GREAT MOVIES AND PERSONAL FAVOURITES: The Evil Dead (1981)
23 November 2008
First, let’s take a look at the history of video in Sweden:
Sweden is Bergman-land. Not until quite recently has the heavy cultural burden of Ingmar Bergman become somewhat lighter. And I don’t mean because he passed away, and as much as the Bergman-shade is a problem for Swedish film I do not want to give away any of his credit. He could very well be the greatest film maker who ever lived. But as it is, having such a colossal and celebral figure rise from a country this small, and with centuries of farmer’s mentaliy within the very backbone of it’s people, is problematic. It seems there is always this serious ”art” to live up to and ever since Bergman became a worldwide name in the 1950’s, Swedish film split into two basic genres – comedies representing low artistic quality, and everything else, usually political or stageplay-like dramas with kitchen sink realism, representing high artistic quality.
Now, when advancement of technology started to emerge in the 1980’s, as a prelude to the worldwide information society we have today, Sweden was as it has always been, slow to catch on. In 1980, a TV programme did a special about the video market, jagged on by the Video Nasties-thing that was going on in the UK, where a bunch of well-dressed and dusty preachers of morale were shocked to find masterpieces like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)available for all to see! There were clips shown, carefully chosen ones naturally, upon which a bunch of kids were manipulated into saying what the reporters wanted to hear – this ”violent garbage” was condemned in various ways and the country went into a riot, with police razzias at video stores and a generation of kids witnessing their parents turning into the Gestapo when they realised they had no idea what their kids were up to.
Naturally, these films were totally unacceptable and basically every horror movie that came during the 1970’s, 80’s and even early 90’s were either cut to pieces our outright banned. Sweden is the only country in the world that has a film censorship board controlled by the state and even though it’s totally passive these days (since a leader shift in 1996 it’s basically been a running ghost train, only cutting violent pornos) back in the 80’s the scissors ran violent and the ratings were often insane (you had to be 15 years of age, with or without guardian, to see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie in 1990!).
When I was growing up, as a teenager in the late 90’s and the early years of this decade, this piece of history was something I wasn’t aware of. But through the Internet and different movie magazines, I started to read about the golden age of horror movies in the 70’s and 80’s. In my local video store, I could find one of the films from this period and that was an old cut version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It existed, I guess, due to the fact that it was the one film in particular that the TV-show I mentioned as an example of the smut violence distributed in the video market (surely it was the title’s shock value, the Swedish title translating into only ”The Chainsaw Massacre”, since the movie isn’t really that violent). I read in fascination about Wes Craven’s pre-Scream-movies, Romero’s zombie epics and all of what you might imagine. Italian guys like Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento seemed so exotic that it was as if they didn’t really exist. At fourteen, I had no doubt that The Evil Dead was a film I would never get to see in my life.
So I’m fourteen and my only movie-buff-friend (in my hometown, being interested in movies was the equivalent of having discussions about wheterAmerican Pie was better than Scary Movie) calls me, telling me to open a certain page of the latest edition of Swedish Total Film. I turn the page and see an image of a grizzly demon girl from The Evil Dead. I am very familiar with the image, and I have read the article about Sam Raimi many times, so have my pal. To my utter chock he claims to hold a copy of the movie in his hand as we speak. It’s really quite impossible for me to try and explain how I first and foremost didn’t believe him at all, and secondly how insane with overjoy I became when I realised he was telling the truth. As by some strange miracle, he had found The Evil Dead uncut at the bottom of a pile of discount videos in some random video store. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how it had gotten there.
What I didn’t know was that the market for the old school horror films was just beginning to blossom in my little Nordic home. The censorship of the Old Testament was already history and now these old classics could re-emerge. Just one year later I would realise I could order films like The Beyond and Dawn of the Dead imported over the Internet, expensive as hell but worth my pennies. The imported films would also become cheaper over time, and nowadays The Evil Dead can be found in most video stores, along with many other of these classic movies, back in circulation thanks to smaller distributors or, in certain cases, nation-wide ones.
But anyway, this was back then, rougly ten long years ago. Finding this movie was like finding the Necronomicon itself, an anonymus artifact with great powers, waiting to be explored. And when I first saw the movie, it made such an impact on me that I knew I had to see more of this shit. I saw the movie again and again, it touched me in ways I still really can’t explain and no matter how many low-budget horror films I managed to get my hands upon throughout the years, none seemed to be as magic as the low budget masterwork of The Evil Dead. There was something about the shacky quality, the simplistic effects, the grizzly violence and the bad acting that somehow made it into a hardcore feast of anarchism. It wasn’t a comedy, but it was made in a light-hearted way. Yet the evil deadness of the movie was very apparent, the nearly gothic doom of the movie was heavy and the violence showed no mercy. Furthermore, the adrenaline ride that was the last bits of the movie were insane. Every time I saw the movie, and that was a lot of times, I was just as pleased with how I allowed myself to get set-up by the first half hour, entangled in the middle, and exhausted by the credits. Hell, I even picked this movie on my first date with my first girlfriend, thinking it would be a good alternative to a more predictable choice of, say, a romantic comedy.
