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Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) dangles from the ceiling, stringy hair in her face, snarling and grey-skinned and grey-eyed, after being possessed in Evil Dead Rise Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

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Evil Dead Rise and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret are kinda the same movie

Both films update classics by subverting motherhood

It isn’t unusual to see new movies catering to nostalgia for ’80s and ’90s kids — the current cycle of reboots and spinoffs mostly seems to be aimed at that specific audience, sometimes blurring the lines between legacy sequel and regular sequel. Two current movies throw back a little further, though, reviving releases that will be most familiar to people born in the 1960s and 1970s. Evil Dead Rise celebrates the 40th anniversary of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies (and, for that matter, the 10th anniversary of the most recent remake) by revisiting the discomfiting gross-out menace of Raimi’s 1983 original, while Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret adapts the classic 1970 Judy Blume coming-of-age novel by preserving its period setting (and frankness about periods).

These two films are vastly different in style and subject matter, but they share some unexpected common ground: They both update and tweak their source material by adding in the complications of parenthood. In doing so, they both get at some valuable, uncomfortable truths.

On the surface, Margaret seems like a faithful adaptation. It doesn’t update the adventures of NYC-to-Jersey transplant tween Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) from the early 1970s to 2023, or impose a stronger master plot on the story’s episodic structure. Fans will recognize most of those episodes from the beloved book: jealousy over a friend’s first menstruation; rumor-mongering about a classmate who is ahead of the rest in physical development; Margaret exploring different religious options while talking to a vaguely conceived God. But anyone who read the book during childhood will notice one substantial divergence from Blume’s writing.

Barbara (Rachel McAdams) curls the hair of her 11-year-old daughter Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) with a curling iron in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret Photo: Dana Hawley/Lionsgate

Blume’s novel is written in first person, which means all the action unfolds from Margaret’s point of view. The movie, though, has several scenes without Margaret, focusing on her mother Barbara (Rachel McAdams). The family has moved to the suburbs because Margaret’s father Herb (Benny Safdie, the co-director of Uncut Gems!) has been promoted. Barbara no longer needs to work as an art teacher, and she vows to be a more active parent: She’ll be around when Margaret gets home from school, and she’ll be available to volunteer for as many PTA committees as possible.

Some movies would then dramatize a guilty mother turning overbearing as she attempts to connect with her unwilling preteen daughter. But Barbara keeps her distance, gently offering Margaret guidance without smothering, perhaps because she has her own searching to do. As Margaret tries to figure out her identity, driven by her sampling of various religions, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen) builds a parallel story for Barbara, who has been estranged from both religion and her conservative Christian parents, who disowned her for marrying a Jewish man. She’s also estranged from her life and identity as an art teacher, visibly struggling with how to fit in with other moms (and fellow PTA committee members) who don’t work outside the home. In one scene, she unexpectedly returns to her artistic zone, beginning a delicate portrait of a bird outside her window before the brief reverie is abruptly shattered.

Little of this is verbalized directly. Craig doesn’t pull Margaret away from its central character to give her mom equal time. Instead, McAdams conveys Barbara’s rueful frustration through a beautiful performance, without ever losing sight of the character’s warmth and place in her daughter’s story. She helps Margaret with a lot of the details of being an 11-year-old girl — dutifully respecting her daughter’s request to buy a bra she doesn’t particularly need, for example — while suggesting, with touching grace, that these crises of self don’t end with the teenage years. Barbara is comfortable without God in her life, unlike her daughter or parents. She’s also quietly aware that parenthood hasn’t conferred some greater power or wisdom upon her. This side story adds a subtle nod to the grown-up Margaret acolytes, serving an adult audience without betraying the kid-facing material.

Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) gets a collective hug from her mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and dad Herb (Benny Safdie) as her grandmother (Kathy Bates) looks on in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret Photo: Dana Hawley/Lionsgate

Evil Dead Rise flips the Margaret approach. By transposing its action from the traditional cabin in the woods full of young adults to a dilapidated urban apartment building full of family members, it appears to make major adjustments to the original Evil Dead’s formula. Ultimately, the results are similar to previous films: Someone finds a Book of the Dead and accidentally summons an invisible but deeply malevolent demonic force. That force possesses various humans, as others, particularly self-questioning band engineer Beth (Lily Sullivan), go through the wringer in an agonizing attempt to survive the undead assault.

