For eleven-twelfths of the year, I abstain from horror movies. With few exceptions that I can remember – the only ones coming to mind being when I watched the Frank Langella version of Dracula (1979) late on a hot July night and watching a double bill of Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944) on an August night on TCM – I always wait until October for my horror-genre enjoyment.
2016 has been fun so far: Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Return of Doctor X (1939), The Climax (1944), The Strange Door (1951), House of Wax (1953), The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960), Incubus (1966), The Exorcist (1973) [which, for the record, I hated], The Sentinel (1977), The Changeling (1980), Venom (1981), The Others (2001) and The Conjuring (2013) have all now been checked off my list. But without a doubt the best decision I could have made this Halloween season was to watch Sam Raimi’s low-budget masterpiece, The Evil Dead (1981), and subsequently to watch the film’s two sequels and the follow-up TV show currently airing on the STARZ network, “Ash vs Evil Dead.”
Billed as “The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror,” The Evil Dead was filmed in 1979 for next to nothing (I think the budget was approximately $350,000), it was first shown in 1981 and it eventually became a cult classic upon its national theatrical release in 1983 and later (massive) popularity on home video. The film made an unlikely star out of Bruce Campbell, who is now an icon of horror/sci-fi/other weird genres, and Sam Raimi has had an interesting track record as a director, including the Spider-Man trilogy with Tobey Maguire (2002-2007) and the Cate Blanchett-starring supernatural thriller that I like quite a bit, The Gift (2000). I think I did the best type of preparation possible for The Evil Dead, which is to say I didn’t read anything about it. I didn’t want to spoil any aspect of the viewing experience. Perhaps it would have been good to know that the film has more gore than any film I have ever seen – enough to warrant an NC-17 rating, although technically the DVD is unrated – but in the end, I didn’t actually mind. When a film is as entertaining as The Evil Dead, extreme blood and guts get a pass.
(The only thing worse than listening to a book on tape: listening to the Book of the Dead on reel-to-reel audio tape.)
It’s easy to see why Bruce Campbell’s character, Ash (or Ashley J. Williams in full), has become such a beloved hero – although perhaps I should say antihero since he sometimes undermines his ability to save the world through sheer dumbness. In this first film, Ash has to kill his sister Cheryl, his girlfriend Linda, and two other friends when they become possessed by evil spirits (roused by passages spoken aloud from the Book of the Dead, aka the Necronomicon) during a weekend stay at a remote cabin. These unlucky friends’ reanimated bodies won’t stop until they take Ash down with them too. As the undead – or Deadites, as they are called in the franchise – stalk Ash through the various rooms in the cabin and in the basement underneath, director Sam Raimi displays maximum creativity as a horror filmmaker. Not bad for a 19-going-on-20-year-old making a feature-length flick in between semesters at Michigan State.
So then we come to Evil Dead II (1987). How do you make a sequel to The Evil Dead? By making a parody, of course! The fearsome cabin in the woods becomes a funhouse where Bruce Campbell – whose chin could kill if it so chose – turns the acting dial for Ash up to 11 and delivers a physical comedy performance worthy of cinema’s greatest clowns. Obviously the scenes where Ash’s hand is possessed, and therefore must be sawed off before it kills its owner, exhibit a ton of skillful stuntsmanship, including the impressive flip that Bruce Campbell does to launch himself headfirst onto the floor.
Evil Dead II also bestows upon us the gift of the iconic scene where Ash, now free of his right hand, first attaches his now-famous chainsaw appendage.
Raimi and Campbell further upped the stakes (ha!) with the third leg (ha ha!) of the trilogy, Army of Darkness (1992). In a madcap tribute to Ray Harryhausen, Ash must fight a legion of angry skeletons in the year 1300 (an evil vortex sent Ash back in time at the end of Evil Dead II). You can imagine how terrified people of that era would have been to see guns, but at least Ash gets to work in his sales pitch from the Michigan retail store where he works, S-Mart. In the second clip, you also witness some of Sam Raimi’s evident affection for the Three Stooges’ brand of humor.
Even though this was not originally supposed to be the ending of Army of Darkness, I love the last scenes in the film. Ridiculous, over-the-top, fun. Hail to the king, indeed.
The TV series “Ash vs Evil Dead” picks up exactly where any fan would expect: Ash, still working as a stockboy (or is it stockman?) in small-town Michigan and wasting away without purpose, must fight another wave of Deadites when he accidentally recites some of the Necronomicon’s demon-summoning text during a drunken rendezvous with a lady friend. Delightful pandemonium ensues.
Let’s end with some bits from late night talk shows and other online goodness. Backtracking to last year, I remember seeing this charmingly oddball interview with Bruce Campbell and Lucy Lawless on “The Late Show.” Campbell’s impression of Stephen Colbert, not because of the voice or even the look, but because he so totally nailed Colbert’s particular body language.
My favorite YouTube comment on this “Conan” interview clip from last month: “I’ve never heard the word ‘booby’ come from the mouth of a classier man. What a guy.”
Finally, we have Bruce Campbell and his “Ash vs Evil Dead” costar, Lucy Lawless (of “Xena: Warrior Princess” fame), reviewing scenes from some classic and not-so-classic horror movies. Lesson learned: some of the best film criticism can come from those who have firsthand knowledge of working in the genre. Here’s to more time spent with the most evil of the dead and the guys and gals who send them back to hell.