Needles & Boxcutters

Evil Dead Rise (2023)

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

There used to be a show on MTV called Scarred that, more than the skid-mark chicanery of Jackass or Wildboyz, augmented my childhood sense of decorum and propriety with footage of dudes breaking their bodies in pursuit of some arbitrary sense of accomplishment. Scarred’s format followed that of more family-friendly programming like America’s Funniest Home Videos: tethered by a countdown structure, the show played clips of amateur daredevils, usually skateboarders, biffing it in gruesome detail. Shin bones regularly punctured skin, blood like barbecue sauce congealing around not-quite ripped tissue that bruised and swelled. A leg or an arm would be straight in one shot, then bent at the wrong 90-degree angle in the next. There was an always-dim bedroom in the afterschool hours that belonged to a childhood friend and a TV that, in the loop of my memory, solely played episodes of Scarred

This was 2009, if I had to put a year to it, an era primed for some of the dumbest, most irritating post-9/11 posturing from every imaginable angle. The halflife of Eli Roth’s high-profile provocations were still fresh, Hostel: Part II (2007) and Alexander Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) among works representing the ever-present shit-eating grin of a group of filmmakers dubbed the “Splat Pack.” It’s easy now to retroactively diagnose the American media diet with flashpoints of War on Terror-adjacent artistic heavy-handedness and desensitized violence. Living as a kid through this period, I just remember an overbearingly monotonous cinematic aesthetic: dingy basements, rusted metal, yellowed color palettes, gristle, liberal helpings of corn-syrup blood. There were points being made, apparently, but most of it was background noise. 

By contrast, Scarred felt more real, and it wasn’t only because the footage shown was shot on DV camcorders. We got up to the same kind of laddish idiocy that we saw—“we” being me and a ring of friends that never stayed the same for long, the “same” really being light variations of far more dangerous stunts. Our wrists got sprained. A knee was always scabbing over. Maybe there was a stitch or two. No one got rushed to the emergency room. 

It’s funny to think about one’s childhood this way, as a site of a different kind of innocence than doe-eyed naïveté. At the time, it felt as if our group of boys was both aware of and ambivalent toward the limits of our bodies. We knew we were being bad. Or rather, we knew that whatever impulse towards the profane and disgusting we possessed was the opposite of what our parents found polite or desirable, and so we ran to it. An old story. It’d be too neat to say any of us was fleeing suburban malaise—though sometimes, looking back, that feels right. I think we just liked hurting ourselves and watching each other get hurt. What made Scarred so resonant—why, even now, I look back at the cheap titillation of the show fondly—is that it presented youth entangled with blood-letting, injury as a simple consequence of gravity, one’s body a tenacious coil of meat that could be as sacred or disposable as one chose. 

An odd side-effect of all this recklessness was that it made even the most fetid realms of torture porn horror seemed to hold a certain prudishness to them. If not prudishness, then a facile thrill of supposed transgression. These movies became fun to watch for their moments of practical inventiveness and haphazardly applied methods of dread, the degree to which even a rushed cash-in, like 2006’s See No Evil, held at least one moment of suspense, one hyperreal instance of something approaching human behavior, before capitulating to the wet work. After enough of Scarred’s impish smorgasbord of broken teeth and spiral fractures and stapled scalps, the body itself wasn’t all that gross anymore; it was the illustration of real, sudden pain that made the show so visceral and irresistible. Me and my friends had experienced loose approximations of that pain, but it was enough to force a sense of identification. We’d glance at each other and grin. 

That was the inverse appeal of horror movies for me at that time. Less pain, more meat. 

*

Is the cinema only for movies meant to last? What to make of those that seem disposable, those movies that keep the lights on? 

Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise belongs to a category of recent films, many of them sequels or lightly-rebooted continuations, that were originally destined for streaming-only release. They’re not art, they’re not content; they’re something inherently unhomely. Corporate restructuring at Warner Bros. and the renaming of the late HBOMax pushed titles like Cronin’s into theaters with all the enthusiasm of a child doing chores. Executives don’t care about audiences, and no amount of chapped lip service to the sanctity of the cinema-going experience could ever be convincing enough to convince us otherwise. And yet, in some ways, this callousness is also how a certain kind of horror film was consistently made and distributed. The early months of the year used to be the doldrum days for bad horror releases, a dumping ground of write-offs and half-hearted genre fare rendering forgettable titles that also made up a good chunk of my childhood: 2005’s White Noise, the 2008 remake of The Eye, 2010’s Frozen (not the animated film). 

