Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Evil Dead (1981)

USA, 85 minutes
Director/writer: Sam Raimi
Photography: Tim Philo
Music: Joseph LoDuca
Editor: Edna Ruth Paul
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Richard DeManincor, Theresa Tilly, Bob Dorian

Low-budget, loud, and grotesque, The Evil Dead has insinuated itself across the decades into the pantheon of horror. That's probably more on the strength of its sequels, certainly in terms of tone, which yoked a certain Three Stooges slapstick aesthetic onto the usual otherworldly and/or nefarious sources of blood, gore, and screeching. But in terms of the impact of The Evil Dead, a clever parody / homage that came along a few years ago, The Cabin in the Woods, made it abundantly clear. Even as Cabin self-consciously (in the postmodern vein) flattened history and took on all horror of all ages and forms, it was hard not to notice that the fundamental framework traced directly to The Evil Dead. Proportionally speaking, there aren't actually that many horror movies about cabins in the woods (especially when you recall that Friday the 13th was set in the woods, but at a summer camp).

Just so, a close look at The Evil Dead (after the distraction of the initial fear and trembling passes), discloses that, in turn, it has borrowed liberally from classics, new and old. It owes its greatest debt to the look and feel of demonic possession in The Exorcist (if Friedkin and company hadn't already used and owned them so ostentatiously I have little doubt director / screenwriter Sam Raimi would have resorted to his own versions of lines such as, "Your mother sucks cocks in hell"). A chainsaw makes a brief and gratuitous appearance at one point (much more of that in the later installments, of course). At the end of the movie our hero Ash (Bruce Campbell, whose performance is often reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld ginning up hysteria) is barricaded in the cabin in the woods much as the hero in Night of the Living Dead found himself in that lonely farmhouse. The demon-possessed creatures even spew a white milky substance from their mouths when they are injured, an unusual point seen previously, as far as I know, only in Alien.

I also think it's important to note that this flagship production in Raimi's essential franchise is decidedly not a comedy. You can look for and find in it instances of a kind of wisenheimer self-knowingness, the broad wink at the audience, which just might be in on the joke, such as it is—the agonized, howling, multilayered tracking of "Join us!" from the creatures manages to achieve comic rhythms in a few places here, for example. But the main business of The Evil Dead is to throw all its meager resources into scaring the bejesus out of anyone with the temerity to look. There's a story about the first time I saw it, on VHS with a rented VCR at 3 a.m., too paralyzed with anxiety to crawl over to the TV in the dark room and shut it off, finally pulling the covers over my head and trying to stop the noise with my hands over my ears.

Last time I looked, that noise was actually one of the picture's most outstanding features. The makeup jobs are good enough to convince, but it's the noises these creatures make when attacked that are truly fearsome. They open their mouths and scream with the sounds of a thousand tortured souls writhing, and the noise goes on and on, for a long time, long enough to note the audio burrs and cankers scratching and tearing at one's equilibrium. And speaking of scratching and tearing, that's one of the most disquieting ways these creatures attack, using green decayed nails to wail away at the exposed flesh of limbs with clawing relentlessness. It looks like it hurts a hell of a lot. And conking them hard and burying them turns out not to be enough. Bodily dismemberment is the only way to stop them.

Of course.

The Evil Dead is full of empty clichés such as the necessity of bodily dismemberment—that is also a piece of its business. The backwoods bridge they must cross to get to the cabin (and more importantly, to get away) has to be one of the most ridiculous backwoods bridges in all history. The first shock scene, in which one of the girls is raped by trees, is notably beyond the pale. And the youthful high-spirited characters are continually doing very stupid things—standing in front of dark, exposed windows, going down to the cellar alone, wandering the woods after dark alone, blithely reading aloud from books bound in human skin, and perhaps most egregious, playing a tape recording that plainly bodes no good.

The Evil Dead is celebrated as much for its low-budget enterprise as for its general effectiveness in terms of horror. Raimi and crew came up with new ways of using the camera, because they couldn't afford a steadicam and conditions on location made ordinary dollies difficult. They attached the camera to long wooden platforms down which it slid for a sensation of uncanny movement, or they mounted the camera to logs carried by two members of the crew. A long take late in the movie was accomplished by attaching the camera to a bicycle. Stop-motion animation is used for some of its best effects. In general, everything that can be thought of and that works and could be afforded is used, and the creative energy is palpable, one of its best features.

It's probably fair to call it the lesser movie compared to Evil Dead II, which is where Raimi's larger ambitions really show up. But I remain a little skeptical of this impulse to crack jokes in the middle of horror. That way lies Scream. There may not be that much difference between the bodily spasms produced by laughter and recoiling into fear. And possibly my bias toward first movies in movie franchises is showing again. But I think The Evil Dead is not just the best of the bunch, not just one of the best Raimi ever made, but one of the best horror movies ever.


  1. Can't argue, although Evil Dead II is my personal fave (didn't I sneak it into my Top 50?). Point well taken about the blend of comedy and horror, although that's partly why I prefer the sequel. Looking forward to the TV series.

  2. Yes, looking forward to the TV version myself -- and your thoughts on it.