THE EVIL DEAD ***** USA 1983 Dir: Sam Raimi. 85 mins
Eclipsed by its faster-paced, slapstick-based sequels, Raimi’s debut was a huge influence on a generation of comedic splatter movies, despite the fact that it never actually strives to be funny. Its set-up is an archetypal one for the American slasher movie era: five young people do all the wrong things while enjoying a weekend break at a rickety cabin in the woods ominously accessible by The Bridge of Doom. Raimi takes time to create a genuinely spooky ambience as they unleash body-possessing demons: making a virtue of his minimal budget, he deliberately heightens the sound effects and makes unforgettably inventive use of the camera, taking the slasher genre’s familiar subjective, prowling camera to a whole new level. Any humour arises simply from the escalating absurdities of the situation, as Raimi relishes every opportunity to throw his muse Bruce Campbell around the room (usually colliding with shelves in the process) or drench him (and the audience) in blood.
In his first appearance as the career-defining character, Campbell is a modest but likeable presence, though the film uses its characters as puppets at the expense of personality. If the gaudier gore FX (notably the marvelous stop-motion enhanced meltdown finale) are huge fun, the movie jolts when it shifts into more serious, nastier territory. The once-censored tree-rape set piece (resembling a sadistic, Italian splatter movie extension of POLTERGEIST’s evil tree sequence) is genuinely shocking, and the unveiling of the first possessed character remains one of the most chilling moments in 80’s horror (“Ace of spades, jack of diamonds….”). As would become standard for genre
filmmakers to come, Raimi loads his film with visual nods to modern genre landmarks, including THE EXORCIST, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but it has a vigorous style and atmosphere all of its own. It’s also more thoughtful in scripting terms than most of its type: note how seemingly irrelevant minor details are repeated in a far more unsettling context in the gruesome second half, particularly the playful avoidance of eye contact during an early romantic scene between Ash and his girlfriend.
EVIL DEAD II ***** USA 1987 Dir: Sam Raimi. 85 mins
With more money and even more confidence, Sam Raimi and his team returned to the basic scenario of THE EVIL DEAD for a legendary, deservedly beloved sequel. It distills the events of the original via a lightning-speed prologue before subjecting Ash to far greater levels of torment and hysteria. This is probably the only movie in cinema history in which the hero has decapitated his girlfriend, been possessed by demons, got chased through the woods and crashed through the windscreen of his car in the first 15 minutes. EVIL DEAD II is the THE EVIL DEAD on the best drugs you’ve ever tried, and Campbell truly affirmed his cult-icon status. More confident, more handsome and more prone to hilarious hamming, he responds to the script’s call for a living cartoon character with an incredible, high-energy performance best summed up by the uber-melodramatic “Nooooo!” he lets out upon realising that pesky bridge has gone. Alone on screen for large portions of the movie and purely at the mercy of Raimi’s slapstick sadism, he also performs the finest eyebrow acting this side of Roger Moore’s heyday. Raimi deliberately shies away from the graphic gore that made the original (in)famous, conveying extreme violence via shadows, cutaways and Bruce reaction shots. Instead, it plays out like a haunted house movie made by a crazy person, complete with possessed books, laughing lamps and mocking moose heads. At one point, a wide-eyed Bruce laughs insanely directly into the camera, while the extraordinary possessed-hand set piece is capped by the chainsaw-madness of “Who’s laughing now?!!” Few horror movies have been so inventive: the movie revels in demented visual wonders like the weirdly elegant dance of a decapitated corpse, the sight of Campbell threatening a head in a vice, or the marvelous flying eyeball. Raimi’s use of the camera, sound, editing and lighting is outstanding, while matte paintings, miniatures and stop-motion animation are all cleverly employed and the MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL inspired punchline is sublime. And, of course, no other 80’s movie had a moment as wondrous as the climax of its legendary tooling-up montage: a huge burst of hero music capped by Ash exclaiming, simply, “Groovy”.
