THE EVIL DEAD
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor
One of the big problems with writing about classic movies is that views are well established; there is little new to be said and the consensus is the film is, well, classic.
So what happens when you view something supposedly great and you don't agree? This is art of course, nobody's opinion is wrong. But you can run the risk of casting yourself out by swimming against the tide of something in the pantheon. Wherever I look, The Evil Dead is thought of as a classic.
Personally, I thought it stank.
Now, even if you love the film and instantly hate me for that line, stay with me a moment. Because, even though the film is poor in my view, I'm going to attempt to explain why I think that I can yet accept that it has a rightful place in the horror hall of fame.
What's that you say? A complete contradiction? Well maybe, let us see.
Firstly, here's why I think the film is poor: the narrative is paper thin, the characters thinner. The horror is recycled time and time again. The characters do stupid, stupid things for no reason. The continuity is all over the place. The acting is hackneyed. The exposition just hideously placed. The film is simply an excuse to use gross out special effects and it priorities them far above developing a good story.
Let me unfurl that some more. I did just go to town on the film with a chainsaw, the least I can do is to explain.
What we have in The Evil Dead is a groan-tastic premise to start with. Group of young guys and girls go to cabin in woods, awaken terrible evil, fight for survival. I'm okay with this. It was 1981, that's okay. We learn right away that something is out there in the woods and it's not feeling too friendly towards our heroes. There's some creepy set up stuff as they get to the cabin as apparently the presence awaits them. Then things kick into over drive when the gang find a perfectly preserved tape recorder which just happens to have the audio notes of a scholar working on the subject of evil spirits. While listening to said notes, the professor recites a chant which calls forth the dead.
Here I got confused. The dead were seemingly already up and about, trying to make mischief on the roads, calling "join us" through gaping windows and banging on trapdoors. Weren't they? I still can't quite understand what the chanting achieved but never mind, either way here come the Evil Dead of the title.
In the form of trees.
Ok never mind, just go with it. The trees entice Cheryl, previously distressed by haunting experiences in early scenes, outside (why go outside, what's that going to achieve? Never mind, just go with it). Then the trees rape her and apparently infect her.
Yes, that's right. Raped by trees.
Now for demons who can already knock down bridges, set up car accidents and open trap doors this seems odd, no? Oh well. I could probably live with it if the logic problems stopped there, only they don't. Later the demons just smash open a window and infect. Pencil stab in the ankle? Yep that'll work too.
We get characters doing bizarre things for no reason: nobody turning off the demonic summons despite some being completely uncomfortable with it; Scotty freaking out and running off into the woods because he thinks his chances are better there; Ash, despite everything he has seen and done, deciding to give Linda a 'proper burial', yep you guessed it, in the woods. "Escape with my life and come back with the authorities, you say? Madness! I'm going to bury this undead corpse in the middle of the night while demons are running around. Why wouldn't I?"
These logic gaps are partially interpreted as the product of the acute lack of character development. We really know nothing about the five characters, except that Scotty is a dick and Ash isn't. Ash loses his sister and girlfriend and barely bats an eyelid apart from the daft decision not to cut off his girlfriends corpse's head with a chainsaw despite what the pretty blatant advice he has been given (perhaps I just really wanted to see someone's head get cut off by then). Emotional fall out it seems, is one horror too many for Raimi.
Instead of dialogue, development and anything approaching intelligent exposition the film focuses on elaborate and overlong special effects to gross out. Obviously these date badly. Some work; the pencil in the ankle is the right note of semi funny-gross. But the lingering shots of decay, beatings and eventually corpses disintegrating gets old very quickly and one gets the feeling that Raimi was just using them to fill space where the story ran out and left the otherwise short running time even shorter.
Aaaaaah. That feels better having got that off my chest. Let me state again: I've got no issue with this movie being a horror classic - despite it not floating my personal boat. To me, the genre as much as any other is about independent film making. It's the genre that the 'little guy' has real chance to succeed in because of films like Evil Dead. When people go to horror they leave many of their artistic sensibilities at the door. They are there to be shocked, to laugh, to scream, to hide and to be grossed out. Those visceral reactions are more important to the success of a horror than crisp dialogue and a perfect three act structure. That's not to say Horror cannot tick these boxes - it can - read my articles on The Omen and Poltergeist to see examples. But the point is, these aren't essential qualities. It's more important to have fun and there is little denying that quality is there in the Evil Dead, even a structure basket-case like me can see it. The production's history also adds to the film's case for classic status. Raimi and star Bruce Campbell risked their own personal livelihoods to get the film made. Raimi promoted the film himself as well as writing and directing. Campbell secured his own assets to finance the film. When he wasn't on camera he helped the crew around the set. The shoot ran over and most actors had to be replaced by 'fake shemps' played by Raimi's brother. And let's not forget these guys were about 20 when they made this. Raimi would go on to become an internationally renowned director and Campbell didn't do too badly either. The film was a massive financial success and spawned a franchise and soon to be released remake.
It is impossible in my view not to be a little inspired by the story of how the Evil Dead was produced. In many ways that is a better story than the film itself has to offer. It should be noted by all aspiring film makers and writers as to what can happen if you're not afraid to take some risks, forget some rules and stick at it.
Watch it because: You need to see how things shouldn't be done, and how they should. Have fun.