The Evil Dead trilogy

The three movies which make up the trilogy are radically different in tone, yet have a common cheerfulness in absolute mayhem which links their spirit. The first was a classic ‘video nasty’, which after an incredibly tedious first half, rips into action and throws everything at the camera, shredding the cast in a variety of spectacular ways. It’s remarkable both for the unrelenting grimness, and the amazingly fluid camerawork, which is doubly impressive given the teeny budget. Evil Dead 2 is a tour-de-force for Campbell, who delivers a career-making performance as Ash, ladling on the black humour with a spade (literally…). Army of Darkness moves even further from its horror roots, in favour of something closer to Jason and the Argonauts; again, Campbell holds it all together.

A couple of interesting points: it’s one of the rare horror series where the hero is the one present in all the entries, not the villain (Myers, Vorhees, Krueger, Pinhead, etc.). It’s also fun to enjoy the development of Ash as a character from the largely useless wuss at the start of the first film, through the madness of part two, to the – admittedly, somewhat unwilling – heroic courage in Army of Darkness. It’s almost unique, in the horror genre or anywhere else, to see such a sweeping character arc like this, yet it seems almost natural, based on what Ash goes through.

Though it’s equally true to say that the actual horror content is diluted, the further you go into the series. This continual distancing is largely because Raimi just used horror movies as a good way into the business; The Three Stooges is far more of an influence in his “real” work. Yet despite this, even after hitting the big time with Spiderman, it’s horror fans who hold his work in the highest regard. Perhaps that’s because even twenty-five years later, nothing else has been quite like The Evil Dead and its sequels.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Rating: B+

Dir: Sam Raimi
Star: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker

By coincidence, we watched this on the 37th anniversary of its theatrical release, at the Redford Theater in Detroit. That must have been quite an experience, watching the film with no advance knowledge of its content or reputation. I imagine you’d have got some very funny looks, if you’d told anyone on the night – not least the director and star – that almost four decades later, Campbell would be playing Ash on cable TV, while Raimi would have directed versions of both Spiderman and The Wizard of Oz. Plus the film would have led to two sequels and a remake with about fifty times the original’s budget.

A little like Alien, this pulls a switch in focus. Early on, it looks like the hero is going to be Scott (Delrich, who appeared only in Crimewave thereafter). He’s the man bravely going into the basement, after the trapdoor flops open. Yet, he’s also a bit of a dick, who continues playing the tape recording of Professor Raymond Knowby, long after any sensible listener would have noped the fuck for the off button. Which is exactly what Cheryl (Sandweiss) does. If only Scott had listened to her. Pencils in ankles, girlfriend dismemberment and, of course, arboreal violation (#TreeToo?) could all have been avoided…

Eventually, Ash takes over; Campbell was the only one to go onto a significant career, and certainly takes a good chunk of the damage, throwing himself about with the energy appropriate to the 21-year-old he was at the time of shooting [though his early haircut may be the most horrific thing in the entire movie]. Credit, however, should also go to the ladies of the film, who aren’t exactly let off lightly. Mind you, it’s hard to tell how many of their scenes are actually stand-ins, buried under wheel-barrow loads of make-up and apparently really irritating contact lenses, as people bailed on the production. To all those “fake shemps”, we raise a glass in salute.

The pacing here remains the biggest problem, especially in a first half where precious little of interest happens – not helped by the “college drama group” level to which most of the acting (Campbell included) aspires. Then it kicks off, with Raimi throwing all the tricks in his barely post-teenage arsenal at the camera, and becomes gloriously grubby and gorily gonzo. Admittedly, there are any number of occasions where the execution falls short of the imagination – the climax, in particular, must have bought out the Play-do stocks of every Toys “R” Us store in Michigan.

None of which takes away from the raw energy here, something which has endured and still stands as a lesson to low-budget film-makers today. This instigated the genre which Joe Bob Briggs called “spam in a cabin” in his review of the film, a sub-set of horror remaining popular to this day – not least because its execution doesn’t requite a lot of resources. Yet, while often imitated in the field, Evil Dead has very rarely been matched.

