It was on a chilly Saturday morning in October 1983 that I came back from the video shop with the just-released, soon-to-be-banned, pre-certification VHS cassette of The Evil Dead. I’d heard a fair bit about the film – everything from Stephen King’s comment about it being “ferociously original” to Cinefantastique’s one-line dismissal that ran something like “Stephen King has apparently endorsed this film, but it’s a pretty pathetic experience.” What did CFQ know? I thought, preferring instead to concentrate on Fangoria’s on-set coverage, weird gory pictures and all. Even Film 83 covered the movie, which means Barry Norman must have had something to say about it. I can’t remember a word he said (probably not such a bad thing) but I do remember the clip they showed, which was the bit where Ash (Bruce Campbell) touches a mirror and his reflection turns to water.
But back to the film, or rather the VHS cassette. I’m not sure if it was Palace Pictures’ first release but if it wasn’t it was close. The tape started with trailers for the kinds of films I never even knew existed, let alone were available to rent. If I remember rightly the movies previewed were John Waters’ Female Trouble, David Lynch’s Eraserhead and The Loveless, a very early picture of Kathryn Bigelow’s. Then it was time for the main feature.
To say my initial viewing of The Evil Dead remains one of my favourite horror movie experiences would still be an understatement. I certainly got value for money from my £1.50 rental fee that weekend as I managed to watch it five times before taking the tape back to the shop. The film terrified me, despite all its shortcomings, and it was only much later that I discovered Raimi and co had intended the film to be much more of a knockabout comedy than what eventually ended up on the screen. Of course, if one was to watch Raimi’s earlier Three Stooges tribute shorts, or indeed much of his subsequent oeuvre, it’s possible to see that a lot of Evil Dead was intended as slapstick. What’s odd is that, even all these years later, I cannot help but watch it as a straight horror film, and I think it works all the better for that. I have to admit, however, that over the years I have come to think of Evil Dead’s horrific ambience as happy accident rather than deliberate intention. The winter woods, the crumbling shack with that horrible bathroom, the make-ups that are often little more than eyebrow pencil and putty, the score that sounds like a piano, a Bontempi organ and a couple of violins – probably because of budgetary limitations – all these things work in Evil Dead’s favour to make it atmospherically terrifying and not The Three Stooges Find Some Demons.
There was talk of a sequel almost as soon as the first film became a huge European success (it caught on here quicker than in the US). First word was that it was going to be filmed in the UK (oh yes!) and set in 1300 AD. We had to wait a bit for The Medieval Dead (one of the many titles of Army of Darkness) and we actually had to wait a couple of years for any kind of sequel at all.
Raimi’s sense of silliness was very much in evidence in Evil Dead II, a film that disappointed me on my initial cinema viewing because it had lost so many of the things that had made the first film work for me. The budget was higher, the effects were more… prosthetic, the photography was now no longer 16mm blown up, and Joseph LoDuca had a bigger orchestra. But the terrifying, grinding, chilling sense of horror and isolation was gone, to be replaced by a dancing hand that could flick the bird, a massive tree, and ‘A Farewell to Arms’.
I like Evil Dead II a lot now, but it took me quite a while to get to that stage. It was only after I read Chas Balun’s capsule review of the film in one of his fine Gore Score books where he called it “One of the greatest stupid films of all time” that I realised I needed to read this second film a different way to the first. What clinched my appreciation of Evil Dead II, however, was a sell out double bill of the two films from which I emerged exhausted and deliriously entertained by both the movies and the incredible, energising effect they had on the audience I saw them with.
For those who found Evil Dead II a bit too silly, Evil Dead III, or Army of Darkness as it’s better known, was a silly, giggling, exploding skeleton too far. Set in that mythical land that is England recreated in the Hollywood Hills, and featuring a whole host of gags, in-jokes, and lines repeated from the first two films but just not quite as well, Army of Darkness was less Evil Dead and more Bruce the Giant Killer with added giggles. Indeed, the film reminds me far more of some Jim Danforth-animated kiddie matinee fare than the gut-chilling horror film that started it all. That’s all very well, and I loved those films as much as anyone, but for me Army of Darkness was yet another disappointment, with the ending proving likewise with audiences in general to such an extent that it was changed for the VHS release to something that merely emphasised the stupidity of its central character.
And now we have the remake, which I have to say I really didn’t like at all. Bereft of the atmosphere or creeping dread of the original, the remake offers us the same old gloomy photography all modern horror films seem required to have, a gallon of uninspired gore, sets and photography that all look too polished for a film like that to work, very little of the gliding camerawork or floating possessed bodies of the original, and a climax that just can’t compare with Bruce Campbell being chased around that tatty old log cabin in the middle of nowhere by horrible things that want to tear him apart. We all know remakes tend to be rubbish, and seeing as we’ve already had this decade’s good one (Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac) perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but being the ever-optimistic horror fan that I am I still had my hopes up. Apparently there’s a sequel in the works, but then apparently there’s a sequel being prepared to Army of Darkness as well. Will I watch either? Yes I will, and all because of that first, wonderful, terrifying film that I still go back to when I need a good scare.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
If you enjoyed John Llewellyn Probert’s column, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and buying some of his fiction. If you do you’ll help keep the This Is Horror ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.