Evil Dead

 

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Evil Dead

Poster by Ruth A Edwards

Text by Gilda Williams

 

Zombified Paint-worshipping Backwards Idiots*:

A Parallel History of Painting and Women in Horror Film.

 

In the US horror-film renaissance of the 1970s-early 80s, the

genre fully re-invented itself by bringing the faraway dangers

of spooky old Europe back home, to America’s own leafy subu-

rban streets. This relocation of fear -- from then-and-there,

to here-and-now -- is perhaps most emblematic (and chilling)

in John Carpenter’s stunning Halloween (1978), where the

childhood ritual of trick-or-treating turns deadly with the

arrival of the unstoppable Michael Myers. The expected safety

of a quiet American neighbourhood acts as the constant foil

to the killer’s marauding excesses. Worries about the undead

inTransylvania or old Geneva were displaced in the 1970s towards

more immediate and familiar fears: the cruelties of high-school

sexual competition (Carrie, dir. Brian De Palma, 1976); the

transformation of our newly liberated daughters with the onset

of puberty, from dutiful darlings into demonic teenagers

(The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin, 1973); or the perils of the

God-forsaken American outback (Deliverance, dir. John Boorman,

1972; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, dir. Tobe Hooper, 1973;

The Shining, dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980; Evil Dead, dir.

Sam Raimi, 1981).

 

In this new generation of 1970s Gothic storytelling, young and

attractive women once again occupied pivotal roles; in a new

twist however, lovely young females were graphically defaced

and uglified. The Hammer Horror glamour babes of the previous

decade oozed with desirability; unless murdered, they remained

perfectly gorgeous straight through to the credits.

Their alabaster skin and diaphanous nighties added much to

these B-films’ salacious appeal, perhaps typified by Barbara

Shelley, all big hair and decolletage in Prince of Darkness

(dir. Terence Fisher, 1960). Alternatively, virginal young women

were scared witless wearing infantilizing and chaste nightgowns

in terror classics like The Haunting (dir. Robert Wise, 1963).

Even when Janet Leigh is brutally stabbed in Hitchcock’s

psychosis-inducing shower scene, we watch blood swirl and drain rather than actually witness the blade slice her lovely flesh. In the 1960 horror gem City of the Dead (titled Horror Hotel in its US release; dir. John Llewellyn Moxey), when the dagger is about to plunge into the unlucky tourist’s luscious chest the film cuts to a birthday-cake-slicing taking place at a fun party elsewhere -- rather than force viewers to witness any actual blood-spurting. Catherine Deneuve may lose her mind but never her provocative good-looks in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Plenty of bad things happen to young girls in pre-1970s horror, but rarely do we see any detrimental effects on their faultless skin.

 

In contrast, 1970s-early ‘80s directors seemed hell-bent on physically violating their film-girls’ beauty as overtly and distastefully as possible. Carrie has buckets of pig’s blood cruelly poured all over her, and spends the whole long post-prom scene wide-eyed and possessed, dripping with blood. The Exorcist’s Regan turns unbearably ugly: scarred, grey-skinned, black-toothed and vomit-caked, with matted hair and devilish grin. Sam Raimi’s 1981 Evil Dead is perhaps the most ferocious of all, as the girls in this band of teenage weekenders grow vividly hideous, one by one.\Cheryl, principal she-demon, turns frighteningly white early on and is rapidly locked beneath the floorboards, where she perennially threatens to push her way out while looking increasingly like a blood-shot Medusa. Linda, next to turn, seesaws (from one low-budget jump-cut to the next) from desirable make-out

partner to grotesquely smeared and grinning, clown-like she-fiend, leering at her horrified boyfriend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interpretations of this new breed of 1970s female monster often take as their backdrop the American feminist revolution occurring at the very same time. ‘She’s your girlfriend – you save her!’, Scotty screams at hapless Ashley in Evil Dead, as if insisting that young men regain some control over their unrecognizable women folk, who are plainly spiralling out

of control under the spell of supernatural demons and/or Women’s Liberation. Barbara Creed, in The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993), rethinks the she-monster in counter-Freudian and feminist terms, as a terrifyingly castrating (rather than castrated) Other. In Men Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), Carol Clover notices the chronic appearance of the ‘Final Girl’, a post-feminist, empowered and thoughtful young woman, no longer passive but actively fighting the monster, usually alone and usually triumphant, at film’s end.

 

How about we consider what was happening to women in 1970s horror film not only in terms of the concurrent feminist revolution, but what had happened to painting a decade before. With an approximate ten-year time-delay, both ‘surfaces’ -- whether an artist’s canvas or a woman’s skin -- were analogously slashed (Fontana/The Exorcist); senselessly poured upon (Nitsch/Carrie); deprived of colour (Ryman/Evil Dead); and raucously splattered in garish paint (De Sainte-Phalle/Evil Dead). In the 1960s, painting was as if ritualistically killed over and over, receiving the final death blows that had been announced since Modernism began. By decade’s end, with painting safely buried (at last!) it was now turn for another pre-Modernist icon, the hopeless and passive female (a long-time Gothic staple) to be slaughtered just as spectacularly and irrevocably. In both cases,

a sacrosanct, inviolable site -- the female body or the medium of painting -- were subjected to rituals of defacement and destruction, to the perverse pleasure of its dedicated audiences. Yves Klein in his Anthropometries (1960) had first suggested that the stained bodies of women could perform simultaneously as both surrogate canvas and human paintbrush. In just as literal terms but with a gruesome spin, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a young female is threatened with being suspended on a hook – like a carcass of meat or, in its art-making parallel, like a lifeless painting, hung mercilessly to die.*The title is modified from a line in 'Cabin in the Woods' (2011), which reworks many of the themes introduced in 'Evil Dead'. Towards the film’s end, one of the ‘controllers’, showing little mercy for the film’s dying protagonists, describesthem as ‘zombified pain-worshipping backwards idiots’