The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror

Around age 12, at one point in my life, I was playing soccer or basketball – one or the other – with my cousin and my brother. I asked my cousin off-hand what the scariest movie he ever saw was and he answered with The Evil Dead, which he happens to own at the time on VHS and lent it to me, which I was hesitant to do since I knew the movie was rated NC-17 (a pretty little known fact by anyone except probably those like me who were raised to avoid PG-13 movies until age 13 and R rated/NC-17 were right out of the question according to my parents). Still he insisted not only that I watch it, but that I watch it in the dark at night.

I chickened out not only at that chance of seeing it in the dark, but I did not chicken out on seeing the movie that very night anyway (though I remember having a heart attack when my mom watched me rewinding it, thinking she’d punish me for it – in retrospect, I don’t even think she knew the movie existed and so I don’t know why I feared it). That same cousin later on let me keep it (as was kind of his habit with any movie he lent me, he wasn’t really a cinephile though he did enjoy movies enough to occasionally pass by and borrow whatever was in my collection.)

For this reason among others that I will go into, The Evil Dead is a movie that has a special place in my heart for a great number of reasons. It is maybe the first horror movie not featuring Freddy Krueger that I took an extreme obsession towards. At the time, it was a movie that I was pretty surprised could be so tonally different from director Sam Raimi’s later Spider-Man (my favorite movie at that age), to be so cruel and gory within his first feature film (although now I’ve watched enough of Raimi’s films to catch the consistent in-your-face wacky style style that he’s had in every movie from The Evil Dead to Drag Me to Hell.

A much bigger reason for my adoration and constant watching of The Evil Dead was simply that I was impressed by how it was made. As both an emphatic IMDb browser then and already having been bit by the bug of wanting to make movies at that point, I began to take Raimi’s low-budget production history to making a superficially simple but effective horror story followed by acclaim at Cannes – from Stephen fucking King of all people – as a gospel for my goals (though I think if I had seen Mad Max – just as literal in portraying momentum via cinematic language as The Evil Dead – then as opposed to this past summer, it might have been my mecca instead).

For these attachments I find linking me to The Evil Dead as a movie (as well as the entire trilogy), it will be tougher than anything to actually approach said movie objectively. I’m much too fond of it for all the different attributes it has. That said, when you look at it hard enough, you can catch its flaws as a picture, I’ve just never thought of them as damning enough an element to make the film any less of a classic (if conceding that is nowhere near a perfect film).

The VHS copy I was lent of the movie had a cover that I actually think does a great job of portraying what the movie essentially is:

As you see in this blatant photoshoot, star Bruce Campbell (who plays Ashley, the protagonist for the entire trilogy and even makes a fanservice appearance in the 2013 remake that was produced by him, Raimi, and franchise producer Robert Tapert) standing next to a grave with a matte full moon and a pretty wary look in his eyes. Sure, it’s not nearly as fully of all that gooey gore that is the film’s very notoriety, but it pretty much is at once an obviously artificial bit of atmosphere setting – the atmosphere being a haunting and spooky one – while at once being effective simply because of how unambiguous it is about what to fear.

So much of the movie within from the get-go is dedicated to airy and foggy tones while allowing for enough darkness to get things shadowy without at all coming off as all-black amateur hour (fucking Friday the 13th). This while the rawness of the shoot gives it a more legitimate feel to it, a more immediate involvement akin to a found-footage film without hiding the good stuff or looking it was shot with an ass. It’s a hella great compliment to the soundmix featuring enough nightlife and silence within it – occasionally allowing the crushing of woods leaves and branches to define what we don’t see and what may be lurking waiting for the five teenagers – and also provided in angles and framings that verily provide impact, all diagonally and Dutch and bright lights to give outline to shapes in the dark. Lights that are very much visible when the shot widens enough, but that’s ok. It’s a ghost story without any real ghosts, just enough of a mood to make you fear before anything can happen to the gang.

The Evil Dead is essentially the equivalent of going through a novelty haunted house and seeing where the tricks come from in making those ghosts and monsters only after they jump out to scare you. With a lot of blood.

