Sunday, October 2, 2016

Drive-In of Terror: The Evil Dead (1981)

Welcome to the first year of Drive-In of Terror, with the man behind the projector, William Lowery.  Tonight, I present a movie which would kick start a series that became both a household name in both the horror genre and pop culture: The Evil Dead.  Prior to watching these three films, the only two things I knew the series for were Bruce Campbell, and Bruce Campbell.  To figure out what makes these films tick, I start from where it all began thirty-five years ago, with the low-budget terror that kicked off this madness.

In a remote part of Michigan, a group of friends is travelling up to the mountains for the weekend.  The group consists of Scotty (Hal Delrich), his girlfriend Shelly (Sarah York), Ashly "Ash" Williams (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), and Ash's sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), who have picked a remote cabin as their primary destination.  When they arrive, things seem perfectly fine, but Cheryl starts to exhibit strange behavior not long after unpacking.  As they have dinner later that night, the cellar door mysteriously flies open, so Scotty and Ash head down to investigate, only to find a mysterious book, a tape recorder, and an equally ominous dagger.  After setting it up, the recorder is played revealing that a professor named Raymond Knowby and his wife travelled up to the cabin so he could investigate the book he found, referred to as Noctura Demanto, the Book of the Dead.  Although some decide the tape should be stopped there, Scotty insists they should continue.

As the recording plays on, Knowby chants phrases translated from the book, and unbeknownst to the ones listening, this awakens an evil from within the woods.  Sometime after the recording is played, Cheryl is drawn out into the forest by a mysterious voice, and as she looks around, the woods come to life and attack her, but she escapes, only to be chased by an unseen force.  Fortunately, Ash opens the door in the nick of time and pulls her in, wondering what happened to her, but Cheryl insists that they must leave.  Unfortunately, the bridge they crossed over has been destroyed; worse, when Ash and his sister return, she is possessed by the demons, who tell the others that one by one they shall all be consumed by the evil, but for Scotty and the others, the break of dawn is the only chance they have of escaping, that is, if they all survive.

Whereas the series is generally known for the sequels and their over-the-top, manic energy, The Evil Dead is a more subdued and serious film with intentions of getting under your skin rather than straight-up jolting you.  From its choice of setting to multiple sequences designed to create tension, the movie utilizes isolation and psychological fear as a means to invoke a strong feeling of terror.  The story and characters are reliant on many familiar tropes that were most prevalent in the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th, but it more than makes up for its feeling of familiarity through decent characters and solid direction.

In the beginning, we get a good grasp of the friendship these people have, which we know will be tore down once the demonic presence shows up, and when it does, it becomes more about survival.  The unpredictable nature of events means you never know which person the demons might take next, and the situation also brings up a huge morality issue these individuals must face.  In order to cleanse a possessed being, he or she must be dismembered limb from limb, and though this does mean there are sequences of brutal violence, it also makes them face the facts that they must kill those they know and love, in spite of what their current state is.  However, the evil does not play fair, in one scene, Ash comes close to chopping up Linda only to stop once she is seen crying and begging him not to do it, but soon after, it's show that the demons are just messing with him, and she remains under their grasp.

There are many ways The Evil Dead makes the audience feel uncomfortable, usually displayed onscreen full-force by the creative practical effects, but there are other means utilized by the filmmakers, one of which is through build-up.  Throughout the film, the audience is treated to long, drawn-out sequences in which all that happens is the characters investigate their surroundings; although this method is a double-edged sword, it nevertheless provides a way of creating tension, knowing that there will be something to surprise the audience.

This technique is best represented later in the film, in which the only individual not possessed is Ash, who is currently avoiding the likes of the now-consumed Scotty and Cheryl.  He heads into the basement to see if they are there, and what we're treated to is nearly ten minutes of sheer uneasiness.  Both the viewer and Ash don't know who or what is down there, but instead of finding one or both, he is instead treated to a series of mind-games in which pipes burst blood onto his face and a film projector starts to drip blood after turning on by itself.

This sequence is one of the highlights, but there are times when it comes off as mere padding, especially during the introduction.  While quite thrilling, The Evil Dead is not without its problems, most of which stem from its low-budget root.  In spite of being made with a $425,000 budget, there is much creativity displayed onscreen through both the effects and camera work, but one will notice quite a few mistakes.  These aren't intentional more as they are unintentional, from the occasional glimpse of a crew member to Scotty referring to Ash as Bruce in one line of dialogue, there are goofs prevalent throughout, yet some of them are quite unique.  My personal favorite involves any close-up shots of the possessed getting hit or coming at the camera.  If one looks closely, you can tell that it's not the original actor in make-up but someone else entirely, which I find endearingly charming.

Charming is a word which best summarizes the effects.  They are a testament to the fact that no matter what budget you have, there's a way to make your vision happen.  Such is the case with the macabre and splatter-filled violence which takes place onscreen, as the movie is filled with large amounts of fake blood, body parts, and guts, but the real star of The Evil Dead is the camera.  Featuring extensive point-of-view shots, Dutch angles, and other different perspectives and styles, it's an impressive sight to witness and one can see how Sam Raimi, director of this movie and its sequels, eventually developed this into his own style he would utilize in his future projects.

Though not without its faults, The Evil Dead is both an enjoyable time and an important part of film history.  It's not for the faint of heart, as this is a very violent picture, and occasionally, there are moments designed to shock the audience, one of which misses the point entirely and comes off as tasteless, but for those willing to watch it, it's a ferocious, deviant experience.

Final Score: 7/10

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