REVIEW – The Evil Dead
Produced by: Robert Tapert
Written by: Sam Raimi
Edited by: Edna Ruth Paul
Cinematography by: Tim Philo
Music by: Joseph LoDuca
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich (Richard DeManincor), Betsy Baker, Sarah York (Theresa Tilly)
Based on the short film Within the Woods by Sam Raimi
“Cult classic.” That’s the best way to describe something like The Evil Dead, a low budget horror flick that’s just this side of camp, to the point that you’re not entirely certain whether it’s intentional or not. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for instance, is obviously trying to be campy. The original version of The Last House on the Left? Not so much, but it’s got quite a bit of camp value, despite (or, more likely, because of) its disturbing subject matter. The Evil Dead has all the hallmarks of camp, and yet, because it’s so earnest, it’s also easy to believe that director Sam Raimi was, in fact, trying to make a genuinely terrifying horror film that just kind of got away from him. If you know anything about the strenuous shoot, for example, you can see where the earnestness comes in. Most of the crew was confined to the remote Tennessee cabin location for several weeks, and Raimi purposely mistreated his actors to get them into the proper mood for a horror film, for example. There’s a very good chance that The Evil Dead was, in fact, meant to be a scary horror film that instead came together in the editing as the ambiguously humorous production that it ended up being – something that its sequels and spin-off series embraced more wholeheartedly.
The plot is a simple and, most of all, familiar one, if only because The Evil Dead has popularized it enough to create a cliché: young people are taking a road trip to hang out at a cabin in the woods, where they are then tormented by forces from beyond. Here, it’s a bunch of demons, who were mostly lying dormant until they were summoned by the group reading from a mysterious book bound in human flesh called the Necronomicon. These spirits then possess various characters as the rest struggle with what to do – kill off their possessed friends, find a way to cure them, and/or take a chance in the wilderness, where the trees themselves have also taken on a malevolent life of their own? As with the real life production, not much goes as planned for these guys, and most of the movie is seeing them deal with their hopeless and bizarre situation.
The first time I saw this movie was just after I had graduated from college, when I first got a Netflix subscription, which was also around the time that popular enthusiasm for the series was also in a bit of a resurgence. Video games had been released, Ash was making appearances in comics and taking on other horror movie characters as well as zombified versions Marvel’s heroes, and discussions of a possible new movie were also being thrown around, thanks to Raimi’s mainstream success with the Spider-Man movies guaranteeing him some level of studio clout. I’d known quite a bit about the series just from having read so much about it, in much the same way that I knew quite a bit about the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films before I saw any of those all the way through. After watching it the first time, however, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It was creepy, sure, but it was also immensely goofy. The acting was completely over-the-top, the dialogue generic and not particularly well delivered, and the demon-possessed characters spend most of their time cackling and being a vehicle for gross effects than they are actually terrifying. It was certainly interesting, but… was it good?
I subsequently followed up my viewing with Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness a while later, and it was there that the series’ charms really started to become more apparent. I very nearly ended up watching the recent Evil Dead reboot/remake/sequel this year, but I knew that there was something I had to do first: rewatch the first Evil Dead for the first time. And wouldn’t you know it? I had a lot of fun! The Evil Dead is still by no means a great movie, but knowing the trials and low budget behind the film, and the willingness for the filmmakers to go all out and embrace what they created in the end – well, it’s an admirable production, not to mention one of the most fun haunted house type experiences you can get out of a movie.
It’s also a gory one, for those who enjoy that sort of thing, too, though but it’s entirely watchable without being too grossed out, thanks to the use of puppets and old school effects (even by the early ‘80s standards). The violence nowhere near realistic enough to qualify as torture porn, so no worries there. (I hear the recent one, however, was pretty high on the squick factor.) The only truly disturbing scene, of course, is the infamous tree rape scene. The movie doesn’t exactly treat the female characters with much respect, but I don’t think it was intentional. It was a different time, and while it’s not exactly an excuse, it’s certainly a valid reason to believe that they just weren’t thinking of the responsibilities of including such a subject into their movie, and while I’m far from being someone to feel like he should dictate what is and is not acceptable to address in films, putting a rape scene into the cinematic equivalent of a funhouse carnival ride was perhaps… unwise.
Still, I found myself admiring the actors this time around. They’re not the best, sure, but they’re committed and appropriately calibrated to the zany tone, not to mention completely professional, given what they endured. The demon eyes, for example, were made out of glass and took several minutes to apply and could only be kept on for short periods of time. They went days without showers, and Bruce Campbell was covered in corn syrup blood for a lot of it, too. The film doesn’t have much of a script, but the acting is perfectly well suited to the B-movie theatrics on display. The ladies in particular – Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, and Sarah York – are all great and manage to, at least in this film, upstage even Bruce Campbell, who went on to become the series’ lead to this day. Campbell’s great as Ash here, too, mind you, making for a great nice guy you’re rooting for, but his best work in the series is in the sequels, where he gets to show off his skills playing someone brought to the brink of madness. Here, it’s the ladies who steal the spotlight.
The Evil Dead and its follow-ups haven’t exactly become my favorites or anything, but I certainly understand their appeal a lot more than other horror films from the same era. If anything, it’s fascinating to see what they managed to cobble together to create what would become a relatively well-received and financially successful film and eventually a considerable cultural phenomenon. You don’t exactly get a multi-season TV series and comic book crossovers from nothing, and The Evil Dead is certainly an entertaining… something. Regardless of whether you end up taking it for the horror flick it was likely meant to be or whether you simply enjoy it for the camp insanity it became, The Evil Dead is one of those niche films that everyone should probably check out at least once, particularly around Halloween.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5