Cabin Fever: rewatching the Evil Dead trilogy part 1 of 3 – The Evil Dead (1981)
The gore is ramped up; the hysteria all-consuming… and yet when a funny guy tackles horror, the result is an exhilarating thrill ride.
The Evil Dead
(Sam Raimi, 1981)
Horror has long ticked the box for tyro filmmakers, thanks to its unrivalled ability to attract a guaranteed audience regardless of budget. Yet, after a generation of radical, independent directors – George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter – had proven the genre’s artistry, it was also attracting kids who might never have even thought of trying their hand at horror. Sam Raimi, by his own confession, was more of a comedy fan… a unique perspective that would make The Evil Dead the next step in horror’s evolution.
Despite the film’s tagline being ‘the ultimate exercise in gruelling terror’ being reinforced by its status as a Video Nasty, ‘terrifying’ isn’t as appropriate a word as ‘startling’. The Evil Dead is the bounding puppy amongst horror movies, with Raimi’s delight in sheer technique apparent in the then-novelty of its pell-mell camerawork and the gusto with which limbs and blood are flung like custard pies. The second half is a remorseless, rat-a-tat assault on star-in-the-making Bruce Campbell, whose face finds a third way between the classic silent comedy poles of deadpan Keaton and soulful Chaplin. It is a look of panicked disbelief, an incredulous rabbit in the headlights of evil.
But is it? Retrospect plays a huge part in shaping attitudes towards The Evil Dead, given the overt splatstick of its sequels. Did Raimi intend the first film to be so funny, or was he merely responding to the audiences who embraced his film’s inadvertent insanity? There isn’t a hint of comedy in the film’s early stages, as it sets up the archetypal ‘cabin in the woods’ scenario with sober, even banal, exposition. It’s a crucial point, but nobody – even Campbell’s Ash – is especially charismatic. They’re an interchangeable bunch, really: lambs to the slaughter.
And then there’s the tree rape: one of the most insidious ideas in a genre defined by shock value, and played frighteningly straight. It establishes women as fair game for the theatre of cruelty that follows, in which the possessed girls will be stabbed, burnt and dismembered with impunity. What’s interesting here is the modus operandi of the spirits, who prey on the most hysterical members of the group and – once possessed – exaggerate those qualities into a shrill, cackling goad. Given that the film was made by a bunch of nerds barely out of their teens, and you can read a fairly misogynistic subtext into a film that requires the drippy Ash to man-up against his now-demonic ex and her mates.
And yet, it’s done with such lightness that this only really occurs in retrospect. It’s the criticism of a grown-up, but on-screen, the mania of the Deadites makes them more akin to mischievous children, shouting “we’re going to get you” as they chase Ash around. There’s always been an element of hide and seek to the horror movie, but this one makes a raison d’etre, as Raimi springloads the structure with ‘boo’ moments, bolstered by the intensity of the sound effects. A more serious film would get dull pretty quickly, but Raimi makes a virtue of repetition by treating it as an (admittedly sick) game. It helps that his staging is endlessly inventive, finding new angles of attack to bely the obvious budgetary limits. It looks cheaper in its earlier, more generic sequences; but once Raimi has decided that comedy is his metier – and allowed his ghouls to run amok – a director is born.