Monday, 16 September 2013

Next Text? - The Evil Dead

The new academic year is very nearly upon us and we'll soon be finalising a schedule for the Gothic Reading Group, including picking a text for our first meeting. With that in mind, here's the first in what will hopefully be a semi-regular "feature" here on the GRG site: a brief blog post taking a look at a potential text. Our blogger on this occasion is Kathleen Hudson, a second-year PhD student in the school of English. Here Kathleen takes a look at theEvil Deadfranchise (a strong contender for a debut film?) pondering what it is that separates the recent 2013 reboot from the original series, what kind of generic shift occurs en route and how vital a sense of the Unheimlichmight be in producing the kind of experiences appropriate to a certain type of horror cinema.



*****

Ash versus Unheimlich: Why we love the original Evil Dead Trilogy

Kathleen Hudson




Sam Raimi's Evil Dead Trilogy was never going to be known for its subtlety.  Any film where the protagonist has a chainsaw for a hand and a catchphrase like "Groovy" is probably not going to immediately strike one as psychologically insightful... and for fans of Army of Darkness need I mention the, ahem, “boomstick”?  But recent horror films (I'm looking at you, Joss Wheedon) have hit such a new level of critical self-awareness that re-watching my favorite cult classics gradually has become something of a more academic exercise.  Raimi's originals (released 1981, 1987, 1992) have experienced a slight hike in popularity with the advent of Fede Alvarez’s gory 2013 reboot, a brutally bloody work which drops a lot of the macabre humor and camp of the original in favor of a raw violence more reflective of the ‘torture porn’ horror sub-genre. While fans of the original films, which follow a group of friends, and then primarily one particularly resilient, chainsaw-wielding hero, as they battle fierce demons in a remote cabin in the woods (while the final film in the trilogy takes the fight to the castles of medieval England all three films incorporate a decaying cabin), may find plenty to enjoy about the Alvarez version, there are important elements of the original trilogy which fail to materialize significantly in the reboot.  As a friend of mine put it - "I can handle the gore... it's the basement that creeps me out.  There’s something hiding in the basement."  Arguably, reading the original Evil Dead Trilogy as a Gothic text makes one focus more on the inherently Freudian psychological horror than the blood splatter effects, and nowhere is that particular horror more apparent than in Raimi's construction of an actively Unheimlich house.

The critical moments in the original Evil Dead Trilogy are the ones where hapless hero and 'everyman' character Ashley "Ash" Williams is alone, not fighting material demons or the possessed bodies of his friends, but rather the deeply Freudian Unheimlich space, the uncanny cabin, the "un-home" home where things that should have remained buried come back and inhabit the domestic space and where the familiar becomes unfamiliar.  Alvarez's doomed group of young adults are rarely forced to interact with a house that is actively fighting back, and while places like the basement and the tool shed and the bathroom are all undeniably creepy in the remake, they function as set pieces rather than independent pseudo-villains, an entity which is in and of itself trying to kill or damage you.  It is understandable why, while adapting the film, Alvarez would choose not to include the laughing furniture, the bleeding walls, and the unexplained noises of the original films, and why he would underplay uncanny mirrors and the basement space.  These are, after all, what make the original films decidedly camp - Raimi himself stated that a scene where blood pours from pipes and walls was inspired by a "Three Stooges" skit.  However, in Gothic studies and in reading the Gothic space, the manifestations of the house that fights back in the original Evil Dead Trilogy is an excellent way to explore Unheimlich principles in contemporary cinema.