Some of these were direct-to-DVD bargain bin fodder, but most were released in theaters. As such, there is—at least for a viewer of a certain vintage—such a thing as a multiplex horror staple, increasingly rare now amidst vanity flops like David Gordon Green’s various franchise revivals or Blumhouse’s derivative shockers. This kind of film used to be defined by its emphasis on a few key elements, whether supernatural haunting and special effects, or, more simply, violence and gore. There was an almost pathological fealty to some sort of narrative twist. That, or lazy paint-by-numbers storytelling. The novelty of these movies came from their volume: after a deluge of dreck, any movie with a standout performance or clever conceit or well-executed scare stood out. A second life could be found on basic cable, which is why FX remains, to this writer, the channel that always played the 2003 tooth-fairy horror romp Darkness Falls as opposed to a producer of prestigious television. 

So associations are hard to break. Winter meant horror and, in some reptilian part of my brain, still does. In 2013, Fede Álvarez’s Evil Dead scratched that itch, a mean, grimy, fucking gross early April release that united everyone in my theater in disbelief and delight. A beloved property being butchered is hardly new, but Álvarez’s film seemed more interested in dispensing with Raimi-esque humor or visual congruency and going for kitchen-sink black mass madness. The chainsaw, a foundational symbol of the Evil Dead franchise that couldn’t help but conjure images of Leatherface, itself became its own internal series callback in Álvarez’s version. Instead of a campy, iconic sight gag used to dispatch stop-motion skeletons and white-eyed Deadites, it was used to saw someone’s face in half while blood-rain fell down in gallon-sized buckets. 

Two years later, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, released in mid-April of 2016, occupied the same experiential slot, demons and curses swapped out for neo-Nazis and machetes with a similar emphasis on the human body as a mass of blood and meat. These two films presented a new variation on an old distinction. Between the grit slop of the Saw franchise’s worst entries and the trauma-inflected domestic dramas that masqueraded as so-called elevated horror, the third option was a vehicle for nerves and giddy bloodlust. Indeed, the desaturated punk aesthetic, winking fluorescent lighting, and hair-raising weaponization of ordinary objects as tools of violence from Green Room continues to cast a long shadow on the look of many films and TV shows, including Evil Dead Rise

In 2005, upon the release of the Australian backpacking torture orgy Wolf Creek, a flash of critical and moral posturing framed the film as an indecent—even unethical—work of sadism. Countering this pearl-clutching, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote in Reverse Shot, “While no one would deny that genre giants like Tobe Hooper and George Romero have always had more on their minds than flat-out grisliness, the vast majority of horror fans are enraptured less by subtle Vietnam references than by the imaginative deployment of power tools, creepy locations, and realistic prosthetics.” 

The grotesque offers its own unique delights, its own fleshy beauty. David Cronenberg’s carnal visions of body horror situate the ugly with the sensual, terrible transformations that not only change the body but alter one’s perception of “terrible.” These tactile, embodied collisions provoke for their existential implications but also their painstaking onscreen realizations. In that sense, Cronenberg combines the high and low, with just as much love and affection for the perfectly-timed exploding head or bubbling bit of skin as his novel thematic dramatizations. 

*

Which makes Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise a rip-off of Cronenberg, literally a cleaving of one element away from the rest. In this case, Cronin’s project is solely an exercise in practical effects and medieval visions of pain and torture. Evil Dead Rise succeeds where so many recent horror projects fail because, after a while, it becomes increasingly clear that the film’s plot is merely a formal structure for the next gag. This is a feature, not a bug, and its cumulative effect feels different when in a darkened theater than a darkened living room. More than any other film in 2023, Evil Dead Rise served as the most astute tribute to the democratic, unfussy glory of the cinema experience, one of those true communal events that are so often fetishized yet elusive. 

