Editorial: Yes, The Evil Dead IS a comedy.
By Ben Bussey
The Evil Dead remake is very nearly upon us, and emotions still run high on the subject. A good portion of fans remain as vocal in their contempt for Fede Alvarez’s film as when it was announced; others are more optimistic, persuaded by the grime and gore of the first trailers and images, up to and including the new batch of stills that popped up this weekend, one of which you can see above (the rest are all over the place; could be wrong, but I think they appeared first at Collider).
I’ve no desire to launch into yet another diatribe on remakes; we’ve had them non-stop for almost a decade, so I should think we all know where we stand by now. However, debates on the Evil Dead remake have interested me greatly, due to the most common line of defence used by those in favour of Alvarez’s film: that he is going back to the true spirit of the original, which – so the argument goes – was unrelentingly harsh, brutal and nasty, and above all without humour. Sam Raimi made a hard-edged, serious horror movie, and whatever laughs it inspired were entirely unintentional. This is a viewpoint which seems to be present not only amongst fans but also within the ranks of the remake itself, actress Jane Levy having said before the shoot began, “the humor in the first one came from the special effects of the time. I don’t know that they meant it to be funny … this one is not funny. It’s definitely dark.” The opinion seems to be that, despite the direction the sequels took, the original Evil Dead really was ‘the ultimate experience in gruelling terror’ – and as such, when the new posters declare Alvarez’s film to be ‘the most terrifying film you will ever experience,’ presumably we are meant to take this threat seriously.
I have two main points to make on this matter. First of all – it’s premature indeed to cast aspersions as to the tone of Evil Dead 2013. All we have seen are a few judiciously selected stills and snippets of footage, intended to whip up widespread interest in the film (and credit where it’s due, they seem to be succeeding). Seeing these out of context, we cannot in any way judge how they will go down within the flow of the finished movie, and I see many moments which look like they could easily be played for comedy value; that shot of Jane Levy splitting her own tongue, for instance. The thing is, it’s not hard for footage to be edited together to suggest something far removed from the end product. We might recall that Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell was very much promoted as a straight horror, rather than the self-consciously silly spook-a-blast it really was; indeed, this mispromotion almost certainly contributed to the film’s underperformance at the box office, as audiences felt cheated and/or thought the film was just stupid. And while we’re on the subject of misrepresentation, I’m sure we’ve all seen that trailer of Mary Poppins cut to look like a horror movie, and others of that ilk. Find the right images, get the right pace, use the right music, and I should imagine it’s possible to sell any movie as anything.
Now follows my second, and rather more significant point. Now, I’m all for healthy debate, and firmly believe everyone is entitled to their own opinion. As such, the last thing I want is to take the “I’m right and you’re wrong” position, declaring my own point of view to be the only correct one. That said…
Are you people on crack? Of course The Evil Dead is a comedy!
Okay, okay, perhaps that’s a little too prescriptive. There is, and always should be, room for personal interpretation. But… really now, come on. The Evil Dead is not a serious film, and this strikes me as something that should be self-evident.
Exhibit A – Bruce Campbell’s haircut.
Okay, that may be a minor concern. Let’s contemplate the matter more in depth. I’ve written about The Evil Dead and its sublime, explicitly comedic sequel at length before, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here, but I’m not promising anything.
Spoilers for the original Evil Dead to follow.
My own initial experience of the Evil Dead movies was, I think, a typical one for those of us born post-1980, in that I saw them in reverse order. Honestly, it doesn’t strike me as a bad way to enter into the series, particularly if you’re also just getting your bearings in the genre as I was at the time, for each successive (or rather, regressive) film builds your resistance. Army of Darkness is really funny, but not particularly nasty; Evil Dead 2 is really funny, and pretty nasty; and as for The Evil Dead… well, here’s where opinions start to vary.
Exhibit B – the blender fake-out.
Sudden close-up of what at first appears to be gore, but we haven’t quite reached that point yet. Not the funniest gag ever, but we haven’t quite reached that point either.
I won’t deny, when I first saw The Evil Dead I was well and truly shocked. Based on the latter two films, I’d long since assumed the video nasty anxiety surrounding the original to be nothing more than paranoia on the part of idiots who didn’t know how to take a joke. But then once the possessions kick in and all the clawing and maiming gets underway – on first viewing it is a bit much, that little incident amidst the trees in particular. Given that the tree rape is the first really nasty moment in the movie – boy, they throw you straight in at the deep end. Although I would hope the sheer absurdity of the scene would go some way to lessening its impact, rape obviously isn’t something to laugh at; subsequently the scene does have the air of a misjudged, deliberate shock joke that pushes the line a little too far for most of us, much like every other Frankie Boyle one-liner. Even so, the tree rape does function as a powerful statement of intent: the message being, from here on out no flesh shall be spared. Subsequently it’s not too surprising that some viewers read the ensuing onscreen atrocities as straight horror. It’s also interesting to note how various parties involved with the film have reflected on that scene in the years since; Raimi, for one, has expressed regret (as he does in this 80s interview with Jonathan Ross, around 9min30). And yet, it was one of the first scenes that Bruce Campbell, in his capacity as producer, made a point of emphasising would definitely be included in the remake. Once again, clear statement of intent: declaration of hardcore horror status, a solemn pledge not to wimp out on the gory details.