ARMY OF DARKNESS **** USA 1992 Dir: Sam Raimi. 96 mins (Director’s Cut)
There’s a lovely retro feel to the opening titles’ announcement of this third EVIL DEAD instalment, enthusing “Bruce Campbell Vs Army of Darkness”, in the spirited tradition of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN. Following a high-speed recap of previous events (even swifter than EVIL DEAD II’s reprise, and with extra Bridget Fonda), it thrusts hapless Ash into alien, medieval territory, now fully established as an arrogant self-styled hero whose deadite-killing genius has gone totally to his head. He treats women mean and keeps them keen (Ash gets his first on-camera sex-scene), repeats his legendary “Groovy” tooling up montage and is as dumb as ever when it comes to suffering endless physical calamities. Despite an early, traditional geyser of blood, ARMY almost completely forgoes overt horror and scares, taking the episodic comic lunacy of II to a new level within a tongue in cheek adventure-fantasy context that’s equal parts INDIANA JONES, SINBAD and MONTY PYTHON. The cartoony, Three Stooges-inspired tone is established by a slapstick spin on “Gulliver’s Travels” in which Ash is terrorised by miniature versions of himself, undergoing much comedy cranial trauma. The climactic battle is over-extended and betrays the character by shifting Ash into more conventional heroic territory that Raimi later regretted, though the PLANET OF THE APES-inspired sour ending restores Ash’s reliable uselessness as a protagonist. It’s a fun, very likeable ride even if the splatter and dementia of the first two movies are sorely missed. Campbell is in his element, speaking almost entirely in catchphrases or one liners (“This is my boomstick!” / “Yo Shebitch…let’s go” and so on…), and it’s admirably ambitious beyond its budget, complete with a nostalgic army of Harryhausen-style stop motion monsters and skeletons. The alternate, studio-imposed S-Mart ending is more in keeping with the tone of the movie, though the film’s Stateside “R” rating was overly severe: it looks and feels like a PG-level incarnation of EVIL DEAD – even a scene involving naked girls dragged in chains by sadistic skeletons conceals actual nudity.
EVIL DEAD **** USA 2013 91 mins Dir: Fede Alvarez.
Figuring a fourth EVIL DEAD movie from the original cycle would now be redundant, executive producers Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert took the so-called “reboot” route and produced a revamped EVIL DEAD for the 21st century. There are references for the fans: the omnipresent Oldsmobile, racing-through-the-woods frenetic camerawork, the necklace that figures in the original’s romantic sub-plot. A post-credits gag even features Bruce Campbell in a profile shot just to say his catchphrase “Groovy”. This EVIL DEAD, however, isn’t hung up on endlessly nudging the original fans and neither is it anxious to indulge in the splatstick comedy that became the series’ trademark after the relatively serious original. It’s a successful attempt at a serious, intense picture that refuses to behave in line with Hollywood horror standards. The new set up involves a prologue in which one page in the Necronomicon is labelled “Chop the Motherfucker” before a fresh quintet of twentysomething friends reunite at a cabin in the woods as an intervention for troubled addict Jane Levy. The parallels between the possession that follows and Levy’s own drug-induced personality disorders are not subtle, but they are effective in this context and, following a satisfyingly unpleasant variant on the notorious tree-rape scene, Levy’s body hijacking instigates a demon onslaught. Debut director Alvarez gives the woods a lush yet disquieting fairy tale look but doesn’t overdose on stylistic tics, instead striving to make his EVIL DEAD scary and punishingly brutal. The emphasis is on uncomfortable physical injuries rather than crowd-pleasing splatter: Alvarez knows what makes us wince, so wallows in open wounds, scraped knees, trapped limbs and snapped off hypodermic needles pulled out of that bit of skin under your eye…A graphic tongue-slicing (right before the notable line “Kiss me, you dirty cunt”) is probably among the nastiest moments ever to squeak by with an “R” rating. Impressively avoiding CGI for the most part, the flick delivers a rousingly grisly array of unpleasantries involving nail guns, crowbars and electric carving knives, even reworking the most memorable scene from EVIL DEAD II, minus the goofy slapstick and with much added pain. Some of the over-earnest performances are awkward in this context, and the demon dialogue sometimes tips it over into mirth (“Your little sister’s being raped in Hell!”), but almost everything works, including the subversion of expectation in regards to the film’s true protagonist: the ballsy Levy gives her all in the mayhem-filled finale.
Want more ‘EVIL DEAD‘? Then check out the review of the series ‘ASH VS EVIL DEAD‘ here.
Reviews by Steven West