In the previous Evil Dead movies, the lead character spends most of the movie just trying to make it through the night. In Evil Dead Rise, Beth has a more fraught job: When her single-mom sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) becomes the first victim of the evil force, Beth must protect her nieces and nephew from their own mother. In one of the movie’s most chilling moments, Ellie, just before fully succumbing to possession, begs her sister to keep the children safe. On top of this, Beth has also recently learned that she’s pregnant. Though she doesn’t talk much about it, it seems clear that this was not a planned pregnancy, and that she harbors ambiguous feelings about motherhood.

While Evil Dead Rise pulls a lot of bodily and existential horror out of Beth having parenthood thrust upon her from multiple directions at once, the film doesn’t get too heavy-handed about the idea that she has to rise to the occasion. There’s an obvious sequence of events here that writer-director Lee Cronin could have indulged: Beth would be left in charge of Ellie’s kids for some nominal period, earn her sister’s ire by screwing up, then redeem and prove herself as a mother figure by slaying literal demons. This boilerplate arc never comes to pass. Faced with unimaginable evil and terrible, unexpected responsibility, Beth can only grim up and fight her way through it.

Teenage DJ Danny (Morgan Davies) and his aunt Beth (Lily Sullivan) stare in horror at the Book of the Dead in Evil Dead Rise Image: Warner Bros.

There’s a bracing honesty to this approach. Evil Dead Rise treats potential parenthood as something that can goad people into fierce protectiveness, helping them summon and focus their inner strength, without actually guaranteeing any kind of success. Beth’s record as a fierce-mother figure doesn’t exactly remain spotless, and not through any particular incompetence. There’s only so much she can do.

Yet this change to the Evil Dead formula reveals something about the franchise. The addition of a mother’s perspective to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret deepens the material for those who may have first experienced the material as kids and are now revisiting it as adults. For Evil Dead Rise, especially in conjunction with Fede Álvarez’s 2013 remake of Sam Raimi’s classic, that revisitation process suggests the story’s formula is more immutable than it looks. The movie resists those truisms about mother warriors in part because the series resists any subtext at all.

There can still be value, and even a kind of honesty, in the way Evil Dead Rise refuses to grandstand about the world of parenting. There’s also plenty to appreciate in its horror chops: It’s a well-made movie, with viscerally inventive gore, some envelope-pushing child endangerment, and flashes of the series’ trademark dark humor. It’s a tribute to the brilliance of the earlier films — and how difficult it is to reimagine them from a new perspective. By vaguely adding a parent’s perspective (and never going full-on horror-comedy splatstick in the manner of Evil Dead II or Army of Darkness), Cronin’s movie reveals how little Evil Dead has to offer viewers who’ve lived through a lot of experiences since watching the original — just as the addition of an addiction metaphor to the 2013 Evil Dead yielded surprisingly little resonance.

The difficulty of expanding or deepening an Evil Dead movie turns any buried meaning in Evil Dead Rise appropriately self-referential. Beth, a guitar tech who Ellie repeatedly mischaracterizes as a “groupie,” clearly isn’t living what her family considers a normal grown-up life, though she does give off cool, alterna-mom vibes. Evil Dead Rise isn’t necessarily speaking to people whose lives have changed immeasurably over the past 40 years; to the extent that it’s communicating anything, it’s the sudden messiness of caring for the well-being of other people. (In this telling, that looks a lot like the messiness of caring for yourself.) The movie feels uncertain about bringing a new dimension to Evil Dead — just as uncertain as Beth is about the details of parenting.

Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this bare-bones approach, honoring both the stylishness and the simplicity of the original film. But older audiences approaching Margaret in search of nostalgia have been given an opportunity to feel surprise — not at a new plot twist, but at the extra dose of adult reflection and honesty they receive alongside the warm memories. Evil Dead fans, meanwhile, may be delighted that filmmakers are still honoring the torrents of blood and guts first unleashed 40 years ago, or by the references to certain beloved lines from the masterful Evil Dead II. What they won’t find in the new movie is a sign that anything about the Evil Dead formula has fundamentally changed. Even the bleakest vision of parental angst requires a little more imagination.

Evil Dead Rise is in theaters now. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret debuts in theaters on April 28.


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