The Evil Dead (1981)
When I first saw The Evil Dead I was absolutely terrified and I imagine there were a few sleepless nights where the merest innocent sound of the house settling on its ancient frame or a rogue animal ambling along outside conjured up dark visions of hellish demonspawn with milky obfuscated eyes, of hunched and twisted visages coupled with a greyed and grim post-mortem pallor, of those spectral banshees with a howling penchant for a mocking, blood flecked cruelty and excruciatingly painful mêlees. Now, when you’ve stopped laughing let me provide some context, in my defence I was at the rather impressionable age of nine or ten, viewing the secretive terror on a battered old VHS copy around a friend’s house whose parental techniques may remain questionable, as of course it wasn’t really appropriate to screen an 18 certificate film to a youngster, especially a film which was destined to subsequently join the notorious list of so-called ‘Video Nasties‘ due to the interfering ideology of Mary Whitehouse and her Christian belief in censorship, control and moral superiority – I bet she loved Jim’ll Fix It. Screening as part of their ‘Banned‘ series to celebrate the centenary of the BBFC I jumped at the chance to see this on the big screen, there has been far too much art-house nonsense and film festival chin-stroking of late, and I think its time for some unadulterated pain, some sloppy, demonic violence to set our wills against the slowly encouraging winter nights, I feel a little guilty for skipping the usual Halloween celebrations around these parts but along with this and The Shining ‘revisit’ I’ll be conducting later next week I hope the quorum of horror will be replenished, heck I might even give Silent Hill 2 a whirl at the flicks for a change of pace although I’m not positive that would be a particularly successful expedition. What terrorized my primitive, groaning brain some thirty years ago is now of course hilariously funny when viewed in the light of contemporary standards, and what the film lacks in terms of a sturdy foundation of a successful film – solid performances, a script, character development – it more than makes up with its sheer manic lunacy and visual inventiveness, it’s one of the core horror movies of the day that my yearning affection for has made me into one of the well-adjusted and productive members of society that I am today (twitches violently)….
We’re in familiar territory with a mist shrouded, ominously remote woods situated out in the wilds of rural America, as five young figures innocently amble along for a weekend getaway at one of their uncle’s ramshackle domiciles – yes this is quite literally a ‘Cabin In The Woods’ film. Where most of the horror genres films of the era played up the prospect of a few topless shots and cheeky sexual indiscretions these factors are absent from The Evil Dead as our hero Ash (Bruce rockin’ Campbell) makes an early and stilted engagement proposal to his innocent young girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker). Alas this union is not meant to be as the nervous group unearth some mysterious artifacts lurking in the cabin’s cellar, namely a mouldering old book festooned with grisly illustrations and archaic runes, alongside an old-fashioned tape player which harbours a grisly report from the absent uncle of his sacrilegious tinkerings with the eternal forces of cruelty and darkness. The unintentional repeat of one of the grimoires satanic mantras literally lets all hell break loose, and soon Ash and his friends Scott (Richard DeManincor), Shelly (Theresa Tilly) and the foliage tortured Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) are fighting for their lives in a cartoonish exaggerated bloodfest, with severed limbs, jetting arcs of blood and twitching intestines souring the silver screen alongside a chanting and roaring score which is emitted from the very bowels of Gehenna….
