Saturday, October 15, 2016

Bride of Obligatory Halloween Post

Happy Samhain, Ya Sick F#cks! 

Yeah, I know, I know...I said I wasn't gonna post here anymore, but I'll be damned if I let Halloween go by without telling y'all about yet another horror movie that scared the ever-lovin' shite outta me as a kid.

In the first entry of this series, I talked about some early childhood brushes with fear that made me a life-long horror addict. I then proceeded to recount my own personal experience with such notorious nightmare fuel as An American Werewolf in London, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien and the balls-to-the-wall horror comedy The Return of the Living Dead.

After Stephen King, the Arbiter of All Things Scary, proclaimed this year's repellent l'il entry to be "the most ferociously original horror film of"1981, I felt compelled to seek it out somewhere in my mid-teens. Particularly intriguing was this description of the picture in Horrors: A History of Horror Movies, written by clearly-traumatized movie scribes Tom Hutchinson and Roy Pickard:

"Everything is troweled on without question - from twitching zombie faces to white-balled eyes through to twitching, severed limbs seen through a camera wielded as though by a whirling dervish. The writer-director...has gone so far over the top as to be out of sight."

This is the movie that almost single-handedly kicked off the whole "Video Nasties" debate in the U.K. (see "Fail" below), to the point where the film was even banned from distribution for two years back in 1983. Of course I'm talking about the one, the only...

The Evil Dead (1981)

Although Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness in particular, ventured increasingly deeper into the realm of horror comedies, there's still a lot of gruesome, Grand Guignol-style black humor inherent in the first Evil Dead. This is made especially evident when you listen to Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell's Blu-Ray commentary track, during which the director and his lead actor gleefully poke holes through all of the film's flimsy bits. 

Indeed, to say that The Evil Dead was made on the cheap is like saying Donald Trump is "moderately self-aware". I'm sure that while they were making their modest l'il horror picture, Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert would never have guessed that it would eventually be subjected to the unforgiving scrutiny of high-def digital home video. In fact, DVD, and especially Blu-Ray, transfers are downright cruel to The Evil Dead. It makes the movie look like a pasty-faced cubicle monkey under the brutal glare of florescent lighting. And that's why I think the movie should be viewed the same way I first saw it: on a crappy VHS tape that's been unspooled and re-spooled about a thousand times.  
Eventually I screwed up the courage and slipped that nasty, ratty old videocassette into my parent's virginal VCR. Given all of the hype, I was 100% convinced that what I started to watch that fateful evening was evil incarnate.I didn't see matte lines around the moon, seams in the prosthetic makeup or dwell on the lousy performances. What I saw thrilled me at first. Then it horrified me. Then it repulsed me. By the time it was all over and done with I felt as if I'd survived something traumatic with my wits scarcely intact.

But before I get ahead of myself, lemme set the stage for you. Five college students travel to the world's most decrepit log cabin, which lies practically abandoned in the Tennessee backwoods. Even before someone has a chance to unpack and / or crack open a beer, the flighty, artsy Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) is  inexplicably compelled to sketch the image of an ominous-looking book with a twisted face on it. Apparently nonplussed by her flirtation with demonic possession, she blithely shrugs it off as if she's just been visited by the world's scariest muse.

Not long after, Ash (Bruce Campbell) and Scotty (Hal Delrich) find a matching, flesh-bound tome in the cellar along with a convenient "book on tape" version. When they play the recording, it spouts off a chilling Sumerian incantation from what turns out to be the Necronomicon, I.E. the "Book of the Dead". The next thing we know, disembodied McNasties begin to appear in the woods and attempt to possess the kids. One gruesome set-piece follows after another.

Nowadays, it's really hard to believe that the seemingly jovial, impeccably-dressed, "Three Stooges"-loving, Spider-Man directing, Xena-producing Sam Raimi was once capable of presiding over the parade of cinematic depravities that followed. In fact, after watching the character of Cheryl get molested by a friggin' tree, I distinctly remember coming to the conclusion that this director was a certifiable deviant. 

The horrible sights kept piling on. A possessed Cheryl stabbed Ash's girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker) in the ankle with a friggin' pencil, a sight that would cause even the most hardened gore-hound to wince reflectively. Then Shelly (Theresa Tilly) got co-opted by one of the "deadites" and attacked both Ash and Scotty with an ancient Sumerian dagger. After getting impaled, she then proceeded to chew her own fucking hand off to prevent Scotty from turning the weapon against her. Man, talk about hardcore.  

