Not many horror franchises can keep the red stuff spurting without getting dusty and stale as a pile of bones, but Sam Raimi’s rollicking “Evil Dead” series has spent the last 42 years reanimating itself with persistent aplomb. (See: 1981’s seminal “The Evil Dead,” 1987’s campier “Evil Dead II,” 1992’s horror-fantasy “Army of Darkness,” the grimly serious 2013 reboot and Starz’s giddily unserious “Ash vs. Evil Dead.”) Even in its scalp-ripping scream of an opener, the new “Evil Dead Rise” makes a cheeky feint toward the familiar, so you’d be forgiven for expecting more of the same from the fright franchise that’s inspired countless imitators.
A swift change of scenery, however, smartly trades the original’s cabin in the woods setting, now an overdone genre staple, for a new one: a decaying Los Angeles Art Deco apartment tower, where estranged sisters Beth (Lily Sullivan) and Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) and Ellie’s three kids are about to have their lives upended by a certain gruesome grimoire. A fresh pivot that starts out strong before caving to fan service, this femme-centered installment at least doesn’t skimp on visceral horrors and black humor, finding inventive ways to make its audience cringe, cower and cackle as it puts its heroines through hell.
They’ve already got plenty to deal with, even before sinister forces come knocking at the door. Harried tattoo artist Ellie has been left high and dry by her deadbeat ex, and their crumbling building is set to be demolished. Beth, a rock chick roadie, has, alas, been saddled with the lazy screenwriter’s go-to plot device for female characters — an unplanned pregnancy! — and has finally come to ask her big sis for guidance. Everyone in this family is wrestling with their own baggage, while even the youngest daughter, Kassie (Nell Fisher), has resorted to impaling a doll’s head onto a stick she’s named “Staffanie” to keep herself company.
Untethered canonically from Fede Alvarez’s more serious and lore-heavy 2013 “Evil Dead,” which fleetingly featured Bruce Campbell as iconic hero Ash, “Evil Dead Rise” instead allows writer-director Lee Cronin (“The Hole in the Ground”) to selectively expand the universe around its signature hallmarks — including the semi-sentient Necronomicon, bound in human skin and razored teeth, which beckons to Ellie’s wannabe DJ son, Danny (Morgan Davies), from a long-buried tomb beneath the building cracked open by a pesky L.A. earthquake.
Records featuring mysterious incantations accompany the book, but like plenty of unwise “Evil Dead” characters before him, curiosity gets the better of Danny in an opening act that introduces intriguing details that get muddled and lost as the thrill ride ramps up. “Weird s— like this gets locked away for a reason,” warns his pragmatic sister, Bridget (Gabrielle Echols, bringing poise and main character energy to a middle-child role). Danny spins the cursed vinyl anyway, and before you know it, a familiar disembodied demon is speeding its way through the apartment complex in search of a human host.
Once the parasite worms its way into Ellie after a bone-crunching tangle in the apartment’s elevator, Sutherland, known for her roles on “Vikings” and “The Mist,” unleashes one of the more maniacal horror performances in years. Taking inspiration not from scary movies but Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced turn in “The Mask,” per the Australian actor, her Deadite Mommie Dearest becomes a terrifying vessel for chaos and destruction of the bodily and emotional kind, hilariously horrific as she levitates, expectorates, crab walks, crawls up the walls, menaces the neighbors and taunts her own children with quotable lines like, “Mommy’s with the maggots now.”
Mileage may vary for what audiences crave, and can take, when it comes to the gruesomely R-rated parade of stomach-churning gore, goo, barf and blood that ensues in and around this increasingly claustrophobic apartment, where a few neighbors have helpfully stuck around to contribute to the film’s body count. (Credit to special effects supervisor Brendan Durey and prosthetic makeup designer Luke Polti for top-notch wince-inducing work, buoyed by a 6,500-liter fake-blood budget.) Adding to Hollywood’s recent spate of boldly batty genre pictures, Cronin wields violence like a finely tuned instrument, with a wickedly funny sense for weaponizing sharp objects, kitchen appliances, fraught family dynamics — and, memorably, a cheese grater — for maximum impact.
Distinctive technical craft also goes a long way in helping this “Evil Dead” rise above its narrative shortcomings. Lush, moody lensing by cinematographer Dave Garbett, inspired by the eerily surreal photographs of Gregory Crewdson, create pools of light and shadow that lend the building an ominous life of its own. Production designer Nick Bassett’s jewel-toned interiors, cracked basement garage and long, forbidding hallway evoke a sense of dread and decay even before the supernatural nightmare begins, as if the past has already trapped its human inhabitants in a 14-story purgatory without them realizing it.
Even something as simple as the view through the peephole in the apartment door sets up one of the film’s best sequences. Cronin’s exceptionally ambitious visuals keep the proceedings interesting, creating a sense of adrenalizing, off-kilter unpredictability to match what his dwindling number of humans are experiencing as they inevitably fall to the Deadite swarm.
Magnifying every moment of tension and terror is the immersive sound design by Peter Albrechtsen and distressed orchestral score by Stephen McKeon, both of whom weave unsettling vocals into the aural tapestry of the film.
On-the-nose writing, unfortunately, emerges as the real bane of “Evil Dead Rise” as the story drags in its back half despite memorable kills and the introduction of a grotesque new monster that keeps the action going at an unrelenting pace. The movie doesn’t require a conspicuously out-of-place nod to “The Shining” or the many self-referential nods to its own franchise highlight reel to keep viewers hooked, but it can’t resist making characters and even swarms of the undead shout out its most iconic lines, forcing the absurdism of the original films into tonal dissonance with the rest of the film.
Not that Beth needs to be saddled with that tired old saw of impending motherhood, either, a shortcut to heroism made redundant and practically moot by the film’s end. It’s the kind of shoehorned-in detail that plays like a studio note, one Sullivan, in her committed and expressive performance, doesn’t need in order to make Beth a compelling or complex figure.
Try as it might to expand the “Evil Dead” universe beyond its most famous chainsaw-wielding character, the film isn’t permitted to escape his shadow. (Sharp-eared viewers may, however, recognize Campbell’s voice in one under-the-radar cameo.) Instead, it chooses the pandering route designed to get die-hards pointing at the screen in its big, bloody finale. Too many contrivances set up a final showdown, when a wood chipper and a chainsaw just happen to be lying around a deserted DTLA garage on a stormy night.
One can imagine what new life “Evil Dead Rise” could have injected into the franchise without those hamstrings, free of the creative tension between servicing an existing IP and reinvigorating it in the spirit of its renegade origins. Cronin, planting a virtuosic flag in his second feature as director, has at least given the “Evil Dead” franchise a crowd-pleasing new chapter that opens the door to a connected universe uniting the previous films and series. It really leaves us wondering how he’d build his own.
‘Evil Dead Rise’
Rating: R, for strong bloody horror violence and gore, and some language
When: Now playing
Where: Wide release
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes