How The Evil Dead Rise Director Brought “Psychological Warfare” To Evil Dead
Lee Cronin has been ready to make the mother of all possession movies.
Lee Cronin has a confession for Inverse: “I’m not a massive gore fan.” For the purposes of the Dublin-born filmmaker’s feature debut, 2019’s The Hole in the Ground, this is fine; that film’s appeal is not in the wholesale sundering of human bodies, but by things going “bump” in the night. Cronin wants to get under our skin.
On the other hand, Cronin’s new movie, the hotly anticipated Evil Dead Rise, demands splatter. Abstractly, The Hole in the Ground and Evil Dead Rise couldn’t be more different. The former stresses slow-burn minimalism and mounting dread. The latter is heir to Sam Raimi’s groundbreaking 1981 masterpiece, The Evil Dead, one of the 72 infamous “video nasties.” By definition, it must spill buckets of viscera. Anything less isn’t Evil Dead. Well aware of these expectations, Cronin spills drums of blood instead.
“[Evil Dead] influenced me greatly with its independent spirit, and gave me confidence to want to be a movie maker.”
Cronin isn’t against gore, it just isn’t his go-to. He prefers psychological horror to bloodletting. Regardless, he cites Evil Dead as an exception to that preference, on account of its “sheer film craft, its energy, its entertainment factors.” Like so many of horror’s up-and-comers, Cronin considers Evil Dead a defining moment in his directorial career: “[Evil Dead] influenced me greatly with its independent spirit, and gave me confidence to want to be a movie maker,” he says.
Raimi himself chose Cronin for the job of directing and writing the film, which, in the world of horror cinema, is a bit like being raptured. But an untapped predilection for gore didn’t get him hired. His focus on what he classifies as “psychological warfare” did — as seen in the mind games played on the living by the Deadites, Evil Dead’s cross-pollination of zombies and demons.
Deadites like torturing their victims by taunting them with their deepest fears as much as they like ripping off their scalps or feasting on their eyeballs. That’s one key commonality between his two feature films: the satisfaction evil takes in gaslighting good. But Evil Dead Rise and Hole in the Ground share other parallels: a broken family, a home in disrepair, a suspicious and conveniently located chasm, and a sinister being disguised as a loved one — a combination of traits guaranteed to tap into any horror audience’s empathy.
“I'm drawn to horror stories set in domestic circumstances and around family,” Cronin says, “because it's a beautiful shortcut to communicating with an audience in a familiar way, giving them context, things that they can identify with.” All the better, the way he sees it, to lure in his audience and start scaring them faster.
Ultimately, the differences between The Hole in the Ground and Evil Dead Rise belie their molecular similarities. In The Hole in the Ground, single mother Sarah (Seána Kerslake) unravels after her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) vanishes in the dead of night and returns just as abruptly, unharmed and the same as he was before his brief absence, but also inexplicably different. Chris doesn’t seem himself. Maybe it’s his outgoing disposition. Maybe it’s his new taste in cuisine, from Italian food to spiders. No one believes Sarah, but a mother knows.
Evil Dead Rise makes the opposite point: A child knows, too. Fresh off a one-sided split with her husband and facing eviction, tattoo artist Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) gamely tries to hold herself together for her kids — Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and Kassie (Nell Fisher) — and her roadie sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), back stateside after touring overseas. When an earthquake cracks their apartment complex’s foundation, Danny honors the horror cinema custom of making stupid choices: he scours the rubble and finds Naturom Demonto, the Book of the Dead, sealed away with three mysterious vinyl records.
Danny plays the records. Before you can say “klaatu barada nikto,” incantations on the record summon an evil force that violently possesses Ellie, and everything goes to hell. All of this happens around 20 minutes into the movie.
“I'm drawn to horror stories set in domestic circumstances and around family.”
These details give Cronin the same “in” for Evil Dead Rise as The Hole in the Ground, though The Hole in the Ground is distinguished by its direct connection with Irish folkloric tradition. “Ireland is known as, obviously, a place to come and have great fun, but it's also placed with deep history — tall tales, folklore,” Cronin says. “There’s no small town in Ireland that doesn't have the tale of, like, the Blue Lady, or the banshee that lives up the road. I love those things.”
Child theft preoccupies a chunk of Ireland’s horror movies today. In some, burgled kiddos are the price paid by parents who bargain with goblins (Jon Wright’s Unwelcome); in others, they’re taken for art’s sake (Michael Tully’s Don’t Leave Home). In most cases, the culprit belongs to one of several supernatural creatures — fairies, shapeshifters, goblins — predisposed toward nicking babies and leaving a carbon copy in their place: Corin Hardy’s The Hallow, Katie Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother, and of course The Hole in the Ground.
But in Evil Dead Rise, the mother, Ellie, becomes possessed and not her kids. Viewing Evil Dead Rise as The Hole in the Ground’s culturally swapped companion piece and a Trojan horse for the “stolen child” motif is tempting, as if Cronin’s figured out he can eat his cake and have it too. Surprisingly, that’s not exactly the case.
For Cronin, the cultural element is unavoidable in an organic way, and not a conscious check box. “I never look at it in those obvious terms,” Cronin explains. Again, it’s all about family. The Hole in the Ground is the product of a specific storytelling tradition just like Evil Dead Rise — it happens that those traditions marry well together under Cronin’s vision as a filmmaker.
It’s hoped, of course, that Evil Dead Rise will lead audiences back to The Hole in the Ground. Culture and context matter to Cronin, but as guideposts for his productions and not as the brief itself. “What I'm excited about with Evil Dead Rise is that by getting the attention of a wider audience, I actually maybe have the opportunity to go back to my roots a little bit,” Cronin says. He wants to make American movies. He also wants to bring Ireland to the screen — but “roaring and shouting, like Evil Dead Rise,” he adds, “not as quiet as The Hole in the Ground but something large and brazen.”