Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Director Report Card: Sam Raimi (1981)

Sam Raimi has had quite the life, hasn't he? To start, he was the premier cult filmmaker at one point. Beginning his career as, to quote Joe Bob Briggs, a “psychopath from Michigan,” Raimi would immediately win fans with his outrageous eighties horror films. He then made the leap to studio-produced action movies, which similarly became cult classics. From there, he surprisingly transferred to classy thrillers. That would be enough for most directors but then Raimi had a major role to play in opening the floodgates of the modern superhero genre. And, to think, it all started with 350,000 dollars and in a run-down cabin, somewhere in the Tennessee back hills...

1. The Evil Dead

By now, the behind-the-scenes story of “The Evil Dead” has long since passed into horror cinema legend. As teenagers, Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, Bruce Campbell and their other associates started making Super 8 movies in their backyards. Many of these were wacky comedies inspired by the Three Stooges. After a spooky sequence in a murder mystery parody called “It’s Murder!” was well received, Raimi and co. started to pursue horror movies. Using a thirty minute prototype called “Within the Woods,” they secured funding for a feature from local investors, many of which were dentists. The film was shot in the Tennessee backwoods with largely home-made equipment by an inexperienced crew. But you probably knew all of that already. “The Evil Dead’s” cult status truly proceeds itself. And yet, well over thirty years later, Sam Raimi's feature debut is still a massively entertaining burst of grisly creativity, widely imitated since but not quite like anything that came before it.

You probably already know the plot too but I’ll describe it as well. Five college students — Ash, his girlfriend Linda, his sister Cheryl, and his friends Scott and Sherry — head off to a secluded cabin in the woods for a weekend vacation. In the basement of the isolated location, Scott discovers several objects: a tape recorder, a strange book covered in unusual leather, a disturbing dagger. Upon playing the tape, they discover the book is an ancient tome full of dark incantations. And that the cabin was previously used by an archaeologist, who summoned up evil spirits by reading from the book. History repeats itself. Ash’s friends become possessed by demonic spirits and he’s soon fighting for his life.

Before writing “The Evil Dead,” Sam Raimi prepared by watching numerous horror films at the local drive-in. In many ways, the film shows this commitment to commercial formula. The story is extremely simplistic, not expanding far beyond the classic slasher movie concept of teens in an isolated location, dying in gory ways. Many horror cliches are present. Such as the cast ignoring countless ominous warnings to turn back. They continue ahead even after Scott’s hands are torn from the steering wheel by an unseen force, the porch swing moves in its own, and Cheryl is haunted by ghostly voices. By the time the kids play the spooky tape recorder, their own stupidity has sealed their fates. Other genre hallmarks, such as demented hillbillies and Indian burial grounds, clearly informed the film’s DNA without actually being present. (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes” were obvious influences, the poster for the latter even appearing on-screen.)

At the same time, “The Evil Dead” is bursting with creativity. The look and feel of the film is somewhat unprofessional. Even on the clearest Blu-Rays, the sets are dark. The editing can be harsh. The camera operation a bit loose in the earliest scenes. Yet this rawness is paired with a unbridled creativity. From the opening frame, the movie is alive with energy. The camera swoops and dives through the forest, pursuing the actors or twisting around the trees. Raimi repeatedly frames the action from unexpected angles, peering out from under trap doors or within an old clock. As the film goes on, Raimi’s camera work only grows more creative, boards inexplicably swooshing pass the viewer, each chase scene more wild and intense than the one before it.

While “The Evil Dead” is most remembered as a hyperkinetic type of horror, the original film is no slouch when it comes to old-school atmosphere and dread. The Unseen Force, the first-person perspective often chases the characters, suggests one of two things: Something so awful, the film dare not show it. Or, worst yet, a truly unseeable but malevolent force that causes everyone to run in terror anyway. This device frequently watches and observes the cast, disturbing any sense of comfort or privacy they might have. And when he’s not doing that, Raimi piles on billowing fog and pitch-black night, surefire ways to create a spooky feeling. All these tricks guarantee that “The Evil Dead” has a creepy tone throughout.

Yet maybe the creepiest element of the film is the cabin itself. This real world location provides excellent production values, a creakiness and sense of isolation that the filmmakers wouldn’t have been able to replicate otherwise. Raimi knows to hold the camera still while exploring the dark basement or the initially smoky interior of the building. This creates an unsettling feeling, where unnerving things — like a trapdoor slamming open in its own or voices compelling a girl to scratch images into her sketchbook — can happen. Increasingly cramped camera angles, especially tight close-ups or zooms on Bruce Campbell’s face, make the characters feel even more trapped in this damned location. This technique peaks during a scene where Ash chains up the possessed Linda and considers killing her with a chainsaw. The images come in frantic but tight shotgun blast edits.