I was a little disappointed that this was obviously a digital presentation as I think The Evil Dead would best be served by a scratchy and distressed print that looks and feels like its been dragged backwards through a forest, but even the digital intervention didn’t throughly remove the grainy and diseased aura of the film, The Evil Dead does retain a ferocious intensity as it circumnavigates the gruesome staples of the genre, with some of the jump scares in particular still prompting some cardiac arrests judging by some of the reactions of my fellow punters. It also might be the ultimate example of first feature, guerilla or DIY filmmaking ever made, like the improvisational antics of John Cassavettes or the criminal likes of Reservoir Dogs the first rules of independent film production are a) choose a profitable genre with an established audience, b) restrict the action to one location to reduce transport and set dressing and hire costs, c) keep your cast miniscule for similar reasons, preferably with hungry young actors who will work on anything for free and d) pour all your creative talents in best exploiting your meagre resources, preferably by dazzling your audience with some visual tricks and gambits which a normal production would never imagine getting away with. The last point is probably Dead’s hidden strength, it’s just so darn inventive from a visual standpoint with all those tilted frames, hatchet hammered editing and oceans of dry ice that ooze through the grainy frames, the use of Point Of View of the groaning spirits of the forest wasn’t entirely original of course as Carpenter adopted this technique for Halloween three years earlier, but if memory serves it’s the first time it was used so extensively with such a pregnantly lurking effect, a design that gives the film a real energy and sense of momentum that patches some of the more apparent failures. Whatever happens I will go to my grave being slightly unsettled by this, just as she terrified me as a kid….
The acting is terrible but is immensely entertaining, the film is really much more of a comedy thirty years later likes its sequel, but some of the touches are still a little eerie despite its age and modest ambitions with the notorious tree rape scene being a little unnecessary yet quite mild by todays standards, but it does make you squirm as does some of the other slices of frenzied violence, with the film’s director keeping his powder dry for a fully fledged final goreorama and genre usual trick ending. A quick word about Ash, potentially my favourite horror franchise idol. There’s not many living screen demigods that I’ll jump at the chance to meet or see in the flesh, and the chisel jawed persona of Mr. Bruce Campbell is one of the leaders of that pack. Why? Well I think it’s the genuine humor and comic book cruelty that he endured during the next two films – of course like any (in)sane person I love Evil Dead 2 and have an affection for Army Of Darkness – and his book If Chins Could Kill is a superb read as well, highly recommended with a similar demeanour and outlook on life that you see on-screen, plus he is also the utterer of possibly the finest and wisest pieces of dialogue ever delivered. It never fails to amuse me that the wicked and evil progenitor of such evil filth went on to helm one of the most child friendly and profitable film franchises of the past thirty years – I’m talking about Sam Raimi and the Spiderman movies of course – not to mention The Evil Dead’s inspirational effects on a certain Peter Jackson and his subsequent gore-fests, whom of course also went on to steer another franchise to the silver screen, both building billion dollar behemoths from such depraved beginnings – only in the movies eh?
You know, I’ve never really cared for the Friday The 13th or Nightmare On Elm Street films, sure I’ve seen em’ all as is the way with us horror completests but I don’t own any of them or howl with excited glee when they turn up on the schedules or get an urge to revisit them through my rental accounts, I’ve just always been much more interested in the likes of Romero, Carpenter or Cronenberg, the more cerebral combinations of gore, chills and metaphorical thrills, and whilst I ‘enjoy’ the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre – another film I saw on a grainy, fifth generation VHS copy when I was far too young (twitches) the remainders of that series are also really quite dull and uninspired. The Evil Dead trilogy has a genuine humor and wit in combination with the genre trappings and furious, clamouring dread, and as I said Ash is just such a hilarious creation, it’s his one liners and quips that just about make the slightly unfairly maligned third entry to the franchise watchable in my book. In terms of trivia be sure to look out for Joel Coen – yes that one – in the Assistant Editor credits, Raimi has gone on to cameo in a few of the Coen boys films (perhaps most memorably as a stupid cop in Millers Crossing) and if you do make it over the BFI be sure to check out their BBFC exhibition in the atrium, including original certification notices of many notorious films of the past few decades, including A Clockwork Orange which of course as a keen Kubrickophile I snapped a photo of. How am I approaching the swiftly encroaching and perverted remake? Well, carefully of course, truth be told I don’t care what they remake or butcher anymore, I would of course prefered a stab at an Evil Dead IV with Campbell back as Ash but his opinion that such a window has passed and its time to pass the baton onto a new generation is probably accurate, and even if the remake sucks we’ll always have the original which retains its snarling ferocity and fierce fecundity of inferior imitations, all together now ♫ if you go down to the woods today ♬ ♪………