A Dollar and a Dream: THE EVIL DEAD (New Line Cinema 1981)

In 1981, the inspirational British sports drama CHARIOTS OF FIRE edged out Warren Beatty’s sweeping socialist epic REDS for Best Picture at the 54th annual Academy Awards. Bah. I’m here to say THE EVIL DEAD is a better movie than either of them! At the very least, it’s a helluva lot more fun! It features a stunning debut for writer/director Sam Raimi, who, though he had far less money to work with than Beatty or CHARIOTS director Hugh Hudson, demonstrates some mega talent on a mini budget.

Sam Raimi (r) and Bruce Campbell, 1981

Raimi was a movie mad kid from the suburbs of Detroit who experimented with making Super-8 shorts as a teen with his friends, including EVIL DEAD star and cult icon Bruce Campbell . They put together a 1978 supernatural slasher called WITHIN THE WOODS, hoping to attract attention and make it into a feature. Raimi managed to scrape up about $90,000 through friends and family, and shot his spooky, Lovecraft-inspired film at a remote cabin in rural Morristown, Tennessee. He caught the attention of Irvin Shapiro, a distributor specializing in foreign films and low-budget entertainment. Shapiro was one of the founders of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and got Raimi’s little horror flick a screening there. Who should happen to be in attendance than Stephen King , who gave THE EVIL DEAD a glowing review, and the rest is history!

The plot is deceptively simple: five youths taking a break from college drive out to a secluded cabin in the Tennessee woods. Hearing noises coming from the basement, the boys investigate, and stumble upon some occult-related items and a tape recorder. What they’ve found is the ancient Sumerian Book of the Dead, “bound in human flesh and inked in human blood”. Playing the tape, an incantation summons the demons of Kandara, and the horrors quickly mount up as the friends are possessed one by one…

Raimi improvised and overcame his budget restrictions by using several techniques. A judicious use of close-ups are shot, and much of the movie is drenched in shadows and fog. Cameras were mounted on wood and pulled by rope to get the desired tracking shots. Much of THE EVIL DEAD’s eerie atmosphere came during post-production, where supervising sound editor Joe Mansfield created horrifying movie magic. Joseph DoLuca’s score was chilling, and he’d continue to collaborate with Raimi on later films. Detroit editor Edna Ruth Paul cut the whole thing into a cohesive piece of work, along with her assistant, future director Joel Coen.

The gross-out factor was instrumental in making THE EVIL DEAD a huge hit, especially among drive-in fans. The film was considered one of the most violent of its time, and still manages to shock some more sensitive viewers. There’s plenty of blood, guts, and gore thanks to special effects wizards Tom Sullivan (makeup) and Bart Prince (cameras), but the intense horror is laced with Raimi’s warped sense of humor, which I can certainly appreciate (check out the closing credits tribute to Joe Palma – Three Stooges buffs will know what I’m talking about!).

It seems like Bruce Campbell’s Ash has been battling THE EVIL DEAD forever! The character appeared in two sequels, and the late, lamented Starz series ASH VS EVIL DEAD. The whole EVIL DEAD universe has taken on a life of its own, with video games, comic books, a 2013 reboot, and even an Off-Broadway musical! Sam Raimi has gone on to mainstream success with DARKMAN, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, the underrated neo-noir A SIMPLE PLAN, FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME, and the Spider-Man franchise from 2002-07. And to think, it all started with a kid and his Super-8 camera, a dollar and a dream.

Danger Is Their Business: STUNTS (New Line Cinema 1977)

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With the success of films like WHITE LIGHTING, CANNONBALL, DEATH RACE 2000, and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (not to mention the continuing fascination with Evel Knenevel), movies revolving around stunts and stuntmen were big box office in the 1970’s. New Line Cinema took note and produced STUNTS, a murder mystery about stuntmen being killed off that gives us a behind-the-scenes look at low-budget filmmaking in addition to a good cast and well-staged action.

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When stuntman Greg Wilson’s hanging from a helicopter gag goes horribly awry, resulting in him plummeting to his death, his brother Glen arrives on the set determined to do the stunt himself and investigate Greg’s demise. Along the way he picks up B.J. Parswell, an attractive reporter doing a story on stuntmen. Glen’s fellow stuntmen start getting picked off one by one in gruesome “accidents”, and he must find the killer before he becomes next.

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This basic variation on “Ten Little Indians” serves as the backdrop for some exciting stunt-and-special effect scenes, including one where Glen, asking for more explosive charge in his car, does a spectacular five-and-a-half rolls, emerging unscathed. The film-within-a-film setting also allows the viewer to observe some aspects of moviemaking on a tight budget, which always fascinates me. Director Mark L. Lester keeps things moving, adding comedy to the mystery and action. Lester knew a thing or two about low-budget films, having helmed TRUCK STOP WOMEN and BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW among others, before making hits like ROLLER BOOGIE, FIRESTARTER, COMMANDO, and CLASS OF 1999.

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Robert Forster stars as Glen, and he’s one of my favorite underrated actors. The star of Haskell Wexler’s MEDIUM COOL and TV’s BANYON (a short-lived detective series about a 30’s private eye) struggled for decades starring in low-budget movies and supporting roles in larger ones before being rediscovered in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 JACKIE BROWN, earning an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Fiona Lewis (BJ) is known to horror genre fans for DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN and TINTONERA. Ray Sharkey (THE IDOLMAKER) plays macho stuntman Paulie, Joanna Cassidy (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBITT?) is Patty, and Bruce Glover (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) is Chuck. The great Richard Lynch plays special effects wizard Pete Lustig, Candice Rialson (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, CANDY STRIPE NURSES, CHATTERBOX) is horny starlet Judy Blake, and James Luisi (THE ROCKFORD FILES) is her cuckolded producer hubby. Veteran Malachi Throne (IT TAKES A THIEF, BATMAN villain Falseface) puts up with everyone as director Earl O’Brien.

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But the real stars are the stuntmen behind the scenes, and this film assembled some of the best: Joie Chitwood (cars), Deanna Coleman (motorcycles), Dar Robinson (high fall), Lee Pulford (barroom brawl), and Chuck Tamburro (aeriel) all perform their specialties to thrill the audience. STUNTS doesn’t work as a mystery (it was originally titled WHO IS KILLING THE STUNTMEN?), but as an action pic it’s chock full of wild and wooly, death-defying stunts and, though not the best of it’s genre, is an entertaining 90 minutes of fun for movie buffs.

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