Friday, May 31, 2013

Compare and Contrast: Evil Dead (1981) & Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)

Evil Dead: Ash (the famous Bruce Campbell, in the movie that made his name as a cult actor) and his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker); along with their friends Scotty (Hal Delrich) and Shelly (Sarah York), and Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Ash’s sister, have rented an isolated cabin in the mountains for the weekend. However, there’s something kind of spooky about the place when they arrive. What’s more, there are all sorts of hints that dark force lurks about the area. Unfortunately, Cheryl is the only one who notices these first hints; partly, it’s suggested, because she’s a New Ager and therefore open to these kinds of things; but I suspect that it’s largely due to the fact that she’s officially the fifth wheel, and therefore doesn’t have anything to distract her. In any case, the others don’t put any stock in Cheryl’s concerns; they’re way too focused on their weekend and their significant others.

Of course, Cheryl’s fears are anything but unjustified. That night the boys go into the basement and discover some things left behind by a previous tenant. The two fateful items for our campers are a really disturbing book, and a tape recorder. The kids play the tape, which it turns out was made by an academic translating the book. He identifies it as the Naturon Demonto, the Sumerian Book of the Dead, and says that it includes passages that allow the evil spirits lurking just outside our world to come in and possess the living. Then he proceeds to read the translated passages.

Naturally, this spells the end for our heroes. The tape finishes awakening whatever evil force that academic called to the area, and the campers are possessed and killed one by one. Will any of them be able to survive?

Dead by Dawn: Ash (still Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend, Linda (this time played by Denise Bixler), go on a getaway together to an isolated cabin in the woods; where it would appear that the rightful owner is not using it. Unfortunately, said rightful owner, Professor Raymond Knowby (John Peakes), was working on the translations to a rediscovered copy of the Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead. When Ash stumbles across the good professor’s copy and plays the tape of his translations, it has the exact same effect as in the first movie. The dark force called up by the book snatches Linda, and then comes back possessing her body to torment Ash. And it’s not just Linda Ash has to deal with, either; the evil power has all sorts of weapons at its disposal from possessed trees to Ash’s right hand developing a mind of its own.

Ash has one tiny sliver of hope, though he doesn’t know it. Professor Knowby’s daughter, Annie (Sarah Berry), is headed back to the cabin with some missing pages from the book. Said pages have what is needed to put the evil back down. Unfortunately, there are the inevitable complications. When Annie arrives to find a bloody stranger in her cabin and her parents missing, you know she’ll draw the wrong conclusions. The stupid redneck couple who she hires to guide her through the woods is going to make things even more difficult. And that’s nothing compared to what her father buried in the cellar…

Compare and Contrast:

Ladies, gentlemen, hermaphrodites, asexuals, and everyone else; I am pleased to announce that this blog has now been up and running for a full three years! Unfortunately, with that landmark comes some very bad news; the tumor in my hand is back yet again. As of this writing I have no clue what’s going to happen; I’m just praying it doesn’t involve any further surgery or loss of body parts. Naturally, I’m doing everything I can to cope with the situation; among other things digging out all my old tumor-coping movies. Among the ones at the very top of that list is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.

The aspect of the movie that puts it in that spot is one particular scene. In that scene, the Evil possesses Ash’s right hand, which then proceeds to beat the living snot out of the rest of him. Finding himself completely unable to control the hand, Ash attempts stabbing it, cutting it off with a chainsaw (and then later replacing it with said chainsaw), trapping it under a garbage can and some books (the top book very prominently titled A Farewell to Arms); and then when all that fails and it busts free, trying to shoot it with a shotgun. All throughout the rest of the movie, whenever the characters are in the middle of dealing with something particularly nasty, Ash’s severed hand has a tendency to step in and make an already unpleasant situation even worse. Considering that my problem centers entirely around my own right hand, for all intents and purposes, developing a mind of its own and going out of its way to hurt me, not to mention my tendency to use tasteless humor as a coping mechanism for my problems, you can probably draw your own conclusions as to why I revisit that scene to face my medical issues.

At roughly the same time, a remake to the original Evil Dead has come out as well. I have yet to see said remake, although I fully intend to. However, the timing (which, unless you count the presence of perverse gods, is purely coincidental) got me thinking that I should probably write something on the original while I was at it. After all, Evil Dead was remade once before. Despite its title Evil Dead 2 isn’t a sequel, it’s a remake.

It’s a fascinating experience watching the two movies back to back. They have the same director, most of the same crew, and even the same lead actor playing Ash both times. In both movies Ash has a girlfriend named Linda, although she is played by different actresses. There’s the same basic setup, the same core plot, the exact same major props, and I’m pretty sure that’s the exact same cabin in both movies. And yet, despite all that is recycled into the second Evil Dead movie from the first, we have two very different movies here.

