It has been a slow week for new movies since “Cabin in the Woods” nudged out “The Hunger Games” as the “current-biggest-thing-to-talk-about.” I am still keeping mum on the film’s details, so if you haven’t seen it yet, do so — it’ll give us something to discuss.
Today, rather than talk “Cabin in the Woods” or a new release, I want to touch upon the original “cabin-in-the-woods” story turned subversive audience experiment. The “Evil Dead” series, in many ways the predecessor of “Cabin in the Woods,” acts as its biggest inspiration.
The “Evil Dead” series, directed by Sam Raimi, starring Bruce Campbell and spanning three installments (“The Evil Dead,” “Evil Dead II” and “Army of Darkness”) did not begin with the intention of parodying the horror genre, largely because it was so entrenched in its conventions. “The Evil Dead” plays itself straight from first to last: it starts with a group of college students spending a weekend in the woods and ends with those college students never leaving again.
Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) is the leader and only character with any chance of putting up a fight. The rest — his sister, girlfriend and jokester friend — quickly succumb to the influence of the Book of the Dead, a text that, once read, transforms humans into zombified, demonic “deadites.” Only Ash remains, with chiseled chin and barely functioning sanity. Even his survival is hopeless.
“The Evil Dead” works in its most audacious, low-budget moments, such as a grueling instance when a deadite stabs Ash’s girlfriend’s ankle with a pencil. One of its most infamous, yet creatively executed, scenes is the “tree rape” sequence, which is exactly what it sounds like. Whatever one’s opinion on the subject, it definitely accomplishes the goal it sets for itself: to shock and make uncomfortable.
But otherwise, the film plods in its second half, runs out of scares quickly and fails to transcend the tropes it’s build on. One of the great contributions of “The Evil Dead” was providing Joel Coen’s, of Coen Brothers’ fame, with his first gig as film editor and its sequel, “Dead by Dawn.”
“Evil Dead II” recaps the first in all of five minutes, changing most details and cutting out half the characters to achieve a leaner, more immediate conflict: Ash and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) visit the woods alone, only to discover the Book of the Dead, now titled (in a loving wink to Lovecraft) the Necronomicon. Passages are read, Linda is possessed and Ash finds himself, yet again, fighting for his life and sanity.
And then it gets ridiculous. Here, Raimi establishes his cinematic style, so ubiquitous as to have created an adjective — “Raimiesque.” His camera joins the cast of characters, not only showing us a villain’s perspective but becoming them, speeding through the forest, knocking down doors, slamming into characters and throwing them great distances.
Grotesque cinematography turns grotesque images into comedy, as Raimi’s moved beyond just delivering scares: from Ash being choked by his own reflection, to a room full of laughing furniture, and ending with the genius stroke of Ash’s own hand turning evil, leading to its decapitation and replacement with a chainsaw. “Evil Dead II” doesn’t follow any well-tread paths. With the frenzy of a Three Stooges sketch and the blood content of a slaughterhouse, “Evil Dead II” balances scares with laughs and bug-eyed gasps.
By the time “Army of Darkness” came out, there was only one way to go: full out, Looney Tunes level comedy. There is only a cabin in the woods for all of two minutes before the film turns into a time traveling, medieval slapstick-a-thon.
Campbell earns his status as cult icon, gleefully chewing the scenery and throwing one-liners with gruff, macho pride. It’s the most liberating form of anarchy — like “Cabin in the Woods,” it must be seen first, then explained — and a glorious conclusion to the trilogy’s growing quality and ambition.
Raimi went on to helm the original “Spider-Man” films, while the “Evil Dead” series has survived as an independent, musical remake. If you want to know when horror films learned to laugh at themselves — and why it’s great that “Cabin in the Woods” is trying to teach the same thing today — grab some friends and revisit the cabin where it all began.