'Evil Dead' at 40: How Stephen King Helped Turn Sam Raimi's Haunted Woods Tale Into Horror Classic (Flashback)
Independent movies can flop and flourish with their initial response from critics, but The Evil Dead received an endorsement from Stephen King that transcended the average film review. Shortly following the debut of Sam Raimi’s cult classic in 1981, the “Master of Horror” helped the low-budget haunted woods tale breakthrough to mainstream success and later become an iconic cinema franchise.
“THE MOST FEROCIOUSLY ORIGINAL HORROR FILM OF THE YEAR,” is the quote that was blasted across advertisements for The Evil Dead after King wrote up a glowing review for Twilight Zone Magazine in 1982. When ET interviewed Raimi, actor Bruce Campbell and producer Robert Tapert the following year about their movie’s newfound popularity, they returned the praise given to them by the prolific horror author.
“[King] scares the heck out of me. When I was reading The Shining, it was the kind of experience where you're so frightened that you [don’t] want to turn the next page of the book,” Raimi told ET in 1983. “Then you turn off the light and try to go to sleep. And then you realize this is much more horrible than the book.”
This recognition -- that sometimes one’s imagination following a horror story can be more terrifying than the story itself -- is reminiscent of an influential childhood memory of Raimi’s.
“What used to scare me was after we told a ghost story at camp. You'd be lying near the fire and the guy would stop talking. And you would be left alone,” he remembered. “And it's more frightening when the story [stopped], because then you have to think about [it].”
The Evil Dead follows five twenty-something college friends vacationing at an isolated cabin in the woods of Tennessee. Immediately upon their arrival, there’s no shortages of events that spell out: “It’s time to leave.” Alas, the group endures a non-stop parade of jump scares and demonic entities.
Campbell’s Ash Williams becomes the lone survivor nearly halfway through the film and the remaining running time is devoted to showcasing the actor’s knack for reacting to nearly every horror trick in the book. His performance is credited with not only jump starting Campbell’s own career in Hollywood, but also the longevity of The Evil Dead franchise, which went on to include two sequels, a TV series for Starz and an upcoming video game adaptation due out in 2022. But much of the film’s praise, then and now, is devoted to its fresh takes on standard horror tropes.
For Tapert, he gave Raimi credit for applying his auteur flair to the trademark scares. “There are things [in The Evil Dead] that are usually cliches, [but they] work not as the cliche is supposed to work,” the producer explained. “You expect something to jump out and it doesn't. You don't expect it to, then it does. They're all the cliches, but they're working for and against each other. Backwards and forwards.”
Years after his childhood camping trips, Raimi found himself back in the woods and, once again, a little startled -- only this time his imagination took a backseat to some real-life experiences he and the Evil Dead team encountered while shooting on location in Tennessee. The cast and crew actually stayed in the cabin they filmed in for the movie, where curious residents would make themselves known in various horror movie-like scenarios.
“One night I was sleeping in this cabin, and this place is lost in the woods -- miles from anything -- in this little valley. And I [awoke] about three o'clock in the morning,” Raimi recalled. “And there was some mountain man sitting next to me. And I said, ‘You're sitting in the house here with me.’ And he said, ‘I saw the fire. Just thought I'd come in and warm myself up.’ And I was thinking, ‘Hmm.’ And I felt that made sense if he was cold. He wanted to warm himself back up. I went to sleep and when I woke up in the morning he was gone, but it was kind of a frightening experience in retrospect.”
The director also witnessed locals observing the film shoot from the surrounding rural area. “You'd look up and there on this ridge, there'd be a little mountain man standing there watching you. And it was just kind of a strange experience to be watched like that constantly and not really be aware of it all the time,” Raimi said.
Meanwhile, Campbell’s encounters were a little more up close and personal. The actor recalled someone, who was brandishing a shotgun and a “bandolier with bullets,” approaching him in the middle of a scene. “What do you do? Say, 'Get out of here’? ‘I'll call the police'? There are no police in the hills,” Campbell said with a laugh. “I gave him graham crackers or something and he kept moving on.”
While the filmmakers had even been warned about the cabin’s supernatural reputation leading up to the shoot, nothing that could be considered otherworldly transpired until the shoot had already wrapped.
“The Tennessee Film Commission told us that the cabin we had been shooting in was haunted. And so we said, ‘Great,’” Raimi explained. “And then after we left the place, it was hit by a bolt of lightning and burned to the ground."
If The Evil Dead has a textural signature, aside from the “Shaky Cam” POV, it’s the excess of blood and depictions of physical dismemberments, which later became a trademark for the franchise. While the presence of intense gore in a horror movie at the time was a sure-fire way to attract boycotts and general apprehension from potential studio distributors, those concerns never made it to the set.
“On Evil Dead, our policy was: the gore the merrier,” Raimi said through a smirk. “We didn't particularly think about taste one way or another when we were making the [movie]. It's just a question of: what will entertain? And good or bad, we just put in everything we could to make it as fun, entertaining and scary as possible.”
According to Campbell, the audience feels disarmed once that particular level of ridiculousness is achieved. “It [leans] more toward the fantasy [element],” he explained. “And the excess I think is more amusing, because it's not something you see every day.”
Raimi found himself returning to the Evil Dead universe years later following a rocky experience making his first studio picture (1985’s Crimewave), in the pursuit of the creative control that independent films offer. And yet, despite the first movie’s success, he struggled to attain financing for a sequel, until King made yet another significant impact. As Raimi told IGN in 2015, the story goes that King got word of their difficulties and reached out to movie producer Dino De Laurentiis. “So Stephen King, I'm told -- I've never talked to Mr. King about this -- but the rumor is that he called Dino De Laurentiis and said, ‘Dino, you've got to make these guys' movie, Evil Dead 2.’ So we got a call from Dino De Laurentiis, and he sat us down in his big office and said, ‘OK, we're going to make the movie.’ [Laughs] So Stephen King, that's twice he's come to my rescue,” he told the outlet.
Raimi's next project will combine both of the director's trademark genres: horror and Marvel superheroes. Following Scott Derrickson's exit last year, Raimi stepped in to helm the "the first scary" MCU installment, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which hits theaters next year.
Forty years after The Evil Dead premiered, Raimi is still in the business of frights. As he admitted ET in 1983, there's a “childish fun” in scaring people and watching audiences “jump and scream” in the theater. “As long as it's fun for them," Raimi said.
The Evil Dead is streaming on HBO Max.
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