My favourite scene in The Evil Dead features no gore, violence, supernatural creatures, or even dialogue. Alone and half-mad, Ash (Bruce Campbell) decides to take charge of his dire situation, barricading the cabin doors and searching the basement for ammo. Little happens aside from our hero slipping on a creaky step, stepping in a puddle, staring at a blank projection, and getting sprayed with gooey red syrup, but Sam Raimi keeps finding new visual tricks to retain our attention, such as removing frames from the narrative and switching points of view mid tracking shot. Whereas most indie filmmakers at the time made up for their low budgets by padding their production with idle conversations and stock footage, this first-time writer-director expanded cinematic language to fit his needs.
Shot on location with a budget of under $400,000, The Evil Dead exemplifies bare bones filmmaking, crafting an unforgettable thrill ride out of just five teens, a tiny cottage in the woods, and an unseen demonic entity. Exposition is kept at a minimum, as is the usual frat boy banter, yet we get a firm sense of every character: the passionate lovebirds, Ash and Linda (Betsy Baker); Scott (Hal Delrich), the abrasive joker, with his blasé girlfriend Shelly (Sarah York); and the sensitive fifth wheel, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), who turns out particularly vulnerable to the occult. Their camaraderie feels genuine even though we know nothing of where they met, how long they’ve known each other, or, for that matter, who rented the cabin to them.
A born filmmaker, Raimi achieves this by letting the camera, not the dialogue, inform us of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Take, for example, the scene in which Ash and Linda play a game that can best be described as peek-a-boo meets cat-and-mouse, the way parallel cuts and extreme close-ups convey the lovers’ playful anticipation and, later in a lurid call-back, unbearable suspense. Also note the use of Dutch angles and sustained tracking shots when our heroes discover that the cabin belonged to a university professor studying the Necronomicon, otherwise known as the Book of the Dead, and awaken a malevolent spirit. All this happens within the first twenty minutes, by the way, which is the advantage of applying the adage “Show; don’t tell” to its fullest extent.
The exact nature of the unleashed entity, on the other hand, is neither shown nor told. Instead, Raimi opts to ram his 35-millimeter camera through the woods whenever the demon pursues one of its preys. I always figured the creature to be invisible, but it now occurs to me that Cheryl looks back at it a couple of times whilst running away. Then again, Ash never acknowledges its presence when he opens the door to her. Did the monster hide behind that cheap blue square surrounding the clearly superimposed moon in the sky? Regardless, I find the inconsistency all too fitting for a film inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s writing. After all, the monster-cam constitutes cinema’s closest iteration of the “Colour out of Space”.
The beast’s modus operandi also proves a bit murky. Sometimes, it crashes into the cabin to infect one of the characters. Other times, it prefers to play Peeping Tom as if the window made for a legitimate barrier. By the same token, some of the possessed like to claw and stab their former friends, ripping their flesh apart and licking the blood, while others are content to taunt and laugh maniacally. My theory is that the demon doesn’t want to kill our heroes so much as pervade their souls, but it needs for them to willingly give up first. Why else would Cheryl and Linda keep chanting, “Join us! Join us!” with their horrifyingly garbled voices? Seriously, they sound like a chorus of chain smokers who’ve somehow swallowed a litter of razor-bladed kittens.
To be clear, I don’t mind these ambiguities. On the contrary, I happen to fear the inexplicable far more than the unexplained and therefore find The Evil Dead utterly terrifying. Even as a young adult at the cusp of his twenties, I’d find myself hiding under the covers immediately after the closing credits. Over a decade later, I can still feel my pulse racing whenever Ash inspects Linda’s wounded ankle. Part of it, I suspect, stems from Campbell’s permanently confused expression, which strikes me as untypically realistic for a supernatural exploitation flick. Most of it, though, lies in the fact that Raimi never lets up, piling on not just the scares but also the absurdities for over one hour straight.
Because of my visceral reaction to it, I can’t say I really enjoy watching The Evil Dead, but, year after year, I keep coming back to the horror classic out of sheer admiration. If it seems like I mostly praised the film’s technical aspects, that’s because the director used the gamut of cinematic tools at his disposal. Those who look closely will find some German impressionism in there as well as some Three Stooges of all things. Then there’s all the stuff with which Raimi came up himself.