Within The Woods is known as the prequel to The Evil Dead, but that's not really true. It's more like a rough draft. Almost nobody has seen it, but nobody was really supposed to see it anyway. Sam Raimi isn't such an inspiration to young filmmakers because he's put out a few good flicks - I think it has more to do with the grassroots 'anyone can do this if they really try' methods he used to make it to the big time. Within The Woods was a perfect example of that.
Made in 1978, the thirty-minute film was created to sell investors on the idea of Evil Dead. After gathering 1,600 dollars, a much younger Bruce Campbell, and a few dozen buckets of fake blood and latex, the gang went to some farm during Wintertime to film what'd hopefully lead to a project of a much bigger scope. The script is tiny, and the movie doesn't run much deeper than people running around killing each other and/or cooking hot dogs. In the end, there was enough there to maintain the budget to 'remake' the film. In the great continuity of the universe, one could say that Bruce would've never cameo starred on Xena had he not appeared in this grainy, crappy little film decades prior.
Within The Woods is sort of like Evil Dead, but not exactly. The script for this one was around ten pages, and with the criminally low budget they had to put it together, you can't really hold them accountable for the quality of the film. I guess I'm skirting around the truth: WTW sucks. Okay, that's an unfair assessment, but I wouldn't make a non-ED fan sit down and watch it with me. It's fun for the historic reasons, but don't think you're missing out on some unholy missing link in Evil Dead lore, because this thing plays out more like an animated storyboard than an actual movie.
That said, you'll notice plenty of familiar Raimi tricks here, including several choice items that were obviously revamped for the first two Evil Dead movies. The moving steady/shaky cam - a Raimi trademark - probably made it's debut here. Hands getting chopped off? It's here too. The general premise is the same, as our unknowing buddies march into the woods and never quite make it back because it's full of scary spirits that possess people and turn them into howling demonmonkeys. Only this time, it's Ash himself who gets zombiefied.
Oh wait, he's not Ash in this movie. Same character basically, but they call him 'Bruce.' His girlfriend is named Ellen, and is the same actress who'd go on to play Ash's sister in The Evil Dead. She doesn't get raped by a tree in this film, though. There's two other houseguests, but they're not too important to the plot. Raimi's main purpose with Within The Woods was to promote the idea of a completely unforgiving gorefest. He definitely succeeded there.
I'm a big fan of the Evil Dead trilogy, so obviously I got a big kick out of seeing its humble beginnings. Since the film is so rare, I figured I'd do a short review for those of you who've never seen or heard of it. Within The Woods was never released, and apparently, will never be released. You can still find the video by seeking out retailers who aren't particularly concerned with legalese, but don't kick yourself in the balls if you can't - it's usually too dark to tell what's going on anyway.
Bruce, Ellen, and two of their friends are camping out in the middle of the woods somewhere at an old house. Sound familiar? Their compatriots are too busy arguing over a Monopoly game to join them in the great outdoors, so they seize the opportunity to make kissy faces at each other. Bruce confirms that they're camping on a cursed Indian burial ground - not quite the news Ellen wanted to hear, but what the hell? They're already there...might as well make the most of it.
Nothing too spooky has occurred yet, but they did notice some arrowheads laying near the front door. Arrowheads are, of course, omens of evil and anyone who picks one of them up typically ends up having their body commandeered by demonic spirits. This is why you should stick to the much safer rock pencils if you ever land in a museum's gift shop.
There's Bruce, looking as young as I've ever seen him, and wearing huge glasses that magnify his eyes to the point where he looks like one of those mutated tropical bubblehead goldfish that Petland sells three-for-five bucks. Jesus, has this guy aged at all? He looks almost exactly the same now, twenty-five years later. How does he do it? Cucumber slices over the eyes, nightly? Lots of tomato soup? CAMPBELL'S TOMATO SOUP?! Oh it's hilarious! Hilarious tomato puns!
Sorry, I have to talk about something here - my copy of this flick is too terrible to follow. I'm only guessing that they're in the woods because I kept hearing people step on sticks. It's entirely possible that Within the Woods was set at an oceanside clam bar, the kind where they fill the parking lot with broken shells.
Ellen and Bruce decided to sleep outside, since it was such a nice night and there was really no reason to suspect ghastly murders on the horizon. Wow, if you skimmed through this article and just used the pics alone to gage what I was reviewing, you'd probably think I was detailing some crappy Sega CD game. No hedgehogs here, folks. Just lots of Deadites. Ellen realizes that Bruce is missing, (it takes her far longer than you'd think) so she starts wandering off aimlessly into the forest shouting his name in the same way you'd shout your puppy's name if it got lost. I'm pretty sure I even heard her make that clicky 'snucht snucht' noise people do with their tongues under the assumption that dogs and cats understand it as their language. Bruce disagrees with this sentiment and refuses to answer Ellen's call. We're not sure if he's being a prick, or if he's just dead and cut up.
Ellen finds Bruce, but he's all bloody and mutilated. No longer doing much for her libido, she decides to run back to the house, all fast like, making sure to trip into every pile of vines and every misplaced puddle she can find. I admire her dedication to clumsiness, but it provides an even better coup since she's now being followed by an unearthly force that wants to do really, really bad things to her.
