You’ve heard the phrase, “It’s so bad, it’s good”? Or “He’s so ugly, he’s cute”? Well, that’s exactly how I like my horror movies: So bad, they’re good.
With the 2016-17 television season pretty much over for the summer, I’ve found myself with more time to watch movies. Wanting something scary and fun, I decided I would revisit some ’80s cult classic horror: Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy.
The first film, “The Evil Dead” premiered in 1981. Its sequel, “Evil Dead 2” came six years later in 1987. The final film, “Army of Darkness” closed out the series in 1992.
Each film picks up right where the previous one ended. And it’s just 85 minutes (x2) of ridiculous, campy goodness. There’s blood (lots and lots of blood), screaming, and some incredible scary makeup too. (I said x2 because for the third movie, Raimi and Campbell pretty much abandon the legit “horror” genre and commit 100% to making a comedy — which I’m just not a fan of in general. The movie is fine on its own, but I can’t in good conscience put it in the same category as the first two.)
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these films deserve an Oscar (though they’re surely more deserving than some of the drivel that’s been awarded the ultimate cinematic prize). The plot is pretty shallow and not very complicated, the story is loose and doesn’t make a lot of sense. But there are a few important things that B-grade horror films like The Evil Dead have going for them.
Better Isn’t Always Best
About halfway through Evil Dead 2, I was struck by something. It was a certain familiarity. An intangible quality that gave me a rush of excitement inside. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what “it” was until the film was over and I was watching the credits roll by.
Of course! The makeup in the first film was absolutely marvelous, much better than in the second, and I had made a mental note of that. But Evil Dead 2 had some fantastic stop-motion animation — that reminded me so much of Ray Harryhausen’s films.
Regular readers know that Harryhausen‘s work is the exception to my “absolutely no stop-motion animation” rule. But the stop-motion work in Raimi’s Evil Dead world has a very similar feeling to, say, the Medusa scenes in “Clash of the Titans” (1981). The animation in Evil Dead 2 is so good at certain points that I wasn’t even sure it was stop-motion.
So there are two important things that make this type of film more enjoyable for me than today’s current films: Old fashioned makeup, and non-computer generated effects.
Today, everything is CGI (computer-generated imagery). Everything. From outfits to animals to entire rooms and worlds. And it just doesn’t have the same appeal to me. When I look at a painting, I want to know it’s a painting. It can be a very realistic one, but I want to see those tell-tale signs that it’s man-made and imperfect. I feel the same about effects in movies. In my opinion, CGI pushes the limits of reality, making things TOO realistic. And as Ray Harryhausen once said, “If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”
While I appreciate the boundless creativity that can be achieved with the aid of computers, it’ll never be as impressive to me as natural, raw talent. I know it takes skill to work a computer, but it’s not the same skill as an artist rendering a miniature maquette with his bare hands; working in actual clay instead of with a series of digital ones and zeros.
When I was watching The Evil Dead, I was struck by just how good the makeup was. Linda (Betsy Baker) possessed by a Deadite looked superb. The makeup was just realistic enough to be absolutely terrifying. Because I feel like all good horror recognizes that the scariest things are closest to reality. Twisting the familiar is what’s scary. Over-do someone’s makeup and you might achieve the grotesque, but miss the mark with scary. And the Deadite makeup in the first film hits the bull’s-eye.
The same goes for the stop-motion creatures and other special effects. There are many times in these films where someone gets drenched in a shower of fake blood — then cut away to another camera and their clothes are suddenly spotless again. Yes, it’s bad continuity, but I can overlook it because I know that they must be filming scenes to accommodate the hours it took to apply that fantastic makeup. These are low-budget films, and more than likely had a crazy-tight shooting schedule. So it makes sense that you’d film all the “clean” scenes before you go full-on bloody blitz and destroy your set and all the actor’s clothing. There’s something very endearing about that. It’s imperfect. It’s human. And that, for me, makes it more enjoyable.
You can make anything you want with a computer. But not just anyone can make a physical model and then bring it to life. It’s incredibly time-consuming and there’s no instant “undo” button in the real world, which means great care must be taken. The models are a labour of love for their creators. Which is why I love to see real created creatures! Models and props! There’s a greater sense of permanency when a film is made the old fashioned way. It’s why we flock to museums and auctions, to see or even own an actual piece of movie history. How boring to think that there aren’t many props to be had from today’s movies, where even Indiana Jones’s whip might be CGI!
No, better isn’t always best. Is CGI going to give you a “better” finished product than a clay and steel maquette? Yes. Every time. Technically speaking, it’s going to be better. Because with a computer, you can make it “perfect”. Flawless. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s what’s best for a film, or for a pleasurable viewing experience.
More is More
When my great aunt Francis was teaching me how to make her famous cinnamon buns years ago, she said, “This is not a recipe that you can skimp on. You can’t put less butter, or less sugar. If you’re worried about how “healthy” they are, then don’t bother making them. This is the kind of recipe that if you’re going to make it, you MAKE it. Don’t be stingy with the ingredients because they ARE the recipe.”
She was so right. And that idea can be applied to many different aspects of life. There are certain things you can cut corners on, and some you can’t. Places where you can save some money doing it yourself, and places where you’re going to end up spending more time and money than if you hired someone. When it comes to b-grade horror films, the greats realized that more is more. If you’re going to do this, you commit 110% and you make it over the top — because that’s what B-grade horror is all about.
Imagine Hammer’s “Scars of Dracula” without all the blood. Flop. Or Batman ’66 in black and white instead of camp-filled colour! Or Evil Dead without the chainsaw and the buckets of projectile black goo and the crazy possessed deer head, and the insane theatrics. It just wouldn’t work without all of these things.
You have to respect good B-grade horror for recognizing what it was, and embracing it. Sometimes you have to take things to the extreme in order to get people to buy what you’re selling. Anyone who has ever seen any of the Evil Dead franchise knows that it’s that over-the-top mentality that made it unforgettable, and enjoyable. Which is how they managed to turn the films into the successful TV series, “Ash vs Evil Dead”. It’s ridiculous. I will be the first one to admit that. They’ve gone full on comedy spoof with it, but you know what? It works. It works because it takes what made the films a hit and somehow pushes it even MORE over the top than it was before. And that makes it fun and enjoyable.
Even star Bruce Campbell embodies that “more is more” ideal. He is, in my opinion, a modern day Vincent Price. Despite being one of my favourites, Price wasn’t the best actor in the world. There are plenty of actors who were “better” (the quotations around that are important) than he was. But there was something about HIM. Some quality that HE himself possessed which made nearly everything he touched turn to entertainment gold.
I will watch anything with Vincent Price in it because he had this amazing ability to take the worst script, the worst idea, the worst film imaginable and make it into something unforgettable and supremely enjoyable.
Bruce Campbell has that same quality.
Growing up, I adored him in “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” (Brisco) and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” (Autolycus). In more recent years, I also enjoyed his more serious role in the excellent series about a burned spy, “Burn Notice” (Sam Axe).
This intangible quality can’t really be put into words, but suffice it to say, I would watch anything with Bruce Campbell in it too. Heck, I even watched “Bubba Ho-Tep” (2002) — God help us — and somehow Campbell managed to salvage that crap-fest of a film!
So keep all this in mind the next time you’re watching a sub-par film and find yourself enjoying the hell out of it. The whole purpose of movies is to entertain. If you aren’t entertained, then I don’t care how “artsy” the film claims to be — it’s not “good”.
Better isn’t always best, but sometimes more is more.