Drop the Oldsmobile, because in preparation for the remake opening this weekend, we’re going to be looking at the original EVIL DEAD trilogy. It’s no secret that I have a lot more love for the horror genre as a whole than my fellow film geeks (who are no snobs, but you know what I mean). Now, to get ready for the new film, I rewatched the original trilogy, plus a couple of – heh, extras, both in preparation and in celebration.
FILM GEEK JOURNAL – ENTRY 31
WITHIN THE WOODS (1978) – This thirty minute short film was made by college students Sam Raimi and Robert G. Tapert with the goal of getting the funding for a full-length feature. The people in front of the camera would be known amongst fans of the series as well. Three of the four leads are played by Bruce Campbell, Scott Spiegel and Ellen Sandweiss (only Mary Valenti didn’t appear in later incarnations).
The short shares many similarities and quite a few departures from the later EVIL DEAD films. The similarities come in the form of the demonically possessed friends terrorizing the living. Several gags from the series are also recycled. Sandweiss’ frantic attempts to unlock the door and the eventual payoff mirror the first film, while a scene involving a body preventing a door from closing recalls the second. The differences come in major plot points. Namely, there is no Book of the Dead in this version. Instead, the demons are stirred when a bunch of college kids disturb an ancient Native American burial ground. It’s an old chestnut of the genre that had been used before but would be used to much greater prominence in POLTERGEIST a few years later. It is also startling that it is Sandweiss that has the bigger role this time, and I must say she did a great job. Sandweiss’ performance reminds us how lucky we are that she returned to acting a few years ago.
WITHIN THE WOODS has never secured an official release on any video format, so all we have to go on are VHS dupes of the amateur Super 8 film. This means picture and sound quality aren’t the best and one has to put up with the failings of the old VHS format. Nevertheless, while you can tell the group was just starting out as filmmakers, there is a lot of enthusiasm present. They were thrilled to be given the opportunity to try their hand at the art of filmmaking, something that would become even more apparent with their next venture… ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
THE EVIL DEAD (1981) – And here is where most of us came in. Ash and his friends travel to a cabin in the woods where they find a strange book along with a reel to reel tape recorder. The cabin belonged to an archeologist who uncovered the book while searching for the last civilization of Kandar. The archeologist brought the book back to the cabin where he tried to translate its passages, the very passages that Ash and his friends unwittingly play allowed.
Suddenly, the woods themselves are alive and raping people who stray too far. The friends become possessed by demons before being murdered brutally.
Horror films, even gory films starring young people, were nothing new when Sam Raimi and his cohorts started filming THE EVIL DEAD in 1979. In fact, that’s the reason they chose the horror genre in the first place, to get their foot in the door.
What separates this from the also-rans out there is the originality and exuberance demonstrated with every minute of film. THE EVIL DEAD has some humor like other installments. But this first installment is a true blood horror film. It’s creepy as hell and unlike other installments, there is nothing nice about the violence. The gore is plentiful in this film, but also has a certain fantasy element that makes every bruise and dismemberment seem like a product of Hell itself.
THE EVIL DEAD shows an astonishing amount of inventiveness. In order to get the shots they wanted, shots that had never been accomplished before, Raimi and company went so far as to invent camera techniques and equipment (Amazing what you can do with a 2×4!) to achieve the desired effect. They pulled out all the stops to make EVIL DEAD a success and boy oh boy did they succeed. A horror classic. ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
EVIL DEAD II (a.k.a. EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN) (1987) – As much a remake as a sequel. The first eight minutes of EVIL DEAD II is new footage that recaps the original with a streamlined cast (Ash and his girlfriend as opposed to a group of friends). One can pinpoint the identical shot where the original EVIL DEAD ended which marks the beginning of this film proper. The setup is the came, with the cabin in the woods, the reading of the book and the demons that are awakened.
Where EVIL DEAD II differs is in just about everything else. Unlike the original, the sequel is as much a comedy as a horror film. It owes as much to the Three Stooges as it does H.P. Lovecraft and George A. Romero. Whereas Bruce Campbell was treated poorly in the last film, EVIL DEAD II introduces Sam Raimi’s true raison d’être of the series – namely to kick the everloving shit out of his best friend. Bruce Campbell endures more beatings, stabbings and tortures here than Jim Caviezel did in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Fortunately, Campbell takes it like a champ. Not only that, but he shows total star power and charisma as Ash. How could he not become a cult icon after this film?