The first Evil Dead is very much a straight horror movie, and an amateur work. There’s really not anything deep or complex about it at all; I’d even say that it’s elegant in its simplicity. Evil Dead is your typical spam in a cabin setup; a small group of young people goes somewhere isolated and gets slaughtered by the evil lurking there. Our heroes are presented in the broadest of strokes: Ash is the hero, Scotty is the asshole, Linda and Shelly are the girlfriends, and Cheryl is the spooky, New Age chick and Ash’s sister. They make a lot of the mistakes we’ve all come to expect from characters in horror movies. It’s also obvious that this is a very low budget film.

And yet, in many ways these elements work to the movie’s advantage. Old tropes become old tropes in the first place because they work when you know how to use them. Raimi shows that even this early in his career, he was very adept at employing the ages old horror clichés to their most effective. He plays with your expectations; giving you an expected build up, but holding off just long enough on the payoff that you start to wonder if it actually will play out like you anticipate.

Something that continually fascinates me about Evil Dead, and Evil Dead 2 for that matter, is the nature of the Evil itself. Possession horror itself isn’t unusual, I’ve reviewed at least three or four movies centering around the theme on this blog thus far. What gets me is how the Evil seems to infuse everything; the woods, the cabin and its possessions, eventually it gets to the point where the possession of the human characters is just an afterthought. Once called up this dark force subsumes the landscape itself, and it is only then that it starts to possess its human victims. Probably the part that gets me the most is when Linda is possessed. For the most part she doesn’t actually attack; she just laughs this repulsive giggle and mocks Ash while he struggles, complacent that he will eventually fall.

While it does happen that a low budget hamstrings a perspective movie from the beginning, this isn’t always the case. One of the things I love the most about low budget cinema is the occasional director I come across who doesn’t let his financial limitations stymie him, but instead lets it influence him to be far more creative and innovative than he would have been if everything he needed had just been handed to him. Raimi does this all throughout Evil Dead, using what’s at hand however he is able. The most notable use of this is the p.o.v. shots representing the Evil. We never see the Evil itself, but it is constantly represented by these p.o.v. camera shots moving through the forest at heights and angles that couldn’t be reached by a human. For the last one he reportedly tied the camera to the handlebars of his motorcycle and drove it straight at Bruce Campbell, which apparently cost the actor some hospital time. So that shriek of sheer and utter terror Campbell gives just before the credits; it ain’t acting.

Probably the biggest difference Dead by Dawn has from the original Evil Dead is its tone; the first is a straight horror film; the second, however, has a sense of humor. Now, people tend to look at me funny when I say this, among a great many other things; but humor and horror are two sides of the same coin. They are both emotional reactions, and how one reacts to them varies from person to person. Also, despite what we may think, the line between the two often tends to be very thin and blurry. All you have to do is tweak the circumstances just a little bit, and something we’re cringing at one moment we’re laughing at the next. As Mel Brooks put it: “tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

What Raimi does in Dead by Dawn is to essentially take all the main elements of the first movie and flip them; play upon how outré they can be, tweak them a little, and play them up for how ridiculous they are. You’ll notice that there are a few major changes as a result of this. Our unhappy campers are just Ash and Linda this time, and Linda gets possessed within the first five minutes. A large section of the movie is just Ash, facing off alone against the Evil and slowly but surely losing it. For this movie Campbell reveals his amazing talent as a physical actor, as the helpless Ash gets battered and bashed all over the place.

However, the sense of humor at play here is a very grim, whistling past the graveyard kind of laugh. Dr. Freex on the website the Bad Movie Report makes the observation of Dead by Dawn that Ash actually dies in the first five minutes, and the rest of the movie he’s in Hell. This is probably due to the larger budget Raimi had second time around, but even more than in the first movie, he plays upon the theme of the Evil infusing and taking over Ash’s whole world. It’s obvious that this movie is tongue in cheek, and sometimes it even gets a little cartoony, such as with the gallons of multi-colored blood, but this is still a horror movie.

My description of the scene with Ash’s possessed hand at the beginning of this review probably gives as good an example as any of the kind of humor on display here. The whole movie gets downright surreal at some points, with a few parts that leave it vague as to how much of what we see is really going on, and how much is just Ash’s decent into madness. And, while the end was used as a way to segue into Army of Darkness five years later; on its own I find it to be one of the most original ‘the hero is screwed’ style endings I have ever come across. The fact that you may need to reflect a moment before you realize just how much he is screwed and why only makes me like it more.

So in conclusion, watching Evil Dead and Dead by Dawn back to back is an interesting experience. There are so many similarities, and yet they are two very different movies. The first is a straight, low budget, yet effective horror movie; the second a bizarre mix of horror, humor, slapstick and surrealism.