Welcome friends, to a new review series. Each year on Halloween I like to post a piece on an all-time classic horror movie, usually one that I’ve been intimidated to tackle because so much has already been said about it that it’s hard to find a fresh angle. A couple Halloweens ago I decided to tackle Sam Raimi’s 1981 low budget classic THE EVIL DEAD. And I was really proud of the appreciation I put together, but writing it got me so excited about Raimi that I got a little ambitious. I decided I should do a separate one on the even better EVIL DEAD II. But watching that again got me thinking about other early Raimi movies, so I held off posting to grow it into a mini-series. And then I decided fuck it, I should do every movie he’s directed, even ones I’ve already reviewed.
Initially the goal was to remind people of the joy of Raimi since, having not directed a movie since 2013, I feel he’s largely fallen out of discussion. Since I started writing these, though, he filmed a DOCTOR STRANGE sequel, and his SPIDER-MAN characters returned in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. Hopefully we’ll be seeing other retrospectives that go beyond Marvel Comics, but I’m glad I took the time to get carried away revising, digging through old magazines and books, and making screengrabs to illustrate my points. I want this series to be closer to a college course than a “Sam Raimi Movies Ranked” slideshow. So please joooooiiiiinnnn usssssssss for the next few weeks in examining THE COMPLETE FILMS OF SAM RAIMI.
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When you say “EVIL DEAD” to people now, they tend to think of cocky Bruce Campbell, funny Ash, “Shop smart, shop S-Mart,” “Hail to the king baby,” etc. But back in the early ‘80s – and now, if you can watch it in the right state of mind – Sam Raimi’s original THE EVIL DEAD was and is a real fuckin corker, a cinematic slap to the face (in a good way), a thrilling ordeal in 16 millimeters.
You know how it is: you and a group of your fellow young people decide for some reason to go on a road trip from Michigan to a dilapidated, isolated cabin you’re renting in some dreary woods in Tennessee. Your buddy finds a reel-to-reel in the basement and hits play, a professor reading from an ancient text conjures up the ol’ Kandarian demons, and before the end of the night all your friends’ eyes are turning white, their skin turning crackly grey and they cackle and levitate and contort themselves, jerking around like marionettes, all their joints making sounds like cracking knuckles, until you decide your only options are to lock them in the basement or chop them up with an ax. You try to stay calm, but what the fuck is up with this invisible force charging through the woods at you, knocking down trees and battering through windows and doors? Whenever we shift to its perspective our ear drums rattle with eerie drones, gurgly didjeridu moans and echoey, whispered taunts.
It’s the kind of potent and original cinematic style that almost requires a simple, classical story, to act as the tracks for this out of control carnival haunted house ride to roll on. And it’s the kind of thing that can only come from eager, hungry, born filmmakers, building their chops for years, now taking their big shot to prove themselves. Director Sam Raimi and star/producer Bruce Campbell had been making comedic Super-8 shorts since they were teenagers. While at Michigan State University they made a comedy feature called IT’S MURDER! that went over poorly in campus screenings except for a scare scene in the backseat of a car. That, and seeing audiences terrified by HALLOWEEN, got them wondering if they could make a good horror movie. Turns out they could.
Does it make sense to call an invisible force an iconic horror villain? Played by Raimi’s home-made “shaky cam” (a camera shooting at eighteen frames a second bolted to the middle of a 2 x 4 carried by two people), it shows up first in the opening scene, almost catching Ash and friends as they drive into the mountains, even before the tape is played. And when they drive up they’re greeted by a swing ominously banging against the cabin on its own. My hunch is that this scene, with its dynamic compositions and weird soundscapes, was at least a little inspired by the arrival at the house in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. It’s not the same angles, but it’s a similar feel.
Much later there’s a scene where Ash and Cheryl [Ellen Sandweiss, SATAN’S PLAYGROUND] fight in front of a pair of headlights that strongly resembles a scene with Hitchhiker and the Cook.
