“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
― H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
Horror filmmakers really seem to love a good doorknob. Their characters always spend a lot of time reaching for one, and once they finally get to it, they love throwing it open to reveal---well, nothing, usually. The killer is always right behind them, after all. So why all the teasing? We know what’s going to happen, don’t we? Sure, sure, it’s about “building suspense”---but why must filmmakers use this same old trick every single time? Or perhaps a better question to ask is: why do we keep falling for it?
Filmmakers know what will scare us: the monster is never as scary as its own unknown possibility. The things that remain unknown, mysterious, and unexplained frighten us because we cannot understand or define them---the difference between horror and reality can be as simple as the revelation of the mystery. Storytellers have used this fear against us for ages---authors like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft used words and even punctuation [the dash for “jumps” , the ellipsis for suspense...] to generate fear, and filmmakers have a plethora of storytelling devices at their disposal that can be used to scare audiences over and over again. But how do you show the unknown?
Director Sam Raimi’s first movies were comedies: heavy on slapstick, light on the suspense. Soon though, he was studying B-movie drive-in gore fests to help him film a short piece entitled Within the Woods, a prototype film designed to help him secure funds for a larger horror film.
His prototype film worked, and he secured $90,000 for filming. The small budget shows in many ways: amateur actors, some rough editing, spotty effects. But while The Evil Dead was certainly a low-budget affair, Raimi’s storytelling tools remained sharp. Having little resources meant getting creative to get results, and Raimi’s filmmaking was not about to suffer for lack of funds. Raimi knew from his film studies at the drive-in that the scariest part of a movie was the not seeing; keeping the monster unseen doesn’t only save the budget---it builds the tension.
Raimi’s iconic first-person shots from his monster’s perspective helped him achieve both goals, and you can see Raimi putting it into good use right away: his opening shot of the “evil force” drifting over swampy water builds suspense and tension right off the bat because of the mystery it forges. Once our naive weekend vacationers from Michigan finally get to the quintessential “cabin in the woods,” Raimi continues to build tension from what remains unknown. The atmosphere around the cabin is built around the established evil creeping within the woods. The swing on the porch [filmed first at an angle that Raimi liberally stole from Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre] bangs mysteriously against the cabin before abruptly stopping as the door is about to be opened---almost as though the cabin itself were alive and waiting. The light hits the dust above a mounted deer head in a way to suggest unease---is something alive here that shouldn’t be? Is this just a cabin, or is it a monster waiting with jaws open to devour our dopey college students? The cabin and the woods seem ominous because of the unknown evil we know is lurking within---the filmmaking is relying just as much on what is shown as on what isn’t.
Raimi is great at building suspense with a low budget, but his true innovation lies in what he does with that budget once the evil finally hits. Sure, the make-up seems kind of iffy: the contact lens the actors wore were cheap and bulging and pretty much forced them to act blindly, and once the vacationers go full “deadite,” their hair miraculously changes into a mismatched wig from a mannequin store. But it’s the camera work and sound that dazzle here.
Towards the end of the film, kind-of-protagonist Ash is at his wit’s end. He is alone and nearly out of his mind with fear. Raimi uses sound editing and his camera’s frame to delve directly into the character’s perspective. Everything unknown around him becomes a threat. The sound of the ticking clock becomes a crashing crescendo of noise. The camerawork becomes tilted, employing “dutch angles” [which you might remember from the sixties Batman television show---the tilted angles they used when filming the villains] to showcase the psychological turmoil playing out. At one point, a camera shot actually begins behind Ash’s head and upside down, floating over him until upright to create an unsettling feeling of paranoia and unease. Raimi’s use of the camera here completely exploits Ash’s fear and ours: what remains unknown remains dangerous.
Ash is right to be paranoid here; we’ve never even seen the main danger that’s killed his friends because it’s always been shown in first person. To get that effect of the evil force careening through the woods in first-person perspective, you would expect the filmmaker to use an expensive dolly rigged up to zoom across the forest. That simply was not an option for Raimi and his crew, so the solution was to strap a camera onto a piece of wood and literally run with it. The result, cinematically, is that instead of a smooth tracking shot, you actually see the evil get up and careen dangerously and unpredictably through the woods toward its victims. From a storytelling perspective, you also get to maintain the fear of the unknown.
The Evil Dead was really one of the first films I experienced [along with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil] where I actually really noticed the director’s use of the camera - how it moved, when it moved, and why. It was one of the first movies that showed me how a movie could tell a story visually. Raimi was using the camera here to build suspense and showcase the psychological fear of the unknown in a way I had never seen before, and on a budget that actually made it seem replicable to an amateur filmmaker. As a teenager, I would spend hours trying to imitate some of the more innovative camerawork of Raimi’s in the woods behind my house. Unfortunately, the results weren’t very comparable. Instead of a propulsive force of evil, I inadvertently filmed a teenager awkwardly running through the woods with a handycam.
Raimi, however, took the “shaky cam” and made it innovative. When the force actually breaks through glass to attack its victim, and later, several doors to get to Ash, I was always dumbfounded by how Raimi managed to get the camera timed to propel itself through ACTUAL shattered doors. The answer? An invention of Raimi’s, designed on a low budget: the “ram-o-cam,” which is pretty much what the name suggests. A T-bar attached to the front of the camera smashes things before the camera enters. This way, the fear of the unknown is maintained while the physical attack remains just as vicious as if an actual killer were committing the crime.
The scene that remains uncomfortable for me to watch is the first physical attack, or the “wait...are the woods actually raping someone?” scene. The scene made me uncomfortable not only because of what I realized was happening on screen [other horror films already had the unfortunate tendency to “shock” audiences by being mere exploitation, and Ridley Scott had earlier capitalized on “male penetration horror” with an entire film about it: Alien], but also because of what I didn’t, and didn’t want to, understand of it. This was not a killer in the woods---it was the woods themselves. It was vicious, brutal, and horrifying.
Rewatching this, it feels unnecessarily gratuitous and exploitative, and it could be argued that it’s the big misstep of the movie---an argument Raimi would agree with. He has since stated that he regrets filming the scene at all, explaining it as a poor decision made by a young kid who wanted to shock his audience. When I initially saw it, it didn’t just shock me though---it scared the hell out of me. Not in a jump scare, oh-how-creepy way, but in a way that felt like true horror---it was psychologically abrasive. The filmmaking is still sharp and centered around the unknown fear of what is happening---the creeping camerawork, the horrible sound effects, the jarring editing---but it seems somehow too aggressive for the rest of the film, and almost too effective.
In a sense, The Evil Dead showed me both what horror storytelling can be, and also what it should try to avoid being. Suspenseful, but not predictable---horrific, but not exploitative. The tools the storyteller chooses to use to tell the story should always serve their main purpose...but if suspense is about the mystery, is it better to keep the fear unknown, or should the monster always be revealed? After all, once the evil is shown, the mystery is diminished - when the evil remains unknown, it can maintain its power. Perhaps, in this way, the mystery that remains can actually be the scariest reveal of all...