With Fede Alvarez’s delightfully disgusting Evil Dead remake carving up the box office, it’s a good time to take a look back at where it all began. And as if summoned by a Necronomicon of nostalgia, Sam Raimi’s Within The Woods, the 30-minute short film that served as a proof-of-concept for the original Evil Dead, has been resurrected on YouTube and is making the rounds on film-geek blogs. Produced for $1,600 by then 19-year-old Raimi, with his long-term collaborator and future B-movie legend Bruce Campbell, the film is worth a watch in all its grainy glory if for no other reason than remembering how far Raimi’s come. In two decades, he went from creating zero-budget horror schlock to directing some of the most profitable films of their time.
The film itself is probably only bearable, let alone enjoyable, for the most hardcore fans of the Evil Dead series. It’s fun watching first attempts at elements that would reappear throughout the franchise—like the ominous swaying porch swing, the infamous first-person prowling-demon camera shots, the simultaneously chilling and silly sound effects, and the abusive clobbering of Bruce Campbell by all manner of blunt and sharp objects. But it’s also worth noting that while amateurish, Within the Woods is never incompetent. Any moments of comical schlock are balanced with real suspense, shock, and creepiness, as the film’s creator is revealed to be a keen, if inexperienced, visual technician, who is stretching his limited resources to their furthest reaches. Raimi was soon able to use this $1,600 film to secure the $350,000 for The Evil Dead, which in turn brought in the $3.6 million that made Evil Dead II, a film that brought the franchise to its full cult classic potential. As a series, the films offer a look at a director honing his skills over and over, as he essentially remade the same film with increasing success for a decade.
Growing up, I came to think of the Evil Dead franchise as a kind of zero-budget film school. Watching the films with an eye for just how Raimi was able to build thrilling, funny, iconic sequences with nothing more than camera tricks and practical effects, the series became one of my first experiences in obsessive film deconstruction from a technical perspective. Especially when paired with the inspirational, hilarious anecdotes of the films’ productions in Bruce Campbell’s excellent memoir If Chins Could Kill, the Evil Dead movies came to feel almost like a challenge: If a handful of knuckleheads from the Detroit suburbs could grab some latex, fake blood, and a Super 8mm camera, then go out into the woods year after year until they’d filmed the perfect cult horror classic, why couldn’t you? If the Evil Dead series is no-budget film school, then this is Schlock Filmmaking 101.
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