TEXAS CHAIN SAW was, along with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, one of the low budget, high grossing, first-time-director movies that made producer Robert Tapert think this horror movie idea could work. But aspiring to make the next TEXAS CHAIN SAW is like thinking you can build the Statue of Liberty in your backyard. Most likely you can’t.
I’ve seen my share of regional first-timer horror movies of the pre-digital era. Most are made by people who just know the very basics of setting up cameras, if that. Raimi (and cinematographer Tim Philo, a carryover from those Super-8 shorts) rarely settle for a boring straight-on shot. They’re always confidently finding the most interesting angle or the coolest ways to move the camera. Starting with Ash upside down and rotating over his head. Following his feet in closeup as he gingerly steps down the stairs, then slowly rotating 360 degrees, showing the entire basement. Circling the outside of the cabin to see what each character is doing through a different window. Hurtling out of the woods, into the back door of the cabin, through the hall, out the front door, into Ash’s mouth.
I love this composition that makes us stare at the trapdoor in the background. And then it opens.
And this incredible camera move where we’re dragged across the floor with a body, moving past garbage and the ghoul peaking out of the basement.
The sound design is equally ambitious and meticulous, as are the makeup effects by Tom Sullivan, another Michigan buddy who created the distinctive looks of the demons, the Kandarian dagger and of course the Book of the Dead. In subsequent movies Raimi will create great things in collaboration with more experienced FX companies, empowered by bigger budgets and more sophisticated technologies. But in a way they’ll always be trying to recapture or compete with the distinct style and ineffable charms of these more obviously hand-crafted grotesques.
With editor Edna Ruth Paul (whose other credits are a documentary about Lenny Bruce, several ABC Afterschool Specials and FEAR NO EVIL), Raimi creates an energetic pacing and rhythm that will be seen throughout his career. The closeups of Ash’s hands chaining Linda down, grabbing the chainsaw and flipping the power switch presage the Rambo-suiting-up style of the more famous chainsaw arm preparation montage in part 2, but the momentum is abruptly deflated when he looks at her necklace and decides he can’t do it. (Instead he buries her and then she digs out and claws his leg open, so he bashes her repeatedly with a wooden plank, chops her head off and still has to wrestle himself away from her body.)
One thing people (or at least me) tend to forget about the movie when we haven’t watched it in a while is that this guy Scotty kind of starts out as the main character. “Hal Delrich,” real name Richard DeManincor, only ever had one other movie role, a bit part as a cop in Raimi’s second movie, CRIMEWAVE. But here he drives Ash’s car, rents the cabin, goes inside and looks around while everyone else is getting stuff out of the trunk, investigates the basement while the others are too scared, finds the recording and the Necronomicon, plays the recording, takes the ax from deer-in-headlights Ash and dismembers demonic Shelly (“Sarah York,” a.k.a. Theresa Tilly, BRUTAL MASSACRE: A COMEDY), knows to bury her while Ash is still saying “She’s Shelly, she’s a friend of ours”…
But then Scotty is the asshole who suggests the every-man-for-himself plan of leaving injured Linda behind. Or Linda and Ash. He tells Ash, “Look, I’m getting out. I don’t care what happens to her. She’s your girlfriend, you take care of her.” So that’s when it’s clear that this secondary character Ash is gonna have to step up. Fuck Scotty.
It’s really not the same Ash we know from ARMY OF DARKNESS and Ash vs. Evil Dead, who has a heroic side but it’s hidden beneath a thick outer shell of selfish, arrogant asshole dipshitness. When he feeds Scott water and talks to him about going home it’s a completely sincere Ash we don’t really see in the sequels
The characterization of the women is a little thin. I admit I often forget which is which. So I also tend to take for granted how good they are, playing possessed and monstrous and wicked and perfectly blending in with the outlandish FX.
