“The most ferociously original horror movie of 1982.” — Stephen King
That quote of Stephen King’s could not have come earlier than June of 1982 when John Carpenter’s The Thing had just been released, which has essentially the same plot—monsters that can turn into anyone kill a group of people one by one—as well as truly ferocious (and revolutionary) special effects, but we’ll cut the ole Maine schlockmeister some slack here: His glowing praise made the movie’s success possible, launching the career of Sam Raimi and perhaps tangentially the Coen Brothers (who leaned on Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell for their film debut, Blood Simple).
It’s possible The Boy had never seen this—as a toddler he was a huge fan of Army of Darkness, and when he was older Evil Dead II—so I was tempering, somewhat, his expectations. The acting in this film is some of the worst ever recorded, and in a charming intro by Bruce Campbell (for the 40th anniversary showing at a drive-in) he notes that his most famous work is also his worst. (My rebuttal would be that he really didn’t turn in a good performance until 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, so there was a fairly high chance of that happening anyway.) Someone asked him for advice for actors and he said something to the effect of “Do anything because you’re going to suck at first.”
The girls do better than the guys, and Richard DeManincor (as “Scott”) does better than Bruce, but you can see the beginnings of what would become the more successfully hammy and manic performances Campbell turns in for the highly regarded Evil Dead II, which today would probably be called a “soft reboot” rather than an “incoherent sequel”. (It is supposed to be a sequel, except Ash dies at the end of the first movie, and even if he hadn’t died, why the hell would he take another girlfriend into a cabin in the woods?)
And you can’t really talk about this movie without covering the occasionally shockingly bad special effects. A 1950s era lightning strike on a tree (which Sam Raimi got removed from some early cuts). Several composites of the moon being occluded by black smoke. The jarring stop-motion animation. Bruce Campbell made reference to George Lucas’ Star Wars CGI shenanigans and basically said you won’t see any of the here: All the wires are still visible, and you can see the hose pumping blood. Which actually leads me to the point of all this, because I never have seen those wires and hoses. I was even looking this time.
From a 20-year-old Sam Raimi’s endless well of energy, and his intuitive sense of moviemaking, we get a movie that basically dares you to not take it seriously. Some apologists have suggested that the camp moments in the movie were deliberate, to which Raimi has responded that everyone involved was deadly earnest. This movie is powered by that force: Ellen Sandweiss’ brittle emotionalism after being raped by the woods; Bruce Campbell asserting that they can’t bury Shelly, whom they’ve just hacked to pieces, because “she’s our friend”; DeManincor’s Scotty’s decision to flee and leave the injured Linda to her fate. A single wink-wink to the audience would ruin it all.
The opening scenes of the Olds Delta 88 (a family car that’s been in most of his movies) are not quite Manos: The Hands of Fate level bad, they’re still the sort of rough-cut, badly overdubbed kind of thing you see in horror films all the time, but the instant the car hits the rickety bridge, the camera transforms into a weapon, a hostile entity—literally, as it represents the Force In The Woods. Dutch angles, shots with improvised tracks (they couldn’t afford a dolly), Sam Raimi hanging from the rafters by his legs to get a back-to-front shot of Campbell’s head, as Ash begins to realize he’s in a demonic madhouse…these were filmmakers taking their best (and probably only shot) at getting noticed.
It not only becomes easy to overlook the film’s flaws, it becomes hard not to. I was not particularly a fan at the time, but I liken it today to re-viewing Mel Brooks movies: When I watch them now I see a man whose sole interest is in making me laugh, and nothing is beneath him in that task. I see in Evil Dead a passion to scare me, to win me over, to make good on the promises of the ’70s exploitation horrors (which often were quite dull and almost always ploddingly pedestrian in their presentation), and a tremendous amount of care which one doesn’t see in low-budget flicks that aren’t “arty”. The foreshadowing of the demonic peek-a-boo with Ash and Cheryl’s flirtatious peek-a-boo early on; Bob Dorian reading the exact description of what’s going to happen later on in the film; the Joel Coen-edited scene of Ash securing Cheryl to dismember her, which act he cannot go through with, even if it seals her fate and his; the endless dark basement where Ash gets his first (fake) scare that he realizes he has to go back into later on.
The rape scene is somewhat controversial even today, with Raimi claiming to regret it today. I believe this claim; Raimi seems like a rather gentle spirit who was driven to get whatever he felt he needed to on film. I hated it at the time. I had (and still have) a very low threshhold for “rape as entertainment”. In retrospect, though, I think it actually adds pretty well to the horror of the situation. Nobody believes Shelly when she says the woods have attacked her, and she doesn’t go into details—they wouldn’t believe her. (So, if you like, it works as a metaphor for unheard victims.) It’s suitably audacious and fits in with the random demonic torture that is the movie’s theme.
Joel Coen was working for an Edna Ruth Paul who, I think, was from a time when credits were not so exhaustive. She probably deserves considerable credit as well, given the film was originally nearly 2 hours long. I would like to see the two hour cut, but my guess it would be much, much worse.
Even Joe LoDuca’s score—his first—rises above the time when cheap synth tracks and drum machines ruled the earth.
It’s just one of those cases where the energy and talent exceeds well past the limitations of the budget and the constraints of the genre, and it was delightful to see it again, 40 years later, with a grouchy, jowly Bruce Campbell still grousing about Raimi and (producer Rob) Tapert poking his injured ankle with pencils to get him riled up before a scene. The Boy was much enthused.