Sunday, March 27, 2011

Raimifest Day 1: Within The Woods

Lets go back to the beginning. Within The Woods. The film that convinced a bunch of Midwestern dentists to give a couple hundred thousand dollars to three strange kids, led by a cocky twenty year old, who thought they could make a horror movie out in a cabin they knew about.

But of course that’s not really the beginning. The wonderful thing about Raimi is that the beginning truly seems to have been his beginning. Like a filmmaking John Henry, Raimi was born to make movies.

The DVD I own of Within The Woods includes other Raimi shorts that predate it; including the infamous Attack Of The Helping Hand:

Cleveland Smith: Bounty Hunter, and Torro Torro Torro. But according to Bill Warren’s The Evil Dead Companion I’m missing titles that come before that. Film’s like William Shakespeare: The Movie, It’s Murder, The Happy Valley Kid, Clockwork (Raimi’s first horror film), I’ll Never Heil Again, all the way back to Inspector Klutz Saves The Day, made when Raimi was ten.

This might seem like so much esoterica and undoubtedly it is. But it is also illustrative of something that is in the core of Raimi as a filmmaker, the thing I want to highlight with this blogothon, the irrepressible instinct towards filmmaking.

In today’s era of “light by eye” digital cameras and editing systems for the taking I feel like it may be lost on some of my younger readers just how remarkable this DIY instinct was. In the democratization of filmmaking a certain aspect of film production has been lost. It used to be, for independent filmmakers, the fact that you could make a film was as significant as the film itself. Filmmaking was not a lark, even the simplest required dedication that verged on monastic in the demands of the shooting, editing and expense of it’s making. Raimi embodied that dedication and he did it so lightly that the smirk never left his face.

So how is Within The Woods? Well the phrase “completists only” comes to mind. I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing, the film is fascinating in how it allows us to chart Raimi’s development as a filmmaker. Mostly because of what Raimi doesn’t do in it. Let me put it this way, I’ve never respected Evil Dead more than after watching Within The Woods.

So what is it that separates Within The Woods from Evil Dead? What is it that makes one an obscure test run and the other a cult classic?

Well the funny thing about Within The Woods is just how standard it is. Were it not for the presence of such Raimi regulars as Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss and Scott Spiegel one would hardly be able to differentiate it from any other bloody cheapie. The film follows a couple who goes camping in the woods and make the unwise decision to picnic over an old Indian Burial Ground. Bruce Campbell is possessed and chases the other back to a cabin where he kills their waiting friends.

If that sounds familiar it won’t be the last time. Much of the make up, props, concepts, lines, even entire sequences that will show up over the next two Evil Dead films are here, fully formed. Though little of their imagination, tension, humor or creativity is evident (truth in criticism the copy I have is ugly as sin. 8mm is a notoriously muddy stock to begin with, but my copy is obviously taken from what looks like an eighteenth generation dub of a VHS, with the tracking marks to prove it. Still I pride myself on thinking that I’d know a creative set up when I saw it. Mud or no.) In all fairness the film does have Raimi’s trademark gusto, sick creativity in its effects and aforementioned inherent joy in its making. The film does its moments, including a shot of a severed hand upsetting a board of monopoly that hints at the dark humor of the upcoming films and a nicely done stinger at the end. But it’s not where Within The Woods is similar to Evil Dead that is so important. It is the key places were the films diverge.

Contrast that dusty old “Old Indian Burial Ground” cliche to Raimi’s intricate and fractured Kandarian mythology. Compare the bland cast of Raimi’s short to the idiosyncratic cast of oddballs and chicken hearts who would popular Raimi’s later trilogy. Compare the standard jump scares to the demented anarchy of his later horror. Now obviously this is a short so a certain short hand is necessary for communication sake. The lesson Raimi seems to have taken from the film is that more of his personality in the film the better it would be. Few directors have been as well served.

Within The Woods is exactly what it looks like, a demo reel, a warm up, a film that bites at the chance to prove what they can really do. On those terms it succeeds beautifully. It was good enough to convince a bunch of Midwestern Dentists and it was good enough to convince me. Of course Raimi had just barely revealed his potential…


Stacia said...

Oh man, how great to see this short! an excellent write-up and opening salvo in the Raimifest.

I read in an interview somewhere (forgot where, of course) that Ellen has a very bad copy of this film herself, so I wonder if there are any GOOD copies?

Bryce Wilson said...

@Stacia: Thank you kindly. I don't know about a good copy of Within The Woods. 8mm is, I think the technical term is, "a bitch" so I kind of doubt it.

Neil Fulwood said...

A great curtain-raiser to the Raimifest, Bryce. Looking forward to your next piece.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Neil: Thank you sir. Sometimes you've gotta go to your roots.