In this week’s post, we’re covering some seminal horror films. The horror film goes back to the earliest days of cinema, from many different cultures. Nosferatu and The Phantom Carriage being two early examples. In the early days, horror had to be all suggested, both because of standards of what could be shown on film, and the technical limitations. Obviously, if a character died on screen, it had to be simulated. When the production code came into effect, the violence had to get even more suggested, rather than literal. There were some very silly horror films produced in this era (look at the Mystery Science Theater 3000 archive for plenty of examples), but some good horror as well, notably The Cat People, which I’ve covered on the blog along with The Uninvited and plenty of others.
Once the production code was relaxed, filmmakers of the 1970s got into more direct topics. Films like Don’t Look Now and The Changeling and The Exorcist all deal with the horror genre more directly. But in the 1980s, a new subgenre of horror started to emerge. Makeup and special effect technology had progressed to the point where filmmakers could begin showing more gore effects and simulated violence. These gore based films included lots of these kinds of effects, and were often based on a group of people being attacked and slowly picked off, one by one. The horror came from their violent deaths and the suspense created from the audience not knowing when or how the killer or killers would strike next.
Today, we have two examples of the gory horror subgenre. One a slasher film, and the other a fascinating hybrid that launched the career of some major talents. This week’s films are:
Sam Raimi – The Evil Dead (1981)
Steve Miner – Friday The 13th Part 2 (1981)
Two great films that I’ve seen several times before.
Let’s get into it.
The Evil Dead (1981)
A group of friends visit a secluded cabin deep in the woods for a weekend getaway. When they explore the cabin, they find bizarre artifacts, including a book bound in human skin, and a dagger with skulls carved into the handle. When they listen to a recording made by the owner of the artifacts, they accidentally release an ancient evil that begins possessing the group one by one. How will the others react to their friends turning into monsters, and can anyone survive until the morning?
The film is directed by Sam Raimi, and stars Bruce Campbell as Ash, who would go on to have a great career in Sam Raimi films and others as a kind of cult film actor. Campbell is more talented than his career really lets on, but he found his niche and became a legend in these kinds of films. The film was an indie production, and there are lots of stories about Sam Raimi and others in the production cold calling local businesses to get additional money to finish the film. The cheapness of the production definitely shows. There are crew members clearly visible in some shots, and in one scene, one of the possessed characters loses her straight blond hair and suddenly has curly blond hair, indicating a different actor in a very bad wig. And makeup for the possessed characters changes drastically from scene to scene.
Even with all the mistakes, the talent of the filmmakers is undeniable. As soon as the film starts, we’re told that the characters we’re introduced to are in danger. They drive down a country road, talking about the cabin they’re visiting. No one has seen the cabin, and it’s suspiciously cheap. These are cut with scenes of an unseen force moving through the woods. It moves in a sinuous, animalistic way. We’re watching the POV of something alien and strange. The film punctuates this with a droning sound whenever we see this POV.
The group has a close call on the road with an oncoming truck, and then they cross a rickety bridge. At every point, the film gives us ample evidence that these people are not going to get through this experience cleanly, making us think the horror is about to start, and then releases the tension. When they arrive at the cabin, the tension continues to rise. Just the act of one of the characters opening the door is filled with suspense. The area is completely silent, except for a porch swing banging against the side of the dilapidated cabin. Scotty, one of the group, walks up to the door while everyone else waits behind. He looks for the key on the top of the door jamb, and the camera cuts to above. Scotty isn’t looking up, but we can see his hand blindly searching for the key. This is a bizarre shot for any film, but what it does is make us uneasy. Why are we seeing the shot from this angle? What is important about seeing things from this angle? Are we seeing the perspective of someone else? Is something about to happen?
Of course, nothing happens at that point, but this film does an amazing job of making us uncomfortable and putting us on edge with camera work like this. It frequently puts us in the perspective of the antagonist, it puts us in the shoes of the predator, and because we identify with the main characters, it increases the tension and suspense. They aren’t safe, but is this the moment when they’re attacked? Do we lose them now?
