“Evil Dead Rise” is an unpleasant film. While this is by design, the morbid elements dominate, making it a tough movie to recommend even to fans of the franchise.


The demonic tree factored into a controversial scene in 1981's "The Evil Dead."

The first three films have garnered a well-earned cult status. Launched in 1981 with the low-budget shocker “The Evil Dead,” director Sam Raimi and his team, which included screenwriter Scott Spiegel and producer Robert Tapert, managed to elevate the entire horror genre with a successful theatrical release. The film is still regarded as one of the most profitable indies of all time.

Following the failure of Raimi’s ambitious 1985 effort “Crimewave,” he returned to the world of the “Deadites,” the name given to the poor souls occupied by an unseen flesh-possessing supernatural force. This economic reality led to an odd reboot sequel, "Evil Dead II.” It’s possible to watch that movie without ever seeing its predecessor without confusion. In fact, watching them in sequence might be confounding.


Bruce Campbell battles his own possessed hand in 1987's "Evil Dead II."

“Evil Dead II” is a comic horror masterpiece. When I worked in a video store in 1988, the Vestron Video release was continually rented, and “The Evil Dead” sat on the shelf. While the lurid horror elements had the film dumped into movie theaters without an MPAA rating, the film’s humor effectively took the pressure off the viewer. The oppressive mood that marked the first installment remained intact, but the comedy set it apart.

Of course, without a game lead willing to sacrifice his body for the craft, “Evil Dead II” wouldn’t have worked. And the only man for the job was the first movie’s alluring star Bruce Campbell, the guy with the chin. His comic timing combined with a biting satiric wit was impossible not to embrace. And the stop-motion special effects were befitting of a Ray Harryhausen classic.


Campbell and his boomstick in "Army of Darkness."

As Ashley ‘Ash’ J. Williams, Campbell battled the Deadites with a bloody style few, if any, actors in cinema could repeat. But Campbell and Raimi got their shot, and after Raimi scored solid box office returns with “Darkman” in 1990, a third “Dead” film was greenlit. And 1992’s “Army of Darkness” took the fight against the Deadites to 1300 A.D., where Ash and his chainsaw and shotgun battled new demons while also wooing fair maidens.

The theatrical misstep of the third outing went the somewhat disappointing way of the second film, and it took some time on home video for “Army of Darkness” to find its footing. But the “Dead” franchise wouldn’t die.


The fight with the possessed hand was recreated in "Evil Dead (2013)."

In 2013, a partial reboot was helmed by first-time feature director Fede Álvarez, who co-wrote the script. Álvarez tried to reimage the franchise largely without Ash, who only appears in a post-credits sequence. That film successfully captures the horrors of the first “Dead” movie but fails to build upon the comedic touches that raised the series above the norm.

Campbell revived his character in the television show “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” which ran from 2015 through 2018. It was a return to form if also hobbled a bit by the relative restraints of the more digestible small-screen requirements. I watched mainly for the nostalgia and my fondness for Campbell continuing his career-defining role.

“Evil Dead II” is the best film in the series. I doubt that I’ll get much pushback in making that declaration. And for some reason, the two theatrical reboots turn their back on the one thing that made it so good. Okay, at least two things made “Evil Dead II” so fantastic: Campbell and the horror-infused slapstick laughs.

Maybe the problem with the last two films is the lack of a charismatic lead that pours themselves into the demands of the role. Still, I blame the writing and the desire to turn the “Dead” intellectual property into just another gory horror flick.

“Evil Dead Rise” is two movies. It opens with young people vacationing at an isolated cabin. This story is the movie’s frightening wrap-around narrative. But most of the narrative takes place in Los Angeles, where an evil supernatural force visits a family.


Mommy isn't feeling too good in 2023s "Evil Dead Rise."

After discovering she is pregnant, Beth (Lily Sullivan) leaves her life on the road as a rock and roll guitar technician to seek help from her estranged older sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland). Ellie and her three children live in a decaying apartment building scheduled to be demolished in a month.

