Friday, August 1, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead (1981)
Directed by Sam Raimi, Produced by Robert Tapert, Written by Sam Raimi, Starring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker and Sarah York

The Evil Dead was the first movie I ever rented. I grew up in Millinocket, Maine and the one movie theater in town went out of business in the early 80’s. A few years later the first video store opened in almost the same location, and the second I had enough cash saved up (probably from a dishwashing job) I went and rented The Evil Dead.

I was already a horror fan at that point, but a frustrated one. There just weren’t many outlets for my interests, not in rural Maine. When I was little I could sometimes catch horror movies late at night on Saturdays on a program called Weird II out of Bangor (sneaking out to hide behind the couch as my parents watched). They ran mostly old black and white horror and sci-fi films – movies like Trog and Earth vs The Flying Saucers - though you'd get the occasional color film. I think I saw The Blob for the first time on Weird II. They were all censored for TV of course, not that they needed to be. They weren’t showing Halloween or even Night of the Living Dead.

There was also a drive-in in Medway, and they ran the occasional fright flick. I remember being somewhat jealous that a friend’s older brother had gone to see Motel Hell. I never got a chance to go myself, as that also went out of business long before I was old enough to drive.

For more recent films all I really had was Fangoria – and I couldn’t afford it myself, so I’d pore over my friend John’s copies. It was through Fangoria that I first heard about this crazy, gory movie called The Evil Dead. I don’t remember much about the article, but I do remember two distinct words that stuck out at me: Bodily. Dismemberment. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see the movie after reading that. Those words coupled with a picture of some guy with a bloody axe made the movie look and sounded dangerous. Like it might scar me for life.

So of course I HAD to see it! 

Back then, nobody I knew owned a VCR. You had to rent the machine at the same time as the tape. The equipment was roughly the size of an air conditioner, and just about as heavy. Somehow I lugged the giant thing home, figured out how to plug it into our small TV, and settled down with the whole family to watch. Including my mom.

The thing I remember most distinctly is that about a third of the way into the movie Mom got up to make some popcorn. So she missed the whole ‘tree rape’ scene. Otherwise the movie would have been stopped and she would have made me return it. THAT was the most terrifying moment – wondering if my mom was going to come back into the room before the nastiness was over. She was pretty upset at the rest of the movie as it was.

I LOVED it. Love, love, loved it. It was the combination of quirky camerawork, sharp editing, gore, and humor that won me over. I’ve watched a lot of horror movies since then, but I have a soft spot for Evil Dead. It was the first movie I bought (on VHS) and the second I purchased on DVD. 

The Medium
I’ve got three different versions of The Evil Dead (my VHS copies having long ago been given away). There’s the Anchor Bay “Book of the Dead” version, which is my usual go-to copy. (Even if my cat always tries to chew on the rubber ‘face.’) I’ve also got the Elite edition as well, because (at the time) it was the only way to see the film in its original aspect ratio. My most recent purchase was the Blu-ray release from Anchor Bay, which was the version I watched for this review.

I'm not the most technically inclined person when it comes to movies, so I don't spend a lot of time worrying about DNR, edge enhancement and color timing. I will say that the level of film grain on the blu-ray is pretty distracting for the first few minutes. This is a film that was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, so an increased level of grain is to be expected, but it almost looks like the film is layered on top of tiny, constantly moving marbles. After those first few minutes your eye stops paying attention to that, though, and the color, detail and depth is about as good as you can expect for a film of that age and quality. If you don't mind the grain, this is the best option if you want a copy of the film.

The Movie
The plot of the film is that most basic of horror movie plots: a group of people go to a remote location, bad stuff happens. I don't know if this was the first 'cabin in the woods' movie, but it's the definitive one - the template from which numerous other movies have been derived. As with other touchstone genre movies (examples: Halloween for slasher movies, The Exorcist for satanic/possession movies) the imitators have generally captured only details and failed to live up to the spirit and innovation of the original.

I always get sucked in right from the start, with that great, disturbing shot - the POV of... something, careening madly through the woods. Famously shot with a camera nailed to a board, the low angle and creepy audio are intercut with introductory shots of our cast as they make their way up a lonely road. The characters are a bit goofy - Ash in particular, with that smarmy grin - but they're economically introduced and the moment when Scotty loses control of the car is sold well.

Watching it this time I was struck by this whole sequence and where it fits in the sequence of events. The vast majority of the awful things that happen are a direct result of the tapes that Ash brings up from the basement and plays - the 'demon resurrection passages' that awake 'something dark in the woods.' However, there's this force roaming the woods from the very first shot. It seems to be the same force that attacks Ash at the very end, so what is it? Is it related - maybe the intial force woken by the narrator of the tapes, still wandering the forest as a disembodied presence? Or is it just a cool bit that Raimi included to spice things up at the start of the movie?

Regardless, it does a nice job of setting the tone and that continues through one of my favorite sequences, which is the approach and entering of the cabin. I love that slow drive down the path, the rhythmic pounding of the swing against the wall that stops abruptly when Scotty gets the keys. I even like the way Scotty is hesitant in this scene - one of the only times the character seems like anything other than a jerk.

Another thing I noticed this time is how cleaned up Scotty's approach to the cabin is. I remember distinctly that this scene was blurry and scratchy on the old VHS versions. It's still pretty low quality, but it's significantly better than it used to be.

Pretty soon the narrative settles down into a possess/attack/possess/bury/attack/possess rhythm that keeps things moving and guarantees things never slow or get drawn out. The few moments of quiet that the film allows for are really nothing more than pauses to get you to let your guard down before springing the next splatstick moment of over the top gore at you.

When I first saw this movie it scared the crap out of me. It's hard to imagine that now, but the humor didn't jump out at me as much back then. Now it's almost impossible to disregard, but there are still moments of tension and Ellen Sandweiss as Shelly is particularly good at selling the fear. (And the horror - her possessed makeup scared the crap out me.)

For my money the best, most horrific sequence is when Ash descends into the basement, looking for shotgun shells. This is really when Raimi comes into his own, with great camera movement and weird, bloody set pieces. The humor is there as well - the jazz track that plays, for instance - but the blood and shadows and pacing make for an arresting and bizarre sequence.

Bruce Campbell has become a cult icon now, but his Ash in this movie is only a shadow of the chin he would become. Mostly ineffective and a little whiny, Ash only gets the spotlight after everyone else gets picked off. There's only a little of the wit and attitude that will come to define the character in later films - but there's still some of that smarmy charm and ability to take a punch or five. 

The Bottom Line
If I’m honest, it hasn’t aged terribly well. It’s still a fun movie, and it has a lot of great moments. But my memory of it doesn’t jive with the reality. The acting is wooden, the writing is worse. The cinematography ranges from excellent to barely watchable. I like practical effects, so I still find the gore to be pretty well done, but there are problems with consistency and some pretty obvious ‘stand-in’ shots. Editing was pretty tight at first but gets sloppier as it goes (though this may be due to lack of coverage). For instance – when Ash is descending into the cellar to get shells you can distinctly see a wood-panelled wall behind him at the top of the stairs. That’s just one of a myriad of small mistakes you see more and more of as the film progresses.

But I STILL love it. The sheer energy and innovation propels everything along. Raimi has since become a big-budget director, of course, and you can see the beginnings of great things here. There are moments of absolutely great horror – that aforementioned basement scene is just fantastic. I love the stop-motion effects at the end. Bruce Campbell has that goofy charisma and it keeps you pulled into the film, even when he’s being completely ineffectual. As the credits rolled I leaned back into my chair with a satisfied sigh.

In pieces, it doesn’t hold up. As a whole, I think it still does.

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