The Evil Dead (1982)
The story of how director Sam Raimi got his start in the filmmaking business is, understandably, well known amongst his own fan base, and is common knowledge even with the more casual fans. With less 400,000 dollars, himself, some friends and close colleagues, one of which was Bruce Campbell, who has been a consistent collaborator ever since even with regards to the Raimi films in which he has not starred, the upstart director headed down from Detroit to Tennessee to create what became known as The Evil Dead. Mixing classic horror tropes with some unexpected ingenuity, the film impressed many. Raimi's journey as a filmmaker experienced a tremendous upswing from that point onwards and things have never been the same.
The plot to The Evil Dead is mundane to say the least. The film opens with 5 friends (Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker and Sarah York), who look to be no older than in their early 20s, driving a narrow road in a hilly, forest region in direction towards a cottage one of them rented for the weekend. The group is getting along just gaily, although one dramatic interruption, which nearly has them crash head on into on oncoming truck riding the other way, suggests something nefarious is trying to spoil their plans. Raimi hints that the explanation behind the near-fatalistic event may not be due to the driver's imprudence, but something far more ominous, a spirit in the woods following them around like a breeze, spying on them, as established by the camera POV shots of 'something' moving from tree to tree, never too far from their car. Once at the cottage, the quintet discovers the basement where lies an old, dusty book replete with spells to wake evil spirits as well as tape recordings of a previous tenant who studied the book, its spells...and may have suffered the dire consequences as well. Before the protagonists have the chance to escape or even brace themselves for the horror show that is to follow, the evil spirits assault them.
The odd thing about watching The Evil Dead for the first time ever (yes, that might surprise a few, but so be it) is the knowledge in the back of one's mind of all the praise it has earned over the past few decades. Its supporters genuinely hold it in high esteem, with some quite effusive with their warm words, the naysayers being far and few between. In fact, it seems safe to guess the naysayers might just hide their heads in the sand because I have never spoken to, listened to a podcast host, or read a review online or in print which explicitly made the claim as to why Sam Raimi directorial debut is awful. Hence, going into the movie with that notion lingering over one's head, it is understandable if one's expectations are coloured. Honesty being the best policy, the first half of Raimi's rookie effort was, in some respects, cause for concern. There is nothing poor about it, only that, after seeing so many other pictures of the horror genre follow a familiar pattern and employ similar camera techniques, both in their cinematography and editing, a slight feeling of boredom crept up. The cast is doing what it can given, first, the material they are working with and, second, their raw talents, of which there is not plenty, as non-professional actors. It is probably no small coincidence that Bruce Campbell was the one chosen to be the longest lasting hero (and became the most famous after this film's release) of the bunch while his friends all suffer hideous fates. While not a stunning thespian, he is the one amongst the five possessing the best charisma. The general pacing and the number of small mishaps in the first forty minutes or so simply did not captivate in the way one would have hoped. The aforementioned camera point of view angle, which evidently enough is intended to represent what the evil spirits see, makes its presence in the film per say quite consistent, and even though it does add an element of suspense, it is a trick which has been played out a ton in other movies and one could even make the case it is a little overused here in particular, just a little. Apart from the infamous, forgive the blunt name, the 'tree rape' (?) scene, Raimi seems to be buying his time more than anything else during this portion of the film.
And then his friends begin transforming into monsters, at which point Sam Raimi rips through the remainder of the picture for a final 45 minutes or so which absolutely never let up.
To say that The Evil Dead's second half is superior to its first is a gross understatement. It bests almost everything which came before by a country mile. Of course, certain questions might spring to the minds of certain viewers who demand some clarity. The victims of the horrible metamorphoses and the order in which they occur is not elaborated on. Why not Bruce Campbell's Ash character? Perhaps for no better reason than that he is supposed to be the last man standing. Small details in logic aside (and, truthfully, logic is not what one should expect what viewing these movies), director Raimi offers, for lack of a better term, 'balls to the walls' thrills until the very final few frames, literally. Even some of the finer elements of what happens to characters results in providing the picture with a wonderfully vile attitude. Given that Ash's friends experience their transformations in sequential order, only one is giving a grotesque facelift at first. Distraught and freaked out at how one of their own is trying to demolish them, the four remaining heroes succeed in overcoming her and lock her in the basement. The great little twist is that the basement door does not close shut, hence a portion of the monster's head can pop open at any time, and frequently does, taunting Ash endlessly. It makes not only for some dark humour, but adds to the protagonist's psychological turmoil. An even more horrific loss is when Ash's girlfriend suffers the same fate, increasing the emotional aspect to his struggle even further. The movie pulls no punches in thrusting Ash through a terrifying, unforgettably nightmarish experience, not just for the physical struggle to survive, but the mental and emotional battles as well since he, and the audience, know that he is forced to fend off and ultimately kill a lover and friends.
The flipping of allegiances is already recipe for great fun which pays off handsomely, yet Raimi is not content to merely press all the juice he can out of that lone plot point. The deeper into the night the story takes Ash, the more psychedelic the experience. At one point, the hero seems to have found himself in a twilight zone type space where the camera flips over, nor can Ash fully trust what he sees or hears. More than anything, this portion of the adventure arrives totally unexpected and works on two fronts. First, it works as a final, crucial set piece that heightens the experience even more so, and second, it is a glowing example of how artistically creative Sam Raimi was as a director, even back in 1979, when the film was actually shot. It is bravura filmmaking from a young director with a strong voice without calling an unwarranted amount of attention to itself given that it works magnificently for the purposes of the story. It is like noticing the flair but not caring that one notices it because it fits so perfectly.
Ultimately, The Evil Dead proves to be quite an experience for a first time viewer. True enough, some time is required before the meat of the story picks up, and, to hammer home a point, that first portion does not hold the promise the legion of admirers allude to. That being said, Raimi proves that he knew what he was doing all along, and any languid pacing during the first half is easily forgiven after discovering just what he had in store for the rest of the movie.