The Evil Dead — Still Vital at 40.
The woods, themselves! They’re alive!
It feels as though some films are untouchable. A tad blemished, maybe. Scrappy and Irregular around the corners, perhaps, but foundational nonetheless. Why is is that? Is it because they’ve spoken to some pertinent contemporary issue or captured the imagination of a social movement? Managed to break ground with some technical innovation? Or perhaps the passage of time had afforded some level of transcendence like in the case of Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, a film that owes its place in the canon to a striking, Gigar-esque iconography and forward thinking Sci-fi aesthetic. Or, like in the case of Brian De Palma’s CARRIE where a dominant artistic vision melded wonderfully with premium on-screen talent. Whatever the case, Sam Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD is one such film.
THE EVIL DEAD is coming up on it’s 40th anniversary just as I’m turning 30, and now I’m feeling some kind of way about the passage of time. Sam Raimi’s freshman foray would have celebrated it’s 10th anniversary around the time I was born in 1992. A peculiar time for a genre with humble beginnings.
Up through the 80’s and into the early-90’s, horror was defined by a slew of tried and true stables like FRIDAY THE 13TH, and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. That is, until the release of the likes of MISERY (1990) and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). A genre marked by a homely, roughneck appeal and charm was in the midst of a paradigm shift. In the 90’s, the kid of horror that “mattered” was polished; wrought with the labor of “reputable” casts and crew.
Martin Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR released in 1991 and, in addition to having massaged the veteran’s directors dodgy relationship with the box office, had repositioned horror as a legitimate venue for premium talent. Similar to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and MISERY before it, CAPE FEAR had the director’s discernible sheen, a clarity of vision. An author’s dominant voice and most importantly: it was a box office success.
This is all well and good, but what’s this got to do with THE EVIL DEAD? It certainly wasn’t a box office monster like in the case of INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE ; it didn’t sweep the academy awards like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and, unlike THE SIXTH SENSE, THE EVIL DEAD had little in the way of young star talent.
But if you did beneath THE EVIL DEAD’s minuscule, cabin-in-the-woods exterior, you’ll find a passion for a genre and art form that rivals any other in scale along with a beating heart of a film community that has all but ensured the film’s everlasting vitality — Necronomicons, Boomsticks, and all.
Ashley Williams and his college cohorts take a vacation trip to an isolated cabin somewhere in rural Tennessee. Within it’s dingy, dark basement they find the Necronomicon, a magical text littered with incantations that invoke the spirits of the damned. An innocuous night of fun takes a turn for the worse when Ash is forced to reckon with the grimoire’s dark corruption.
The film’s first seconds are a masterclass in brooding suspense — the camera glides along the surface of a swamp-like body of water. A low, grow and hissing synth score underscore the haunting, gray imagery. We’re in a dead barren forested landscape; dead foliage surrounds us and appears to roll off into forever. The camera finally reaches land as it begins to zig zag in some unknown direction, like a snake on the prowl. Then, we cut to our unsuspecting cast, doom appears to trail them at every turn.
As far as ominous first seconds, THE EVIL DEAD ranks up there along side HALLOWEEN, JAWS, and THE INNOCENTS for best in class. Astounding when you consider that Raimi and company conjured their vision with a fraction of what the other guys shelled.
We’re quickly introduced to our leads: a band of 5 college students, young and rambunctious, on the lookout for a good time in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee. Scotty, the only other male not portrayed by Bruce Campbell, has rented a cabin out in the woods. That’s all the backstory we get and the movie is better for it. THE EVIL DEAD isn’t interested in shoe-leather exposition or played out sequences of unnecessary story fat. There is a cabin, it’s totally spooky, the devil is right around the corner. This, one of the most marvelous qualities of the genre — get to the point, and do so quickly.
This same philosophy informs the story trajectory of our main cast. Bruce Campbell, who executively produced the film, gives the most memorable performance. He boyishly handsome ,despite a blank stare and square jaw that hint at a dark presence. One could almost sense a darker, ulterior motive it were’t for Campbell’s name being plastered above the poster, our hero. Other than Campbell, Betsy Baker might be the only other recognizable name. She held steady work after portraying Linda — Ash’s girlfriend — who’s later possession in the film spawns an eerie Harley Quinn archetype.
Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, and Theresa Tilly round up the college cohort. Bit players, sure, but they accent the casts kitschy charm. we don’t spend too much time with them; we don’t need to. Ash and company are necessary only in that they accentuate the main course: The Book of The Dead.
Interestingly enough, the evil manifestations of the damed never take on physical form. Instead, they’re conjured up though human possession. One by one, Ash’s crew are slowly infected and consumed. Their skin take on a ghastly white appearance — a moldering rot envelopes their corporeal forms. One could almost feel the rot; a true visual feet when you consider the budget.
The remoteness of the location is what ultimately gives THE EVIL DEAD it’s most potent scares. Winds howl past the rustling fog of the Tennessee woods, doors slam shut, windows shatter. Standard fare for a cabin movie, but it all works here. The camera will often times barrel through doorways and careen past rustling trees, emulating the lingering spirits of the undead. The cabin is alive, and in need of living victims.
It’s difficult to gauge the influence of the Necronomicon on film. The grimoire’s prevalence in the lexicon is evident — almost every feature with a plot involving evil spirits owes it’s namesake to the dark text. But again, THE EVIL DEAD steers clear of any heady subject matter which might divert it’s narrative. In the diverging path of cinema, most films elect to weather the path of most expositional resistance. Why wade through the glut of redundancy and contrivance when the other path offers fun?
After all, horror has maintained it’s relevancy well into the 21st century because no other genre in the century-spanning story of film, other than the musical, can aspire to the rapture and purity of the visual art form. Horror taps into primal feelings. It conjures doubt and invokes pure terror. And, if done right, could delight and transcend.
Watch THE EVIL DEAD. It’s short, it’s fun, it’s important. The sequels speak for themselves, offering something radically different while still harkening back to their horror roots. That said, I recommend you watch this in a double feature with DRAG ME TO HELL, Raimi’s 21st century horror film that feels halfway anchored to his pre-SPIDERMAN roots, while still paving forward with what constitutes mainstream horror in the new millennium.