The tension in the early part of the film comes to head when the group discovers the cellar and decides to explore it, after the trap door bangs open during dinner. Scotty goes down first, and Ash follows. We follow Ash’s perspective as he looks through the cellar, seeing the dripping pipes. There’s an amazing shot here, as the camera pans around in a complete circle, beginning and ending on Ash’s face. We see the entire basement. Our eyes are waiting for the scare, the moment when the film throws something unexpected at us, but it doesn’t happen here. We see a door in this shot, and Ash goes through it. The film waits for the scare here, Scotty pops out to scare Ash, and it’s effective. But the film keeps the plot moving, as they find several artifacts and a tape recorder. They take it all upstairs.
Listening to the tape, they hear someone describing the artifacts, and how dangerous they are, suggesting that reading from the book will release the ancient evil who can’t be killed. Then he reads from the book on the tape, which is enough to release the demons again.
Soon after the first victim is taken. Cheryl, Ash’s sister, wanders outside after hearing a noise. In a particularly gruesome scene, the trees come to life, stripping Cheryl’s clothes off and pinning her to the ground with branches and vines. The film heavily implies that she is raped by the branches. This is a brutal scene, hard to watch for sure.
Cheryl makes it back, and soon after turns into a zombie like demon creature, that in later films we’ll learn are called deadites. The deadite has the memories of the inhabited body, and uses that knowledge to unnerve and attack others, eventually possessing them too. It can even revert to human form in order to trick their friends. As deadites, they have completely white eyes and gruesome faces. They aren’t easily killed either. Even when dismembered, they can still react and move.
But lots of films include monsters and makeup effects. What makes this film special? In addition to the camera work, which is inventive and unexpected, it’s the relationships between the characters. Ash as the main character is the one that survives the longest. He has to watch his friends, his girlfriend, and his sister all succumb to this evil force. Worse than that, they don’t just die, they’re able to talk to him, taunt him, and remind him of his lost loved ones.
Let’s give a specific sequence as an example. Early in the film, Ash and his girlfriend Linda are sitting on the couch, talking. Linda leaves the room, and Ash pulls out a present for her, pretending to be asleep. When she returns, she sees the box, and seeing him asleep, tries to pull it from his grasp slowly to see what’s in it. We see shots of him opening his eyes briefly while Linda isn’t looking, playfully teasing her about trying to steal the present, before giving her a gift of a necklace which she puts on.
Move forward to later in the film, Linda has been possessed and Ash has had to kill her after she’s attacked him. He tries to dismember her with a chainsaw, but he just can’t do it. He takes her outside and sets her down while he digs a hole to bury her. We get a mirror of the earlier scene with a very different context. Ash believes Linda is dead, but we see her open her eyes while lying there, not moving, pretending to be dead while Ash digs the hole. Of course, at his most vulnerable, she attacks, and Ash is forced to cut off her head.
This is the big difference between any film filled with gore, and this film. It focuses on the interactions between the characters. Ash is dealing with heavy loss and trying to maintain his humanity at the same time. The film balances all of that humanity with inventive gore effects and amazing camera work. An all-time classic.
This is an exceptional film and especially impressive considering how little experience Raimi had at the time. He managed to create something amazing on a shoestring budget, using whatever he had available.
He didn’t reinvent the genre, and almost no one uses his camera effects and shooting style, but it’s served him well over the years, making him one of the most successful directors of his era. Definitely a must-see film that still holds up today.
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Taking place 5 years after the events of the first film, a new camp opens on Crystal Lake, next door to the camp where everyone was murdered by Mrs. Voorhees. Only legends and rumors remain of the events of that time, and the counselors of the new camp prepare for the opening in a couple weeks. But soon after they arrive, people start disappearing. Are the rumors about Mrs. Voorhees son Jason true?
The film is directed by Steve Miner, in his directorial debut. He’d also go on to direct the third film in the series and have a great career in TV and film. The original creative team of Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller left after apparently feeling that Jason was clearly dead and always had been and that a film centered on him as the villain was silly. They’re probably right, but Miner managed to create a legendary character regardless. Of course, Jason is only mentioned in the first film, and only appears in a sequence that may or may not be a dream. It’s Mrs. Voorhees that’s the killer, out of vengeance for her dead son. This film, it seems that Jason is a living person, but as the series went on, he clearly became a supernatural force, unable to be killed. But for now, he’s a living person, just with a serious bloodlust.
