[This review is part of the LAMB's Movie of the Month Series.]
Fans of my podcast (sure, I'll say my podcast has fans. Why not?) have asked me why I have yet to do a debate episode. Why do my podcasts have to be so lovey-dovey and damn agreeable? Why can't I ever get into a heated argument with my guests? Well, part of the reason is that I'm afraid of conflict. I've always been a "why can't everybody just get along" kind of a guy. The reason for this: I don't know. Well, actually, maybe I do know. But that specific issue is a topic for another unnecessarily long blog post. Just know that I am working on being a more argumentative person (that's probably a phrase you don't hear too often).
The other, bigger reason I have yet to do a debate episode is that my podcast guests always happen to choose movies of whose merits (or lack thereof) we are in agreeance. My writing partner, and regular guest, Roger and I have been bashing our heads trying to find a movie that we disagree on. We really do want to argue for y'all, partly to help me overcome my issue, but mostly because we want to make a dramatic podcast episode—conflict's entertaining. But it's been damn hard. The thing that makes us such great writing partners (our in-tune thinking) is also the thing that keeps our episodes from turning into Siskel and Ebert level bitch fests. We really can't find movies that inspire debate.
Of course, film is about the only artistic form where we find so much common ground. Our biggest source of disagreeablishness: Music. Although I dig the technically accomplished musicianship and/or polished studio recordings of such folks as Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, and The Beatles; to my writing partner, such acts are homework. He feels like he's listening to math. Such groups either care only about technique, or work so meticulously on the production of their recordings that the resultant work is soulless, overly polished and clinical: all emotion, all personality sapped, as if from an accountant vampire.
Roger would much rather listen to messier, dirtier music: The Rolling Stones, The Stooges, most punk. The thing is, I actually dig this music as well. I have a thing for both polished musicianship/studio-craft and sloppy, heartfelt dirty rock. In fact, in my winamp playlist right now are albums by both Steely Dan and The Stooges (yes, I'm the last person still using winamp).
Although I understand and sympathize with complaints when it comes to a group like Steely Dan, I can't help but be sucked in by the very qualities most folks abhor: clinically precise, finely honed, smooth musicianship. What it all boils down to for me is work ethic. If I can tell that an artist put a lot of effort into honing his skills and crafting a song, film, novel, or what have you; I'm satisfied. And yet, as I stated earlier, I love both sides of the coin. I will just as easily fall in love with a sloppy piece of music, just so long as the passion is there. I am simultaneously in awe of perfection and the DIY ethos of punk. (By the way, Roger, I hope I didn't misrepresent your point of view here. Please make a comment if you think I did. God, look at me being all conciliatory. So pathetic.)
Perhaps this dichotomy is why the first entry has always been my favorite installment of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy. It's the best of both worlds. I know most folks count the second Evil Dead movie as Sam Saimi's crowning achievement but the first Evil Dead is the one I've most revisited. The Evil Dead is the sometimes sloppy DIY product of an insane work ethic. By the time Raimi made The Evil Dead 2, he'd learned from his mistakes and produced a much more polished piece; but with the first movie, the warts are just as endearing as the achievements.
(I'm going to assume y'all have already seen this classic so I'll forego my usual plot write-up. Just know that a group of youngers—Ash (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), Scott (Richard DeManincor), Shelly (Theresa Tilly), and Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss)—heads to a cabin in the woods, folks started getting possessed, gore/mishigas ensues.)
Anyone doubting the passion and work ethic of Raimi need only learn that it took the director one and a half years to film his movie. When so many horror peers at the time were willing to quickly churn out disposable gore for the insatiable masses, Raimi approached this project the way Dennis Wilson approached Pet Sounds—sans the big-budget accouterments the bathroom-robed one enjoyed for his masterpiece, of course. Everything had to be perfect. This would be Raimi's calling card, after all.
And where perfection eluded the director, the ensuing mistakes were still indicative of a grand vision. I dig the fact that the inexperienced Raimi did all the things no professional filmmaker would have done. When Bruce Campbell's Ash needed to attack a deadite, Sam Raimi had the actor fire an actual shotgun through an actual window...instead of, you know, firing a blank in the direction of breakaway sugar glass triggered to shatter. Raimi didn't realize that, you know, you shouldn't put your cast in crew in danger of getting cut by glass or...you know, accidentally shot. He wanted Ash to fire through a window, so Ash fired through a window. He needed this image for the movie, so he made it happen, logic and safety be damned.
So dedicated to crafting an expert film was Raimi that he even learned to make mistakes work for him. During the finale, after Ash has thrown the demon-producing "Book of the Dead" into a fireplace, killing off the deadites, the effects team went hog wild, throwing everything at the audience. Raimi even employed a tricky matte-shot, which, in effect, allowed him to incorporate a shot-by-shot animated sequence in the same frame as a live-action sequence. Because, during the course of the shoot, the camera shifted slightly a few times, there are moments when the matte shot is thrown out of alignment. Although such hazards are par for the course in low-budget filmmaking, and most folks in Raimi's position would be content to let that shit fly as is; Raimi decided to make it work for him. During the moments of matte misalignment, Raimi had the sound effects crew add slight, jarring, screeching noises—as if matte defect were intentional. The effect is to add another layer to the seemingly intentional chaos. Honestly, this effect is almost subliminal. Had I not been such an Evil Dead fanatic, I probably never would have caught this. But this is precisely who Raimi tailored such efforts toward: the viewers who care.
For an even more stunning example of Raimi's ethos (or disregard for actors, more likely) at work, however, look no further than the "eviling of the ankle" scene. In this brief shot, Linda's ankle, pencil-stabbed by deadite Cheryl, quickly becomes possessed, lightning veins radiating from the puncture. To capture this effect, Raimi employed live animation: the actress held her foot still for endless hours as the crew meticulously added, bit by bit, darkened veins on the ankle; and Raimi shot frame by frame each new addition. Sure you could short-cut such a scene (and Raimi would in the sequel's re-imagining of the event) but it'll lack the scrappy DIY quality present here. My hat's off to all involved, especially the actress, for enduring such tedium. Pretty serious dedication for the cast and crew of a disposable gore movie. What can I say? Pointless work amuses me—hence my movie blog.