The story itself isn’t worth reading into for anything like depth or complexity: a family, featuring two estranged sisters and the three children of one of those sisters, is trapped in a soon-to-be-demolished apartment building after demonic spirits are reawakened. The trope of helplessly stupid characters in horror films is only really egregious depending on the demands of the film. Scenarios constructed purely so protagonists can spectacularly fail—and thus, in some way, deserve their grisly end—aren’t as satisfying if, by some quirk of individual performance or genuine possibility of ingenuity, there seems to be the possibility that a character could actually escape their fate. In other words, it can be dangerous to overestimate the purpose a character serves and to underestimate the skill a performer might bring to that character. Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott is the platonic ideal of a balance between these competing forces, not least because the meta aspects of the Scream universe necessarily imbue her with a wariness of the very tropes she might fall prey to. 

This isn’t so in Evil Dead Rise. The characters are barely people. Ironic that, in a film where the dead are then turned into smirking, libidinally sadomasochistic monsters vacated of any personhood, the pre-possessed are the least human. In the film’s lakehouse prologue, a riff on any other horror film set on an idyllic summer’s day by the beach, the most notable feature—before and after a sudden scalping—is the fact that every single actor is struggling to hide their Australian accent. Evil Dead Rise’s early killings are treated first as gestures toward a larger plot—the begged question being “who are these random kids and why is one of them already possessed?”—then with a dramatic staccato title card (“One. Day. Earlier.”), revealed to be the story’s conclusion. 

In the main narrative, one sister, Beth (Lily Sullivan), is so forcefully engineered to be empathized with—a black-haired, independent rock chick who is torn about her pregnancy—that later moments of violent maternal instinct feel obligatory rather than revelatory. There’s the blatantly queer-coded nibling, Danny (Morgan Davies), whose introduction euphorically DJing a remix of LCD Soundsystem is merely set-up for his stereo system. Kassie (Nell Fisher), the little girl, and Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), the young activist, are each given their own uniquely irritating moments to shine. 

This milquetoast ground-setting is important because all of it falls apart so deliciously later. Cronin, who also wrote the screenplay, might have earnestly crafted his characters as recognizable people. But they are all so cartoonish that it actually has the opposite effect of an expected distancing. Instead, the laborious, unconvincing exposition of these characters as individuals with desires and biases gives way, when tattoo guns jitter near naked eyeballs and kitchen knives sever arteries, to flashes of genuine humanity. In this way, the violence and gore of Evil Dead Rise can be read as clarifying in the purgatorial sense, a means of sloughing off the demands of studio-mandated relatability to get at fleeting, yet thrilling glimpses of real behavior. 

*

It’s important to separate the violence of, say, war movies from that of horror. Nominally, the intended effect is the same: aversion. But war movies are far more masturbatory than horror. They gild bloody deaths in slow-motion romance or po-faced nihilism, the gravity of each agonizing moment an existential trial in morality. Jim Shepard, in his excellent essay, “Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me: Saving Private Ryan and the Politics of Deception,” writes about Saving Private Ryan’s opening scene as a legitimating initiation. “Spielberg’s landing on Omaha Beach features the best efforts of not one but three full special effects teams, and it’s frequently stunning: we’re given a visceral sense of the helplessness of someone thrown into the mechanized slaughter of this kind of modern warfare…This is the horror-of-war stuff for the lefties, and it’s genuinely horrible. This is the stuff that gives the movies its authority. This is the stuff that allows us to swallow the bitter-coated sugar pills to come.” 

Shepard implies that the engrossing voyeurism of war violence has to be couched in sobering moments of gritty consequence. Horror never needs this sort of excuse. If you want to watch someone choke on an eyeball, you can. Horror affords the luxury of filmic punctuation without the scaffolding of deeper meaning: a punched-up line, a wobbling needle, a browned and turned page. This isn’t to say this is what horror is for, just that there is plenty of room. 

Evil Dead Rise reminded me of this over and over as the stakes ratcheted up, then plummeted back down again. This is a movie of false starts, an oft-leveled criticism. One sequence of carnage will ensue before things quiet down again. Family members perish, shoulders are rubbed, very few tears are shed. Like changes in set dressing, various parts, whether antagonists or weapons or festering wounds, are moved into place to prepare for the next sequence. These pauses are not cumulative, which is to say, they don’t increase the suspense of what’s to come. Evil Dead Rise is plain about its intentions and so baldly shows the audience what’s about to happen, a movie filled to the brim with objects that earn Chekhov’s name in front of them. 

