Thursday, June 9, 2011

Five Favorite Movies: 5 - The Evil Dead

At the start of every semester, I gave my students a form to fill out. One of the questions on it was, "Name your three favorite movies."

What fascinated me about this question was how elementary it was - and yet, some of the kids didn't answer it completely. Two of them put two movies on the list, instead of three.

Of those two, both picked movies that had come out in the last year.

More interestingly, both of them wanted to make movies (in some way, shape or form) for a living.

Asking someone what their favorite movies are can get complicated, I suppose. For most people, it's an ever-evolving list, where you can revisit an old favorite and find yourself going, "Wellll... maybe this is number two instead of number one."

That I get. But most of us can at least list a few movies they really, really like.

But no.

So I offered up a list of my top five favorite movies. They are:

5. The Evil Dead
4. Dawn of the Dead
3. When Harry Met Sally...
2. Trust
1. Edward Scissorhands

And finally, a bonus movie that bounces around the top five: Student Bodies.

(In general, Student Bodies knocks one of the Dead movies off the bottom of the list.)

So. What does this say about me?

And more importantly, what did I take away from all of these movies?

Let's start with The Evil Dead.

I heard ABOUT The Evil Dead almost a year before finally seeing it. I had learned about the movie when I first discovered newsgroups (something almost no one remembers) on the early version of the World Wide Web.

There was a group called Alt.Cult.Movies, and as I started clicking around, I mostly learned that there are probably 20 cult movies that EVERYONE who know cult movies was into, to some degree or another.

(No, I can't remember the complete list. Sorry.)

At the time, Evil Dead as so popular that it even had its own newsgroup - alt.cult.movies.evil-dead.

So I hopped over there, and started reading up on the flick.

Here's the irony - The Evil Dead is actually a trilogy of films, and I had already seen the final movie: Army of Darkness.

I started reading up in this little flick, made by a bunch of friends in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere. I read about how it was unrated, how it was really brutal, and about how Stephen King was a big fan of the film.

More importantly, I read that the movie was incredibly hard to get your hands on.

Today, of course, it seems like everything is on DVD (except Trust - see the above list of my favorite movies). And if it's not on DVD, it's on Netflix. Or on On Demand. Or on Turner Classic Movies.

Or someone is putting out a bare-bones vault release of it in the future.

But this was the time of video, when if you wanted to find something, you went to every video store in town and hoped that someone hadn't stolen the only copy of a popular cult film, because it was the ONLY WAY TO GET IT.

Evil Dead had come out on video in the early 80s, and then they just stopped printing new copies. There were no more to be found. There was, as is not the case today, a finite supply.

And at the time, I couldn't get my hands on a copy.

So there's your first lesson:


Here's the honest truth - I think that if Stephen Spielberg had made The Evil Dead, and he used the cast of Jaws, the movie just wouldn't be as awesome.

Instead, it would have been everywhere, easy to find, easy to rent, and while the few copies that existed might have looked and sounded better, and featured better acting and improved special effects...

It just doesn't sound as cool as a movie made by a bunch of friends in a cabin in the middle of nowhere.

So keep that in mind. If you're making a movie, and you want people to hear about, tell them what you went through to make it. Put your best stories together, and polish them, and tell them to anyone and everyone.

Mostly the press.

Moving along, the story about how I finally came to see the movie.

About a year passed, and I found myself at home for the summer. It was a Saturday night, and I was at home because it was late at night and I wasn't on a college campus, where things sometimes actually happen late in the eventide. As always, I was having trouble sleeping, so I alternated between reading a book and seeing what was on USA Up All Night.

If you're not familiar with the show, it was... um... basically, it was cheap and/or cult and/or horror movies, with hosts. They'd show two back-to-back, one at 10 PM and one at midnight, and then they'd show a third movie, without any hosts, because if you're up at 2 AM you don't NEED a host, you need a prescription for sleeping medication.

Now, 2 AM was usually my limit. Somewhere between 2 and 3 my eyes would finally start to close of their own accord, and my body could shut down and I could rest. So I got ready to do that, and...

There it was. On my TV screen. The Evil Dead.

Now, granted, they were going to cut stuff (it was, after all, an unrated film!) but I could at least see it! Without having to hunt shelves on every video store in town!

Now, keep in mind I was TIRED. It was 2 AM, I'd be doing things all day, and I had somewhere to be in the morning.

I actually NAPPED DURING COMMERCIALS, which sounds impossible, but I did it.

And when it was over, I shut off the TV and passed out.


I totally got why people loved the movie. It was awkward and not-very-good and brilliant all at the same time.

I say this with so much love I can't fully express it. The acting was, in several cases, so-so. The makeup seemed almost painted on (it was!). And many of the special effects were clearly stop-motion, and looked almost ridiculously cheap.

Didn't matter.

It also had an amazing number of shots that make you want to cry out in joy. Sometimes it was the angle choice. Sometimes it was "special" effects that were obvious, but still kind of genius (Ash reaches into a "mirror" and puts his hand through it. It's water! Obviously, it's a trick shot with a bucket of water. But before you figure that out, your brain goes, "Whoooooah...")

And though I didn't realize it at the time, the flick offered something other movies weren't. Halloween had come out a year years earlier, and Friday the 13th came out in 1980.

Men and women in masks, stalking and slashing, were the order of the day.

And here was this little movie, taking a page out of Lovecraft (pretty literally, in part II) and, yeah, killing a few teenagers. But in a way that wasn't about revealing an arbitrary villain at the end.


And, yeah, the stop-motion looked pretty so-so, and yeah, the film stock was pretty grainy, and yeah...

Forget it. All those things added to the charm. In the strange way, they even improved the movie. A movie featuring a bunch of Hollywood-types, including a star, would have made you think, "Eh, it's all just a movie." But when you've got a bunch of no-names... anything can happen.

Over the years, The Evil Dead has gotten more and more under my skin. I've watched it multiple times, on VHS (bought a copy!) and DVD (bought TWO copies!). I own a copy of The Evil Dead Companion. I've watched every lost scene and interview about the movie that's reasonably commercially available.

I could give lectures on the film, I'm pretty sure. For that matter, if there was a convention and Sam Raimi (the director) or Bruce Campbell (the star) didn't show up, I could probably answer all the questions posed FOR them.

But the thing of it is, I can still turn off the lights, put on the movie, and know that I'm going to jump at LEAST once, even after examining every nook and cranny of the film.

That's good stuff.


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