Just a skosh more than a decade after Fede Alvarez’s carnage-crammed “Evil Dead” reboot jump-started the horror franchise spawned by Sam Raimi’s low-budget 1981 cult favorite, writer-director Lee Cronin has delivered his own imaginatively scary take on the “Book of the Dead” mythos with “Evil Dead Rise.” A kinda-sorta sequel, it offers incontrovertible evidence that predatory and possessive bogeymen are just as frightful when their hunting ground shifts from a cabin in a dark corner of the woods to a gone-to-seed apartment building in downtown Los Angeles.
Said building — aptly described by one holdout resident as a “condemned dump” — just happens to have been built on the site of a long-closed bank that evidently shuttered before certain mystical merchandise could be retrieved from its vault. Specifically, we’re talking about yet another Book of the Dead: an ancient tome with a binding of human skin that can serve as an entryway for savage supernatural creatures eager to infect and forage in our world. This particular edition was locked away along with some 1923-era vinyl recordings of a clergyman’s warnings about the dangers of even glancing between the covers. Trouble is, all it takes is an earthquake, and a curious adolescent living with his family several stories above the buried material, for all hell to break loose.
Cronin bookends “Evil Dead Rise” with evil doings set in territory more familiar to franchise devotees. For most of its tightly wound running time, however, the new film remains within the dingy yet spacious apartment shared by Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), a woman still trying to cope with being abandoned by her husband, and her young children Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), Danny (Morgan Davies) and Kassie (Nell Fisher). Beth (Lily Sullivan), Ellie’s estranged guitar-technician sister, takes time out from her out-of-town work schedule to discuss with her sibling an urgent matter — her pregnancy — just before the earthquake strikes. And before a gaping hole appears in the parking garage floor, leading to the long-sealed bank vault. And before Danny drags back to the apartment — well, you know what.
Credit production designer Nick Bassett and director of photography Dave Garbett for their tension-ratcheting efforts to help Cronin make “Evil Dead Rise” by turns potently claustrophobic and gasp-inducingly shocking as, one by one, inhabitants of the apartment (and a couple of neighbors) are infused with a malevolent force capable of transforming unfortunates into grotesquely misshapen mutations that wield knives, scissors, glass shards and, at one point, even a cheese grater when they aren’t vomiting blood, bugs and other disgusting things. Ellie is the first to go over to the dark side, her body becoming horrifically flexible as she sports a killer smile that recalls Heath Ledger’s Joker. Typical of the movie’s sporadic flashes of jet-black humor: Poor little Kassie looks at the hideously metamorphosized Ellie and notes, “You don’t look so good, mom.”
Naturally, there’s a power outage that requires the apartment to be dimly lit with candles and flashlights — and enables Cronin to spring at least two shamelessly efficient jump scares by framing characters in the foreground blissfully unaware of bad things popping up in the background. In keeping with “Evil Dead” tradition, there’s also an abundance of bloody mayhem that increases exponentially until a hugely satisfying and splatterific climax. And yes, to answer the inevitable question: A chainsaw figures into the mix, as does the iconic phrase “Dead by dawn!”
“Evil Dead Rises” — which, like Alvarez’s “Evil Dead,” premiered to an extremely receptive audience at SXSW — may well be a one-off for all parties involved. Still, Sullivan and Sutherland handily establish their scream queen bona fides, so it shouldn’t be surprising if we see both actors making return appearances in the horror genre. Nor should it be surprising if we don’t have to wait another decade before the franchise carries on.