The building is a creative setting. It’s a dark and unfriendly place inhospitable with or without the Deadites. The structure's antique elevator looks like a deathtrap, and when an earthquake rattles the area, it’s best to take the stairs. And it sure doesn’t help that the weather is terrible, with constant rain beating down.

When Ellie’s eldest, Danny (Morgan Davies), discovers a hidden vault in a crack in the apartment’s parking garage floor, he finds the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the Book of the Dead, along with several old records. Anyone with knowledge of this series knows instantly that on those old vinyl discs are the magic words that, when played, summon the evil presence.

Sure enough, Danny plays the record, opens the nasty book, and all hell breaks loose. Putting the ugly genie back in the book isn’t something that can be accomplished easily, and this family isn’t very adept at taking on the Deadites.

There’s little joy associated with the possessions we witness in “Evil Dead Rise.” Part of the problem is that despite Sullivan’s heroic turn as Beth, even with a shotgun and a chainsaw, she isn’t given any of the vicious wit Campbell capably commanded. Everything is handled with deadly seriousness resulting in another sad and ugly horror movie about a family literally torn apart in the most unimaginable way possible.

It would be prudish of me to complain that the children and their mother are abused in a distasteful manner that will turn most viewers off instantaneously. But prudish or not, the body horror here is unnecessarily ghoulish. The first three films kept those possessed mainly to adults who had some responsibility for their actions. These adults even made terrible decisions that deepened their plight.

Allowing the Deadites to inhabit and destroy innocent children proved to be more disturbing than scary. And the special effects range from squeamishly real to comically nasty. It’s not entertaining, in this movie, to see limbs ripped apart and twisted and bent in wince-inducing ways, and it’s not frightful either. I had a visceral reaction and nothing more. Look away, and plug up your ears, but none of it had a lasting impact.

The transient nature of this film’s lingering impression has to do with its vacant message. The Deadites want to possess everything living, and that appears to be their singular mission. The theme of good vs. evil only takes this story so far; those killed and those that survive have little meaning and purpose. This empty message makes “Evil Dead Rise” a pointless exercise in gore.

Aside from the comic horror elements that mark the best of this series, the idea of the Book of the Dead helped propel the narratives forward. In “Army of Darkness,” Ash goes on a quest to find the book, only to discover three of them, and when he can’t remember the magic words, he ends up with the wrong book and unleashes that terrifying Deadite army.

The mysteries of the book offered some rules in all the bloody randomness. “Evil Dead Rise” puts forth little effort to understand those rules, and in an attempt to pace the film with constant kills and effects, it never stops to reconcile anything.

By the time the chainsaw enters the picture, it feels like a lazy homage instead of an inspired choice. Remember that Ash arms himself and brutally takes off his own hand to combat the Deadite possession. He convincingly becomes a one-handed action hero, which is when the story takes off. Of course, because he’s Bruce Campbell, he’s one of the most awkward heroes in movie history. His fight with his severed hand in the cabin’s kitchen is an all-time best sequence of any film of the 1980s.

The hero in “Evil Dead Rise,” Beth, does her best to overcome one Deadite after the next, but the kills have little attitude and emotional edge. Part of the problem could be that Beth’s backstory has her employed as a guitar technician. Ellie jokes that she’s a groupie.

While Beth does put her technical guitar skills to some use, I wondered whether the character would have been better if her occupation was that of a standup comedian. On the ride home from the screening, I thought about how cool it would have been if an actress like Hannah Einbinder had played Beth as a variation of her comedy writer on the HBO series “Hacks.”

Confronting the crazy demonic spirit with pithy one-liners served Ash well. But in “Evil Dead Rise,” Beth is emotionally tortured with no levity to relieve all the horrible silliness. And make no mistake, the stupidity of the Deadite possessions is so absurd that a bit of humor is essential. Sadly, that necessary ingredient is missing from “Evil Dead Rise.”

I doubt that “Evil Dead Rise” will start a new franchise. Part of this is that the film isn’t the transcendent charmer that captured the home video market in 1987. The other part is that it almost exclusively embraces the morbid elements of the original 1981 film that shocked audiences. All these years later, nothing, it seems, is shocking.