out with a new Ash emerging from all the ickiness. A Cronin sequel is warranted combining the film’s ending with the beginning which was really the ending and so let’s start from there. “Groovy.”

(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theatres

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