In fact, there are so many instances of the Unheimlich house in Evil Dead the Gothic-centric viewer would almost think Raimi went through a comprehensive checklist of Gothic tropes when writing the scripts, and what’s more they are all explored when the main character is alone or mostly alone. The basement in Evil Dead and Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn is a brutally Freudian space where evil is hidden or buried and where the hero must explore and conquer in order to find the tools he needs to finally defeat the demons - shotgun shells or pages from an ancient spell-book.  Mirrors, those ever meaningful reflections of the second self, are hugely significant throughout the trilogy - most often mirrors are the portal through which Ash's other 'evil' double escapes and attacks Original Ash.  In the first Evil Dead Ash attempts to touch the mirror as a means of keeping himself mentally grounded, but his hand passes right through the mirror like water, horrifying him, and in Evil Dead II Evil Ash lurches out from the mirror and attempts to strangle his ‘good’ and ‘human’ counterpart before disappearing and revealing that Ash is in fact strangling himself.  In the final film Army of Darkness Ash reaches the final stage of engagement with the mirror - here the reflections of Ash in the shards of a broken mirror come to life, jump out of their mirror shards, torture Ash (employing a Gulliver's Travels reference while they do so), and eventually morph into a full-sized antagonist, an evil double who leads the Army of Darkness against Ash's own ragtag group.  The doubling occurs in or around the uncanny cabin space, and using a seemingly innocuous but pseudo-mythological uncanny object - the cabin becomes the tortured mind, and the threat of an evil, alternative self hidden inside reflects Unheimlich fears.

 In all three films the tension of the Unheimlich house builds significantly until the final Unheimlich sequence - the point where Ash is at his most mentally vulnerable and where the house, reflecting that trauma, essentially goes berserk.  In the first Evil Dead Ash has forced his possessed friends out of the house, and he must arm himself and wait for their return.  He reluctantly goes into the basement to collect more shotgun shells, and when he does the basement pipes and light sockets and walls begin to fill up and spurt blood while cheerful music plays in the background.  When he does finally make it back up to the first floor of the cabin, he is followed by strange noises and is framed using unexpected camera angle emphasizing the uncanny corrupted familiar.  He is forced to try and maintain composure while the house tortures him with sensory deceptions that could very well be taking place in Ash's fractured mind.  It is almost a relief when his demon-possessed sister reappears and the fight becomes a physical rather than mental one.  In Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, the mirror fights back, the walls gush multi-colored fluids in a grotesque baptism, the piano plays itself.  In perhaps one of the most bizarrely camp and sublimely profound meditations on the psychology of horror, Ash, wielding a shotgun and yelling abuse at the inanimate uncanny house which is torturing him, tries to sit down and instead breaks the chair, falling to the floor.  We hear a crack (the last solid structure in Ash’s mind breaking as he suffers this final absurd humiliation?) and then look up to see a stuffed and mounted deer head on the wall, howling with laughter at Ash's accidental sight-gag, it's face a mask of ghoulish delight.  Then the lamp starts laughing as well, a deep guffaw, and then the tables, chairs, couches, bookshelves, waste-bins.  The room becomes a flurry of movement and noise as the Unheimlich house and all the domestic aspects therein come to life and laugh at Ash's physical humor.  And then, remarkably, Ash begins to laugh too.  He embraces the absurd, the uncanny, the utter wrongness of the house and himself, and joins in with the furniture and house in uncontrolled and manic laughter.  The sequence ends, brilliantly, with Ash's wild laughter turning seamlessly into a scream of horror.    



It is usually then, when Ash’s mind seems totally absorbed by the Unheimlich house that a third party interrupts, and Ash is again faced with a tangible demon to kill, rather than the intangible yet horrific manipulations of the cabin.  In the first two films demons and/or friends interrupt Ash's mental battle with the uncanny house and realign the films direction.  In the final film the uncanny double becomes the demon which Ash must fight, and arguably the double is the ultimate Unheimlich manifestation - the familiar unfamiliar, the evil of the original cabin in a mobile, physical form.  Once Ash has something material to fight, a person or a demon, the uncanny house becomes secondary - in Evil Dead the film ends soon after the Unheimlich sequence; in Evil Dead II the house is not strikingly uncanny again until Ash is forced into the basement to retrieve some lost documents, and even then the terror is diluted by the newly weaponized Ash, who has replaced his hand with a chainsaw. 





In Army of Darkness Ash leaves the uncanny house on his own steam, presumably never to return, while fighting the demonic double which bespeaks the physical house and Ash’s own darker nature.  While the film is focused on Ash alone and Ash versus the Unheimlich house, however, the narrative becomes intensely expressive of the psychological undercurrent of the haunted house mythos. 




*****

Kathleen Hudson is a PhD student in the School of English. Her research explores the role of servant narratives in a range of Gothic and related texts. She's also a keen fan of horror cinema and actually knows how to cook the stuff inside a pumpkin. 

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