Over the years though, it became such a recognizable movie to me that I saw it less times, only using it to introduce people who hadn’t seen it, and my horror interest went off into escapades collecting every Italian spaghetti-splatter I could find or every single little slasher, after a while everything became psuedo-academic, I started thinking a lot about the genre and it’s history and when I finally got to see Argento’s Inferno (1980) it closed the chapter of my Horror Hunt. That was the last great work of horror from this period that I had not yet seen. After that, it was time to move on. And ever since, I’ve been laying low on horror. And I don’t even remember the last time I saw The Evil Dead. But as it happens, I had some money over and I stumbled across a DVD with great extra material and a really cheap price tag. Imagine that. A movie that was bascially just a VHS-tape in a discount pile, now polished and pretty with a nice cover and great extra material for roughly the same amount of money. How times have changed. I bought it, showed it to my roommate who had not heard about it. So we had ourselves a movie night, and it was a pretty interesting experience to revisit this old gem again.
The first thing I am forced to admit is that I am by no means as impressed by the films visuals as I remember being when I was younger. I remember being sucked into the movie upon it’s first frames, the tracking shot over the little eerie pond and the innocent little kids singing along in the Raimi Oldsmobile. It was one of those movies that took you in and didn’t let you out until it was finally all over. I realise I’m held back now, and the first thing that strucks me with the movie is how insanely cheesy the opening sequence is – the happy group of amateur actors who are mysteriously close to colliding into a big truck. The editing in this brief scene is beyond clunky; I love it how all of the passengers in the back seat suddenly are up at the front, and right back in their identical places when it’s all over, or the little insert of one of the girls posing a scream that looks totally out of place. The same goes for the incredibly campy sign delcaring that the bridge isn’t credible, the voice over-dialoge and the inexplicable shot of Bruce Campbell opening the back door and looking down, followed by an implausable reverse-shot which by the way, consists of the very same edit we saw moments earlier!
I’m not putting this movie down, it was made on a shoe-string budget and I really do admire it. What I find fascinating is throughly personal: How could I be so sucked into this, and not see the technical flaws? Did I see them? What was so compelling?
True, The Evil Dead does have a certain atmosphere of it’s own, but it takes a while to realise. Maybe I wasn’t instantly hooked by it the very first time I saw the beginning of the film, but have loved it so much since that I’ve put the overall mood of the film into mind in the beginning of it. In any case, I don’t remember giggiling to myself during the first five minutes as I did now.
This is the first time I’ve seen the movie on DVD too, being used to a second generation VHS, which made me aware of other goofs too – like the hilarious branch that tags along the car when they drive up to the cabin, the obvious cigarette smoke effect when they arrive, the Halloween-prop skull-knife and the Book of the Dead itself with images that are outdone by any goth chick’s home made art on any random blog, countless unintended shadows and visible equipment, the visible lines around of the inserted shot of the full moon when Cheryl enters the woods, the holes around the eyes of the demon masks, the use of paint for blood and porridge (?) for… gooey stuff. Other things too, which I guess must have been obvious back then aswell but that I for some reason just realised now, for instance Scott’s constant hair change or the pipe lines in the cellar (what kind of a cabin in the middle of the woods, has pipelines? Maybe it’s a vintage cabinesque garage-look?). And you have to love dialog like this:
CHERYL: It’s probably just some animal
SCOTT: An animal?! That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard in my life!
LINDA: Maybe it’s just some animal.
SCOTT: Yeah, probably right. It’s probably just some animal.
What the hell?
I was also very amused by questioning certain things that would have never crossed my mind when I was fourteen, since I was just a kid: What kind of a person joins her brother and his best friend, together with both of their girlfriends? Suppose nothing bad would have happened, how would she have spent the night in that cabin? Listening to the howling wind and laying domino bricks to the sound of two pairs screwing, one being her brother? Lucky for her she got laid too, even though you might want to find another partner than the Evil Living Woods, but who can be picky out in the middle of nowhere?
And that’s another thing I wouldn’t have thought of when I was fourteen. The good old over-analysing (actually, in my mind there’s no such thing as ”over”-analysing, every film is filled with these things, be it intended or not). Sexuality is always a big thing in horror films, and it is very interesting that it is the virginial girl who likes to draw, and who doesn’t have a partner, who ends up getting, literary, poked. Notice the ambivalent screaming and moaning when she infamously gets ”raped by the woods”.
Another great bit of symbolism is the movie projector that goes ballistic in the end, filling the blank screen with pouring blood as Ash is blinded by the lamp. Isn’t that a pretty nice sum-up for this entire movie? Crazy moviemaking with lots of blood.
As a kid, I took The Evil Dead very seriously. Now I’m really first and foremost seeing a movie thrown together by Sam Raimi and his college buddies. Specially since I am at the same age that Raimi was when he made the movie, I can really imagine how much fun it must have been for them to shoot this little rinky-dink horror film, and how great it must have felt when Stephen King himself adored it and it furthermore became a cult hit.
And as a debut movie by an ”amateur” film maker, The Evil Dead is still an astonishing film. It might seem that I’ve been putting the movie down, it was not my intention. I was just fascinated how times have changed. I’m not fourteen anymore, but this is still a great movie. Raimi had, already here, a remarkable way of playing with the movie medium, and going rampage with the action but still being able to have control of what he’s doing – the last bits of The Evil Dead is just a great, great ride of gory hocus-pocus and a thrilling study in mindfucking. It’s an imaginative piece of horror, that holds a well-deserved place as one of the greats in the history of the genre.