The Evil Dead (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
Windows magically being repaired two or three scenes later, decaying flesh along the hands and arms looking like modified gloves in order to minimize time and effort in reapplying makeup, and the fog sitting so thick in one area of the screen that one could practically pinpoint the precise location of the fog machine are only some of the myriad “mistakes” (read: charm) in Sam Raimi’s horror classic “The Evil Dead.” And yet the movie stands the test of time because it is propelled with unbridled passion for the work. Love can be felt in every square inch of this movie—flaws and all. One does not have to wonder why it has such a strong cult following.
The characters may not be smart nor do they undergo compelling development, but the writer-director is consistently one step ahead. Notice his vision right from the opening sequence in which five university students (Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly) drive toward the isolated rundown cabin in the woods. Editing is swift and generous: we are placed inside the car one moment and out in the woods the next. Both places are alive: the chattering of youth who are excited to begin their weekend getaway and the hunger of the spirits in the woods waiting to possess their next victims. There is energy in the push and pull between natural and supernatural forces. Although apparent that the film has low budget, it cannot be denied that it is filled to the brim with purpose.
Its purpose is to entertain. Nothing else. In modern horror films, it takes at least telling a third of the story until the main players get on the same page and recognize that something bizarre or horrible might be happening. In this movie, the cellar door bursts open on its own during the first ten minutes. There is no room for stupid questions like, “What’s going on?” “Is this really happening?” “Should we call the police?” These unsuspecting victims are thrown right into the mouth of hell; we expect most of them to die in gruesome ways (and they do) and for one to survive. And all this is before they find the dreaded book with human skin as its cover.
Campbell has the face of a hero, but the practical special effects is the star of the show. Here is a movie that shows viewers dismembered human body parts but because the person—or what was once a person—had been possessed by evil, the chopped up limbs remain to tremble on their own. It is a terrifying image even by today’s standards.
Think about it: most violent horror movies settle for showing hacked up bodies—which shows the aftermath of violence—but special projects, those that go the extra mile, tend to highlight the horror after the fact. And because they do, these types of images tend to stick in the mind. This is just one example. Another is the scene involving a woman being attacked by trees in the forest. It sounds amusing: plants attacking a human being. But the way it is shot in addition to the extended duration of the attack, it feels like we are watching a woman get raped in slow motion. (Her desperate screaming for help adds further urgency to the scene.) We are meant to be horrified, uncomfortable. Perhaps we might laugh precisely because doing so is cathartic. Isn’t that the point of horror stories: to provide catharsis?
“The Evil Dead” is no generic horror film. It is kinetic, smart, daring, and atmospheric. It can be enjoyed on a superficial level: college students get more than what they bargained for after a voice from an old tape recorder utters phrases in Ancient Sumerian. Or it can be enjoyed as an experience: how sounds of demonic voices (which changes depending on the person possessed) taunting never let up, how the camera remains dead still when showing a body part being torn off, how the enthusiastic writer-director juggles suspense, jolts, and horror with seeming ease.