The Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi has been one of my favorite directors ever since I first saw Evil Dead II. Not only was he able to do quite a lot on a small budget, but his direction was unique. I later came to find out that was what I like about many horror directors. You occasionally had your mainstream auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles, but many independent horror directors were able to develop their own style simply because to do what they wanted to do, and do it cheaply, required a bit of extra thought.
The Evil Dead was Raimi's first feature-length film, famously financed by Raimi, producer Rob Tapert and lead actor Bruce Campbell going to extreme lengths to make sure the movie got made and found an audience. Despite freezing temperatures, dangerous filming conditions and a number of injuries, it did, and it became one of the most important horror films of the 1980s.
Friends Scotty (Richard DeManincor) and Ash (Campbell) head to a remote cabin for a weekend of relaxation. Along with them is Ash's sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) and Scotty and Ash's girlfriends, Shelly (Theresa Tilly) and Linda (Betsy Baker). While everyone else starts settling in for a night of drinking and relaxing by the fire, Cheryl starts to hear a voice in the woods saying, "Join us," and finds her hand suddenly possessed and drawing a weird book with a face on it. The others make fun of her at first, but suddenly the cellar door flies open.
Scotty goes to investigate, followed next by Ash. The two find not only the book that Cheryl was drawing, but a tape recording of a former inhabitant of the cabin who was translating the book. It turns out that it is a book of spells to awaken demons that lie dormant just outside of our dimension and, of course, the recordings of the incantations awaken them.
Cheryl again hears the voices and goes out to investigate, only to be sexually assaulted by the forest itself. She convinces Ash to take her back into town, but their way is blocked after the only bridge in is destroyed. Ash and Cheryl return to the cabin, but it quickly becomes apparent that Cheryl has become possessed by one of the demons. They lock her in the cellar after she attacks the group, seriously wounding Linda. Meanwhile, Shelly is the next to be possessed, and upon the advice on the recording Scotty and Ash dismember her and bury her near the cabin. Scotty then decides to try and make it out himself, but soon returns after being savagely beaten by the trees in his effort to escape.
To Ash's dismay, Linda also becomes possessed, while Scotty dies, only to come back as a demon as well. To make matters worse, Cheryl escapes the cellar, and Ash is left alone to try to put an end to the evil and survive until daylight.
Despite its importance, I have only seen this movie about three or four times, including my most recent viewing. I can't even count how many times I have seen its two sequels. Even though there is a bit of humor, The Evil Dead is largely meant to be a straight horror film, while the later movies (and the television series) helped to develop Ash into what he is today. Despite the inconsistencies that still exist between them all, everything that came after this movie had the same tone.
That said, Bruce Campbell still ends up getting the crap kicked out of him as usual, only here Ash is not the complete jerk that he would later turn into. He's also not a super hero, but just a poor guy that suddenly finds all of his friends dying around him and doesn't know what to do about it. He shakes out as the lead at the end, but toward the beginning this is more of an ensemble, and everyone does a pretty good job considering how amateur things were.
There are a few flashes of nudity, but none of the "let's slip out and have sex so we can make an easy target for the killer" type. In fact, I think that much of the appeal is that everyone was presented as normal college kids of the time period, rather than the horny teenage stereotypes you find in a lot of slasher films. It helps that Sam Raimi didn't set out to be specifically a horror director. Much like Don Coscarelli, the director of Phantasm, he stumbled into it because it was a genre almost guaranteed to show a high return for a low investment and to get one's name out there for other projects. He doesn't feel like he has to stick with a set of rules, even within his own world-building, and anything may happen at any time. Also, like with Phantasm, he was just lucky no one got killed or seriously injured, with the use of real glass and live ammunition throughout.
There are some flaws that stand out after multiple viewings. Bruce Campbell's hair style sometimes changes because of certain scenes being filmed a long time apart from others. Also, especially on the cleaned-up Anchor Bay release, the square around the composite shot of the moon is clearly visible. The creature effects, though, still stand up in their own weird way. It doesn't look a bit like real decomposition, but it wasn't supposed to. At this point Ash's friends were fully demons, so we see the result of the full transformation. It's wonderfully disgusting in its own way even if it doesn't involve another bucket of fake blood.
While the direction is not as wild, many of Raimi's trademarks are still here, and the angles get stranger as the movie goes on and it becomes more and more apparent that the cabin is no longer within our physical realm. It may not be as infinitely quotable or full of weird humor as its sequels, but it is still one of those classic films that prove what imagination and determination can do.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Time: 88 minutes
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly
Director: Sam Raimi