Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Evil Dead (1981)

Dir. Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Richard DeManicor 

With Halloween a week away one’s thoughts turn, inevitably, to horror movies. The imprimateur of Sam Raimi – whether as producer or script consultant – is enough to get any horror movie greenlit these days, no matter how ropey. He himself has gone on to be a very successful director – his last film, Spiderman 3 had a budget of $350 million. So it is interesting to go back and see Raimi’s first directorial effort, made on a shoestring budget of $350,000 (one thousand times less than Spiderman 3). 

The Evil Dead sees five students head off for a break in the woods of eastern Tennessee. The wooden hut they have hired for the weekend hides its own secrets. A tape recorder discovered in the cellar reveals that an archaeologist used the lodge as his base while translating an ancient Sumerian text, the Naturan Demento or Book of the Dead. His words awaken an ancient evil and, one by one, the five friends find themselves possessed by a bloodthirsty demonic presence.

I feel like I have seen an awful number of pretty duff horror movies this year. To my surprise I can relate that The Evil Dead is not one of them. It may have some slightly amateur acting. It may have had a small budget. It may have a rather unnecessary tree-rape scene (which Raimi himself has apologised for). But it is a really enjoyable movie nonetheless. It may not be the scariest film ever, but it may well be one of the goriest. There were more than enough shocks, attacks and even laughs to keep me hooting in my seat. It’s the sort of film that left me shouting things at the screen: “Don’t go into the woods alone!” or “Don’t go into the cellar!”  

The first half sets the scene well. A camera panning across a bubbling oil-black lake, something unseen pushing down through the trees, clouds bubbling up and covering the moon, a fog creeping across the ground, a ticking clock pendulum stopping suddenly mid-way through its swing, a horrific face scrawled on a sketch pad. The suspense builds. And builds. And then explodes in an orgy of violence. Grisly make-up, sudden attacks, gore and violence – Raimi knew when to change the mood completely and just go for bloody mayhem. The violence is comic-book-like, the results are all kinds of grue and ick. Yet there is imagination in the shooting. The camera throws the audience off balance with low shots, crazily tilted angles and – in one case – an overhead upside-down view which swoops down dizzyingly. There are images that will live long in the memory, whether it is Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) peering out from the cellar, the giggling doll-like possessed Linda (Betsy Baker) or the blood-spattered projector. There are teasers too – Ash (Bruce Campbell) picks up a chainsaw… but then puts it back down again. I was looking forward to him fighting off the armies of darkness with a chainsaw! Oh well, there’s always the sequels, right…? 
Never again would he use the shotgun
to open a tin of tomato soup
I wish I knew what the secrets were to making a good horror movie. The Mist got good write-ups, but I thought it was terrible. The Messengers had fairly average reviews, but I thought it was pretty good myself. The Evil Dead has achieved cult status – and for once I am inclined to agree with majority opinion. I expected very little of it and was blown away. I really, really enjoyed it. I would happily watch it all over again right now. I can start to understand why the brand of Sam Raimi is so revered amongst horror aficionados. 

What have I learnt about Tennessee?
Not too much. Tennessee was pretty much a fall-back location. Raimi and co originally wanted to shoot the film in Michigan but were unable to locate any suitably atmospheric log cabins in the woods. They did find one in Tennessee and so they kept the location as it was. So all we can really say about Tennessee is that, in its eastern parts, it has hills and forests, winding country roads out into nowhere and isolated cabins. The sort of cabins to which archaeologists might retire to study ancient Sumerian tomes.

Can we go there?
The cabin is specifically mentioned in the movie as being in eastern Tennessee – while driving they cross the state line (those driving scenes were filmed in the vicinity of Clinch Mountain, Grainger County). The cabin was actually located not far from Morristown. The cabin has well and truly collapsed in on itself now – all that can be seen is the remains of the fireplace and the shallow depression dug for the fake cellar. The evil trees have taken over the site. Neighbours don’t particularly like horror groupies (‘Deadites’) making their way to the place. Some have found it however. Some have even left directions... 

The bridge was located some miles further south, in the vicinity of Newport and Bridgeport. Lots of reshooting took place back up in Michigan. For instance, the cellar never existed at the original cabin – those scenes were filmed at the farmhouse of the family of Rob Tapert (the film’s producer) in Marshall or the garage of San Raimi’s house in Detroit. Much of the ‘vine rape’ scene was filmed near the Campbell family’s summer cabin in Gladwin. And the opening shot of the black bubbling lake was taken near Hartland.

Overall Rating: 4/5

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