There’s a new Evil Dead film on the way. It does not star Bruce Campbell nor is it directed by Sam Raimi, though they are both involved in a producing capacity. It may or may not fit comfortably within any established series continuity, but everyone involved is hoping your love of this series will make you want to watch it. Sound familiar? It's basically what happened in 2013 with the release of Fede Álvarez’s franchise reboot that took the series back to its cabin-in-the-woods roots. That movie was profitable at the box office, making just shy of $100 million worldwide on a $17 million budget. But the reaction from horror fans was mixed, and it failed to make a dent in the larger pop-culture discourse. A planned sequel never materialized. So now the Evil Dead brain trust (Raimi, Campbell, and producer Rob Tapert) are trying again with another reboot, Evil Dead Rise, to be directed by Lee Cronin (The Hole in the Ground) and released next year. The stakes are a little different this time. Instead of making a play for box-office dollars, Evil Dead Rise will debut on HBO Max, where it will serve as yet another log on the voracious streaming service fire. But the goal remains the same: To prove the idea of new Evil Dead still has life, because horror fans can only buy Evil Dead II on Blu-ray so many times.
The potential problem? There is still not much compelling evidence that Evil Dead works as a continuing franchise without Raimi behind the camera and Campbell in front of it. It’s not like the original films succeeded based on the strength of the writing or complexity of the universe building. People loved those movies (and still love them) thanks to Raimi’s unique visual style and comic/horror sensibilities as a director, complimenting Campbell’s go-for-broke B-movie performances as everyone’s favorite lunkheaded hero, Ash Williams. Those are the not-so-secret ingredients that put the Evil Dead films above a thousand other horror movies with similar loglines. Take those things away and you run the risk of making a generic zombie or demonic-possession movie that just happens to have the Evil Dead name on it.
Evil Dead ’13 tried its best. It wisely avoided using a direct Ash surrogate, instead populating the movie with a colorful group of young characters who travel to a remote cabin where they intend to help their friend Mia (Jane Levy) detox from a serious drug addiction. Instead, they stumble across the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead, and accidentally unleash hell. Álvarez’s movie is bloody and intense, with some fantastically designed horror imagery. It also runs out of steam way too soon, contains little of the humor that fans loved in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, and spends too much time calling back to the original films with little winks and nods, including a post-credit stinger featuring Campbell that felt like the worst kind of pandering fan-service. At the time, some people took it to mean Mia would team up with Ash in the film’s sequel, a continuity-melding notion that Álvarez quite vocally supported.
It never happened. Instead, Campbell would go on to headline Ash vs. Evil Dead, a TV series sequel to the original films that ignored the reboot. Despite Campbell reprising his most famous role, the show failed to re-establish the franchise as a genre behemoth and was cancelled by Starz after three short seasons. Personally, I thought it mostly worked, and I loved the additions of supporting characters Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo) to the franchise canon. But I’ll also admit Evil Dead was an odd fit for episodic television. The series repeated itself far too often as it tried to stretch the franchise’s simplistic demons-on-the-loose plotting across 30 episodes. Additionally, there was behind-the-scenes drama (a creative-power struggle led to a showrunner change between seasons 2 and 3) that resulted in some bumpy storytelling swerves. And, of course, Ash vs. Evil Dead was still noticeably missing the other half of our two magic ingredients, as Raimi wasn’t really involved in a hands-on capacity after writing and directing the pilot. It was a fun, well-made show, but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire from a filmmaking perspective.
So now it’s back to the reboot well, as Cronin attempts to make a great Evil Dead movie without any of the things that typically make Evil Dead great. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I am saying this is likely the last and best chance to prove it can be done. There are a few reasons to be hopeful. Evil Dead Rise will reportedly take place in an urban setting, with Alyssa Sutherland and Lily Sullivan playing estranged sisters whose reunion gets spoiled by Deadite-caused mayhem. There have been rumors it’ll be set specifically in a city skyscraper, which would be a nice change of pace from the cabin-in-the-woods milieu that’s largely been this series’ bread and butter. At the very least, this could help prevent direct comparisons to the original two films, giving Evil Dead Rise a better chance to stand on its own.
I’m also optimistic that Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert have enough distance from the 2013 reboot to honestly evaluate that film’s strengths and weaknesses, helping them to work with Cronin on making the new one a stronger overall entry in the franchise. Maybe that means bringing back the gonzo sense of humor that Raimi cranked up in his original two sequels, something Evil Dead ’13 suffered from largely abandoning it. Just because you don’t have Campbell doesn’t mean you can’t have some laughs while you’re scaring people. But it’s admittedly a tough thing to balance, especially when you consider the tone shifted wildly from one installment to the next in the original movies as well.
There’s no doubt Cronin has his work cut out for him, with Raimi, Campbell, and fans of the franchise all peering over his shoulder. If he succeeds in making a movie that honors the spirit of the original films while also bringing something new and exciting to the table, it’s quite possible we’ll be watching new Evil Dead films for years to come. But if Evil Dead Rise fails to leave a mark and quickly fades from memory, it’s probably time to acknowledge we were all here for Sam and Bruce and it’s time to close up the workshed for good.
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