This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
On day five, we look to Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead.
Sam Raimi’s supremely grisly career-making directorial debut owes its survival to the immense cult following that was accrued in the years following its 1981 release, helped in part by the counter-publicity of Mary Whitehouse and valuable praise offered by Stephen King. The Evil Dead thrives by virtue of the depraved creativity lying behind the camera. It is gory and seriously nasty but boasts a blackly comic core.
To modern audiences, the film’s premise must reek of tired familiarity. When five asinine students decide to go on a vacation to rural Tennessee, they opt to stay in a forrest cabin that is said to be ‘an old place, a little run down but right up in the mountains’. Being much less horror film savvy than protagonists of the post Scream generation, the group fail to pick up on the obvious clues that their holiday home is liable to haunted mishaps and happily settle in for the night.
First to notice that all is not right in the cabin is Ellen Sandweiss’ Cheryl, sister of Bruce Campbell’s Ash, who is joined by girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), their friend Scott (Hal Delrich) and his girlfriend Shelly (Sarah York). Despite being momentarily forced by some dastardly force into a spot of automatic drawing, Cheryl neglects to mention that the house is spooked and so it is only when the group discover on old, grimy Egyptian Book of the Dead in the cellar – and proceed to play its accompanying tape of ritual incantations – that their fates are sealed.
If The Evil Dead is a touch rough around the edges, it is not half as shonky as one might have any right to expect from a group of young filmmakers, barely beyond teenage years, on a shoestring budget. From the very first scenes – allegedly filmed atop a dingy – Raimi demonstrates his skill in atmospheric filmmaking. Low, lurking camera perspectives jolt in and out of Dutch angles, slithering forward and building a foreboding tension and air of desperate urgency. Music by Joseph LoDuca borrows from Bernard Herrmann to heighten omnipresent intensity but there is power too in the production’s deployment of silence.
The archetypal characterisations of Raimi’s famous five might do little to deepen the drama, yet their is nouse enough is in his script to recognise their unrealistic willingness to enter deadly scenarios as being part of the fun. A balancing act is maintained throughout between wit and woe that allows joy and fear to coexist within audience reactions; Raimi cites The Three Stooges as an influence for his almost slapstick choreography, whilst Night of the Living Dead strikes as a direct ancestor in the film’s structure and tone. From Tobe Hooper, meanwhile, Raimi acquires the belief that the actors themselves must suffer for their pain to feel real. When Campbell shrieks: ‘You bastards! Why are you torturing me like this!’ is he referring to the demons or crew?
After a only a brief period of build-up The Evil Dead packs in its terrors and gleefully refuses to hold back. Echoing the visual techniques of Friedkin’s Exorcist, the film’s possessions prove to be genuinely unsettling, brilliantly achieved in effective conversion sequences, whilst the rising violence at play warrants increasingly squeamish responses. If Sandweiss channels Regan MacNeil, there is something decidedly akin to a sadistic Baby Jane in the startling performance of Baker. The Evil Dead may stray toward immaturity at times but it was born of triumphant ambition.