The Evil Dead (1981)

evildead_posterSeparating the movie The Evil Dead from the phenomenon of Sam Raimi’s early career, of Bruce Campbell’s genre-stardom, of the whole story of the production of the film, is nearly impossible. A savvy genre fan can no more just look at the movie in isolation than a Beatles fan (hi Jack) can easily listen to early Beatles without thinking of where it goes from here. It’s easy to envy the precious few who got to experience it firsthand, as a rare low-budget horror picture that works, of something that has real imagination behind its body count.

The first time I saw it was at a high school sleepover centered around a bunch of horror movies, which I would do with several friends until they quit getting it. Only Jack and I, being movie snobs, could really grok some of the stuff we were watching. The VHS of The Evil Dead was so horribly distorted the image on the screen was barely discernible. We quit at about the Cheryl tree rape scene, because it was just incoherent unpleasantness. That formed an impression that the movie was hack work, a rehash of things done a thousand times before with no production values, no value at all. The VHS made a liar of me, and it wasn’t until more than a decade had passed that I finally saw the movie in its glorious altogether, and saw how many new things it crafted out of almost nothing.

Ironically, it wasn’t created with the intent of being startlingly original. Sam Raimi had been making short movies when he was in his teens, and in one short, It’s Murder, found the only part that completely worked was a jump scare. He wanted a calling card, something to get him into the business, and so he decided to take what worked, and roll with it. After creating a thirty-minute film (Within the Woods) to interest investors, he took $90,000, a group of amateur actors including the redoubtable Bruce Campbell, and made a movie in a Cabin in the Woods.

The story (kids go to a cabin, monsters get them) is not that much, and the plot is an excuse to string along some bravura set pieces. But even in this disreputable genre, there are degrees of quality and difficulty. The Evil Dead demonstrates a rare and admirable patience in getting to the real scares. The kids don’t go into the basement of the cabin until about fifteen minutes in, and until then there’s only been one spooky happening – Cheryl, the fifth wheel on the trip with two other couples, is sketching a clock, then something takes over. Her pencil digs into her sketchbook, tearing through, until she’s come up with a strange, crude drawing – looks like a book, with a face.

The heroes go through their cabin vacation shenanigans – Bruce gives his girl a necklace, they have a friendly dinner, and then something blows open the basement door. Bruce and the other guy find the creepy book, a tape recorder, and a shotgun. Of course, all come up with our heroes.

They play the recording, demons attack relentlessly, only one survives to morning…and then there’s the great last shot.

The wit and imagination of that ending demonstrates the real value of the movie: watching the work of a director who is in love with his medium. The “evil” of The Evil Dead is characterized by the roving camera, by the leering external presence eternally roving. It breaks through windows, it chases through the house. It watches, waits, and in the end, it gets what it wants. Daylight didn’t protect the kids, following the rules didn’t. The evil was there, personified by Raimi’s camera, and the evil abides.

What makes this a worthwhile movie are the factors of the fun production history, and that it presents a “teens get killed” movie with a proper supernatural antagonist. Horror without the element of the supernatural is a pale pretender to its potential power. Of all the goofiness and low-rent aspects of the screenplay and story and production, that is one part which The Evil Dead gets completely, perfectly right, and why, I think, the movie has endured.

About Kent Conrad

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