For all the cult love that has been thrown its way Evil Dead is a surprisingly hard movie to pin down, when you try to judge it on its own merits rather than those of the franchise that it happens to appear in.
Lets put it this way, if neither of its sequels existed do you think anyone would refer to Evil Dead as a horror comedy?
I think not.
Put another way, if none of its sequels existed would you think anyone would refer to Evil Dead as a “fun” movie?
Once again I think probably not.
Yet it would never easily rank next to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project or Night Of The Living Dead. Its flavor is not the stark, merciless horror that one associates with low budget productions. When you talk about those movies phrases like “documentary” “newsreel” or in TCM’s case even “Snuff” are used to describe the vibe of the movie. Which is something that you’d never say about Evil Dead, with its stop motion effects and fountains of gore. Archness isn’t the right word, but it’s the closest that comes to mind unless I want to use the unhelpfully vague “strange”. There’s just no getting around the fact that Evil Dead is an inescapably odd movies. It’s as if someone made a Looney Tunes cartoon about a grisly murder.
Yet I would argue that it is exactly this queasy inconsistency of tone that makes the film so unforgettable. When you see it you immediately want to go back and figure out what you’ve just seen. Like the infamous tree rape you’re pretty sure you’ve just seen a joke but it’s a pretty fucking bleak one.
Perhaps it’s that ambition to offer that sense of bewilderment, that cousin of awe that truly separates Evil Dead from its fellow independent brethren. Horror has long been the go to genre for the poor and ambitious (or greedy) precisely because it is so easy to do. Take a bunch of young kids who won’t ask for much money, stick them somewhere isolated and have another young kid in a mask pretend to stab them. Bingo bango you’re halfway home. I of course don’t mean to disparage this type of independent horror film. Obviously there is that purity of vision and skill that separates the films in that form. That separates the wheat of your Halloween’s and Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s from the disposable chaff that swims feebly in their wake.
My point is simply how Evil Dead doesn’t play remotely by that rulebook or anything like it (Phantasm would be the only film that springs to mind with similar ambition). Not content with a psycho in a mask with a kitchen implament, or even a restless spirit from an old Indian Burial Ground, The threat in Evil Dead has immensity. Lovecraftian Demon’s called from the outer dark who shrug on human bodies as easily as worn hoodies and with as little resistance. An entire woods mobilized against the helpless victims and of course the signature visual of the series, an immense force so great so terrifying that it cannot even be contained by the camera, creeping through the woods with terrible omniscience. How are the callow heroes supposed to stand up to such power?
Evil Dead has laughs that stick in the throat and taste like pennies. It has scares but they don’t so much scare as they do profoundly unsettle. They add up to something unforgettable.