The horror movie, a genre known for sparsely populated locales like cabins in the woods and outer space, has been spending more time in the city.
Some of the most creative scary movies of the past decade have taken place in an abandoned Detroit (“Barbarian,” “Don’t Breathe,” “It Follows”). In the recent “Scream,” Ghostface moved from the suburbs to the subway. And now the latest entry in the “Evil Dead” franchise spills swimming pools of blood mostly inside a dilapidated high-rise apartment in Los Angeles.
One might explain the rise of urban horror as working on fears rooted in rising crime or the pandemic’s emptying out of downtowns, but that focuses more on content than form. And the pumping heart of the “Evil Dead” movies has never been ideas, but aesthetics. Sam Raimi’s original trilogy made stylish Grand Guignol gore that evoked Jean-Luc Godard’s response to a question about why he used so much blood. “Not blood,” he corrected. “Red.”
Lee Cronin, who directed “Evil Dead Rise” with many more colors of bodily fluid, is a meticulous creator of stunning shots. His camera doesn’t move. It dances, shifting, spinning, occasionally knocked on its side like a running back in a collision. He avoids clichés like a face suddenly appearing in a mirror but finds new ways to scare with the reflection of an image. And the way he mixes the foreground and background is pleasingly disorienting. For him, clearly, the city offers a new palette. He does wonders with the warped view through a keyhole of an apartment. The trees that come alive and tie down victims in the original “Evil Dead” are replaced by rusty and aggressive wires from a rickety elevator.
As for the plot, who cares? As with every “Evil Dead,” a creepy book is found and demonic hell breaks loose. That’s all that matters. This time, the characters are not a group of friends but a family, including a tattoo-artist mother, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), her kids (Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols, Nell Fisher) and their chain saw-wielding aunt (Lily Sullivan). But this shift also doesn’t make that much of a difference. There are so many horror movies these days that dig deeper into the anxieties and fears of family and motherhood; though still, bravo to whoever came up with the tagline: “Mommy loves you to death.”
Character and story are secondary to an atmosphere of industrial gloom, clanking heaters, ambient neighbor noise and the clutter of families cramped together. There is a spectacular new monster at the end, and the most disturbing set pieces involve ordinary household objects like (gulp) a cheese grater.
The previous “Evil Dead” movie from a decade ago was a more direct reboot, while this one pays homage to the past, but not too much. It opens with the signature shot of the franchise, a racing camera, low to the ground, but this sets up not a scare, but a joke — one I won’t ruin, but that pokes fun at the original, breaks the fourth wall and announces a new day. And yet, with a few exceptions, largely from the performance of Sutherland, who captures some of the borscht belt swagger of Freddy Krueger, it’s the last moment of arch comedy.
With the original “Evil Dead” and particularly its sequel, Raimi didn’t just make splatter beautiful. He proved it could be hilarious. The two recent movies are far more grim. Even though there is an inherent absurdity to the excess on display, they seem less interested in the humor of horror. The absence of Bruce Campbell, the hammy protagonist of the original trilogy, is felt. Scary villains are a dime a dozen, but a funny hero? They’re hard to come by.
Evil Dead Rise
Rated R for elevators of blood and sharp objects near eyeballs. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In theaters.