The Evil Dead is the first movie I ever saw that looked like a nightmare.
And that’s not a rib-nudging insult. Honest. The Evil Dead doesn’t hide all its rough edges, but those edges are exactly what branded it onto the darkest, mushiest corner of my adolescent mind.
The celluloid squirms, an unsettling side effect of blowing up the 16mm film to twice its size. The color curdles between milky whites and moldy greens. Even the steadiest shots fall prey to the shiver of battered motors in borrowed cameras. The pus-and-Play-Doh finale, the roughest of The Evil Dead’s rough edges, still taps into what Patton Oswalt pointed out in silent films as “stuttery, subconscious terror rhythms.” It doesn’t look bad. It just looks… wrong.
Despite laying the groundwork for two more movies, a remake, three seasons of a TV series and several video games, the plot sounds like someone explaining a bad dream to a friend who’s losing interest fast.
So we were going up to this cabin, right, and we drank or whatever, but then the cellar door flew open, and we found a tape recorder and a demonic book down there, which, you know, is never a good sign, and everyone got possessed with spiderweb veins and white eyes… so I had to mulch them into dog food so they’d stay dead.
This is to say nothing of the tree rape scene, which I still find hard to watch but admit that is handled with about as much restraint as a tree rape scene could be handled.
I came into The Evil Dead orbit with Army of Darkness, catching an afternoon showing on AMC’s October marathon. Even in its unfriendly TV state, that film is the softest of the bunch. But I’m a sucker for dimbulb heroes who save the day almost in spite of themselves, so I was hooked.
The Evil Dead is something else entirely, though. Not the best of ‘em – I give that to Evil Dead II. Not the funniest – still Army of Darkness. These days, it’s mostly regarded as a rough draft, and not unfairly. It has the rawest thrills without much of the series standard sense of humor, although, “We can’t bury Shelley… she’s a friend of ours,” ranks as one of the best lines in any horror movie. But there’s something primeval about it. Texas Chain Saw Massacre gets a lot of due credit for its own low-fi-lower-budget look, giving it the disturbingly believable texture of a documentary. The Evil Dead sports a similar style in its early scenes, as the bright-eyed teenagers drive into dead woods under a blown out sky. But Sam Raimi’s angles soon distort it… upset it… break the spell of grainy reality and make it into something all its own.
The Evil Dead is the ultimate experience in grueling terror…. a nightmare that showed me the power of the horror movie.