All the while she's making this horrible, high-pitched, guttural scream which made my blood turn into ice water. Scotty finally ended this assault on the senses by grabbing an axe from Ash and dismembering what was left of Shelly. To this day I can't believe that Raimi had the cajones to show the axe actually hacking through Shelly's limbs and then doubled down on the gross-out factor by training the camera's unblinking eye on all the disembodied bits flopping around on the floor.  *HURK!* 

A-a-a-a-a-a-a-n-d that's when I stopped the tape. I remember just sitting there stunned, as if someone had dropped an anvil, Looney Tunes-style, on my head. All I could think was: 'Wow, I like being scared as much as the next guy but clearly this Sam Raimi guy isn't playing with a full deck.'

After dry-heaving / hyperventilating into a paper bag for about ten minutes I screwed up the courage to press "Play" again.  Yeah, it didn't get any easier

Next up, Linda became the equivalent of a walking, talking demonic time-share and began torturing Ash in this creepy, sing-songy little girl voice that would drive anyone to homicide within about sixty seconds flat. Then, after braving the woods, Scotty returned to the cabin all messed up, presumably sporting a tree-trunk-sized poop shoot. For one brief, shining, blatantly-deceptive moment, Cheryl and Linda returned to normal. Off course, this prompted dumbAsh to let his guard down so the two spazzed out and nearly killed him.  

Poor Ash, he did everything he possibly could to avoid dismembering his beloved possessed girlfriend, Linda. At first, he tried locking her out of the cabin but she snuck back in and tried to skewer him with the dagger. Heartbroken, Ash was finally forced to turn the weapon on her. Assuming that she was finally dead, he proceeded to do the proper, decent thing and bury Linda in the front yard. Big mistake.

Naturally, she popped back up again, screaming bloody murder all the while. Still hesitant to "kill" her, Ash tried the subdual approach by smoking Linda in the melon over and over again with what appeared to be a foam railroad tie. Despite the gratuitous level of head-trauma, she just kept coming at him over and over again, forcing our "hero" to admit defeat and decapitate his girlfriend with a shovel.  

"Hey, kids, are we having fun yet?" 

The whole thing came to a götterdämmerung climax after the demonic husks of Scotty and Cheryl double-teamed Ash in the cabin, and not in a good way. Our hero temporarily managed to stave off certain death by pushing his thumbs through Scotty's milky-looking orbital sockets. Speaking as someone with a particular aversion to eye trauma, I distinctly remember watching that l'il pantomime through a web of interlocked fingers.  

When Ash noticed that Scotty's corpse began to smolder after the Necronomicon landed in close proximity to the fireplace, he tried to huck the book deep into the blaze. At the same time, Demon Cheryl started pounding on him with a fireplace poker whilst a blind (but apparently no less determined) Scotty began gummin' away at Ash's leg like that weasel in those Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. At that precise moment, Evil Dead managed to rip the "Most Horrible Thing Anyone Could Possibly Imagine Award" out of the rotting, skeletal mitts of Return of the Living Dead for me.  

When the Necronomicon was reduced to "briquette" status, I was then "treated" to one of the most sickeningly-creative amalgams of stop-motion animation, puppetry, live insect wrangling and what appears to be about a gallon of spoiled cream and partially-solidified oatmeal. Honestly, words fail me; you just have to see it for yourself.

Regardless of the film's bargain-basement aesthetics and occasional veers into the realm of abject stupidity (honestly, how many times can Ash get "trapped" beneath that flimsy-looking bookshelf?), The Evil Dead is still a remarkable achievement. The germ of Sam Raimi's trademark creative camerawork is well on display here. Shaky-cam shots, cock-eyed perspectives and Dutch angles abound, but the level of creativity Raimi uses while applying these techniques is nothing short of genius.         
For its incredibly-innovative visual panache, gritty and claustrophobic setting, inventive Grade-Z sensibilities and commitment to follow through on the sickest images imaginable, The Evil Dead easily earns a "4" on the Evil-O-Meter.

Just promise me, if'n her gonna watch it, try to see it on VHS first.

EPIC  Cool fan-made mini doc has some great sound bites from the demented minds behind The Evil Dead.

VAGUELY "EPIC"  Here's my expanded review of the film originally posted on this site's sister blog, Entertainment Tourette's.

FAIL  This particular doc details how The Evil Dead ran afoul of the draconian British ratings system, which clearly couldn't distinguish quality schlock from schlock schlock.