For the love of cheap thrills: gonzo auteurism and The Evil Dead first published by Little White Lies
Although he had been making amateur Super-8 films for years with childhood friend Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi had only just turned 20 when he started shooting his feature debut The Evil Dead in late 1979, and was, in filmmaking terms, a nobody. The budget – which Raimi and Campbell raised themselves, begging friends, family and anyone who would listen, with only a $1600 prototype short Within the Woods to establish the credibility of their intent – came in initially at $90,000 (it would eventually reach $350,000, including post-production and marketing). What followed was by all accounts an arduous six-week shoot in and around an abandoned cabin during the Tennessee mid-winter, with long hours, primitive facilities, multiple injuries, dwindling funds – and frozen equipment that would have to be thawed at the derelict building’s fireplace.
The rest, as they say, is history. As well as bringing in a healthy return on investment ($29.4 million at the box office), The Evil Dead has variously been praised by Stephen King, vilified by Mary Whitehouse, cut to ribbons and banned in several countries (incredibly, till as late as 2016 in Germany); it has become a home-video best seller, has spawned multiple sequels (both official and unofficial), a remake, a musical, a TV spinoff series, video games and comic-book crossovers; it has secured lasting careers for Raimi and Campbell, and a permanent place for itself in popular culture; and it is now frequently recognised as one of the all-time best entries in the horror canon.
This passage from tiny indie production to genre great is partly down to Raimi’s immense ambition and energy as a filmmaker who, instead of allowing a lack of funds to get in the way of his vision, let necessity be the mother of invention. His frequent use of heavily canted angles, shooting characters and their environment from seemingly every which way except dead-on, brings a (crucially affordable) sense of skew-whiff unease to the mise-en-scène. Unwilling to restrict himself to tripod or handheld shots – the defaults for low-budget filmmaking – Raimi improvised cheap alternatives to expensive rigs, all in the service of ensuring that The Evil Dead looked a whole lot better than what its budget promised. Cabin-in-the-woods was born of camera-on-the-wood: a dolly cam effect was realised by slathering vaseline on a wooden plank and literally sliding the camera along it; and the effect of a ‘low mode’ steadicam, recently developed and popularised in Stanley Kubrick’s big-budget The Shining (1980), was simulated by having two operators run along on either side of a two-by-four on which the camera had been mounted. The opening, disembodied ‘track’ across a misty lake’s surface was created by Campbell, in the water, pushing the dinghy in which Raimi held the camera. For the final shot, the camera was fixed to a speeding bike. It was precisely because these ‘shaky cam’ shots never come close to achieving the smoothness of genuine steadicam that they evoke the POV of something otherworldly, beyond not only the sightline, but also the experience, of the viewer.
Of course, what is good for the viewer need not be good for the cast. The cheap thick contact lenses used for the characters’ demonic appearance took ten minutes to put in, and could only be worn for another fifteen or they would damage the eyes. And the dyed karo syrup in which Campbell was regularly spattered to look bloody took hours to remove. The effects near the end that show two characters melting on-screen are very obviously stop-motion clay-mation. Yet Raimi has three techniques which he deploys together to help his viewer overlook the cracks and seams in some of his more obviously bargain-basement effects work. First there is the punchy pace of Edna Ruth Paul’s editing (with assistance from a young Joel Coen), which never gives viewers breathing space to dwell too long on anything. Second, there is the sheer relentlessness of the blood and gore that Raimi throws at the screen, stunning us into submission. And third, there is Raimi’s very finest special effect, Campbell himself, whose jutting jaw, corny line delivery and matinee-idol looks bring a brand of old world charm to the proceedings that makes any matte-painted full moon or smoke-machine miasma just seem part of the film’s self-conscious stylisation.
The Evil Dead has inspired a forest-load of cabin-in-the-wood creepers – but its greatest influence has been on a whole generation of amateur aspirants who decide to gather their friends and just have a go. Hence many subpar (and, occasionally, good) found-footagers – but also Peter Jackson, whose career began, lest we forget, with the no-budget splatter of Bad Taste (1987).
© Anton Bitel