Posts Tagged ‘the tree does WHAT to her?’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 6th 2003:

I was coming out of the local multiplex’s regular Tuesday night Director’s Chair screening when I overheard one of the lads in front of me complaining. ‘That woman in front of me was really winding me up,’ he said. ‘She was laughing at it, but because she thought it was shit, not because she was getting that it’s supposed to be like that.’ Clearly a perceptive chap, being able to distinguish between the sound of someone-laughing-because-they-realise-something’s-deliberately-OTT and that of someone-laughing-because-they-just-think-something’s-bad. And a rather fine distinction come to that, especially when the film in question is Sam Raimi’s legendary (not to mention notorious) 1982 debut, The Evil Dead.

(Sitting in a theatre watching The Evil Dead almost exactly a week after seeing Donnie Darko was a vaguely unnerving experience, as fans of the latter film will appreciate. Looking on the bright side, I wasn’t suddenly joined by a time-travelling revenant in a bunny costume inciting me to arson, but then again neither was I on a date with Jena Malone. A score draw, I think.)

The ancient print the multiplex had laid their hands on did an uncannily good job of evoking the underground, outlaw vibe a film like this gives off. It crackled, it jumped, scratches riddled the screen… but thankfully not enough to obscure the story, which goes a little something like this: in true low-budget horror movie style, five young people drive out to a house in the mountains for a short break. Three of them are girls, two of them aren’t. One of the ones who isn’t a girl is Ash, played – and not underplayed, I assure you – by Bruce Campbell. Ash’s best friend is pleased because the rental on the house is so cheap. But is this due to the fact that the previous tenant carelessly left the house, its cellar, and the woods around it crawling with vicious, bad tempered entities who object to holidaymakers? Could be…

Okay, cards on the table: The Evil Dead is one of the most primitive films I’ve ever seen. The scantness of the budget is obvious in every frame, whether it be in the graininess of the film stock, the amateurish performances of most of the cast, or the not-very-special effects. Its shortcomings aren’t simply financial either: it has virtually no plot beyond a succession of set pieces which nearly all revolve around people being stalked by demons or the occurence of extremely violent carnage. It has almost no characterisation. It has no subtext, no hidden meaning. What horror it manages to evoke either comes from basically either shouting ‘boo!’ at the audience unexpectedly or trying to induce nausea by the sheer extremity of the subject matter.

But I have to say, it’s terribly entertaining.

What makes it work above all else is Sam Raimi’s supremely energised direction, which constantly involves and surprises the viewer: whether it be with a relentless demon’s-eye-view tracking shot or an eccentric choice of camera angle (from under the dashboard of a car, inside a clock, through a half-open trapdoor – even at one point treating us to a close-up of the interior of the heroine’s nostrils – Raimi keeps delivering the goods). And to be fair to him the film swerves back and forth across the border between genuine horror, and blatant self-parody, with some deftness. The early sections, with a slow build-up to the first demonic possession, are genuinely creepy and disturbing – most obviously the infamous moment when one character is sexually assaulted by a tree – as is a sequence near the climax where reality seems to be coming unravelled around lone survivor Ash.

But it’s the rest of the film that earned The Evil Dead its reputation as a video nasty and it’s a reputation it sort of deserves. It is violent. It is very violent. But it’s so violent, the quantities of fake gore so massive, the dismemberment and carnage so ludicrously over the top, the special effects so rudimentary, that rather than soul-crunching horror the final effect is of a high-camp bloodbath. It’s impossible to take seriously, and certainly at the screening I went to the theatre was filled with the sound of laughter. Certainly Raimi’s choice of the theme from ‘Thoroughly Modern Milly’ as his closing music suggests he has his tongue firmly in cheek (or more likely bursting gorily through it).

Of course, as well as establishing Raimi as a director to watch, The Evil Dead made a cult figure of star and co-producer Bruce Campbell. (The subsequent disparity between the career trajectories of the two can be simply summed up – Raimi’s last directorial gig was the mega-blockbuster Spider-Man, while Campbell’s most recent starring role was in the slightly lower-profile Bubba Ho-Tep.) As someone used to Campbell’s rather energetic style of performance I was surprised at how restrained he was for the first two-thirds of this film. But as the gore starts to flow in earnest the familiar Campbellisms – the eye-rolling, the twitching, the frantic mugging to camera – all appear. Bruce Campbell is a one-of-a-kind performer but his style suits this film perfectly.

Is The Evil Dead one of the greatest horror movies ever made? Erm, I would venture that it isn’t. It’s too strange and funny and uneven for that. But it is a sickly entertaining film, a terrifically directed one, and one I suspect I’ll remember for a long time. Cult? Definitely. Classic? Hmmm…

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