I mean, there is a shitload of blood within it. Like so much that, despite undoubtedly being the only “pure” horror film in the whole trilogy (as I will go late on with the other three films this month in obviously enthusiastic anticipation for Starz’ Ash vs. Evil Deadthe second film became a horror/comedy hybrid, the third an adventure picture that only occasionally touched on horror moods), it still has a very aware sense of humor about the buckets and buckets of fake gore that take place in all places the moment that the movie’s premise of five friends in a cabin in the woods becoming prey to released demonic spirits that possess them and scar them horrifically. An entire scene late in the picture dedicates itself to shocking Ash by having blood spurt and pour from incredibly nonsensical places from a film projecter to a light bulb.

Raimi and Tapert were totally aware of how shocking the power of the on-screen blood could be to punctuate the haunting mood of the film, but not simply on its own…

The characters surrounding The Evil Dead are inarguably cannon fodder, even Ash is devoid of any charisma that he’d be later on known for (that comes more in Evil Dead II than in Campbell’s deer-in-the-headlights performance… I meant “deer-in-the-headlights” in a good way, I promise). Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Scotty (Hal Delrich), Linda (Betsy Baker), and Shelly (Sarah York)… all five of them are only there to suffer on account of their messing with the Naturom Demonto (isn’t it great to see Lovecraft references in indie films?). I once wrote a review on the blogspot page claiming that this movie’s main premise is to witness the suffering of friends and loved ones like Ash does and deal with the horror that the only humane thing is to cut them into pieces, but I think that might be kind of a bit too much credit to the characterizations. And especially when a lot of shots hold the victims at a distance while we see from the demonic forces’ point of view.

But the anchor to it all is simply that we do have to watch them slowly but surely lose control of themselves (alongside some very creepy makeup working to disguise these humans in a very Halloween way – but also the fact that the cast seems more game playing creepily lullabying or screaming demons than, y’know, people), at some points recognizing ourselves with Ash psychologically having to deal with this. And the gore only adds to it, watch all these folks we were just riding a car with at the beginning turn into pieces of flesh and liquefied meat. It’s disgusting and cartoonish yet effective, even Campbell’s melodramatic yelling as the butt of the joke keeps things from becoming way too sober to enjoy it.

Anyway, this has said a lot of stuff about my feelings about The Evil Dead and a whole lot of it is more how I’ve adored it in my adolescence rather than any objectivity, so let me just point out the few kinks in my love for it that grew over time.

First, the infamous tree rape scene, the one that most likely got it on the UK’s Video Nasties list more than all the gore in the film.

Fuck that scene. Pun not intended (and now that I realized I accidentally used it I am ashamed). But really, fuck that scene. I know a lot of people don’t have a problem with it, but I always did, even at 13. And I usually am not reluctant towards rape scenes in cinema or television (though I always find them uncomfortable to sit through, no matter how necessary to the narrative). And I know that it’s positioned at a point that sort of makes it essential to the rising of the violence, in that it is the very first time we see these forces attack and it is with outright brutality, but whereas most of these violent incidents can do so while being banal enough to feel sort of like semi-laugh moments, that’s just never been the case with this scene. And it didn’t HAVE to be a rape scene in order to get point across that something is in the woods attacking. Come on.

And the other thing is that, like I said before many times in this review, this movie is really obviously cheap and has its moments where the artificiality of it shows up in obvious ways. The most nagging of these to me is in the case the Professor (Bob Dorian’s in an audio tape attached to the Naturon Demonto)’s workplace under the cabin… which looks exactly like a filmmaker would just get the elements necessary to have your standard workdesk with any semblance of personality or liveliness. And then, y’know, add a fucking The Hills Have Eyes poster just because. Fuck is this?

But despite these pickings, there’s still so many things I want to talk about from the editing (of which Edna Ruth Paul got help from a certain Joel Coen… hey hey hey) to the music choice of old-timey stuff that wears its fears on its skeletal sleeve and that’s unfortunate because I simply don’t want to keep you guys here forever to talk about an impressive work of ingenuity and creativity to supply a creepy isolated house movie that you oughta just experience for yourself by now. Talking this long about a movie that I love as much as The Evil Dead might leave you all dead by dawn…

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