Monday, March 28, 2011

Raimifest Day 2: Evil Dead

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.

The aesthetic is similarly divided, with the low rent scenes of the group of friends fucking around the cabin conflicting with the full on monsters who confront them. They feel as if they don’t belong together. As if the demons are intruding on a movie that didn’t expect them. Even Ash, though ably played by Campbell had yet to morph into the iconic wisecracking badass/chicken heart that would make him synonymous with awesome. His overriding persona is one of complete and total bewilderment. It feels wrong and isn’t that the essence of horror?

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?

They’re not.

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.


le0pard13 said...

I'm glad you lead with that particular one-sheet graphic for this post, Bryce. I saw THE EVIL DEAD in its first run at theaters almost entirely based upon it, along with Stephen King's gripping endorsement. And I believe you've nailed it at its core in your wonderful piece. Raimi certainly marked me because of that initial viewing. Thanks for this.

Budd said...

The movies definately get less scary and more funny as they progress. As two is mostly a remake, I wonder why it went that direction.

Adam Zanzie said...

It's still amazing to me that Raimi made this film on as small a budget as he did. Even if I prefer the big-budget madness of Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, the first Evil Dead remains inspirationally innovative, and I wish I had thought of that tyechnique of the unseen monster that snags Ash at the end.

Ever listen to Bruce Cambell's commentary track on the DVD? I love it when he gets to the tree rape scene and remarks, "You know, by this point in the movie, the women in the audience generally leave the theater, and... I have no idea why!

"Oh... THAT'S why."

Charles said...

I like this, but Evil Dead 2 is the best

Tom Clift said...

"queasy inconsistency"...I love that description.

You're completely right about this film; outside of the franchise, it's too horrifying to be laugh out loud funny, but too over-the-top to be taken completely seriously. Great piece.

On a sidenote, an arthouse cinema in Melbourne where I live is screening EVIL DEAD in May, and this blog-a-thon, and this piece in particular, have gotten me all the more intrigued to revisit it.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ le0pard13: Thanks man, it is a great poster. The King tagline was a great endorsement as well.

@ Budd: Well I think as it goes alon Raimi got more and more expiremental.

@ Adam: Oh I'm glad you mentioned that. His timing is PERFECT

@ Charles: Agreed.

@ Tom: Thanks man look forward to reading what you have to say .

J.D. said...

Excellent look at this gem of a horror film. I love the low-budget aesthetic as it really gives the film an authenticity, an edgy unpredictable nature that still holds up.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thank's JD. Unpredictable is about the perfect way to describe Evil Dead.

Biba Pickles said...

This instilled a fear of trees and being raped in one. RAPED BY TREES!