August 25, 2008

The Evil Dead (1981)

If there really is a decisive factor in the making of a movie, without a doubt that would be creativity, because as in every art, on creativity depend the way the other available elements will be employed. For example, the way budget will be spent will depend on it, and therefore whether a desired effect for a scene will get done with what the budget allows. And while it could be assumed that creativity is an integral part of the film-making process, there are times when it seems as if literally there had not been any drop of creativity in the whole movie; but of course, there are also movies in which it's pretty noticeable that at the time it was done, a marvelous overdose of creativity filled the film's cast and crew. Sam Raimi's feature length debut, "The Evil Dead", is one of those movies. After nearly 4 years of shooting with limited budget, producer Robert Tapert, director Sam Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell created "The Ultimate Experience In Grueling Terror", still one of most influential horror films of all time.

"The Evil Dead" is the story of five friends, students at Michigan State University on a trip to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of nothing but fun. Everything seems to be going nice until they stumble upon a bizarre looking book and a tape recording while searching the basement of the cabin. Out of curiosity, they decide to play the tape, not knowing that this event will unleash powerful demonic horrors from the woods as the book happens to be a legendary black arts grimoire named The Book of the Dead, and the tape contains the incantation to resurrect demons. The forces of evil begin to terrify the youngsters, determined to kill them and possess their bodies. At first everyone is in disbelief, but after one of the girls, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), is brutally attacked by the woods, her brother Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his best friend Scott (Richard DeManincor) begin to take the spirits more seriously. However, the night seems eternal and Cheryl is now possessed by the Evil.

Written by director Sam Raimi, "The Evil Dead" had its origin in "Within the Woods", a previous short film done by Rami (also with Tapert and Campbell) about students fighting demonic possession deep in the woods. In "The Evil Dead", Raimi keeps the same basic premise, but fleshes out the story with the addition of an interesting mythology centered around the quite Lovecraftian concept of the Book of the Dead (the sequels would reinforce this by naming the book as Lovecraft's "Necronomicon"), which opens the door to fantasy elements and allows Raimi to go wild with many imaginative concepts that result in making "The Evil Dead" more than the typical story about demonic possession. And while at its core the plot is truly simple (and the characters are also pretty basic), the movie's mix of horror and black comedy truly works, mainly because it never takes itself too seriously and always keeps a sense of self-awareness without becoming a parody of itself.

Now, while the story may not be the most complex or profound, the directing of the film is truly where the film shines the most, with Sam Raimi's highly inventive camera work using the camera to not only create the proper atmosphere, but as a character itself, making it the point of view of the unseen forces that lurk in the woods. Using this style, Raimi toys with suspense in great fashion, once again proving that sometimes "less is more". Nevertheless, "The Evil Dead" is not exactly a subtle horror film, as while the atmospheric camera work plays a big role in the movie's success, most of the film's charm really comes from its wild scenes of shock and gory horror. Tom Sullivan's impressive makeup is another of the film's highlights, as he made wonders with the shoestring budget the crew had to work with; and finally, the special effects by Bart Pierce (and Sam Raimi himself) are, while dodgy and somewhat poor, very well done for the budget and more important, in harmony with the non-serious tone of the film.

The acting isn't really anything special, and some would even say it's downright poor, but personally, I think it's not exactly bad, just plain average, in the sense that it just what's necessary to get the job done and nothing more. In his first time in role that would give him cult icon status, Bruce Campbell is very effective and gives one of the best performances in the film. Always with the tongue firmly in cheek, Campbell makes a good "hero" and it's no wonder that his cool yet sometimes silly Ash J. Williams would become a legendary character in the sequels. Ellen Sandweiss is also great as Cheryl, a character that has to endure a lot of what Raimi and company prepared for the film. The rest of the cast is probably less lucky, but actually not that bad. As Scott, Richard DeManincor has some good moments and while probably of a less shocking nature than Sandweiss' scenes, Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly also made a good, albeit somewhat restrained job.

It's fair to point out that given the long production time the film had, many actors weren't available through most of the shooting (only Campbell was consistent), so many times someone else (among them Dorothy Tapert and Ted Raimi) would step into the role. While the acting may feel at times amateurish (it's perhaps the worst thing about the film), the cast always seems to be having fun, which I think it's something that helps the movie to keep that campy tone. Like the acting, the special effects aren't exactly top notch, but again, Raimi uses this to the film's advantage and just keeps everything very surreal, on a fantasy level that allows him to take this liberties. Drawing inspiration from many sources (zombie films, the Three Stooges, Lovecraft's books and Jack Woods' 1970's film "Equinox", among others), Raimi conceived a roller-coaster of horror and gore (and goo) that despite its many shortcomings, it's simply very entertaining, and I guess that in the end it's that what really counts.

I guess "The Evil Dead" is truly one of those cases when one either loves a film or completely hates it, but no matter how one feels about it, I think it's hard to deny that what Raimi, Tapert and Campbell (and their crew) pulled off with their very limited budget is nothing short of amazing, in the sense that with nothing more than their creativity and willpower, the three friends created a film that had more ideas than what's usually seen in independent horror (even today). "The Evil Dead" marked the beginning of Raimi's career, and while he became a major director thanks to the great commercial success of his "Spider-Man" films (20 years after unleashing the Evil in the woods), to many horror fans and aspiring filmmakers, his "Evil Dead" is still the proof that sometimes all a movie need is heart.


Buy "The Evil Dead" (1981)


Paxton Hernandez said...

Agree 100% with you, man. I would dare to call this thing "a twisted masterpiece".

"Goo" haha. I love how that word sounds...


J Luis Rivera said...

"Twisted masterpiece"? Yeah, that's a great and very accurate way to describe it.


Zuazua said...

ED is rare example in which a very low buget film, with awful acting and seemingly homemade special effects actually ends up being very good and entertaining, in fact a top-notch horror film IMHO. A true classic, albeit clearly overshadowed by its totally awesome sequel. As far as I can recall, I have seen it just once on TV, it needs more exposition.

I guess I have never seen Bruce Campbell as "badassless" as in this film, not even in his Herbie role. It was a clever move from Raimi to make the sequel so strikingly similar to the first film but at the same time being original with the reinvention of the Ash character. Unfotunately a good chunk of my respect for him went down the drain after Spiderman 3.

Very nice review my friend!