The Evil Dead (1982)
It's 1982, and amongst the polished studio horror and the repetitive indie slashers, a tiny little film from an unknown director pops onto the scene. At first glance, it appears to be much of the same - it's populated with college students, a nubile woman with not enough clothing runs through the woods, and there's an intense-looking guy with an axe and a chainsaw.
Then again, the college students become the bad guys, the nubile woman was just raped by a tree, and the slightly insane fellow with the sharp instruments is the hero. The tiny little film is, of course, The Evil Dead, the unknown is Sam Raimi (Spider-man), and the experience is unlike anything anybody had seen before.
Five college students (including Bruce Campbell as Ash, the character that launched his career) head up to a cabin in the woods for a little weekend getaway. They find a recording of a professor reading incantations meant to raise evil spirits, and, being young and deeply stupid, play it. You can imagine what happens afterwards, but it's hard to grasp just how much it happens without seeing it first-hand.
Raimi's primary cinematic influences weren't Terence Fisher, George Romero, James Whale, or even Powell & Pressburger. He learned his lessons at the banged-up knees of Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe. His intense love of The Three Stooges seems an odd complement to horror, but he makes it work. Somewhere under the shock scares and the creeping suspense of The Evil Dead are the roots of brilliant comic timing, running amuck.
This is not a comedy, though. It never forgets that it is first and foremost a "knock 'em outta their seats" horror picture. This is not to say that it isn't funny. There are laughs to be had, but they're a bit grotesque. It's the humor of desensitization - the film gets so gory, so violent, and so overwhelming that eventually, you just have to smile when the demon girl's getting bashed in with a huge plank of wood for the seventh time.
It's also the rare low budget film where the compromises of being broke and amateur has actually enhanced the flavor over the years. Continuity is absolute crap - the actors playing the possessed will suddenly be replaced by somebody of a different build and gender for a few seconds and then switch back. However, The Evil Dead embraces these flaws, even going so far to give those brief stand-ins the nickname of "Fake Shemps." This is a movie so unabashed about its own making and the problems therein that it's nearly impossible to really fault it for them. It becomes simply another wrinkle in the experience.
It's a testament to Raimi that the comic pedigree, the continuity issues, and the excessive everything can actually be listed as points in the film's favor. Raimi had no formal training and didn't know how things were done in most movies. He just figured out the movie he wanted to make and then figured out how he was going to make it. Campbell's book, "If Chins Could Kill," is filled with anecdotes about how certain shots were accomplished (and there's diagrams, too!). Sure, the devices they came up with were unorthodox and awkward, but there was a certain makeshift genius to them.
The cinematography that is bolstered by that improvisational equipment is innovative and clever. Unseen forces come barreling through the woods in the first-person, faces are shown at unsettling angles, and objects loom like horribly inanimate monsters. The Evil Dead was shot in 16mm for budgetary reasons, but Raimi makes full use the one major advantage the format has over 35mm - depth of field. As viewers, we're forced to watch everything on every plane of vision, even if its horrifying and gross. Stabbings by pencil are thrust into the forefront of the scene while Campbell reels from a bad knock in the background.
Well, really, Campbell is on the receiving end of a lot of violence in this film. Viewers used to Ash the swaggering blowhard from Army of Darkness will find a few surprises here. Ashley J. Williams is the sensitive guy, the romantic, the wuss. When the chips are down and demonically possessed friends need dismembering, he's the guy frozen in the corner, clutching the axe to his chest with shaky hands. Later, he develops into a more active character out of necessity, but it seems like Raimi just has too much fun beating the crap out of his childhood friend. He even gets tossed through two bookcases. Campbell takes it all on his gigantic chin like a pro. He must have enjoyed something about it, because he lets Raimi abuse him even further in two sequels.
Tom Sullivan's a name in makeup that you simply don't hear that much - mainly because The Evil Dead was one of only a handful of effects credits (most of them in Raimi films). This is a shame, because a lot of his work is pretty good given the budget he was working with. There's some pretty transparent effects, sure, but Sullivan had the uneasy task of making the Fake Shemps look like the actors they were replacing. Given that the Shemps were typically chosen for their ability to be an available person when Raimi needed a stand-in and not, say, actual physical similarity, his work is really hard to denigrate. It works. Mostly. Besides, who can forget the image of the blood-drooling she-demon in the cellar? That kind of lasting visual takes talent.
Appearances can be deceiving. The tiny little film went on to be one of the most popular videos of all time, spawning two theatrical sequels. The unknown director moved on to work with folks like Liam Neeson, Gene Hackman, Sharon Stone, and finally scored consecutive $700M+ grossing films with Spider-man and its follow-up. And for the first-time viewer of The Evil Dead? Nothing is ever quite the same.
The voice of the professor on the tape that sets the story in motion is none other than American Movie Classic's own Bob Dorian.
Filmed in an actual abandoned cabin (as opposed to a fake abandoned cabin).
Principal photography took place in the winter of 1979-1980.