EVIL DEAD II shows that you can take the same story and make it completely different by changing the tone. It’s one of the most shamelessly enjoyable films you’re likely to see. ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992) – Picking up immediately where EVIL DEAD II left off (and with some alterations to boot), ARMY OF DARKNESS finds Ash stranded in the 13th century. There, he discovers a small kingdom that is being terrorized by the Deadites. He has to retrieve the Necronomicon and fight off the skeletal hordes if he ever hopes to get home. Easier said than done as there is now a Deadite doppelgänger of him running around that is commanding an army of the dead.
This is the one a lot of fans still cite, and indeed it has more quotable one-liners than any of the other installments. However, it’s also pretty uneven in spots. Even at 81 minutes, the film can alternately feel as though huge chunks are missing and that things are being padded out too much. A director’s cut, running 15 minutes longer, is an improvement. However, despite this film being released on DVD roughly once every two months a few years back, we only have one substandard Blu-ray release of ARMY OF DARKNESS thus far.
Nevertheless, ARMY OF DARKNESS is still hella enjoyable. Bruce Campbell is the main reason for this, his performance reaching iconic levels even when his character is being a jerk. The horror is now almost gone completely and the film is instead a fantasy adventure with violent, morbid slapstick spread throughout (the original shooting title for this film was MEDIEVAL DEAD). Here, Ash makes the transition from punching bag to willing hero, giving the film an epic feeling that would make Joseph Campbell applaud.
I might not be as huge a fan of ARMY OF DARKNESS as most people are. It’s still more enjoyable than most of the flicks out there. It has a vibe all its own and it’s insanely addictive, as evidenced by how many times I’ve seen it over the years. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
EVIL HEAD (2012) – Heh heh heh heh. This porn parody was released last year. It’s one of the line of alt-porns out there, even though that’s a term that doesn’t get used much anymore. From the Burning Angel camp, the film features gals with lots of tattoos and more of a punkish look. They’ve done some good work, but this isn’t it. Joanna Angel has a good sense of humor about things. And believe it or not, there’s a couple of good horror moments. Otherwise, the film is about as sexy as a wet noodle and is even a bit misogynistic. This might not be a surprise to some, but it is when you consider the “women in charge” feel Burning Angel claims to represent.
So, why would I review a film like this for a website that is trying to offer serious film commentary? Two reasons: 1. I am looking forward to the extra traffic brought here by the sexually explicit tags (Hi there, perverts!). And 2. Have I mentioned how much I like to make Austin and Jesse squirm? ★ (out of ★★★★)
**** UPDATE! ****
I didn’t see the point in writing a review of the EVIL DEAD remake, since Jesse pretty much hit most of my talking points. But upon his request, I will at least summarize my feelings about it and try to touch on some of the things he didn’t already say in his review.
EVIL DEAD (2013) – There are three types of remakes. There’s the ones that are remakes in name only, taking a completely different approach but using some per-concieved notion of name recognition to get butts in seats. Then there is the most common type, the shamelessly derivative remakes which update the information but are otherwise transparent copies of the original, usually with needlessly flashy direction. And then there’s the third kind, where they take the basic concept of the original and move in a different direction that both respects and expands upon the source material. Give director Fede Alvarez for trying to go for the third option. But when all is said and done, the EVIL DEAD remake doesn’t quite work. So why I can’t stop thinking about it?
The film is plagued by some pretty terrible performances, especially Lou Taylor Pucci, who not only utters the film’s most horrendous line, he’s also responsible for behavior that has the viewer laughing unintentionally. Moreover, while the original EVIL DEAD was dark, there was also an inventiveness and sense of discovery that made it seem fresh. Alvarez does not demonstrate the same inventiveness. He goes for broke in some respects. But in other areas, he’s unable to hold the camera still. Remember the shots of the camera rushing up and seemingly going down the actor’s throat. Here, it comes this close to the actor before erupting in the same quick cutting we’ve seen on so many occasions, as if they were losing their nerve. Most tragically, the film takes itself way too seriously. It is a pure horror film sure. But we have stories about drug addicts who have suffered near fatal overdoses, parents that die in insane asylums, sons abandoning their responsibilities and friends that resent other friends for reasons they never bother to explain. That’s a lot of emotional baggage to bring into EVIL DEAD, way too much.
So, what does the film do right? Well, the cinematography by Aaron Morton is great and Jane Levy turns in a truly raw performance. The film delivers some real jolts in certain set-pieces along the way. And the last fifteen minutes is really great, almost enough to redeem major parts of the film. But no quite. It’s not what I initially feared when I gave my scathing critique of the trailer a while back. But it is one of those fascinating failures that does some things right, but far more things wrong.
Oh, and the infamous scene after the credits? Fan service, nothing more. ★★ (out of ★★★★)
Total films watched in 2013 so far: 136 (the short and the skin flick don’t count)
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