I’m on a hunt for the scariest movies of all time! I’ll be looking at films of any era, from any country, and then reviewing them based solely on how terrifying they are.
If you have a suggestion for a horror movie, please let me know on Twitter.
Please be advised, spoilers may lie ahead!!
Evil Dead Rise (2023)
Director: Lee Cronin
Starring: Lily Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland
The Evil Dead franchise, much like the Deadites at the heart of it all, has the occasional tendency to rise from the grave once more to have another go at things in gory, bloody fashion.
Following a soft reboot in 2013, the chainsaws would fall silent for a further decade before it re-emerged this year with Evil Dead Rise, the fifth instalment that follows several of the same trends while ultimately setting off on its own course.
A single glance at the trailer would reveal that this will be a suitably gruesome affair, but does it come correct with the kind of dread and despair that only a wicked possession could provide? Let’s dive in.
The latest edition is centered around a single mother and her three children living in a condemned apartment complex in Los Angeles. Her groupie guitar technician sister chooses an unfortunate time to visit, as an earthquake unearths a strange book alongside various phonographs containing strange, troubling narration.
From there, you know what happens. The Deadites are just itching for someone to spout those incantations again, like the goblins eagerly awaiting their cue to kidnap an infant in Labyrinth. As tongue-in-cheek as that parallel was intended to be, it’s actually a lot more apt than you might think.
If there’s one thing that is critical to an Evil Dead movie, it is an oppressive atmosphere that feels suffocating and inescapable. A jank-ass apartment in L.A. may not sound as spooky as an isolated cabin, but visually, it’s an absolute environmental home run. Even before you throw the demons into the mix, it never feels particularly safe or accomodating, revealing that the formula can work in a range of different locations.
An early hurdle that tripped me up, however, was my lack of association with any of the characters. I didn’t find them to be especially likeable or interesting, presenting a conundrum when the shit eventually hit the fan: I’ve trotted this line out time and time again that I’m trying to separate what’s scary from what’s good, but so often the latter is necessary for the former to apply.
To wit, if I didn’t care about these protagonists when their lives were of mediocre poverty, I won’t care significantly more when their lives are of hellish torment.
Then, the downtrodden mother (Sutherland) gets infested with the Deadite curse. She absolutely dazzles with her performance, showcasing a range of facial expressions and bodily contortions that make it worth the price of admission.
With that being said, however, although she does the scary possession schtick fabulously, I’d argue that the portrayal fails to tread any new ground. We’ve seen this before — multiple times in Evil Dead alone, let alone the genre as a whole — so for the intrigue to be sustained, it has to raise the stakes somehow. Give us a little more to chew on, as it were.
This is where Evil Dead Rise ultimately fails to captivate me as a viewer. We get a near-immediate descent into snarling beast territory, without anywhere to go from there beyond constant attacks, attempted mind games, and a trite slaughter of the auxiliary characters.
It stands to reason that this should all be quite chilling, but again, it simply doesn’t evolve or grow beyond graphic and sometimes wince-inducing violence. There’s no resonance, no stakes, just rahh rahh monster mommy go brrrrr for the next hour or so.
By the time the possession begins to spread from one family member to the next, it’s more of the same. Again, this is not intended as a slight on the performances of the cast here, it’s just my expression of dismay over a premise never kicking past first gear.
The Evil Dead sequels, which strayed further into slapstick comedy as the runtime progressed, carried more of a sense of purpose than this. Each new threat that was introduced was much unlike the ones that preceded it; Henrietta alone has two very distinct forms she shows off over the course of Evil Dead II.
It isn’t subtle or pensive, but it’s certainly tense, which is a word I would not attach to Evil Dead Rise.
As I so often do, after I consolidated my thoughts on this film, I explored the realm of public opinion. Why did I not find it scary, was there something I was missing?
Before long, I happened upon an article by Vincent Cotroneo with a viewpoint diametrically opposed to my own. Equipped with the title ‘What Makes Evil Dead Rise So Scary and Traumatizing?‘, I knew this was exactly what I was looking for; an expression of what worked for others, that did not work for me.
He summates his argument by stating “What makes this film so scary and traumatizing is its dedication to the screenplay and adding relatable characters. It does not take much time to set expositional information. Once the incantation is heard, we are exposed to explosive horror.”
Beyond my difference of opinion on the relatability of these characters, I’m fascinated to see that what he cites as a a positive vehicle for horror is perhaps what stripped my viewing of its edge. It is, as he notes, light on expositional information, jumping from said incantation into explosive horror.
But in my eyes, that payoff of horror never feels deserved. It’s a sustained series of violent acts that constantly bumps its head on the ceiling it sets for itself. After you’ve already seen a knife plunged through the hand, any variation of assault becomes downright plodding.
Were it not for the bizarre and interesting final form the Deadite morphs into — an eldritch monstrosity that is visually quite striking — I would have felt no guilt in assigning yet another zero points on the scare-o-metre, lumping Evil Dead Rise with other horror non-factors like Pet Sematary Two, Demonic Toys, and Resident Evil.
Disagree with me if you will, I just feel like this should have been a whole lot scarier.
Despite fundamentally attempting to be a horror film, I would much sooner delineate Evil Dead Rise as a particularly grisly action flick. It sets its spurs in early, stubbornly rotating around the same central theme and then signing off.
It has all of the trappings of the franchise and bucketloads of blood, so it ought to prove gratifying for those who can’t get enough of that trademark Deadite gore. Its change of setting was a welcome change, but it fell back into old habits while somehow shrinking creatively.
I would ultimately dismiss it as just some red stuff that happens. The psychology is completely absent.