As hard as the film works to create a spooky horror movie atmosphere, I don’t think that’s what impressed audiences the most about “Evil Dead” in 1981. Seeing the direction horror was heading in the late seventies and early eighties, Raimi decided to make as intense a splatter film, as wild an exploitation movie, as he could. And the results are still impressively transgressive. The film delights in twisting human bodies in painful ways, cracking limbs and slicing sinew. Eyes are gouged, hands are chewed off, bodies are chopped into pieces, pencils are stabbed into ankles. And, of course, there's a lot of blood. It spurts, bubbles, sprays, and gushes out of wounds, necks, and mouths. Raimi sought to violate his characters in other ways, with the notorious “tree rape” sequence. Though the filmmaker would later admit he regretted including the scene, it certainly provides a shocking moment of grotesque horror that audiences weren't likely to forget.

In fact, Raimi and his team push the gory special effects so far, that “The Evil Dead” soon transforms from grisly horror into something more surreal. During the scene where a possessed Sherry scratches Scott's face, the editing becomes strangely jagged, making the attack feel even more vicious. The low-fi quality to the special effects only add to this surreal quality. When being dismembered, the Deadites sometimes vomit milk for no reason. The way Linda's evil infection is shown spreading through her body via animation, an endearing touch. In the final minutes, the Evil Dead are brought to life through shambling stop-motion. “The Evil Dead” soon leans into this dream-like quality. As Ash is left as the sole survivor in the cabin, weird shit begins to happen. The mirror becomes a reflective pool of water. Strange sounds whoosh around his face. In other words, Raimi successfully creates a world where it feels like anything can happen, in service of startling or freaking out the audience.

“The Evil Dead” also creates a horror villain not totally like anything that came before it. Eventually dubbed the Deadites later in the series, they are half-way between zombies and demons. While being humans possessed by demonic spirits, the “possession” is spread like an infection via physical attacks. (And one of the victims is revived after they are killed.) More than their novelty, the Deadites are effectively intimidating creatures. The possessed Linda, with her doll-like eyes and sing-song-y voice, is especially creepy. The make-up, though clearly on the low-budget end of things, is memorable. The other Deadites become threats strictly by their refusal to die, the way they keep on coming and attacking regardless of how much abuse they take.

“The Evil Dead's” status as a non-professional film is most apparent in its cast. The acting in the film can best be described as raw. Richard DeManincor as Scott probably gives the roughest performances, much of his dialogue sounding deeply unnatural and the actor never appearing totally comfortable on-screen. Theresa Tilly is a little better as Shelly, though even she has her wooden moments. Ellen Sandweiss as Cheryl is definitely good at panicking, which is largely what the film requires her to do. Betsy Baker probably gives the best performance in the movie, as she makes the demonic Linda a genuinely spooky villain. Unsurprisingly, DeManincor stopped acting altogether not long after this while the three leading ladies disappeared from film for about two decades before they started popping up in various things.

And then, of course, there's Bruce Campbell. After years of being a cult icon, it's surprising to go back to the very beginning and see how awkward Campbell is as a performer. He stumbles through some of his dialogue. Whether it was a conscious decision or simply a result of his inexperience, Campbell's Ash emerges here as a somewhat nerdy guy. Yet Campbell has a quality that he would largely build his career: His sheer ability to absorb abuse. Throughout the film, Campbell is tossed into shelves and walls, punched or slammed into doors. He's covered entirely with fake blood. It's pretty impressive and that willingness to perform would eventually see Campbell evolve into a fantastic leading man. And, for all his flaws, Campbell is pretty much the sole star of the film's second half and does just fine in that regard.

The original “Evil Dead” is largely meant to be a serious horror movie. The “Evil Dead” sequels would become increasingly defined by comedy, causing many viewers to assume the original is meant to be funny as well. Or that it's some sort of ironic, “so-bad-it's-good” movie. However, if you look a little beneath the surface, there is a puckish sense of humor here. It's most evident in the scene where a lone Ash goes down into the basement. As the pipes choke and spurt blood all over him, a ragtime song kicks up on a record player. There's a frenzied wackiness to this moment that is obviously meant to be humorous. The way the music is reprised over the end credits also strikes me as a joke of sorts, a light-hearted kicker on the end of a gory, murder-filled horror movie. These moment point towards the direction the films would soon head in.

Essentially a glorified student movie, “The Evil Dead” would be picked up by New Line Cinema for a successful theatrical run before finding an even wider audience on video. Eighties horror fans, with access to brand new video rental stores and a hunger for the grisliest gore-fests they could get their hands on, happily embraced the film. This passionate cult following would only grow in scope and intensity over the years, causing “The Evil Dead” to become a hallmark of modern horror fandom. Which is pretty cool, considering it's a far rougher and weirder film than most of the mainstream franchises that define the genre. All of that aside, “The Evil Dead” is still as much crazy, creepy fun now as it was the first time I watched it. That inexhaustible factor may, in fact, be why fans come back to this one over and over again. [Grade: A-]

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