Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Cabin In The Woods

You might recognize the above piece of rural real estate as the Tennessee cabin in which director Sam Raimi and co. filmed The Evil Dead (and which was destroyed by fire shortly after shooting was completed). Like many fans in the US, I first learned about the existence of Raimi's debut film by way of Stephen King's rave review in the November 1982 issue of Twilight Zone magazine. While at the Cannes Film Festival in May of '82 promoting Creepshow, King attended a screening of The Evil Dead, had his mind blown by it, and then set out to spread the word.

While Raimi's film languished without US distribution, King championed it in his TZ review, calling it "a black rainbow of horror" and, more famously, "the most ferociously original horror film of 1982." I found it all the more tantalizing that the photos from the film that accompanied that article were in grainy black and white rather than in color. It only added to the film's mystique (as King related: "...The film has a weirdly convincing documentary look that no one has seen since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead"). At the time of King's review, The Evil Dead was a horror film so under the radar that even Fangoria hadn't covered it yet.

Once The Evil Dead did finally score a US release through New Line Cinema, there was no greater "gotta-see" movie for horror fans (sorry, Xtro!). Being only about thirteen at the time, I begged my mother to tell the box office attendant at our local multiplex that it was ok that I see it - even though no one under seventeen was allowed. My mom failed to make a convincing case on my behalf (looking back, I don't think she tried that hard) and I walked away from the theater that day, bitterly disappointed and unable to do anything other than take a long last look at the poster hanging in the theater window with King's ecstatic blurb splashed across it.

Man, sometimes it sucks to be a kid!

Eventually, I caught up with the film on home video and my every expectation was met. If I had any bones to pick with it at the time, I don't remember. I do know I felt it was as scary and nerve-rattling as any modern horror classic I'd seen. Like, Texas Chainsaw good. That first viewing of The Evil Dead was a real white knuckle experience for me. I don't think anyone who discovered the series post-Evil Dead II (1987) can understand that at one time, The Evil Dead was widely considered to be terrifying.

Sure, the movie had its share of humor (mostly courtesy of the jocular performance of Richard DeManincor - performing under the stage name of Hal Delrich - as the boorish, beer-swilling Scotty) but the sheer relentlessness of The Evil Dead was the quality that stuck in viewer's minds. It was a movie that kept piling shock on top of shock in an avalanche of grotesque gags. At the time, few would've thought to equate Raimi's work with The Three Stooges or with anything overtly comic.

After Raimi's comic influences became more pronounced in the sequels and once Bruce Campbell's portrayal of Ash changed from that of someone who was pathetically slow to rise to action (in The Evil Dead, Ash stands by immobile while Scotty has to grab the ax from him and do the honors of dismembering Shelly) into an ass-kicking blowhard, the original was put in a different context.

For those who remember how raw and scary The Evil Dead once was, can it still hold up after nearly thirty years, sans the splatstick baggage of its sequels? I wondered about this in the wake of reading about Liongate's acquisition of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's meta-spin on the kids-in-a-cabin subgenre, The Cabin in the Woods.

I've got to say, it's been a long, long time since I've watched The Evil Dead. Even after buying one DVD release after another from Anchor Bay over the years, I never actually sat down and rewatched it. Some favorites I revisit often, others kind of fall by the wayside. Inevitably, there's a lot of movies in my collection (too many, actually) that I just never find the time to watch. But now, having finally given The Evil Dead a fresh spin, it bums me out to say that the movie does not hold up so well.

The early part of the film is especially painful with the interactions between the film's young actors often feeling awkward and unnatural. Their forced exchanges aren't helped at all by Raimi's distracting habit of panning back and forth from one speaker to the next (I wonder if there might have been some technical reason, perhaps audio-related, driving this decision). But even when the dark forces are finally unleashed about half an hour in, the scares are more hokey than they are harrowing (by the way, the infamous rape scene - as the woods violate Ellen Sandweiss as Cheryl - remains an unfortunate black mark on an otherwise good natured spook show). Maybe it's because I was young when I first saw the movie but I just hadn't remembered it as being so freaking...corny.

Tom Sullivan's makeup work still deserves a round of applause. It's rudimentary but effective - especially the make-up on the possessed Cheryl. Besty Baker's white-faced look once her character of Linda has turned into a Deadite packs less of a punch but it still has a satisfying evil clown-type demeanor. Why Sullivan never took off in the FX industry or as a movie maker in general, I don't know, but his work in The Evil Dead remains one of the film's strongest assets.