Much like Evil Dead, and the first Friday the 13th film, the film makes heavy use of perspective to increase the tension. We frequently see shots of the counselors from behind bushes or trees, as if we’re watching them through the killers eyes. I don’t know if the first Friday the 13th film pioneered this style of filmmaking, but it became more popular after the film’s success. Unlike The Evil Dead, which had an almost acrobatic perspective, moving quickly and dynamically, this film has a slow, plodding perspective, moving very slowly, if at all. In one case, we see Jason’s hand reach out and move a branch, making it clear we’re seeing things from his perspective.
The film is full of characters that would become cliche’s in later films. The sex crazed couple, the goofy guys who pulls pranks, the girl who realizes something is wrong and tries to warn people, getting ignored, etc. This film throws in a bit of diversity by including a character in a wheelchair, but otherwise, they’re pretty standard. Unlike The Evil Dead, this film has zero memorable characters beyond Jason. All of the characters exist only as targets for Jason. They represent the things he hates, the people who let him drown. We could explore the idea that we’re seeing these people from Jason’s perspective. That the reason they’re so bland and interchangeable is because that’s how he sees them. “This person likes sex, so I have to kill them.” “This person got drunk, so I have to kill them.” And so on. That might be interesting, but it’s probably giving the film a bit too much credit. The truth is that the film was rushed into production after the success of the original film (released just a year before this one), so intricate plot devices and deep, meaningful characters weren’t a priority.
The plot of the film is pretty straightforward as well. The counselors gather. They are warned that the rumors and stories of Jason aren’t true, and also to not go to Camp Crystal Lake no matter what, and then that evening, Jason begins picking people off. In this film, some of the characters leave to go to town while the others stay behind, and the ones left behind are the first to go.
This film does add important points to the Jason lore by including his obsession with his mother. The heroine of the film survives by finding a shrine that Jason has made to his mother. It includes the sweater that she wore the night she died, and her severed head, now 5 years into decay. This is a moment future films come back to over and over. And while Jason became famous for wearing a hockey goalie mask, it doesn’t appear in this film. He wears a pillow case tied over his head throughout the film, with a single hole cut in it for him to see through. It’s particularly creepy, though not as iconic as the hockey mask would become. That doesn’t show up until the 3rd film.
Otherwise, the film is a pretty classic example of the genre. Lots of creative and inventive kills, lots of young men and women in various stages of undress, one person survives to kill Jason at the end.
So why make this the debut Friday the 13th film on my blog, rather than the first film? I wanted to explore the series from what it became, rather than what it started out as. It will continue to change and grow over the years, getting increasingly ridiculous, but still managing a few flashes of excitement. But for those willing to go along for the ride, these films can be fun and memorable.
But regardless of how silly some of the concepts are, this is still a very capable horror film, made in an era before all of the techniques in the film became tropes to be subverted. Eventually, the film would be a cliche, but mainly because everyone began copying the things set up in the first two films. The formula worked.
The Double Feature
This Double Feature contains an interesting lesson for me. On the surface, two horror films seem like a great pairing. But what I found was that because the films use such similar styles, it’s really hard to write a lot about both. Once I explain the inventive perspective based camera work in one film, I can’t redescribe the same kind of camera work in the other. And the plot doesn’t make a ton of difference in these films.
Still, we’re looking at two films that were important in their time, and have spawned sequels and TV shows and launched some careers. Definitely worth talking about.
As we get past October, we start to move to the downhill part of the semester. The grind turns into a sprint as I move to get everything done by the end of the semester. I only have one major thing to complete, but it’s a big chunk of my road to the PhD. But I think I’m in a good place, and I can get the work done in plenty of time. So in general I feel good. My allergies have been annoying, but not debilitating, but I’m definitely waiting for the spring to see what fresh horrors I might encounter then. Hopefully my allergy shots will be fighting the good fight by then.
So what about next week’s films? Let’s take a journey back to Filmstruck. Since next week’s post will land right around Halloween, I want to stick to the horror theme. But let’s go a bit back in time. Let’s visit a man named Mario Bava, an Italian director who mainly worked in horror, but was great at mixing genres. Next week’s films are:
Mario Bava – Black Sunday (1960)
Mario Bava – The Whip and the Body (1963)
I’ve seen Black Sunday before, but I’m totally unfamiliar with The Whip and the Body, but it has Christopher Lee, and I know it was banned on release in Italy, so that’s good enough for me.
See you then.