Did Sam Raimi fear he’d never get a chance to make another movie? The Evil Dead, his feature debut, feels like it’s stuffed with every camera trick he’d ever conceived. Flagrant as it is, the film offers occasional moments of inspiration, but it’s mostly exhausting and eventually tedious.
A cabin-in-the-woods story, The Evil Dead only has five characters: nice guy Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker); boorish Scott (Richard DeManincor) and his girlfriend Shelly (Theresa Tilly); and tagalong Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss). In the cabin’s cellar they find some ancient artifacts and unwittingly unleash a curse of demonic possession. It isn’t long before Cheryl is transformed from a sweet innocent to a frothing beast, and she’s just the first.
A haunting specter is as good of an excuse as any to have your camera hover and lurk and scurry and attack (presumably from the demon’s point of view), so that’s what we frequently get. Other shots are more inventive, including one that tracks along the floor of the cabin as a body is being dragged, first past another victim and then past the slightly ajar trap door to the cellar, where one of the demon-possessed victims is clamoring to get out.
Did Sam Raimi fear he’d never get a chance to make another movie again?
Good stuff, but Raimi keeps piling it on, including a distracting shot that travels 180 degrees over Ash’s head. Piling on is also an apt way to describe the gore. Creeping and unnerving early on, it reaches intentionally comic proportions by the climax, when the grisly dissolution of the demon-possessed bodies turns into an extended sequence all its own. I’m not averse to gore, but I appreciate it more as a storytelling tool than the defining element that it becomes here.
Campbell, the lone survivor at this point, has such a goofy spark that he’s nearly the movie’s saving grace. Yelping in alarm at all this mayhem, Ash at one point is so grossed out by what he sees that he stops his ax, mid-swing, in shock. Far less endearing is the movie’s treatment of its three female characters, who take turns becoming possessed largely so that the men can gruesomely inflict violence upon them. “Hit her!” “Hit it!” Scott tells Ash at one point, nicely summarizing the movie’s eagerness to see the women as gore receptacles rather than people. (And I haven’t yet mentioned the exceedingly problematic scene of Cheryl being raped by vines in the forest.)
Just bad taste? That would be a generous way of describing it. The Evil Dead is certainly notable as the announcement of an eager talent, but I’d have a difficult time praising the picture as much more than that.