Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Halloween Horror Countdown #1: The Evil Dead (1981)
When I was a kid, I used to hear my older brothers talk about The Evil Dead with something akin to frightened awe. When I was old enough to buy these kinds of movies on my own, I picked up a VHS copy of The Evil Dead 2 at a local Target. Frankly I was a little disappointed at the time with some of that movie's absurd humor, though I eventually grew to appreciate it. I soon went back to Target and found the original film, also on VHS. I hadn't seen that many horror films at this point in my life, but the night I watched The Evil Dead in my parents' darkened basement, I knew I was seeing something special.
Evil Dead is not a film that's heavy on set-up. A group of five friends travel to a cabin in the woods for a vacation. While fooling around in the basement of the cabin, they find a gnarled old book and a strange skull-hilted dagger. Investigating further, they listen to an old audiotape that reveals that the book is in fact the Naturan Demanto1, an ancient Sumerian compendium of demon resurrection spells and other nasty stuff. The voice on the tape recites some of these spells and all hell breaks loose as demons begin to possess members of the group and even the trees themselves spring to malevolent life.
Okay, maybe that doesn't sound so unique. So what makes this movie so good? Evil Dead succeeds in spite of its simplistic plot and shoestring budget by playing the horror straight and to the hilt. Once the movie gets going, it doesn't break up the atmosphere with humor or irony. The viewer gets precious little room to breathe. This isn't a film where there's a creepy killer skulking in the shadows, it's a movie about monsters - demonic zombies - trying to rip people apart in a foaming frenzy of violence. No one is ever killed with a quick knife in the belly. Every single monster attack quickly turns into a brutal wrestling match, always festooned with veritable buckets of gore. It's visceral stuff, not entirely dissimilar in tone to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it works extremely well.
The movie does allow for some creepier moments. When Linda, the girlfriend of our protagonist Ash, is possessed by one of the demons, she doesn't bother to attack Ash outright. Instead, it torments him by switching back and forth between Linda's regular appearance and its grotesque demonic visage. When Ash is attacked by another monster, the possessed cadaver of his own sister Sheryl, Linda doesn't bother to join in - she just sits in the doorway and laughs and laughs and laughs....It's unnerving stuff. It also goes to show that even though the demons are flesh-tearing murder machines, they're also possessed of a malevolent intelligence.
Evil Dead's does a great job of allowing the setting to play naturally into the pacing of the film. We learn early in the film, thanks to a surprisingly graphic sequence in which a woman is assaulted by animated trees, that the cabin is the only remotely safe place available to the protagonists. Unfortunately, one of their number is soon possessed and thus the shelter is compromised. It forces the characters to face certain death in the woods or take their chances with the monsters already inside the cabin. There's no real safety, no time to stop and think. In the few sequences when any of the characters are forced to venture outside of the cabin, it's a pretty harrowing experience. The audience knows that there are things in the woods, as we've spent much of the film watching the "evil cam" streak through the darkness in first person, shattering windows and knocking down trees. We have no idea what they look like or what they're capable of, but we know these things are there. Thus it makes sense for the characters to remain in the cabin to face the demons inside - they aren't stupid horror movie characters, they're just choosing the lesser of two terrible options.
I've avoided mentioning him so far, but Ash is kind of the elephant in the room here. This character is, of course, the most famous role of Bruce Campbell, b-movie actor extraordinaire. Most viewers think of Ash as a snarky, sarcastic bad-ass. That's true of his later incarnations in the sequels, video games, and comics that Evil Dead would eventually spawn, but in the original film nothing could be further from the truth. Ash is portrayed in this film as the most unlikely hero of all; a lanky, uncoordinated fella' who spends most of the initial demon attack pinned under a bookcase. He's not a pre-destined monster fighting machine, he's not the chosen one, he's just a guy.
If anyone in this movie seems like a likely hero, it's Ash's knife-toting buddy Scott. Hell, Scott fistfights his own possessed girlfriend, then hacks her carcass apart with an axe. Pretty awesome, huh? Unfortunately he also abandons his friends and tries to flee to safety through the woods. Ash is left to fend for himself until Scott, torn to shreds by his possessed trees, staggers back to the cabin. The moment when Scott expires, leaving Ash, and the audience, to realize that he's the last one left, is a chillingly despairing scene. For the rest of the movie he's not so much fighting the monsters as he is just trying to survive until morning. Alone, desperate, and frankly scared shitless, Ash may be one of the most genuine horror movie protagonists ever.
Evil Dead's special effects have a crude genuineness to them. Caked on makeup, makeshift prostheses, and more Karo syrup blood than you can imagine all combine to create something more than the sum of its parts. Everything looks gritty and tangible. Granted, some of the effects look pretty primitive, such as the sequence in which Ash slices off a demon's head with an shovel, but in this sort of movie it works. Keep in mind that this movie was made by a relatively small crew that was more or less making up the special effects as they went along. In that context, it's pretty impressive stuff despite the occasional rough edges.
As you may have guessed, I strongly recommend this movie for anyone with even a passing interest in the horror genre. It's been imitated, parodied, and has even spawned an upcoming remake, but the original Evil Dead remains a titan among horror films. I've spent many a Halloween night sitting around with the lights off watching Evil Dead and passing out candy. In terms of mandatory Halloween viewing, the only film I can imagine ever supplanting this one in my own pantheon is a certain John Carpenter flick...
Well, there you have it. The Halloween Horror Countdown is complete. It's been a lot of work, but it's also been a lot of fun. I hope you've enjoyed spending October here with me. Thanks for reading and Happy Halloween!
1.) It's not called the Necronomicon until the sequel, much to the annoyance of those of us who've tried to make "super-cuts" of all three films put together.