I use to hate horror movies. I didn’t like being scared, I didn’t like seeing people hurt, and I sure as hell didn’t like the sight of blood and guts. That all changed one fateful, sleepless night when at an impressionable age I accidentally stumbled upon an insomnia induced, late-night cable screening of Sam Rami’s cult classic Evil Dead 2.
The plot is simple. A young man takes his girlfriend on a romantic weekend at an isolated cabin in the woods. He discovers the previous occupants had discovered an unnatural book and unwittingly unleashed an intangible evil presence. The evil possesses his girlfriend, his hand and a group of innocent bystanders. The man fights to survive and faces a number of supernatural threats as his situation grows more desperate. The only chance he has is to unlock the secret of the ancient manuscript in order to banish the malevolent spirit before it’s too late. Mayhem ensues.
I knew I was watching a horror film the second I stopped flipping through the channels. All the trappings were there: a boarded up cabin, a dark and foreboding forest, a wide-eyed survivor covered in blood. I knew if I didn’t immediately switch to a different station something frightful would jump out of the shadows and scar my subconscious for weeks. However, instead of cowardly shielding my eyes, curiously, something caught my attention. Something unexpected.
A monster appeared but not in any predictable fashion I could have foreseen. Instead of a demon, devil or deadite* the actor’s hand suddenly became possessed—indicated with a clever, low-budget, animated, time-lapse makeup effect. The infection of an evil spirit within the hero’s hand should have terrified me, but the horror of the moment casually slid into one of ridiculousness. My dread turned to delight as I watched actor Bruce Campbell punch, pull and pummel himself, with his own hand, in a flurry of slapstick that I had never seen displayed in a creature feature.
I laughed with glee but just as I mistook the movie for a comedy the film once again twisted its tone. With the roar of a chainsaw, the heroes face was painted in a spray of arterial red as he sliced off his tainted limb. It was a gruesome and disturbing sight, but Campbell’s wide eyes and cartoonish expressions made the carnage not just tolerable but, dare I say, enticing. What would happen next? As if to assuage my worry (that I had somehow crossed a line enjoying such brutality) the next scene transitioned into a punchline. The demonic hand was contained within a bucket and then covered with a stack of heavy books. The title of the novel placed on top: A Farewell to Arms.
Evil Dead 2 is a brilliant film and a testimony to the talent of Sam Raimi. To this day, I’m not sure if it’s a sequel or actually a remake—refining of ideas conceived in the first film—but regardless of that debate what makes this movie endlessly rewatchable is its singular style, energy, artistry, audacity and sense of humor. It’s a genuinely tense and shocking thriller with lots of jumps and grotesque imagery, but it’s presented with such a whimsy that it’s clear Raimi’s intentions were to entertain and not disturb. It’s a cinematic spook house, relentlessly fast-paced, carefully constructed and expertly executed while still being surprising and often unpredictable. It’s a B-movie fully aware of its limitations extolling its restrictions with style and charm.
Every aspect of Evil Dead 2, both visual and auditory, is an exaggerated, over-the-top pleasure. It’s definitely an accentuated sensory experience featuring dancing skeletons, ghoulish puppets, monstrous trees, and laughing lamps but despite these absurdities the viewer’s immersion it’s never broken. Much of what is on screen is silly and yet Raimi impressively is able to convey a sense of danger for his characters. Practical effects and physical stunts lend a visceral reaction to the on-screen chaos which builds, rather than detracts, the audience’s investment in the hero’s peril. Simultaneously, Raimi’s idiosyncrasies and sense of humor keeps the crisis from being too intense. His pacing is frenetic but the ebb and flow of suspense, surprise and farce makes for entertainment instead of exhaustion. It’s a very impressive balancing act and one that made me appreciate how artistry from a talented filmmaker can captivate.
Today, I wouldn’t call myself a “horror fan” but I definitely have come to enjoy and respect the genre. Alien first caught my interest, but Evil Dead 2 gave me the courage to dive into the deep end. It was a primer for much more intense works like The Shining and The Exorcist and it definitely prepared me for the geysers of blood and the spinning heads of those films. By defusing the horror, not just with a joke but an accentuated sensory experience I found the joy in the spectacle and the allure of the fright. There’s a catharsis that comes from being scared. To venture into the darkness of the mind is to rouse the imagination and stir the soul. What could be more groovy than that?
* A person, animal or plant possessed by the Kandarian Demon in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead mythology.
Reelization: While Sam Raimi has gone on to bigger projects with bigger budgets I still think his best work has been his smaller scale films like Army of Darkness, Drag Me to Hell and A Simple Plan. I’d also like to revisit his western The Quick and the Dead as well as his feel good baseball movie, For Love of the Game.