It's here that you find most of that Evil Dead charm - being followed by the unknown, Ellen is literally chased around the forest by the camera, arms flailing, and though we never once see what's chasing her, the end results are actually way more spooky than any grisly makeup job could've provided. I wouldn't say that Raimi invented this method of scaring the audience and building suspense, but you have to give him credit for bringing new methods into the spotlight. Retrospectively, I can name plenty of movies that appear to have taken pages out of the Evil Dead movies' book. The Blair Witch Project springs to mind. So does the second Flintstones movie, but for entirely different reasons that aren't really on-topic.
When Ellen reaches the house, the door is of course locked, and nobody can hear her screaming at the Good God top of her lungs. Those Monopoly games are way too all-encompassing. This scene was lifted almost verbatim for Evil Dead.
What's really odd is that, in effect, Evil Dead itself was a rough draft for Evil Dead II. I know the second movie's considered a sequel, but come on - they completely rewrote history with that one, and went in a completely different direction. Not that I'm complaining - Evil Dead II was one of the best pure horror films I've seen. The first one doesn't even compare. The trilogy's finale, Army of Darkness, was terrific as well, but in a much different way. Tough to call that movie a 'horror film.' All in all, if it took them three tries to make ED2: Dead By Dawn what it was, then I'm grateful for their devotion. As for Ellen, she's grateful that the rest of the campers finally heard her screams and let her inside before whatever's out there could eat her brains.
After she gets inside, Ellen starts relaying the tale of what happened to Bruce. I couldn't hear a damn word they said. I'm pretty sure it went something like this:
Ellen: I have a problem - it's Bruce! He's dead! He's all bloody in the woods! Johnny: You think that's bad? Look at this! Five times around the board, and still all I've got are three railroads and Baltic Avenue! Ellen: That's not important, Johnny! What about Bruce?! Johnny: What about Bruce?! Are you kidding? Of course this is important! 5% of the budget went into this Monopoly game! Ellen: GO SAVE HIM! Johnny: Fine. I'll save Bruce, but only if you name me a word that rhymes with 'orange.' Ellen: Okay. Hmmm. Okay I got it. 'Logorange.' Johnny: Logorange isn't a real word, Ellen. You're cheating.
Then I'm pretty sure a zombie broke through the floorboards and ripped Johnny's spine out. Again, the quality's really poor so it's open to interpretation.
Bruce returns, only now he's a monster with claws and a much deeper voice. Surprisingly, the look works for him. He kills off the extra female character because she's done nothing for the movie at all. As he starts chasing Ellen around, she's tricked into stabbing the other male character, leaving just her and Crazy Bruce left on the playground. Bruce The Monster alternates between telling Ellen he's going to kill her and telling Ellen to 'JOIN US.' I'm not sure where the two possibilities lead, but I can only guess they both result in Ellen taking an ax to the skull a few times.
Within The Woods is gory, I'll give it that. If you read up about the production of this film, you'll hear stories about how irritated Campbell's skin became from having to wear that cheap latex all day long. A lot of the shots are improvised because he'd casually rip off parts of the costume that were making him itch, essentially making him look even grosser than the original costume did.
In this scene, Bruce is about to kill off Ellen before she chops his hand off - again, this sequence was partly accidental. The latex wouldn't chop the whole way through, so Bruce again improvised and gnawed off the rest of his hand himself, on camera. It wasn't scripted, but Raimi loved the effect so much that he'd just about duplicate the entire sequence for Evil Dead II.
Ellen manages to kill Bruce, though I'm not exactly sure how it happened. Only after repeated gamma correction on one of the frames was I able to tell that this was Bruce laying on the floor, and not a pile of cereal. Ellen runs to the edge of one of the beds to cry her eyes out, remorseful over the loss of her boyfriend and probably a little shaken up because her dead boyfriend was just trying to chop her up. The scene drags on a bit, so you know there's one more fright left before the closing credits...
Sure enough, the other dead guy pops up, and now he's possessed by evil spirits. The End.
All in all, they had a mission with Within The Woods, and they obviously completed that mission. Evil Dead had a budget of a little over 150 grand, which isn't much by comparison to other movies, but plenty more than the 1600 bucks they had to put this rough draft together. The franchise led to huge successes for everyone closely involved. Campbell might not be one of Hollywood's most sought actors, but he's made a great living for himself and never forgot his roots. I know plenty of people who met him at book signings and whatnot, and everyone who has confessed that he's truly a nice guy and unbelievably appreciative of his fans. Raimi, of course, went on to direct Spider-Man, etching himself into history forever as the guy who put Randy 'Macho Man' Savage into one of the most successful movies of all time. Folks, it all started with Within The Woods. It's not the greatest thirty minutes you'll ever spend watching a movie, but if you consider what it brought on in the long run, you've gotta love it.
Hey You: New section on X-E, currently under construction, but if you want to check it out, you can probably gage where I'm hoping to go with it. It's sort of like a blog, but since that word is frowned upon by Internet mega people, we'll call it a frog. Clickhere!