The Evil Dead

Just finished watching the original film The Evil Dead, its outtakes, and listening to the commentary tracks. Interesting that Bruce Campbell claims that while the movie was shot in 1979 it was only finished and in theaters in 1983. imdb lists it as a 1981 movie. So much time has passed that I don’t know whether perhaps it might have appeared in a festival by 1981 and might have been adjusted and placed into theaters a couple of years later, considering that it was unrated and could not get quite the number of theaters because of that. Had it been submitted, it is expected that the movie would have been given an X.

The fun of looking back at this original low budget flick is that it has audacious camera movement and such good instinct, regardless of the pacing some audiences might find slow today but this time around seems just right. The movie is about 85 minutes long. I would not know where to trim it, except that when someone walks into a room and you know something scary may happen it is best not to rush that.

There was a remake simply called Evil Dead but it is not THE Evil Dead. Especially if you are a filmmaker, The Evil Dead (officially 1981) is the most interesting. Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987) may be more slick with production values and more humor (imagine getting a middle finger from your own severed hand), the original is still the better film and more of a must-see. Army of Darkness is the third Evil Dead movie, despite those words not appearing in the title, as it picks up with Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) immediately after the events of Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn. I like it. It is full of superficial fun. But the whole saga was bumped up a notch or two with the profane, politically incorrect, unapologetic TV series Ash Versus Evil Dead which picks up the character decades later with Ash in his fifties as a very flawed “chosen one” who must get hold of the Necronmicon (Book of the Dead), confront the Deadites and the entities that manipulate them. Sam Raimi directed the pilot episode and his style is maintained by his entire team. The introduction of Ash’s father played by Lee Majors made me happy as a life long Six Million Dollar Man fan. And yes, there is a jokey reference to that because Ash has a mechanical hand at that point.

The Evil Dead has as its signature scene a woman being attacked by trees in a way that Campbell and Raimi say loses a segment of the audience, about 25 minutes in. The scene is impressive filmmaking, at once evoking film student wildness and fine tuned inventiveness with an actress Ellen Sandweiss who is uniformly called a good sport having participated in Super 8 films with Raimi and Campbell for years. If it is possible to be whimsical and genuinely horrific. If you don’t want to submit yourself to the tendrils of terror that might creep up your spine watching this deceptively simple small budget movie, at least watch it with one or both of the commentary tracks as a sort of film school.

Raise a Little Hell

Hellraiser used to seem like it had a confusing story to me. I’d seen it and immediately forgotten what happens. But now I might have a handle on it. Most of the movie takes place in one house, apart from bookend scenes about buying a magical device that won’t be confused with Rubic’s Cube. The cube kills a man who had been living in his brother’s home and having an affair with his brother’s wife. One day, the brother is helping movers do their job and accidentally gouges his hand on a nail that honestly should not have been missed. His blood drips into the floorboards and partially resurrects the dead sibling who then compels the cuckolding wife to lure men into the attic for would-be trysts so they can be sacrificed and their life’s blood can restore the flesh of the abomination. The teenage daughter is caught in the middle, as she witnesses the half-restored uncle and interacts with hellish creatures called Cenobites who want the cube that started the whole mess. The DVD has an excellent laconic audio commentary by Clive Barker and the actress Ashley Laurence who plays the teenager Kirsty.

Discussions involve the evolution of ideas as they are brought to life with a relatively limited budget of one million dollars 1987 money. They kept it simple enough and focused, often to a point where if the frame had moved a little to the left or right the illusion of location might be destroyed. A little is said without naming titles that some far more expensive movies in horror rely on jump scares but this movie is more about a sense of creepiness and sustained dread while still having a touch of organic humor. It has some of the Eighties look that you might expect, but it can draw the viewer in. I took these movies for granted in my own youth and have only seen the first Hellraiser. The iconic “Pinhead” mouthpiece of the Cenobites continues and As does Ashley Lawrence as Kirsty Cotton who appears in the second and third of the series. Barker is self deprecating about his “amateur status” as a director but what ends up on screen fools us well enough. At one point Barker had offered to write a script Pinhead Versus Michael Meyers if John Carpenter would have agreed to direct it but Carpenter wanted to leave his creation The Shape alone. Personally, I wish Carpenter had agreed. It would have given The Shape genuine demonic status, even if the “Versus” gimmick is inherently has a ring to it of pandering to the market.

