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The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead

By Arpad Lukacs • February 20th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
THE EVIL DEAD
New Line Cinema

Original release: October 15th, 1981
Running time: 85 minutes

Writer and director: Sam Raimi
Composer: Joseph LoDuca

Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich, Sarah York

The Evil Dead

It’s funny when I think back to the conversations I had with the neighbourhood kids when I was in my early teens. We didn’t know enough about the world even though we thought we did.

I recall one afternoon when we started debating about who’d seen the scariest horror film ever. I was fighting for Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which I’d just secretly watched from my parents’ VHS collection when they were out. “Hey, this guy with a glove armed with knives is hunting you in your dreams every time you fall asleep! That surely is the scariest thing ever, right?”

With this well thought-out argument I thought I was very nearly convincing everyone until someone else said “Nightmare on Elm Street can’t be the scariest film ever because it’s just a horror film”. I was speechless and almost immediately accepted intellectual defeat. Yes, he said, there’s something much worse than horror, it’s called psychological thriller. “That makes you really, really scared on a psychological level”.

I actually believed the movie he introduced me to that day, The Evil Dead, was not a horror film but a psychological thriller. As night settled in, Sam Raimi’s claustrophobic horror, made three decades ago, traps us in a dark forest with evil lurking everywhere. What stayed with me the most from that first viewing isn’t really the story or the characters. Not even the sinister source of all Evil “The Book of the Dead”, inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, comes to mind. What I remember clearly and vividly is an overall sensation. Rebecca Mead notes in an interview she did with Raimi:

“He started studying horror films and recognised the artistry that went into making them, and found the process intriguing. Observing the effect of suspense on audiences, he began wondering how to bring the viewers to a certain level and keep them there.” ¹

The Evil Dead

I remember feeling that “certain level” and I think it’s this unbearable lack of ups and downs is what makes The Evil Dead stand out. Generally, horror films provide us with a sense of relief at certain narrative points in order to effectively scare us again later. In A Nightmare On Elm Street for instance, the characters wake up from those dreams and we’re allowed to think with them about possible solutions to their predicament. Every time Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) wakes up and Freddy goes away, the film allows us to pull together and prepare for the next nightmare. In The Blair Witch Project (1999) we have day and night. In Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) there’s a very slow and gradual descent into horror.

By no means I want to diminish these great horror films, all of which are very dear to me; but I think there’s a point to be made when it comes to that “certain level” Mead mentioned. The Evil Dead goes straight to the point: a group of young people – one of them being Bruce Campbell in a career defining role – drive to a cabin in the middle of a forest to spend a few days there and the presence of a dark force can be felt right away. This presence is so strong that the finding of The Book of the Dead and the resurrecting of evil spirits seem like a mere formality in the great scheme of things.

The setting of The Evil Dead could be much more conventionally structured: Evil could be in the forest trying to get inside the house. Inside, we get that temporary sense of relief, outside there’s fear. But Raimi had other ideas. As Ash (Bruce The Evil DeadCampbell) is forced to lock his possessed sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) in the basement, she becomes the symbol of evil inside the house; taunting them, laughing at them and constantly reminding them that there really is no point in trying.

The teenage kid I was when watching the movie for the first time was struggling with an unbearable dilemma. Would I want to stay inside the house or would I try to escape through the forest? I still don’t know. I really can’t think of much I’d try to do in that situation – we, the audience, along with the characters are reduced to trapped animals reacting with basic instincts to whatever’s happening around us without any prospect of hatching some kind of a plan to ultimately survive.

This sense of hopelessness makes The Evil Dead unique. We notice evil isn’t even in a hurry to get to the characters. At one point Cheryl could trick Ash to release her from the basement, but chooses not to by deliberately revealing her true demonic self to him before he could unlock the chains. Meanwhile, Ash’s girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker) – also possessed at this point – is just sitting on the floor laughing and singing. This joyful hedonism and lack of clear purpose is really terrifying.

There’s much people talk about when it comes to the many ways The Evil Dead was innovative and genre defining. Superb and truly creative camera work is at play in every scene, further heightening tension in the mind. The evil presence is visualised by The Evil Deadwhat I can only call a “low budget steadi-cam”. This was achieved by nailing the camera to a wooden board sweeping through the forest very close to the ground, and observing the characters inside the house. In a sequence that’s all about Ash being alone with his own fear, there’s a shot when the camera starts from an upside-down perspective from behind his head, slowly travelling around above and eventually rests on his disturbed and tired face in an extreme close-up.

The innovation doesn’t stop with the visuals though. I’m quite stunned when viewing behind the scenes footage without the sound effects; only then I realise the overwhelmingly eerie sound makes the film look like it’s much more expensive than it is. The terrifying screams of demons along with cutting-edge ideas like the camera passing an object making a sound together with Sam Raimi’s camera work create the illusion of a dark world that elevates this small low budget film to being an unforgettable horror classic.

SOURCES:

  • [1] Carl & Diane Royer (2005) The Spectacle of Isolation in Horror Films: Dark Parade, Routledge

There’s also subtle comedy weaved into the film, like an eye contact shot-reverse-shot between Ash and his girlfriend first in a very cheesy romantic scene and later repeated when Linda’s possessed by demons. Putting comedy where it doesn’t belong has since become one of Raimi’s trademark expressions, but if I’m honest, comedy doesn’t really play into my experience of the movie upon first viewing. I may have laughed at times, but that was only to reassure the others around me I wasn’t scared. I was scared.

While horror films sometimes have those scenes that allowed me to turn to the other kids and tell them what I would do if I had to face that particular predicament, The Evil Dead didn’t give me that luxury. My eyes were locked on the screen from beginning to end and my mind experienced a level of fear that was just…constant. Even though I’m fully aware today that it’s a horror film and not a psychological thriller, I kind of understand why that kid insisted on this definition. The word “psychological” just seemed appropriate when describing it. After watching it, I was absolutely convinced he was right – and in a sentimental sort of way, The Evil Dead will always be a psychological thriller in my treasured childhood memory.

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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