I totally remember when this movie was out. I remember seeing the ad in the paper [I think because Raimi is from Michigan and part of it was filmed there] with a quote from Stephen King. I remember being completely convinced by the poster art, so now it’s a little funny to see how obviously it’s a layer of dirt with a woman standing behind it. But back then I thought horror movies were just stupid. Of course, I was also only 13, and couldn’t have seen one if I wanted to.
So now I am able to watch it with fresh eyes, having never seen it [though I saw part 2], and obviously everyone else in the entire world has seen it but me. Anyway, we begin with the classic horror movie setup of these kids driving to this rental cabin in the middle of the woods that they got really cheap and no one has really seen. One immediately notices that Bruce Campbell is a Xander from Buffy prototype, and I didn’t before think that Nicholas Brendon’s recalling of Ash from this movie may have been influential in his getting the part.
One thing that becomes apparent almost immediately is Raimi’s burgeoning talent. Even with this microscopic budget, he takes time and devotes his energy to getting fairly artistic shots that have a great effect and help to elevate the overall movie. The first I noticed is a wonderful, Kubrickian faux-steadicam shot following the car from behind as it approaches the cursed cabin. While this is happening we are hearing a rhythmic beat on the soundtrack, which then ostensibly turns into the sound this wooden swing is making as it bangs against the house, though there seems to be no wind. Okay, maybe touches like the swing are really affected, but they always totally work for me. Sometimes it’s appropriate for a director to fade into his or her work and be invisible, but there are often times [like in a horror movie that might be dismissed otherwise] when it is wise to step out in front a bit and let your audience know that you’re here, you’re in control, and you know what you’re doing.
So as it happens, this cabin seems to have a bit of supernatural stuff going on even before the really bad shit is released. One of the women is drawing when something takes control of her pen and makes her draw a paper bag with a face on it. Only it’s not a paper bag, it’s the “book of the dead” which we’ll be introduced in a sec. Soon they hear something creeping around in the basement, and go down to investigate. Turns out it’s only a Hills Have Eyes poster flapping around [just kidding, but it’s there, supposedly a reference to the Jaws poster seen in The Hills Have Eyes. Now, if it had been a Hills Have Eyes, Part II poster, that would have been REALLY scary. In any case, it feels a little jarring… did a 14-year-old boy live in that basement before they were all killed?. So they find the book, which is bound with a human face [ooohhhhh…]. Also on hand is a large reel-to-reel tape recorder. They take it upstairs and play the tape, which is this guy talking about this evil force unleashed by reciting these words from the book, and then a little later he recites the words. Now, you’d think that, since this guy knows the words are really dangerous, he wouldn’t recite them, but them again, if that didn’t happen we wouldn’t have a movie… though it seems like there was plenty of eerie phenomena going on even before they’re recited.
Anyway, there’s a long, creepy recitation, culminating in a tree branch breaking through one of the windows, which freaks out one of the women, Cheryl. I love how instants after this happens, one of the women says “Cheryl? Where are you GOING?” in this dismissive tone, as though they did NOT just have a creepy recitation and a huge tree did NOT just come though the window. Then Ash [that’s Bruce] and Scotty [that’s the other guy] have this conversation about whether Scotty should have played the tape after everyone was asking him not to, and you’re like, “Hey guys! Did you happen to notice the huge branch that has come through your window? And uh, like, isn’t that a PROBLEM?” The branch and window is never shown or alluded to again.
So a bit later one of the women goes outside [hey, that’s a good idea! It was getting a little stuffy in there… what with the busted-out window and all!], where she hears creepy things and sees trees falling. It is actually quite effective. Now, dear reader, back in middle school, when this movie was out, I remember people telling me that this woman was raped by a tree branch and I though “No way! That would never happen in a movie!” Well, shows what I know. This woman is all tied to the ground by roots and vines, and then—what-cha!—she gets one right in the big cookie, at a velocity that I suspect is somewhat less than arousing. As if that’s not bad enough, the roots grind her around on it! So after her flora-rape, she runs back home and tries to find the keys in a shot straight out of Hitchcock. They let her in, and a few seconds later, she’s fully possessed, which, as anyone who’s seen The Exorcist knows, requires that you get all pasty and have freaky eyes and speak in a raspy lisp. They quickly lock her in the basement, where she keeps popping up and laughing at them in a high-pitched voice that I found somewhat delightful. You know, you don’t see enough pure mocking and torment in movies.
Somewhere in here we get some exposition that one needs to chop the possessed into separate limbs in order to stop them. The possessed woman in the basement stabs another woman in the ankle [Yeah! Go for it!], and they take the stabbed one into the bedroom. A while later there is a bloodcurdling scream from the bedroom, and I love how Ash just leaves Scotty to go investigate while he sits quietly on the couch, not really doing much of anything. I also like how a few times in here we have seen Raimi accomplish this quite nice clouds-covering-over-the-moon effect. That’s what I’m talking about… he didn’t HAVE to have an effect like that, but he wanted it and found a way to put it in. Go Sam.
Things get progressively worse, with people being killed but not dying, and some people having to be chopped up into little bits. Eventually only Ash is left. It’s also a nice touch to have Ash freak out under the pressure earlier in the film, though he’s going to find reserves of strength in himself by the end. Somewhere in here this thing goes about seventeen miles over the top in the comic gore department, and this is about where I started losing interest. I know that this is what many people find so funny and amusing about this movie, and I don’t care about the gore, but more that I just don’t find it funny. Ash gets squirted directly in the face with blood or viscera [I just LOVE saying ‘viscera!’] or whatever about 70 million times. Anyway, it’s very much like this until the end.
Overall, I really dug it and I’m glad I saw it. It’s inspiring to see that genuine talent and real inventiveness CAN stand out in a low-budget film, i.e. one doesn’t necessarily have to be completely hamstrung by one’s budget. It’s clever and funny and scary… until it gets too pointlessly and uninterestingly gory for me, but whatever.
Sure, though I think just about everybody has seen it by now.