Back in the day, The Evil Dead was a splatter fan's dream. Characters were maimed every which way (although even as a kid I always thought it was a frustrating tease that Ash never actually used the chainsaw on a Deadite) and Raimi's camera never flinched. At every turn he was going for the gory gusto. Not only did Raimi have Ash decapitate the possessed Linda with the swipe of a shovel but then he had her still-writhing body spewing blood in Ash's face from the open neck. I loved that dedication to gruesome excess at the time but watching The Evil Dead now, I found that I was more impressed by the surreal moment where Ash touches a mirror on the wall to find that it's turned into a pool of water than I was by the movie's many splatter highlights. The gore has just not dated well.

Or rather, the presentation hasn't dated well. There's nothing here that has the punch that classic splatter scenes of similar vintage like the chestbuster in Alien (1979), the arrow through the neck in Friday the 13th (1980), or the exploding head in Scanners (1981) still do.

And in retrospect, I also think incorporating so much stop-motion footage was not such a hot idea. At the time I think Raimi probably felt it was the only way he could deliver a show-stopping climax but now watching the Necronomicon wagging its clay tongue, have to admire the effort more than the execution. Which is kind of how I feel about The Evil Dead as a whole now.

Throughout The Evil Dead, Raimi's natural talent for visuals is apparent. His camerawork is innovative and it's clear that Raimi was trying to bring a lot of ambition to a simple story but for most of the film's running time it seems like he's working around his cast rather than with them and shoehorning moments in rather than have them flow naturally. Tellingly, it's not until Campbell has to fight alone against his possessed friends and the invisible forces around him that Raimi really begins to find his groove.

Every time the prospect of an Evil Dead remake comes up, fans practically riot but I don't think it's such a lousy idea - at least, not anymore I don't. Raimi brilliantly semi-remade his own movie with Evil Dead II (which I have also rewatched recently and found that it really has held up over time) but when he did he deliberately didn't go for hardcore scares. I'd love to see a more seasoned and skilled Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell presiding over an Evil Dead remake that delivers what the first film did at the time but doesn't deliver now - the ultimate experience in grueling terror.


L. Rob Hubb said...

I remember the FANGORIA article on this and it was years before I actually got a chance to see the movie - it was when I was in college, and it was part of a horror film series that semester sponsored by the Student Activities Council.

The whole reason for seeing it was overhearing a conversation earlier in the day that some guys were having about the movie, one guy telling his friend he had to see the movie because in one scene (and this quote is verbatim), "this girl gets fucked by a TREE!"

There was NO way I wasn't going to see this movie after hearing that...

FilmFather said...

Age 15: Rented and watched this with three friends (also 15) and jumped at least five times, even with every light on in my living room.

Age 20: Convinced friends at college that this is the greatest horror movie ever. Jammed my dorm room full of coeds (male and female), pressed Play...and was basically laughed out of the room before the end credits rolled.

For the unbelievers, Evil Dead never stands a chance. But even a die-hard fan like I was back in my younger years has trouble defending it now as an awesome masterwork. I think for Gen Xers like you and me, we were so blown away by the gore and splatter that we gave a pass to (or simply didn't pay attention to) the wooden acting and cheesy stop-motion FX.

You hit on a couple points in the film that I think do still hold up in terms of their power. When Linda sings that creepy "We're gonna get you," I still get chills. And when Ash puts his hand to the mirror and it's water, that's when I probably would have gone clinically insane had it been me.

I was actually angry when Raimi went the more blatant comedy/slapstick route in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness because at the time I was still fervent in my opinion that the original Evil Dead was awesome horror. Looking back all these years later, I now see how funny (both intentionally and unintentionally) it really is.

Jeff Allard said...

Rob, based on your story, I think an exploitation opportunity was missed. Forget The Evil Dead - Raimi should've made "I Spit On Your Stump!" I can see the tagline now - "This woman has just cut, chopped, broken, and burned five trees beyond recognition but no forest ranger in America would ever convict her!"

FF, I'll always have a soft spot for The Evil Dead but sadly, it's hard to claim that it still holds up. Like I said in the post, it's been ages since I watched it so it was a real shock to find how poorly it's dated.