Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Evil Dead

My recent love affair with Burn Notice has reminded me how much I adore Bruce Campbell, and how woefully little of his filmography I've seen (though I can certainly see myself going to the grave without trolling through his Sci-Fi channel TV movies). Along with Sam Raimi's barnstorming return to form, Drag Me to Hell, I was in the mood to revisit the start of both their careers and then travel forward through their resumés. While I won't do this as stringently as, say, my planned John Carpenter retrospective, I do plan to at least run through Raimi's filmography and the more renowned Campbell fare.

Anyway, back to the film at hand. The Evil Dead, Raimi and Campbell's debuts, took the horror community by storm when it at last hit wide distribution in 1983, two years after its completion and exhibition in Detroit and four years since Raimi started working on the project. Raimi secured the measly $375,000 budget with his short film Within the Woods, a 30-minute, $1,600 short film also starring Campbell that ostensibly served the same function as a television pilot: to attract investors for a full-length version. The rest, as they say is history.

But what makes The Evil Dead such an enduring cult favorite and its protagonist inarguably the most beloved horror film hero of all time? Perhaps I just answered my own question: you see, where Raimi excelled -- and where so many imitators fall short -- is his focus on the the victim and not the monster. Campbell's Ash Williams is a fresh-faced, terrified All-American in this installment, but eventually he would grow into the biggest bad-ass the horror genre ever produced. Yet even here he is the center of the film. Strange, terrible things happen all around him, but we're made to consider how it affects him, not how brilliant or evil the villain is. Though he's stuck with some rotten dialogue that he delivers with matching stiffness ("Why are you bastards tormenting me?!"), Campbell adds a human element to Ash, and you can see his suffering when he must eventually kill his possessed gal.

Then again, it might just be the insanity depicted on-screen. The Evil Dead is awash in the sort of gore that you rarely saw at the pinnacle (or nadir, depending on your tastes) of '70s exploitation films. Raimi and his team ingeniously rigged their sets with swings that way in idle wind, cellars that pop open with no visible hands pushing or pulling them. It puts you on your edge before the first drop of blood is spilled. But when it is, oh boy. As Ash must face the demons possessing his friends one by one, they spew blood and vomit everywhere. At some point, you begin to wonder if it took two years to film because for every day of shooting, it must have taken four to clean up to shoot again.

From the start, Raimi plays up B-movie clichés for his own demented use. To say that the plot is simple would be an understatement of almost British proportions: the five college kids rent a cabin deep in the woods of Tennessee to rent for the weekend, and soon they stumble into an excavation site in the cellar. Inside, they discover a knife, a tape recording, and the Necromicon, the Book of the Dead. They play the tape, which just so happens to contain recitations of the book, and soon demons start tormenting them.

It's a tried and true horror trope delivered with some of the cheesiest dialogue you'll ever hear. Unlike the sequels, though, it's hard to tell whether these lines are meant to be cheesy or if Raimi has some growing to do. Considering that this sort of dialogue has found its way into his subsequent films, even the Spider-Man trilogy (most notably in the third installment, which he co-wrote), I'd say that Raimi's never really been one with words.

He makes up for it, however, in the staging. While Raimi has never really been able to pen dialogue that wasn't at least intentionally corny, he is an adept storyteller. Most horror films spend 20 minutes setting up the characters, another 20 of scattered exposition concerning whatever evil the characters must face, and then it's all jump scares leading up to some final showdown. The Evil Dead crams all of its exposition into the first 20 minutes, which unsettle from the start with the brief drive over a rotting bridge, and that feeling that the cabin is alive somehow.

How did these kids from Michigan State end up in Appalachia, and how did they find and book this secluded cabin which surely must not have come with many referrals? Why am I asking these sorts of questions? They're there because that's where the demons are, and Raimi is far too concerned with ratcheting up tension to fever pitches from the start to give a damn about the logic of a possession story. He slams his foot down on the gas pedal the instant the audio recording finishes reciting and never lets up, yet there is actually a modicum of taste to the affair.

Take the infamous rape scene, in which Linda is violated by the branches of a demonic tree: it's horrific and exploitative, but not in the sense that so many horror films play up rape. No shot lingers for too long in the sequence, and it cuts away before getting too graphic. This scene is truly terrifying, and Raimi makes sure that it never becomes even unintentionally funny. Later, when Ash's sister and girlfriend, both possessed, attempt to convince him that they're all better now, the result is genuinely chilling. The sequels played up the absurdity of the gore and the dialogue, but Raimi's commitment here makes The Evil Dead truly scary even on a repeat viewing.

There's also the bonus of his strikingly original direction. There are so many canted angles in The Evil Dead you practically expect Harry Lime to jump out at any minute to discuss cuckoo clocks. The music plays a much smaller role in the film compared to most horror flicks, leaving Raimi to pick up the slack with his breakneck editing and the mad rush of camera movement so original it is now known as the "Raimi cam." The Coens, long-time friends of Raimi, helped out on the film, and their early films bristle with his influence. Imagine, two of the best filmmakers to come out of the independent scene and indeed modern masters of their craft, spent their first few films aping the B-moviest B-move ever made.

I remember sitting down with this film for the first time a mere year ago and was bowled over that the seemingly average director of the Spider-Man films (by that time I'd been consumed in backlash for the franchise, though I plan to revisit and re-evaluate them in the near future), could make something so original even though it practically congealed from the corn-syrup blood of B-movies past. I'd never seen such gore, and not in the way that today's torture porn depicts, that of gritty "realism" and nauseating, forced terror. No, Raimi understands the absurdity of it all, even when he plays it with a straight face. The Evil Dead received wide distribution in part because of a rave review from horror icon Stephen King, who called it "a black rainbow of terror," (as you can see, another one of his comments made the poster) and that's a damn good summary. Roger Ebert has a maxim that states, "It's not what a film is about but how it is about it." The Evil Dead looks pedestrian on paper, but in the hands of Raimi, it's a classic.

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