Give Us Our Daily Evil Dead

Once again it is the greatest holiday-month-season in the land: Halloween! We have a storied history here, we do, with the season. It strikes me, sitting here, watching the light drown in the approaching night, that I’ve never talked to you about the Evil Dead movies. What’s wrong with me?

So there’s a really good chance you don’t need me to tell you about the movies. You know about them. So really shortly, the main character is Ash, played by Bruce Campbell. In the first movie he goes with a bunch of friends to a cabin in the woods. In the second he just goes with his girlfriend. In both they awaken an evil by listening to a recording of a professor translating the Necronomicon. It fucks with them in a lot of gruesome ways. A girl gets raped by a tree. Ash cuts his own hand off because it’s trying to kill him. And everything ends unhappily. In the first Ash is dead of possessed. In the second, he’s sucked into the portal with the evil thing.

OK, sure, there’s the summary. The movies are amazing. The first is obviously cheap, and I mean cheap as hell, but Raimi et al were creative in putting their movie together. I know from Campbell’s autobiography that they replaced expensive camera equipment with ingenious alternatives; for instance, the rig that lets a camera do smooth, quick horizontal pans is very expensive, so they bought a sawhorse, covered it in saran wrap, greased it up, and slid a bracket over it with the camera bolted on. Strap the camera on a guy with an expensive harness rig to get first person POV shots? Nah – bolt the camera onto a flat board and carry it by both ends through the woods while running. Every detail of the movie is disconcertingly careful, even while it’s patently obvious how cheap it is. In some ways Clerks is like that, where you can tell everything’s sort of supposed to be that way, even though it’s also that way because it cost less to make it that way. Purportedly when Sony asked Raimi for cut scenes from his first Spider-Man movie, for the special edition DVD, there weren’t really any. He’d cut about two minutes total from the film. He’d plotted everything out so carefully, and with such an eye to how a movie is made, that there wasn’t anything to get rid of.

The question is, of course, why have I brought you all here, together, to talk about these movies? And why aren’t I talking about Army of Darkness anyway? Well, the latter is simple: it’s a different animal. Excellent on its own, or as the third movie in a series, its tone is a little different and not quite as dedicated to slow plotting and horror. It still has great, horrible things in it, but the structure is different.

The former is, as we might say, the point. And it’s this: even in the less-horror-oriented final movie, these movies never, ever explain just what in the hell is going on. The thing awakened is supposedly a “Kandarian demon,” but what’s that? There are three cities or towns named Kandar according to Wikipedia, but none of them are likely to be the origin of an ancient body-possessing demon. The Exorcist had been around about a decade (as a film), so the idea of possession was out there and ready to be used again. But this time the possession makes the person not demonic but dead, as though despite the attribution of the possession to a demon it’s the dead themselves coming back. In the second movie the most frequently-used possessed person (who bloats and is so transfigured as to basically be a movie monster by the end – but that was a person once!) claims to be many people, or at least the voice of many. Ash will join “them,” not “it.” The title is The Evil Dead, after all. It’s vague, but with that word “the” we tend to want to read that as a plural. So who exactly is Ash fighting, then? Is it the whole of the restless dead, unsealed or at least able to touch our world because of a spell? Possibly, but again, the movie refuses to actually say anything about it – because none of the characters would ever know. Ash is pretty dumb, and we know almost nothing about his girlfriend but she is, if nothing else, basically average. It’s Ash that plays the old piano in the cabin, not her. She is absolutely the “princess in another castle,” and in that way a kind of nod to horror movie traditions.

If the threat were external, like in slasher flicks, there would be a kind of running and fright involved that’s absent here. If the threat were hidden but external, that would get us a haunted house story. If the threat were internal, we’d have something like a Lovecraftian story, where things might be awful but it’s their effects on the mind that are the worst. But the threat here is like it’s in another dimension. Sometimes it extrudes itself through people, sometimes it takes over parts of a body but not others, and sometimes it dances around with moose heads and lamps. It can do almost anything, which makes it pretty much nothing. It’s very much a horror of the space in between things. The demon is a demon because the things we can’t figure out, the things in low resolution that look creepy in the background of a picture, get into us whether we want them to or not. It’s the whole appeal of Slenderman, right, that he originally appears in these well-photoshopped pictures casually in the background, requiring the viewer to really focus and make it through grain and photo artifacts to see him at all. And even then he’s not a tusk-faced demon or anything, he’s just a really tall guy with a vague face.

Evil Dead has way more concrete stuff than that threatening the characters, but it’s always stuff and never the thing itself. We never really see it. It exists through its effects, not itself. And so the most important scene in the movie might be that set of stuff where Ash is mocked by all the furniture, he starts dancing and laughing, and then when we cut back to him he’s sitting silently in a chair, staring at the door with a shotgun in his hand. He gets the shit kicked out of him by the people who legitimately belong at the cabin, but the paranoia has already settled over him, and in some way it doesn’t matter if he’s alone or with people. Everything could be evil (including his own hand), so what’s left to worry about? Basic survival, with no conception of morality thrown in there.

(There’s your bonus explanation of Army of Darkness by the way: it’s the redemption of the guy who’s made fun to watch but reprehensible by the events of Evil Dead 2).

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