Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 11: "The Evil Dead" by David Pretty

Greetings Deadites and Dead-ettes!

I recently re-watched The Evil Dead for a blog entry I wrote about movies that scared the crap out of me as a kid.  Alas, the digital era and even the film's own creators haven't been particularly kind to the old girl.  So much so that my viewing experience the other night became an exercise in cataloging one now glaringly obvious flaw after another.  

Does this mean that the film no longer holds any appeal?  Hells, no!  Ponder this esoteric segue as you watch the film's still-atmospheric trailer...


Although Evil Dead 2 (and especially Army of Darkness) is regarded as the horror comedy, there's still a lot of black humor in the first film as well.  This is made especially apparent if you make the glorious error of listening to the hilarious Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell DVD commentary in which the director and lead gleefully inventory all of the film's warts.
The Evil Dead was made on a budget so low it makes Napolean Dynamite look like Avatar.  I'm pretty sure that director Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert would never have guessed that their cheaply assembled little horror picture would one-day fall under the merciless magnifying glass of digital home video.  Indeed, the realm of hi-definition is downright cruel to The Evil Dead.  It makes every blemish stand out like pimples in a grad photo.   

I really do believe that certain movies are only meant to be seen in a run-down theater or on a crappy VHS cassette passed around more times then the Pamela Anderson sex tape. And that's the way I first saw The Evil Dead: via a magnetized strip of thin black plastic that provided a suitable filter of concealment for this acne-ridden cinematic hellraiser.        

As a neophyte horror film aficionado, my rendezvous with The Evil Dead was inevitable.  After all, Stephen King had proclaimed it to be "the most ferociously original horror film of the year".  Squeamish Baby Boomer Horror anthology writers constantly referred to it as vile and loathsome.  It had also been banned in several countries and the U.K even went so far as to add it to their notorious list of "Video Nasties" alongside such charming titles as The Beast in Heat, Deep River Savages and Gestapo's Last Orgy.  

So, by the time I'd gotten a chance to slip that  ratty old videocassette into the willing maw of my "Panavonic" brand VCR, I was already soundly convinced that what I was about to see was pure cinematic evil.  Even more evil then Sarah Palin's Alaska.  And let me assure you, folks, the first time I experienced The Evil Dead, I certainly didn't see any matte lines around the moon, seams in the prosthetic makeup or dwell on the lousy performances.  First I was intrigued, then I was horrified and finally I was thoroughly repulsed all in one economic sitting.

WARNING: This review is tad more "spoileriffic" then average so BEWARE!

In The Evil Dead, five (very) senior college students travel to the world's most decrepit cabin, practically abandoned in the Tennessee back woods.  Even before someone has a chance to crack a beer, the flighty, artsy Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) starts to uncontrollably scrawl away in her sketch pad, eventually drawing an evil-looking book with a face on it.  Apparently nonplussed by this interlude of demonic possession, she then proceeds to act as if she's just been visited by her muse. 

In a wacky co-incidence, Ash (Bruce Campbell) and Scotty (Hal Delrich) find a nasty-looking tome and a tape recorder down in the cellar.  When they play the tape, it spouts off a chilling Sumerian incantation from the accompanying flesh-bound Necronomicon, or the colorfully titled "Book of the Dead".  The next thing we know, demonic McNasties spring up in the woods and start to assail the cabin in an effort to possess the "kids".  One stomach-churning set-piece follows after another. 

