Written and Directed by Sam Raimi
A New Line Picture
Starring: Bruce Campbell (Ash); Betsy Baker (Linda); Ellen Sandweiss (Cheryl); Hal Delrich (Scotty); Sarah York (Shelly)
Every once in a while, a group of young filmmakers come along with very little money and very high ambitions and make a horror film for reasons which do not include “Hey, let’s cash in on a sure-fire money-making genre.” (Say what you will about horror movies and the industry, the one thing you can’t truthfully say is that any film is a sure-fire money-maker.) It happens more often in the present times because of the mass prevalence of video cameras and editing equipment that can be found for reasonable funds. In the days before home computers and iPhones, making movies without a studio was a bit harder; getting a good image on film stock was tricky without professional lighting and developing and editing it was expensive. Actors didn’t get paid and the only people who made a windfall were the Heinz Ketchup people, considering how much of their product was used for stage-blood. And yet, a group of filmmakers in 1968 made Night Of The Living Dead, a similar group in Texas made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years later and, as the 1970s wore down, a group from Michigan put their funds and their friends together and created The Evil Dead.
The Evil Dead is a culmination of the types of horror films that had been widely successful in the ten years leading up to it: possession (The Exorcist), isolated protagonists (Night Of The Living Dead), and especially young people being brutally slaughtered (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday The 13th). The five University of Michigan students who have made their way to their weekend getaway in the hills of Tennessee – Ash (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), his sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), his friend Scotty (Hal Delrich) and Scotty’s girlfriend Shelly (Sarah York) – look a little bit uneasy when they finally approach the cabin that is to be their home and torture chamber for the next twelve hours, all except Scotty, who is this film’s chief idiot. There has to be one in every group that embarks on a foolhardy mission, the one that says, “Come on, what’re you all scared of? It’ll be fun! Let’s have a little adventure for a change. After all, we’ve come all this way.” You’d think the bridge that nearly crumbles beneath car as they arrive would’ve given them second thoughts, but no, they press on. And that’s what makes horror films move forward.
It makes sense that the first person affected by the forces surrounding the cabin is Cheryl; the lack of a boyfriend makes her the fifth wheel of the group and, while the others are involved with their partners, she can remain observant. Plus she has an artistic temperament; when we first see her after the group has settled in, she is sketching a clock, the pendulum of which stops in mid-tick (yes, it is a steal from The Exorcist and not as subtly done, but a stopped clock is a good way to save the production team from continuity errors later in the film). Cheryl’s hand is then grabbed by unseen forces, driving her to scribble what we realize later is the Necronomicon. It is interesting to note that these initial strange events all take place before the finding of the Necronomicon or the playing of the taped incantations which apparently releases the full force of the demons. Until then, they can only play a bit with the people who cross into their killing zone, catch them alone and guide them, blow open the occasional cellar door and hope that someone (say Scotty or the owner of the voice on the tape) is stupid enough to recite the incantation that’ll charge them up to full strength (The question they ask at one point, “Why did you wake us,” is a bit silly; they obviously were awake already and wanted the tape to be played). Cheryl, who has already been affected by the demons’ manifestations, is the most badly affected by the incantation; she pitches a fit and has to be put to bed. Again, separated from the rest of the group, she is lured outside the cabin and into the clutches of the woods, where the film’s most shocking sequence takes place.
It’s odd that a film that has a genuinely sweet scene between Ash and Linda – the scene where Ash pretends to be asleep and Linda tries to catch him with his eyes open (a bit that is reprised when a possessed Linda pretends to be dead and Ash feels her eyes on him) – also contains one of the most disturbing scenes in horror films (and possibly in cinema), the woods attack/rape of Cheryl. It’s a scary idea to have vines and roots suddenly come alive, creep towards her and wrap themselves around her wrists and ankles but, despite her struggles, her feet are eventually pulled out from under her and she winds up on her back. Only then do we see the vines pulling her legs apart. And then comes the root. I’m not really sure what to say about this sequence except that it does its job at disturbing the audience (and if you happen to be sitting next to someone who is whooping it up at this point, you may want to consider moving to another seat). Possibly this is the same type of reaction that William Peter Blatty was after when he wrote the crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist (1973) because the violation is just as shocking and the audience is completely on Cheryl’s side when she runs back to the cabin and demands that they all leave. It also fuels her performance when she and Ash discover that the bridge has been completely destroyed and that they are trapped there. “It won’t let us leave,” she cries, breaking down in his arms. Any viewer who hasn’t grown the tiniest bit apprehensive by this point may have become a little too jaded from overindulging in horror films.
