Writer: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich, Sarah York
Plot: Five college students head out to a cabin in the woods, looking for a short getaway. From the very beginning, though, the trip seems to be in trouble. The bridge they have to take is crumbling and their car almost gets stuck. The cabin isn’t in any better shape than the bridge itself. And something, some presence in the woods seems to be watching them for some malevolent purpose. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), while sketching an old clock, finds her hand seemingly possessed, and draws a crude image of a book with a face on it, then sees a trapdoor rattling in the corner. She dismisses her experience and returns to her friends, where her brother Ash (Bruce Campbell) lightens the mood with a stumbling toast that’s interrupted when the trapdoor is thrown open. Ash and Scott (Hal Delrich) investigate the cellar, finding some horrific artifacts, including an ancient book wrapped in human skin and inked in blood, The Book of the Dead, and a tape recorder. When they play back the recording, they hear a message from the cabin’s previous occupant – an archeologist who was studying the Book of the Dead and the demons it can summon. The voice on the tape recites an old chant and a horrible light glows from beneath the ground. Horrified, Cheryl storms off. Ash is left alone with his girlfriend, Linda, and gives her a necklace with a magnifying glass pendant. Cheryl, believing she’s being watched, walks out alone into the woods (a stupid move that girls in horror movies had been doing for years and would keep doing for years to come), only to be attacked by a demon in the trees. (Literally, in the trees.) She demands Ash drive her back into town, but the bridge they used on the way in has been destroyed. Returning to the cabin, Cheryl suddenly transforms into a “Deadite” – possessed by a demon, possessing strange power. She attacks, stabbing Linda with a pencil and throwing Ash into a shelf before Scott manages to lock her in the cellar. Shelly (Sarah York) is next, transforming and attacking Scott, and he kills her to save himself.
Scott wants to leave the injured Linda behind and look for a way back to town, but Ash refuses, so he wanders off alone. Linda’s injury spreads, transforming her into another Deadite, and Scott reappears, horribly wounded by something in the woods. While the possessed girls taunt them, Scott tells Ash there’s a trail in the woods. The girls suddenly become themselves again, but when Ash goes to free Cheryl, she breaks through the floor and tries to strangle him. He escapes and drags the again-possessed Linda outside, and returns to find that Scott has died. The girls attack and Ash kills Linda. Remembering that Shelly didn’t stop until her body was completely dismembered, Ash chains up Linda and is about to cut her up with a chainsaw when he sees her pendant. Grief-stricken, he carries her outside to bury her intact, but she reanimates and attacks him again; he finally beheads her. Returning to the cabin, he finds that Cheryl has escaped and arms himself with a shotgun. As he barricades himself in, Scott reanimates and Ash loses the gun. He gets free of Scott as Cheryl breaks in, and the two Deadites try to hold him down and kill him. Ash manages to use Linda’s necklace (which somehow, miraculously appeared at the right time) to grab the Book of the Dead and hurl it into the fireplace. The two Deadites deteriorate before his eyes, collapsing into piles of gore. As the sun rises Ash – broken, battered, and covered in blood – stands up, alive and victorious. But as he steps into the light, something else approaches… and attacks.
Thoughts: To be perfectly, frank, this isn’t a masterpiece of a movie. Sam Raimi is still very raw as a director at this point, with ineffective angles and stiff performances from his actors. But the film is significant nonetheless in that we can see the germ of greatness in here. Raimi, who has gone on to do a great many very good movies, was cutting his teeth at this point, and was learning the basics of telling a story. Campbell was not yet the tongue-in-cheek master of camp that he would later become.
Some scenes, in fact, are downright awkward. The scene where Ash pretends to be asleep to give Linda the necklace, for example, includes a weird game where the camera keeps doing close-ups of Campbell and Baker’s eyes while she tries to decide if she’s going to take the box and keeps feigning sleep, while watching her at the same time. It’s supposed to be sweet, but even for the audience, it’s kind of uncomfortable. And while that feeling fits in with the rest of the film very well, in this scene it somewhat undermines the intent. Ash himself has a long way to go before he becomes the badass we know from Army of Darkness. When Shelly attacks, he’s actually paralyzed with fear, leaving Scott to take care of dismembering her himself.
But one thing that was effective right away was the mood. Raimi managed to put together scenes that combined shadow, nice tricks of the camera, and haunting music to make you feel that the characters’ fear was justified, even if it wasn’t presented in a flawless manner. There are several moments where the viewer is placed in the eyes of the Evil itself, as it zooms in on the characters, watches them from the woods, and otherwise stalks them.
By the time we reached the sequel, 1987’s Evil Dead II, both Raimi and Campbell had improved dramatically. In fact, the sequel is little more than a more successful remake of the original – it tells the same story, but injects it with superior storytelling, a healthy dose of black comedy, and a much stranger ending, making it a true classic of the horror/comedy mashup genre. (If and when I do the follow-up to this project about horror/comedies, you can bet Evil Dead II will occupy a place of honor.)
That’s not to say that none of the scenes work, though. The scene of Cheryl’s “possession” (which, let’s be honest, is a nice way to say she’s “raped by a bunch of freaking trees”) is horrible in all the ways the filmmaker wants. Considering that so much of it is dependent on our ability to believe that the branches and sprigs that are wrapping themselves around her body are acting of their own accord and not being manipulated right off-camera by a guy in a sweaty t-shirt, it looks very convincing and pretty horrifying. In fact, the makeup and gore effects on the whole are very well-done. There’s also some impressive stop-motion animation at the end, as the book burns and the two Deadites decay.
Speaking of them, the Deadite makeup is instantly frightening, and the scene where she stabs Linda with the pencil is convincing as all hell. And man, man is there a lot of blood in this movie. Every wound, every cut, every scrape absolutely gushes, and it all looks real enough for me. It multiplies when Ash hides in the cellar – pipes drip with blood, electrical outlets, blood flows into a lightbulb, drips down the lens of a movie projector… Raimi must have spent half his budget on corn syrup and food coloring. This does, however, lead to some amusing continuity errors. At one point, Ash bashes the possessed Cheryl’s hand in the door and it explodes with blood – in the next shot he slams the door shut and the door and frame are totally clean. Similarly, the pattern of gore on Ash’s increasingly dirty face and clothes changes noticeably from shot to shot. It’s a small thing, but when you notice it, it takes you out of the film.
The ending of the film is particularly – if justifiably – bleak. Ash, who has managed to survive all the horror around him – is attacked once more as we cut to black. Raimi’s philosophy for the movie, he says, was “everything dies,” and if he had stopped here, that would have come across very well. Of course, in the sequels we learn that not only does Ash live, he rules. But that’s neither here nor there. If nothing else, we owe this film and Sam Raimi an unending debt of gratitude for giving the world the awesomeness that is Bruce Campbell. And even though you know the forthcoming remake has both Raimi and Campbell’s stamp of approval, there’s just no way it capture the thrill of watching Ashley Williams become one of the great cult movie heroes.
After spending a couple of days in the woods, let’s get back to civilization… a nice little house in the suburbs. In a film called Poltergeist.