Wallflower Press, 2011
On this blog and elsewhere I've already sung praises to the Cultographies series of books, namely, to those devoted to Bad Taste, by Jim Barratt, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, by Jeffrey Weinstock, Donnie Darko, by Geoff King and This Is Spinal Tap, by Ethan De Seife.
Well, good news: here's the latest batch of titles from the same series, dealing with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, by Ian Cooper, Blade Runner, by Matt Hills, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, by Glyn Davis and - The Evil Dead, by Kate Egan. Cultographies is published by Wallflower Press, home of independent specialist publishing across the full spectrum of cinema and the moving image.
Since this blog deals mostly with horror, it was inevitable that the first book to check out from the new series should be the one devoted to the cult-favorite, The Evil Dead. How is it, you wonder? Briefly, it's pretty good, approximately on the level of the first batch – with some asides and drawbacks which have less to do with the quality of writing and research as they have with the selected title itself.
One problem is that there already exists an exhaustive account of the origin and making of the cult of The Evil Dead – and that is Bill Warren's The Evil Dead Companion (2000). It is a deep well of information about all things relevant to how a small film that could became the root of a legend – and established Sam Raimi as one of the major filmmakers of today (at least as far as Hollywood blockbusters are concerned). The truth and legends of creating a cult constitute a large part of its appeal – but with that ground already covered, and exhaustively, Kate Egan decides not to try the impossible, and deals with this aspect (the production) in barest terms.
Another problem is that the book is devoted to the original film, whose position in the canon is somewhat questionable for many fans, since it was its sequel - Evil Dead II – which established the huge cult and become the favorite part of what became a trilogy (so far). Kate Egan addresses this fact and deals with it respectably. This means that she deals with the effect of retroactive cult-making, when the sequels strengthen the status of the original film, "the illicit little brother" (called so due to its crude low budget origins and various goofs of the inexperienced crew). As she puts it: "The wider popularity of the two sequels has therefore served, for many fans and critics, to further emphasize the low-budget, amateur qualities of The Evil Dead and to turn it into the neglected and marginalized bad little brother of the trilogy: the film that has retained a 'cult' following and thus fully deserves, even for those who prefer the sequels, the 'cult' badge of honor" (p. 52).
Finally, another problem with The Evil Dead is that this particular film is intrinsically critic-proof. Unlike literally all the other films covered in the Cultographies series, this one had absolutely nothing on its mind in terms of subtext (in this regard it is closest to Bad Taste). The "ideological ambiguity" that many critics recognized in reference to cult movies in this case should be virtual "ideological irrelevance". For this reason the author's analysis of gender issues ("a particularly male nightmare" – since Ash's opponents are mostly possessed women) seems a bit forced, and the same can be said for the attempts to connect The Evil Dead's cosmos with the worldview of H. P. Lovecraft. Both of these make some sense mostly if a sequence or two are taken out of context, but not very much if the film is viewed as whole.
To her credit, Kate Egan grudgingly admits that her attempted readings are "complicated" by the film's anarchic qualities. Even more, some of those readings are presented in a convincing manner, as when she discusses the use of grotesque splatstick humor for creating malevolent Lovecraftian implications for the characters and the world they inhabit, "a perspective from which all human life (including romance and sex) is meaningless and all the characters, including Ash, are ultimately at the mercy of the abyss of irrational evil that the demons represent in the film" (p. 86).
The Evil Dead is convincingly contextualized in various terms:
- in its director's opus (trying out the film technique and drawing attention to himself as the main driving forces behind it),
- in the horror genre (especially its connection to comedy),
- the generic trends (the rise of special make-up efx extravaganzas in early 1980s; the significance of genre magazines like Fangoria and genre conventions as further venues for cultivating the cult),
- the distribution practices and media (the decline of drive-in, the rise of video market),
- the role of new technologies and media (DVD and internet as tools for enhancing and prolonging the cult),
- controversies of reception ("video nasty" label in UK) and evaluation (retroactive effect of sequels upon the original film's perception), etc.
A strong emphasis is put on internet forums, especially comments from IMDb users, many of whom would be surprised to find themselves quoted in a publication like this one. The analysis of their comments serves to demonstrate and illustrate the cult-audience response to this trilogy, but perhaps these quotes occupy a bit too much space of this brief study to be really relevant. Since there are literally thousands of such, throughout message boards all across the internet, these samples are at the same time too few and too many. Perhaps a serious statistical analysis of those remains for a researcher with some other goals.
All in all, this is another valuable addition to a quality series: if you liked the previous books you'll probably be satisfied with this one, too.
PS: It's a pity that this book is "illustrated" literally with thumbnail photos (approx. size 1,5 x 1 inch). Because of this one can barely guess what's presented on them. But then again, real fans know this film by heart, right? Who needs huge pics anyway?