The movie goes mental from this point onward; Cheryl becomes possessed, flashing her hideous demon face for the first time and stabbing Linda in the ankle with a pencil before she is locked in the cellar. One of The Evil Dead’s most memorably shots is the image of the possessed Cheryl pounding on the cellar door, her hideous face only partially visible as she laughs like a witch (memorable both because it is so striking and also because it is a tad overused). Shelly’s possession soon follows, coming in a flash as the camera, occupying the point of view of a demon spirit (something that the film has been doing expertly all the way through), smashes through her bedroom window. It is a testament to Raimi’s sense of story-telling that he has the demons goading their prey all through the attack using personal taunts and pleas. When Scotty grabs an axe and gets ready to dismember the Shelly-demon, it tries to deflate his will to attack by shouting “No! You love her! You love her!” Later, Ash hears Cheryl’s normal voice coming up through the floor calling to him, saying that she’s feeling better and that she wants to be let out. When Ash goes to investigate, the demon’s hand spring up through the floor and grab him, taunting him with, “Ashley, it’s me, your sister Cheryl; I’m alright now!” And of course, there is that infernal childish chanting from the possessed Linda: “We’re gonna’ get you. We’re gonna’ get you.” The fact that these demons are trying to kill and possess our heroes is bad enough, but they are so damned infuriating!
Ash’s last connection with humanity dies with Linda (true, he still has Scotty, but Scotty dies presumably during Linda’s aborted burial and Ash is left talking to and trying to feed his corpse). Again, Raimi tugs at the audience’s identification with Ash and Linda’s formally cute relationship when Ash gears himself up to dismember her corpse with a chainsaw, a tightly cut series of shots that gets the adrenaline pumping, and then cannot bring himself to do it. We know what’s going to happen if he tries to bury Linda without cutting up her body, but can hardly blame him for turning soft at the last moment. And we do get another attack scene from Linda which ends with another incredibly disgusting shot, that of blood and bile pouring out onto the screaming Ash from the space where her head was just a moment before. From this point it is Ash alone, pitted against the imagination of Sam Raimi and the keening and the wailing of the Scotty and Cheryl demons.
The making of the final third of the film is an example of molding a story to fit the necessities of real-life: Raimi and crew had been abandoned by the bulk of the cast because the shoot ran over-schedule (only Bruce Campbell, who was also co-producing the film, remained until the end) and the demons were played by “fake Shemps” (named after comedian Shemp Howard, who appeared in four Three Stooges comedies after his death with the help of a body double – the first ever “fake Shemp”) or were portrayed as claymation effects during the sequence when dissolve into blood and offal. During this final sequence, Campbell is at his best, allowing himself to be covered with the worst kinds of stage gunk and beaten and battered like a ragdoll. The best sequence is when Ash goes down into the cellar to fetch more shotgun shells. This seems to be the heart of the haunting and everything goes wild around him: phonographs and film projectors turn on and blood pours out of pipes, wall sockets and even fills up a working light bulb. Although filmed at the same time as The Shining, one can almost see an echo of that film’s “elevator of blood” shot. In any respect, both The Shining’s elevator and The Evil Dead’s cellar say the same thing: these places live on the blood of murdered innocents, and Ash is next in line. My favorite shot of the film has very little to do with the plot: Ash approaches a mirror, reaches out to it, and his hand dips into the glass like it’s a pool of water. The entire crew’s imagination is firing on all cylinders and even the dated claymation effects that spell the end of the haunting are wonderful to watch (I particularly love the tongue sticking out of the mouth on the cover of the burning Necronomicon). In the end, Ash is alone; he’s survived but has lost all his friends. He staggers out into the light, the dawn that he thought he’d never see, and the music swells to welcome him to this new day. But off in the distance, another unseen force stirs; it travels at an incredible speed, approaches the back of the cabin, breaks down two doors to get through and then charges up on Ash, who turns and screams just as it is upon him. The film is over and we’re left breathing heavy, wondering if we really just saw what we just sat through.
The Evil Dead is the ultimate horror film; it has a sense of fun but also takes no prisoners. The only adjective that cannot be applied to it is “dull.” It made hand-held, point-of-view shots scary. It made Bruce Campbell a cult star. It made two more good films (more comedic than the original, but still good films). It made Sam Raimi a mainstream Hollywood director (we would not have A Simple Plan (1998) or the Spiderman movies (2002-2007) without him). It made a whole slew of young filmmakers excited to try their hands at scaring people. And most importantly, it made the man writing this review realize that there was more to scaring people than just putting a sheet over one’s head and shouting “Boo.” And if scaring people really is just putting a sheet over your head and shouting “Boo,” than The Evil Dead shouts “Boo” louder and nastier than anyone else.