But once the blood hits the screen, how do things really go down?
Exhibit C – the batshit crazy Deadite ladies.
Much as I should hope this goes without saying, let me emphasise here that I am not suggesting women cannot be scary. God no. There are innumerable instances of truly terrifying female antagonists. It’s just that The Evil Dead cannot be counted among them, in my humble opinion. Look at them, for crying out loud; their ridiculous facial expressions, their jerky physicality. Listen to them. They cackle like witches on fairground ghost trains, and their make-up jobs are about as convincing. An example of the low production values leading to unintentional mirth, as Levy suggests? To an extent perhaps, but on the whole I don’t buy that argument. Too much is played out for clear comedy value. Take the moment when Scotty saves the recently-turned Shelley (blatantly played by one of those notorious fake shemps at this point) from the fireplace, and Shelley’s line that follows: “Thank you! I don’t know what I would have done if I had remained on those hot coals, burning my pretty flesh. You have pretty skin… give it to us!” Come on, you can’t tell me those lines don’t raise at least a tiny smirk…
Then her mind-numbing, agonised groan once Scotty, realising she’s beyond saving, severs her hand, and moments later stabs her in the back. The groan goes on for a full 75 seconds before finally petering out, only for the body to then spray milk from most orifices, then appear to be well and truly dead for a further 22 seconds – until the inevitable boo!, after which Scotty is forced to repeatedly hit her with an axe until there’s nothing left but a few quivering piles of human-flavoured jelly. The fact that the scene is so drawn out is also vital. The longer it goes on, the harder it is to take seriously, as Stephen Woolley of Palace Pictures remarked in the DVD feature Discovering Evil Dead: “at first I was quite startled at the graphic-ness of the violence… but then after the ghouls were being hit continuously for a few times, more gratuitously and grotesquely than normal, you began to see the humour of it.”
And here’s the key point, I think… if you do happen to regard the death of Shelley, or indeed any other similarly excessive sequence in The Evil Dead as straight horror, that’s actually fine. It is scary, even though it’s absolutely ridiculous. That’s the real trick of The Evil Dead, as well as its sequel, and all the best horror-comedy crossovers: both effects are achieved simultaneously, neither to the detriment of the other. How sad it is we live in this age of Scary Movie, Meet the Spartans and other such puddles of anal discharge that have reduced the pastiche to the lowest art form imaginable, resulting in a generation of audiences who don’t seem to understand the middle ground that exists in movies like The Evil Dead; that it is possible to celebrate a genre whilst also mocking it, and – in this case – to be genuinely funny and genuinely scary at the same time. Listen to Linda’s nursery rhyme taunt: “we’re gonna get you, we’re gonna get you…” it’s creepy as shit, no question, but at the same time I for one can’t help but laugh. And it leads directly into surely the clearest case for The Evil Dead’s comedy status…
Exhibit D – the OTHER rape scene that hardly anyone talks about.
Let’s just do a blow-by-blow on this one. Ash sets about burying his recently deceased (or so he thinks!) girlfriend Linda. However, no sooner has he covered her in soil and stuck his hand-crafted cross in place than she comes bursting out like some midway point between Carrie White and a Fulci zombie. Ash defends himself with a conveniently placed oversized plank, which he proceeds to bash Linda about the head with – once again, more times than are strictly necessary – before she knocks him onto his back and lunges at him. In one fell swoop, he picks up a spade and severs her head with it as her body falls onto him… and then, as the head lands on the floor, the headless body spews blood into his face and dry-humps him.
If anyone out there doesn’t think we’re supposed to laugh at this, I welcome an explanation.
I suppose this can be taken as evidence of a double-standard on my part, given that earlier I discouraged taking the rape of Cheryl in jest, yet I’m all in favour of laughing at Ash’s treatment here. Part ways with me on those grounds, by all means. But look at how the scene is set up. Look at the outright absurdity and deliberate tastelessness of that final image. Laughter seems the only logical response. Such is the case with pretty much the entirety of The Evil Dead; excess follows excess follows excess, culminating in a crescendo of sick humour – then a brief moment of calm before the cycle repeats itself ad nauseam, until that climactic zoom into Ash’s screaming face. As has been noted many times before, building up to a big scare really isn’t that far removed from building up to a big laugh.
In summation, then – if we ask whether The Evil Dead is a funny movie or a scary movie, the simplest answer is, “yes.” (Well, the quickest answer at least.) I won’t deny it’s possible my perception of this is coloured by the knowledge that Raimi came into the film first and foremost as a lover of physical comedy, as evidenced by the clear Three Stooges stylings of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. Even so, I think the film’s cartoonish overtones speak for themselves, and it is these – hand-in-hand with the masterful camerawork, editing and sound – that really lift The Evil Dead above its peers, and set it apart for posterity. Along with its sequel and a few key films like An American Werewolf in London, The Evil Dead stands as firm evidence that horror and humour need not be mutually exclusive.
As to whether Fede Alvarez’s film will manage a similar balance, or play the shocks completely straight, or just wind up a bad joke… those of us who care enough to buy a ticket will see soon enough.