This article is part of 31 Days of Horror.

[Original review] The first 25 minutes of this are, to be blunt, pretty dire: sluggishly paced, and without any of the drive that characterizes both the rest of the series, and Raimi’s other work. It isn’t helped by the fact that “teenagers go to a cabin in the woods” is now an utter cliche, or that those shown here are flat and uninteresting to a fault.

And then Cheryl gets raped by a tree.

Read that again, for effect. It’s something you’ve never seen before, and probably never will again – even Raimi now feels they went too far. But, boy, does it get the audience’s attention, and it’s a masterstroke to open with the most memorable sequence.

From there on, this doesn’t quit, and there’s a real sense that anything can happen, to anyone, at any time, which is one of the key components of the genre. The blandness of the opening is flushed away, and it still remains an unrelenting assault. There are a couple of weaknesses: the effects at the end look as if they were done by a badly-hungover Nick Park, and Bruce Campbell’s acting leaves a lot to be desired. But there is a raw intensity that only low-budget horror can achieve, and looking back, it’s no surprise Raimi would go on to become box-office bank, as his visual style is apparent, even with the limitations of the budget.

Evil Dead II (1987)

Rating: A-

Dir: Sam Raimi
Star: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wesley

There’s a debate as to whether this is a sequel or a remake; I’m inclined toward the latter. The first seven minutes are, admittedly, a high-speed gallop through the events of the original (restaged, since Raimi couldn’t get the rights to the footage), but after that, it’s truly its own puppy. And a sick, twisted, demented critter it is too. The rawness is all but gone; this time, Raimi had a lot more money, and was also considerably more experienced, which helps things a great deal. But the two biggest improvements are a script that contains almost no slack, and Bruce Campbell, whose talent has come on in leaps and bounds – watch the two films back-to-back, and it’s particularly obvious. Given he’s basically alone (the dead and/or hallucinations excepted) for much of the first half, it’s a brilliant performance on both sides of the camera, to keep the audience enthralled as he battles his demons – internal and external.

It is a slight shame that the film chooses to divert itself to the arrival of Annie (Berry), daughter of the academic who discovered the Book of the Dead. Her journey to the cabin, and the three people who arrive with her, is significantly less interesting than Ash smashing plates on his head. However, it’s all relative, and the mayhem is soon resumed in a fashion which can only be described with one word: “Groovy!” The focus is less horror than horror-comedy, a difficult genre to get right: maybe less than half a dozen films since Evil Dead II even come close to the degree of success here. The magnificent twist in the final five minutes is both a great ending, and wonderful way to segue into the third movie.

Army of Darkness (1992)

Rating: A-

Dir: Sam Raimi
Star: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert, Ian Abercrombie

Heresy! Am I really saying this is the best film in the series? Well, yes, even though it doesn’t even really qualify as a horror film at all. It’s more of an action-comedy where the villains happen to be dead. And here’s some more heresy: I prefer the ending that brings Ash back to the modern era, to fight one last Deadite, than Raimi’s more downbeat one. It may be more in keeping with the general theme of the trilogy – best summarized as “Let’s put Ash through hell” – but by the end here, he’s won his spurs as a fully-fledged hero, and deserves a suiitably-heroic ending. Here, he’s pushed back to the year 1300, and his attempts to return awaken the army of the dead; after some squirming, he finally stays to defend the locals, using a combination of technology and good, old-fashioned clobberin’.

As in part two, there’s a good chunk where Campbell is the only man on screen, albeit with Evil Ash, or the mini-Ashes, and once more, these are arguably the highlights of the film. However, the rest of the film is hardly less entertaining. While Ash may be at his most courageous, he still has his faults and foibles, and a total lack of patience for the middle-agers, or “primitive screwheads”, as he disparagingly calls them. It’d be very easy for this to come off as arrogant, but thanks to the efforts of director and star, the results are extremely endearing. Indeed, the entire film is one big, goofy pleasure, and taken as such, can only be admired. While horror fans may speak disparagingly of this, it’s clear Raimi’s heart was far more in it than the arboreal sex-crimes of the original.