Nowadays, it's really hard for me to believe that the seemingly jovial, impeccably-attired, "Three Stooges"-obsessed, Spider-Man-directing, Xena-producing Sam Raimi was once capable of depicting the sort of sick, twisted shit on display in The Evil Dead.   In fact, after watching the character of Cheryl get raped by a poplar, I remember coming to the conclusion that this director had to be completely demented.
The horrible sights just kept piling on.  A possessed Cheryl stabs Ash's girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker) in the ankle with her friggin' pencil, producing one of the most wince-inducing moments in horror film history.  Then Shelly (Theresa Tilly) gets occupied by one of the "Deadites" and attacks Scotty with an ancient Kandarian dagger.  After he saws at her wrist for a little bit with his hunting knife, Demon Shelley then proceeds to finish the job by chewing off her own friggin' hand.  Jesus, talk about hardcore.
All the while she's making this horrible, high-pitched, guttural scream which never fails to turn my blood into ice water.  Finally Scotty ends his misery (and ours) by grabbing an axe from a shit-baked Ash and dismembering what's left of his girlfriend.  To this day I'm still amazed that Raimi had the stones to show the axe actually hacking through her limbs.  As if that wasn't gross enough, he trumps this only seconds later by training his camera's unblinking eye on the disembodied body parts flopping around by themselves on the floor.  *HURK!* 
A-a-a-a-a-a-a-n-d that's when I stopped the tape on my inaugural viewing.  I remember just sitting there as if I'd been smoked in the head with a canoe paddle.  All I could think was: 'Wow, I like being scared as much as the next jobber, but this Sam Raimi guy is a crazy motherfucker.  He isn't playing fair!  Who gave this lunatic a camera? Clearly he's out of his mind!' 

After dry-heaving/hyperventilating into a paper bag for about ten minutes I screwed up the courage to press "Play" again.  Yeah, it didn't get any better.

 Linda also becomes a walking demonic time-share and soon she's tormenting Ash in this creepy, sing-songy little girl voice that would drive the Dali Lama to homicide within sixty seconds.  Then, after braving the woods all by himself, Scotty returns to the cabin bloodied, beaten and presumably sporting an alder-branch-sized poop shoot.  For a moment Cheryl and Linda return to normal and they nearly succeed in ganking Ash after he foolishly lets his guard down.  

Poor Ash does everything he can to try and subdue the possessed Linda short of dismembering her.  He locks her out of the cabin but she sneaks back in and tries to impale him with the dagger.  He turns the weapon on her and, thinking that she's finally dead, attempts to bury her in the front yard.  Naturally she springs back up again like a demented Jack-In-The-Box, all the while screaming bloody murder.  Ash tries to knock her out by clobbering her in the melon with a conveniently discarded railroad tie.  She just keeps coming at him relentlessly and eventually our "hero" is forced to decapitate his better half with a shovel.  

Hey, kids, are we having fun yet? 

The whole thing comes to a completely insane climax after the demonic husks of Scotty and Cheryl double-team Ash inside the cabin.  Our hero temporarily manages to save himself by pushing his thumbs through Scotty's orbital sockets.  Speaking as someone with a real phobia about eye trauma, I distinctly remember watching that particular scene for the first time through a web of interlocked fingers.  

When Scotty's corpse begins to smolder after the Necronomicon ends up close to the fire, Ash finally puts one and one together and attempts to throw the evil tome into the blaze.  While he's doing this, Demon Cheryl begins to whale away on Ash's lumbar region with a fireplace poker whilst a blind (but apparently no less determined) Scotty starts gumming away at his leg like your grandmother trying to eat a turkey leg.  Right then and there, I decided that The Evil Dead deserved to win the "Most Horrible Thing Anyone Could Possibly Imagine" Award.   

After the book burns up in the fire we're then subjected to a sickeningly creative amalgam of stop motion animation, demonic puppetry, free-range live vermin and what appears to be about a gallon of non-dairy coffee creamer mixed with porridge.  Honestly, words fail me; you just have to see this for visual eye-rape for yourself.  I assure you, the compulsion to take a shower ten seconds into the film's closing credits is overwhelming. 

The film's messy finale atones somewhat for the unforgiving glare of 1080p resolution, which often exposes the previously seen "specials effects" as neither special nor particularly effective.  Often the Deadite look boils down to a bunch of pancake makeup, contact lenses and veins drawn on with purple eyeliner.  Whenever the full-blown demons are asked to move violently, you can clearly see the seams between the poorly-blended facial appliances and the actor's skin.  Mercifully, Demon Cheryl's final appearance is pretty unnerving, Bar-B-Que Shelly is uber-nasty and, as I've already established, the final scene is supremely nauseating.  

