Monday, October 27, 2014

31 Days of Horror: The Evil Dead

Ash, played by Bruce Campbell, realizes something evil is afoot, possibly the dead, in The Evil Dead.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 27: The Evil Dead (1981)

For a brief period of time a couple years back, I adopted a stray, gray kitten. There was only one thing I could call her: Ashley J. Williams. Yes, I was one of those people whose cat had a full human name, and she was affectionately known as Ash. She was unequivocally named for Bruce Campbell’s character in The Evil Dead. This is my favorite horror film and one of my top 20 favorite films of any kind.

If you do not know the story of The Evil Dead or the story behind the story, there are about a dozen books and numerous fan sites and short documentaries chronicling the history of this film. I recommend Campbell’s autobiography, “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor.” If you are at all interested in how films get made or in the everyday life of an actor, it is essential reading. I had to sell or give away most of my books when I moved to New York from California, but “If Chins Could Kill” is not going anywhere except with me.

This is the feature directing debut of Sam Raimi, now known for his mega-blockbusters such as the Toby Maguire-led Spider-man films and Oz: The Great and Powerful. The Evil Dead is about a million miles removed from those later pictures, but in many ways, everything about the director Raimi would become is right here in bloody red and oozing white. The effects, the energy, the angles, the humor, it all starts with this little micro-budget cabin-in-the-woods picture.

The shortest version of the making-of story is thus: A group of mostly untrained filmmakers and actors from Michigan went out into the woods of Tennessee intent on making a horror movie. They physically and emotionally beat the hell out of themselves and each other for months on end in grueling conditions and with no conceivable light at the end of the tunnel. What they walked out of those woods with was an invigorating and innovative masterpiece that more than three decades later still inspires nearly every independent filmmaker who picks up a camera.

When I think about this movie, I still get chills down my spine and goose bumps on my arms. It can be split roughly into two halves – beginning with about 30 to 35 minutes of low-key characterization and ominous mood setting and concluding with nearly 45 minutes of envelope-pushing mayhem. A relentless assault of gore and guts, each new element and every successive sequence tests the limits of what an audience is willing to endure. When you are in the hands of a master filmmaker like Raimi, the answer is: a hell of a lot.

The plot is as simple as plots get. Ash and several of his friends drive out to a remote cabin and discover a tape recorder that plays passages from the famous book of the dead the “Necronomicon.” Against all better judgment and common sense, they allow these passages to be read allow, which summons a horde of demons and evil spirits. One by one, the friends are all either killed or possessed or run through the ringer of never-ending torment.

Some of the shots Raimi gets to achieve his vision still boggle the mind, and on the fly, the crew invented a number of low-tech rigs to accomplish each new demand of their fearless leader. The so-called “ram-o-cam” gives us the demonic point of view you may recognize from nearly every evil-spirit movie since. As much as it is a thrilling entertainment, The Evil Dead is a true filmmakers’ film, the kind of showcase anyone with aspirations to make a movie should study.

For the same reasons, this is not my favorite horror film just because it is a genuinely good movie. It is my favorite because the story of its existence inspires me every day to pursue my dreams and to achieve the goals I have set for myself. I am not sure I could ask any more of a movie than that.

You will notice I did not spend much space discussing Campbell’s performance. Tomorrow, we rectify that as the character of Ashley J. Williams comes into his own and goes from in too deep to icon.

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