The pleasure then comes from the execution of these setpieces and the actors bringing them to life. In this case, Beth’s older sister Ellie, played by Alyssa Sutherland, giving one of the year’s best physical performances. Early on, Ellie, mother to Danny, Bridget, and Kassie, bears the full brunt of her children’s foolish actions. Danny finds a copy of the Necronomicon, as someone inevitably must in every Evil Dead film, but this time, the book comes with vinyl recordings featuring the investigations of priests into the book’s power. The aforementioned sound system comes into play, and, before long, Danny (playing the first record, where a priest reads aloud from the book) is physically incapable of moving the needle from the groove. Elsewhere, doing laundry, Ellie is hit square in the chest by the first-person camera that zips through each installment of the franchise. 

Sutherland’s beauty is familiar: square jaw, big eyes, sharp cheekbones. She’s tall and bony, pale and unblemished. Cronin accentuates these features by turning Ellie into a body that, though it can and does break, essentially has no limits. After she’s possessed, Ellie walks like a puppet on strings, her joints rigid, her hip popped out to one side, a head lolling or falling without any connective tissue. She laughs at mortifications of the flesh, Sutherland’s impossibly wide grin carving hollows of shadow in her cheeks and around her mouth, which is increasingly flecked with blood and grime. At one point, Demon Ellie, submerged in a bathtub, levels a branch-like finger at her family, the fingernail at its edge chipped like a discarded plank. The motion of her perfectly articulated hand is that of a mime or clown in the old sense, an exaggerated poise. 

Though she plays the film’s antagonist, Sutherland very much drives Evil Dead Rise. If there can be no compelling lead—Sullivan’s turn as Beth is serviceable but lacking magnetism—there must be a compelling villain. Demon Ellie scrapes and claws her way through the plot. She spreads her disease of possessed, mindless slavery to anyone she wounds, including her two teenage children, one of whom, Bridget, eats glass and shreds Beth’s calf with a cheese grater. The film goes on, and more people are lost to this plague; they transform into beings that don’t consume, but laugh. On one of the vinyl recordings, a priest recounts how his possessed colleagues have become unkillable, each severed limb its own conscious entity. 

At times, I was very loosely reminded of Shinya Tsukamoto’s seminal Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), less for any one image or sound than for fleeting moments of focused, agonizingly specific bodily interaction. Tsukamoto’s was an industrial project, the mechanical fusing with the organic to synthesize an altogether new creation. The plot, if it exists, is one of entropy, more and more of the human subsumed into the machine. Tsukamoto said that one of the reasons he shot his film in black and white is because he wanted audiences to finish it. The images he captures are wholly original in that they cannot be accurately conceptualized unless seen. One hears “machine and man” and thinks of a clean fusion, but Tsukamoto understands this transition to be wet, punctured, inelegant, with flaps of extraneous skin and streaks of oily blood where metal protrudes. 

Similarly, though less extremely, Cronin dispenses with the drawn-out tension of an approaching sharp object. Blades cut with speed, shotguns blow limbs off without the requisite trigger pull. This lack of fetishization (or condescension) of payoff is traded for extended moments where body and object exist together. A sharpened stake through the head, a knife embedded in an arm … in the film’s pièce de résistance, a body within a body. The zany, gloopy freneticism of Raimi’s Evil Dead films give way to more realistic violences that are no less ridiculous. Instead, Cronin’s emphasis is on physical details, and, in the end, Evil Dead Rise is a film of details, some glaring and unflattering, others inspired and delightfully noxious. 

Cronin treats the body like a proving ground of endurance that is alive at even the most minute level, a visceral feeling recognizable in orgasmic throes of passion or the electric burning of pain. This feeling animates everything. In a sense, the demon of Evil Dead Rise is this feeling made manifest. Physical reality merely frees its squirming, wide-eyed enthusiasm down to the tiniest component. At the end, after the fused body of Danny, Ellie, and Bridget has been crunched through a wood chopper, their remains lay scattered across the floor of a parking garage. The audience watches the loop close as we’re reintroduced to the characters from the prologue getting ready for their trip to the lake. As one of them enters the garage, bewildered at the scene left behind by Beth and Kassie, who have since escaped drenched in blood, something wriggles out of focus in the corner of the frame. A piece of brain matter perhaps, or cartilage, or muscle. Whatever it is, it’s alive and desperate, meat shot through with the blind need to become more.