All Making the Same Movie

Boilerplate for Compatibility:

Investors, crew and cast, before anything else, have to be willing to make the same movie as the director. Each person might have a different movie in their mind’s eye or might choose or omit a different shot or joke than someone else.  There can be as many approaches as there are people, so first thing’s first: Know what the movie is, who has defined the project, at least make peace with whose vision you are helping bring to life. If the director is trying to be the servant of many masters, chipping away anything that someone else might not like, it will be an empty final result.

If a director believes he or she is Kubrick, the crew usually will make that person’s life hell.  So I don’t think I am Kubrick or Spielberg.  I want to make sure that I am giving myself the best chance to to get across the movie that is in my head and in stages of imperfection like the script and storyboard sketches. I’m not going to shoot myself in the foot trying to prove how I’m unlike the best directors and unworthy of directing the attention of the audience.

My plan for a low budget film is to respect the fiscally responsible Roger Corman approach and lock the script, storyboard every shot, and know before we arrive on set or location what the camera is going to do and what equipment will be needed to facilitate that.

The opposite would be to go forward with someone who either hasn’t read the script or doesn’t like it or outright objects to something in it and doesn’t believe in the director. In which case the writer-director doesn’t have a leg to stand on with that person, and who wants to walk into that burning house?

If someone doesn’t believe in the script and wants to infuse it with improvisation, it should be noted that any commentary track for a Christopher Guest movie mentions how long it takes to explore material through improvisation and then the year it takes to find the movie in editing.  If the main point of initiating a movie is that you want your screenplay to see the light of day, and you want to feel authentic about your writing credit, make sure it is known that you ban improvisation. Things will be discovered on a day even with a prepared and well rehearsed cast that might not be in the script, but the expectation of happy accidents do not have to define the project or put the director in the frustrating position of reigning people in to get them back on book.  You want to weed out people who do not like the script, or you will fall behind and go into overtime not for your shot list and the care of setting up a sequence but to placate the egos of actors who want to be de facto writers.

It will be interesting to learn the details of what happened on Solo: A Star Wars Story before Ron Howard was brought in to right the ship.  The version most circulated is that the original director Lord and Miller being improv wranglers on their previous live action movies were not used to storyboarding their shots and merely considered their process about riffing on scripts and generating material on set through improvisation.  This despite the fact that they were graced with a screenplay by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jon.  Each day, the budget went over because the directors went into overtime and held the crew due entirely to the indulgence in improvisation. The actors played along but one reportedly eventually mentioned to a producer (maybe Kathleen Kennedy) that this was going on and that Alden Eirenrich as Solo was being called upon to do a sort of Ace Ventura energy level that seemed contrary to the laconic Harrison Ford characterization. What is puzzling might be that producers would get continuity reports each day that would have stated for 90% of the shoot that they were going into overtime each day and this could have been caught and rectified. As an executive producer and co-writer, after reviewing the footage that had been shot, Kasdan objected to the freewheeling approach and wanted the directors to stick to the script.

It is vital at the outset, either overtly or covertly, to discover whether a collaborator believes in the project or the script.  In my own case as a writer-director I have had to nudge people towards telling me what they thought or exposing some other reason they might want to infiltrate the movie.  The last thing you want is the ground moving under your feet. Someone may object to a well-earned joke against an arrogant character.  I would rather take the heat of someone expressing outrage over a joke than let someone else’s sensitivity pre-emptively make it go away.

It is asking a lot to say tentatively to a prospective actor or crew member to read the entire screenplay, maybe 100 – 120 pages, to make an informed choice.  But that work pales by comparison to everything you will ask them to do in pushing through the schedule of shooting the movie.  This mostly applies if you have a subversive sensibility.  I today’s climate, that is bold.  But any element of a script can be upsetting to a crew or cast member or a segment of the audience, and they may as well address and confront that in advance.

It is one level of difficult to draw people with a general idea of making a movie, but the more specific your goals and in terms of locations and props and number of cast or the kind of script you want to get away with it will be more of a challenge. There is no point putting off that challenge and waiting for a conflict somewhere down the line.  It is vital to want to make the same movie, or to be willing to.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says, “Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”