THE EVIL DEAD had to be cut to be released in the UK, and therefore is considered to have been a “video nasty.” But even with all its ankle-stabbing, face-scratching, own-hand-chewing-off-until-milk-spurts-out-of-the-stump, chopping-the-body-into-seven-or-eight-pieces-that-still-wiggle mayhem it has not maintained a reputation of seediness like a CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST or an I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. Maybe it’s because we later got to know Raimi as a lovable Three-Stooges-worshipping goof who directed three SPIDER-MAN movies. In retrospect we can see the jolly let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of all this craziness. Raimi seemed unused to that as late as 2000, when he was surprised by Indiewire interviewer Anthony Kaufman saying he “grew up on” THE EVIL DEAD:
“What’s shocking about what you’ve just said is it’s just funny how you’ve accepted it. You speak about it being accepted, but it was always an X-rated movie basically and it couldn’t even be released and then we had to, not make cuts, but not go with the ratings board. It’s un-rated still. It’s always been on the outside; it was only released in like 60 print run that went from city to city and then 120 prints and it’s never been that well known. So it’s funny when you say we grew up on it. When I was a kid I used to hear people talk about Howdy Doody like that.”
I’m not sure THE EVIL DEAD is our Howdy Doody, but with the exception of one scene I don’t think it’s thought of as one of those dangerous, icky, I gotta take a shower video nasties. The exception is the so-called “tree rape scene,” which is as expertly crafted as the rest of the movie. Cheryl goes outside to investigate sounds, tree roots wrap around her limbs, spread her legs and penetrate her, perhaps impregnating/possessing her with a demon spirit, we can later infer. It’s an outrageous and upsetting scene that Raimi has said he regrets – “My goal is not to offend people, it is to entertain, thrill, scare, make them laugh… I think my judgment was a little wrong at that time” – but you can’t deny it’s effective. When she comes back she can’t bring herself to explain specifically what happened, and no one seems ready to believe her anyway. It’s devastating.
And if you can survive that, holy shit, what a movie. I think there are many good and great horror movies being made today. Digital technology has opened doors for so many people to get practice without having to have access to editing rooms and film labs, and you are much more likely to be able to make a feature film without having a friend who will go around and convince dentists to invest money in it.
But also there’s a tendency toward trying to find the best horror you can with the simplest, the least. It’s hard to do this camera shit, so keep the camera static, or intentionally shoot it like a home video. I think young Raimi would’ve wondered what the point of even making a movie like that would be.
Of course, he did limit the movie to one primary location, but think how much he crams into that location! It’s bursting at the seams with gags and gimmicks and details and delights and stunts. There are two times that Ash gets punched across the room and rams into a shelf and causes it to fall over on him. Most movies don’t get one. And it’s not just one monster or type of monster stalking people in a cabin in the woods. It’s the people and the woods and the cabin and everything in the cabin all going nuts. Maybe the room seems normal for a minute, but you can’t feel safe because you never know when you’ll be taunted by rocking chairs, loud clocks and pendulums, billowing curtains, laughing taxidermy, rattling trap doors.
You know how terrible it is in a movie when your friend turns into a zombie, and they attack you and you have to struggle with them and then shoot them in the head and it’s so tragic? Well, try seeing Shelly bite her own hand off and stab herself in the back with a magic dagger and her blood pours out of the skull mouth on the handle and she’s screaming while white fluid squirts out of her stump and Scotty chops her to pieces with an ax. Try stabbing Scotty’s eyeballs with your thumbs and purple goo pours out and you stab him with the dagger and he stop-motion deteriorates and drops dead but then monster hands explode from his chest and throw goo everywhere and then he rises and drops again and explodes into piles of green oatmeal, red blood, garter snakes and roaches that sizzle and dry into yellow-green stains as the sun comes up. And the music sounds happy for a minute. But the evil comes again.
I don’t consider this to be a comedic movie at all. Something I do find very grimly humorous is any time a character says anything like, “Everything’s gonna be all right.”
In the middle of all this? You really think so? But sometimes you have to tell yourself that, even if deep down you know that you’re doomed to die and then this song is gonna play: