The Evil Dead
I don’t watch Sam Raimi’s original “Evil Dead” nearly as often as I should. I watch “Evil Dead 2” on a yearly basis, and I’ve devoured it with the commentary over the years, but I don’t really watch the first one much. That will probably change after watching it before writing this review, because the two films are a fascinating study in how the same story can be told in completely different ways, and still work. One of the great things about “Evil Dead 2” that has made it one of my all-time favorite horror films is how it takes the horror and turns it into absurdist comedy. With his first film, Raimi is going for straight horror, and it’s a visceral sight to behold.
The film begins with five friends going to a cabin in the woods. The car they are driving is a beaten up oldsmobile of Ash’s. Ash is played here by the venerable Bruce Campbell, and it’s one of the most straight-laced performances I’ve seen of his. In “Evil Dead 2” and 1993’s “Army of Darkness,” the character is a comedic lead who is prone to mugging and over-the-top line readings, but here, he is one of five 20-somethings who is coming to the cabin hoping for a good time. When the cellar door opens on its own, Scott (Richard DeManincor) is intrigued to go down there, though his prolonged absence leads to Ash going down there, as well. What they find is a book bound in flesh, a dagger made of bone, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. They bring all three things up, and play the recorder. The voice is of an old man, an archaeologist who has found the book and dagger on an expedition about the ancient civilization of Kandar. The book, we learn, is the Book of the Dead, and is written in blood. The man recites passages from the book, which terrifies the women with Ash and Scott. That will be the first of many terrors for these friends experience as they inadvertently unleash a supreme terror on the woods.
Bruce Campbell is a hoot and a half. I went to a screening of his first film as a director back in 2005 with some friends, and he did a Q&A before the film. Someone asked him about the possibility of a new “Evil Dead” film, to which he responded to a rumor at the time of Ashton Kutcher taking on the lead role. His question to the audience of, “Who wouldn’t want to see Ashton Kutcher raped by a tree?” has been embedded in my mind ever since. That query of Campbell’s refers to the most infamous scene in this original film, where Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) is the first of the five to be lured into the web of the titular evil dead, leading her outside where she is bound by branches and violated by others, becoming possessed by the evil. I forgot how unsettling that scene is, and it’s keeping with the tone Raimi establishes in this film. It’s curious to think that this came out a year after “Friday the 13th,” and the two follow similar “cabin in the woods” premises to very different results. This is hard-core, grindhouse horror that doesn’t have time for the slasher genre moralizing of “Friday the 13th,” and it’s a wild 85 minutes to watch. Raimi does as much as anyone has with minimal funds, and he goes for gusto as we get a vulgar, violent piece of horror filmmaking that invites comparison to the torture porn of 20 years later, but is too shrewd and entertaining to go too far. He understands that even in a horror movie, we should get some emotional connection to the characters, and that’s where Campbell proves himself as Raimi’s secret weapon, the first of many times the duo would win us over throughout the next 30-plus years. Their masterpiece was six years away, but their opening salvo was a horror classic to remember in its own right.