New Evil Dead Director Has Been to the Woods Before

Evil Dead Now director Lee Cronin knows his way around a haunted, evil forest.

Seana Kerslake in The Hole in the Ground
Photo: A24

When Bruce Campbell announced earlier this week that he and longtime Evil Dead producing partners Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi were preparing a fifth film entry in the series, he also unveiled the new movie’s director. Meet Lee Cronin, an Irish filmmaker with just one feature film to his credit. But Cronin’s sole movie to date provides several clues as to why he might be a solid, even inspired, choice to make the movie now being called Evil Dead Now.

(Trivia note: Lee Cronin was also the pseudonym of late Star Trek: The Original Series writer/producer Gene L. Coon, who penned some of the show’s most inadvertently campy episodes, like “Spock’s Brain” and “Spectre of the Gun,” under that name. This is not the same guy.)

Cronin made his feature debut in 2019 with The Hole in the Ground, an intense, highly atmospheric tale about a young single mother named Sarah (Seana Kerslake) who moves with son Chris (James Quinn Markey) out of the city and into a remote old house in the Irish countryside. Her husband is nowhere to be seen; it’s hinted that she left when the relationship turned physically abusive. But the vast woods behind the house hide an eerie secret: a massive sinkhole, which Sarah naturally warns Chris to stay far away from.

One night Chris disappears from his bed, only to turn up a short time later–except that he seems different. Sarah soon becomes convinced that the little boy in her house is not her son but an impostor, and as the film progresses, we’re made to feel unsure whether Sarah’s fears are true or whether she is suffering from a psychological breakdown brought on by the circumstances surrounding her arrival in the town and the house.

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Cronin (who co-wrote the script with Stephen Shields) makes it clear what the answer eventually is, and in many ways The Hole in the Ground follows a conventional horror movie template (we won’t spoil it here in case you want to take a look). But while the film may not offer up a whole lot in terms of narrative surprises, it does clearly exhibit what Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell might have seen in Cronin that led them to entrust him with their long-running franchise.

First is his way with visuals and atmosphere. From striking overhead vistas of Sarah’s beat-up little car traversing a winding road through the vast, forbidding forest, to scenes in which the darkened house presses down upon her and Chris like a vise, Cronin and cinematographer Tom Comerfeld know how to shoot a horror movie. Other unsettling images abound as well, such as a body with its head buried in the ground and claustrophobic shots of Sarah scrabbling through both halls and underground tunnels.

Cronin’s terrific eye goes hand in hand with his sense of atmosphere and tone. The Hole in the Ground is a somber, brooding affair; there’s very little levity or optimism in this story, right up to its ambiguous final scene. The movie suggests the world is too vast and indifferent for even a devoted parent to manage and navigate, and that we often end up right back where we started, only the worse for wear. Life is too full of challenges that we simply never see coming no matter how we prepare.

That theme is embodied by the woods and the sinkhole which lurk menacingly over Sarah and Chris’ new life, and Cronin’s expert navigation of those primal forces may be the key to what sold the Evil Dead gang on the director. The woods are, of course, a central aspect of the first two Evil Dead movies as well as the 2013 reboot, home to the horrific entities unleashed by the Book of the Dead as well as an evil corruption of nature in their own right. Cronin taps into that effectively in The Hole in the Ground: the forest is a living, breathing presence throughout the movie, while the sinkhole at its heart, and its contents, remain unexplained. It only makes the horror more effective.

Cronin’s tone is about as far away from the cartoony, absurdist vibe of the three Raimi directed Evil Dead movies as you can get, and is more in line with the macabre vibe of Fede Alvarez’s faithful if rather workmanlike 2013 reboot/remake. Cronin, however, relies more on tension and atmosphere, at least in his own film, than the gore and violence Alvarez expanded on in his entry. But the Evil Dead franchise (including the Ash vs. Evil Dead TV show) is flexible enough to handle it.

Perhaps that’s what the Evil Dead producers are looking for–Campbell hinted that each film in the series going forward will stand on its own, perhaps in terms of tone as well as characters and story. With The Hole in the Ground, Lee Cronin makes a mostly effective case for why he might be able to take the franchise in a new direction, one that could end up being, well, kind of groovy.

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