For the second day of Evil Dead Week...
The Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi's classic horror film The Evil Dead can surprise those who go in knowing of the series' reputation only by its sequels. While it has traces of that madcap atmosphere, the first Evil Dead movie is a straight horror film through and through, and quite an effective one at that. Its low budget shows through with its grimy feel, fairly crude (if highly abundant) special effects, and often wooden acting, but Raimi's stylish shooting elevates this far above many comparable low-budget splatter films.
The plot is as old as time itself: five friends go out to a cabin in the woods to drink, screw, and party, they find an old dusty tome bound in human flesh containing bizarre inscriptions, they read from it (or in this case, play a recording of a guy reading from it that they also found) rather than do the logical thing and put it away or perhaps burn it, and they all get possessed and die -- except for the one survivor who saves the day. Perhaps the reason why that plot is so timeworn is because this is, together with Friday the 13th, one of the first films to use it, and it does it quite effectively. Once it gets rolling in the second act, I was kept on the edge of my seat almost consistently. The acting picks up dramatically; perhaps this is because of how hellish the shoot was (and by all accounts, it was an experience), but I was buying these people as scared and possessed more than I was buying them as normal young people in the first act.
Special props, of course, go to Bruce Campbell playing what is often a stereotypically "female" role, the horror movie survivor, screaming and getting beat on before kicking ass. Having the "final girl" be a guy, and one who spends much of the movie behaving like a "chick" rather than an alpha male, was a creative subversion of gender roles that I'm surprised hasn't shown up in more movies. Even his character's name, Ashley (or simply Ash), is a pretty unisex name that, both then and now, was more popular with girls than boys. He shows early traces of the memetic badass personality that made him a cult favorite among horror fans, but he also yells in fear with the best of them.
Raimi's direction is also packed with creativity and style, from his "monster-cam" that keeps the main demon out of sight for the entire film to his grisly special effects. The clunky stop-motion shots and Karo corn syrup are, in hindsight, easy to call as "fake" in comparison to the efforts of modern special effects companies like KNB, but when used in such quantities and with a little originality, it can make for an intense thrill ride. Still, the most intense scene for me was one that didn't have any gore at all, the part where Ash is alone in the house getting tormented by weird visions and shooting his shotgun at shadows. More than the violent zombie fight at the end, that scene had me shivering in fear. (Or maybe it was because I was sitting under the AC vent...)
That's not to say that this is a perfect film. The first act is fairly dull stuff, livened up only by a few cool/funny moments (the fake sleeping scene in particular). When the possessed cabinmates speak, taunting Ash, it often straddles the line between scary and unintentionally funny, occasionally veering into the latter. Linda's giggling in particular had this effect on me. It's perhaps not for nothing that Raimi, recognizing the film's campiness, went in a more overtly comedic direction with the sequels.
Score: 4 out of 5
Some duller moments aside, The Evil Dead is a very solid horror film that still holds up today, even if it doesn't bear much resemblance to the later films. It's a rightful classic, so go check it out.