I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I was an undergraduate, and it was loaned to me on a 3rd or 4th generation VHS copy, so it was fuzzy as hell and fitted with one of those wobbly soundtracks that you only get on movies that have been duped on home machines and passed from grubby hand to grubby hand. Younger readers might be surprised to hear of “the old days”, when plenty of films were not available for download or freely available on shiny DVDs, which lose none of their detail from one copy to the next. The Evil Dead was still fairly notorious, since it featured prominently on the BBFC‘s list of “video nasties”, films targeted by moral commentators in the UK media, resulting in the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which attempted to regulate the content of VHS tapes. It led to the withdrawal of many titles from the shelves of rental stores, and Sam Raimi’s directorial debut survived only on illicit copies salvaged from the purge. In those days (typing those words makes me feel so old), you couldn’t just go online and order a copy from abroad. In restrospect, I’m quite nostalgic for my old taped copy – I made my own (5th generation?), and I still have it somewhere in my office, complete with homemade sleeve. But today I’m working from a DVD version, which was finally released uncut in the UK in 2001.
Over at The Rumpus, Nick Rombes has revived his 10/40/70 blog posts, which provided the impetus and the idea for this series of analytical essays that take 3 random screengrabs from a chosen film and use them as a springboard to a discussion of pieces of the film (I usually choose films that are familiar, or which I’ve written about in a different way elsewhere). Nick reminded me how much I enjoyed writing these, so I thought I’d give it another go. The randomiser wants me to take frames from the 24th, 56th and 66th minutes of the film. That looks suspiciously like a pattern…..
Oh dear. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), having been lured out of the cabin-in-the-woods and into the woods, is about to be raped by a tree (I dread to think what kinds of Google searches this sentence will bring to my blog – if you’ve arrived at this point by Googling “raped by a tree”, I’m afraid this is as good as it gets, so I’m sorry to have wasted your click). Like Psycho‘s shower scene, this was the film’s pivotal moment, a sensational talking point that tipped the film over into baroque levels of nasty. It remains an exceptionally lurid, tasteless bit of cinema, one which Raimi later regretted, perhaps because it plays against the knockabout gore of the rest of the franchise as a whole, which spends most of its time undercutting the squarejawed machismo of its hero. The tree-rape scene panders to a more conventional, undeconstructed genre trope of the violated feminine, the opening salvo of a demonic attack on the horny teens who are to be massacred one by one. In this particular shot, Cheryl’s face is lit by an indeterminate light source as she turns to see something horrific. Most of the frame, like a lot of the film, is shrouded in darkness., isolating the actress in the spotlight of something which has singled her out for its violent attention. Her assailant is invisible, at this stage nothing but an aggressive point-of-view shot, but it will shortly manipulate vines to strip and assault our innocent victim. As had already been established by films like Halloween, the POV shot is the subjectivity of evil, but also the perspective of us, fearing but willing and enabling the thrusting visualisation of terror. The camera records the event, but also makes it happen. Generously, I might suggest that the use of a tree as the attacker, aside from being a canny bit of product differentiation from films about murderers with power tools and rusty blades, renders the conventions of the genre daffily extreme, replacing the psychotic mind of a sexually driven monster with dumb vegetable matter.
Linda has been possessed by a demonic force, and meets her end (or rather, one of several ends) on the point of her own dagger. In her death throes, she spews a spermy, Exorcistic fluid from her mouth. Pale blue and deep, red, opposing liquids spraying in opposite directions exit Linda’s body, signifying her multiple deaths, and pointing to the surplus of liquidised body horror that is concentrated in this film. Stuck in the single location of a haunted cabin, Raimi fills it with intense incident, ravaging bodies from within and without. As in all these shots, the predominant darkness is punctuated by jolts of colour as bodily fluids decorate the set with a gory, gutsy action painting.
How meta. Making his last stand against the possessive demons who have slaughtered his friends, Ash (Bruce Campbell) is pinned against the wall by a projector which, in a sequence that is straight out of Jan Svankmajer, brings itself into whirring life, accompanied by a similarly animate gramophone. The menace of this scene, which might refer us back to the spotlight that announced to Cheryl that the 24th minute was the time for her close-up and her death, comes from the juxtaposition between the gravity of the situation (we know by the trail of the dead that these demons mean business), and the disingenuous innocence of the threat (it’s only a movie projected on a wall, with pleasant swing music). Though armed with an axe, Ash can still be blindsided by the operation of a simple mechanical device. The colour scheme again is a melee of blue and red, with all the gaps filled by impenetrable blackness. Out of the dark, blocks of light snap into view. Raimi signifies the presence of a malevolent force by animating the fixtures and fittings of the cabin. Trapped in the basement as the walls begin to leak blood, Ash is subjected to a sensory attack, the beginning of a sustained campaign of abuse of the films’ star – much of the fun of the Evil Dead movies comes not from a vicarious terror felt by a protagonist, but from a fanboy’s skilful navigation of genre tropes, best indicated by the way its star stoically accepts his fate as the punchbag for a series of elaborate physical thumps, gouges and chokeholds. This shot succinctly makes that point that his is a cinematic victimhood, a safely sadistic one in which you, the viewer, are complicit by the fee you pay not to empathise with, but to molest the actor, as the film holds him in place while you watch him getting roughed up.