Since the film was made over the course of eighteen months, continuity and technical gaffes abound.  Car tires inexplicably squeal on dirt roads.  Scotty enters the cabin in broad daylight and by the time he gets inside it's pitch dark.  Ash gets covered in gore and two seconds later he's freshly scrubbed.  Rogue crewmembers and lighting equipment pop up with more frequency then Eggos at a daycare. 
Like the special effects and continuity, the performances are also run hot and cold.  The ladies all acquit themselves quite nicely, however.  Ellen Sandweiss as Cheryl is very adept at displaying frantic terror, shell-shocked resignation and then sinister evil.  Betsy Baker may be perfectly cast as Ash's sweet, virginal girlfriend but just as soon as she's  possessed, she morphs into one of the most annoying and creepy monsters in cinema history.  And although Theresa Tilly doesn't get as much to do as Shelley, her shock and awe over Cheryl's transformation is so genuine that when she says "Look at her eyes! For God's sake, what happened to her eyes!?" you can't help but be chilled to the bone.

Richard DeManincor (acting under the screen name of Hal Delrich, presumably to avoid union issues and possibly distance himself from the production) is decent as the insensitive oaf Scotty but he always seems to be trying too hard.  Also, before he became a demi-god to horror film geeks everywhere, Bruce Campbell seemed reserved and self-conscious in his first go-round as Ashley J. Williams.  Unlike their female co-stars, both guys seem to think its a full time job just to keep a straight face half of the time.

Which may be forgivable, considering how ripe some of their dialogue is.  The notorious "necklace" scene between Ash and Linda is about as fraudulent as the jewelry itself.  After Scotty decides its time to bug out, Ash plaintively reminds him that Linda can't walk.  When Scotty replies in his best asshole-ish tones: "Look! I'm getting out! I don't care what happens to her! She's your girlfriend, you take care of her!", you just can't help but cracks up.  

I also love it when the Deadites start tormenting Ash and he whines back: "You bastards! Why are you torturing me like this? Why?".  But the absolute pièce de résistance has to be Ash's pathetic soliloquy to an obviously dead Scotty: "Now, the sun will be up in an hour or so and we can all get out of here together. You, me, Linda, Shelly. Hmmmmm...Well... not Shelly...".  Gold, baby, gold!     

And then there are moments of monumental stupidity.  Cheryl decides that it's a good idea to go walking around in the haunted woods all alone after she's been spiritually jacked up by a demonic sketch artist.  Ash gets trapped not once but twice under the world's flimsiest book shelf.  Scotty also decides to go out for a casual hike because, hey, it worked out so well for Cheryl.  And finally Ash chooses to ignore every grain of common sense by venturing solo into the cabin's uber-spooky, blood-soaked cellar.    

Regardless of the bargain basement aesthetics, half-baked performances and occasional bouts of rank idiocy, The Evil Dead is still a remarkable achievement.  The creative camerawork that came to epitomize Sam Raimi's unique visual style is in a formative but ambitious stage here.  Shaky-cam shots and Dutch Angles abound, but the level of creativity Raimi uses when applying these techniques is nothing short of genius.          

I love the camera lens behind the pendulum of the wall clock.  The shot displaying the keys on top of the door frame really ramps up suspense as Cheryl frantically tries to get back inside the cabin.  Ash's tete a tete with the mirror is exceptionally cool.  The "floor cam" which follows a dead body being dragged out of the room is simple yet original.  

But my favorite set up has to be the top-down shot following Ash at the end of the film.  Every time the camera moves past a beam in the ceiling we hear a cool "wrr-ROOW" noise as if the demonic force above his head is reacting to proximity.  Raimi didn't have to do this; it isn't relevant to the plot.  It just shows his incredible attention to creative detail.

He also seemed to be very keen on the film's sound design.  Music is used sparingly, but to great effect when needed.  Guttural, disembodied voices periodically invite the characters to "JOIN US".  The genuinely disturbing voice acting by the Deadites is great, drunkenly crashing between sarcastic mocking to school ground teasing to inhuman, banshee-like screams.  Also, whenever the camera is crashing through the woods like a whirling dervish, the unearthly drone made by the unseen force is genuinely disconcerting.           
For it's incredibly innovative visual style, spooky and claustrophobic setting, bargain basement innovations  and unwavering commitment to depict the sickest images imaginable, The Evil Dead remains a charmingly flawed horror film classic. 

Tilt: W-a-a-a-a-a-a-y up.

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