In the words of Bruce Campbell: “For anyone who hasn’t seen The Evil Dead, what exactly were you expecting?” His entrance on the stage of the Ace Hotel Theater in Downtown Los Angeles for The Evil Dead In Concert: A Halloween Experience, complete with toy chainsaw, is met with rapturous applause. These are the acolytes, of which I am now one.
Growing up, I fancied the second installment in the series more than the first. The original 1981 film, shot for an absurdly low amount of money and an extremely high amount of ingenuity, always felt like a film school thesis to me. But watching it on the big screen for the first time, with a live orchestra and a reimagined score by the original composer Joseph LoDuca, I finally understand what makes the original great. It’s lovable.
In many ways, composer LoDuca is equally lovable. Now a veteran of over eighty movies and television shows, (including the recent Ash vs. Evil Dead on Starz, featuring the triumphant return of Campbell as the groovy one), LoDuca admits he’s improved over the last thirty-five years. I asked him how it felt revisiting his previous work. “You go into the experience embarrassed and proud,” he tells me. “I thought there’s something very interesting about writing a horror movie that’s based around five strings. It’s a concept I’ve never been able to sell. They always want it to be bigger. Popcorn must fly.” A classy guy, Mister DuLoca, uh… LoDuca.
“Everyone always says his name wrong,” Campbell jokes, talking over the halcyon chants of “Bruce” from the fans in the balcony. “But tonight is not about me, not about my name. Tonight you’re all gonna yell ‘Joe’.” Indeed, I have to cheer LoDuca’s name, because he (re)introduced me to a classic I didn’t even know I loved. But like any sojourn to the attic to find a comic book you remember fondly, first you have to wade through the cobwebs.
Before the movie there is a dramatic rendition of “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, with music for single violin by LoDuca, and performed by Irish actress Evanna Lynch, (My Name is Emily, the Harry Potter series). The stage is set with a single bed cot and jagged blue lighting, evoking an insane asylum. But even with the anxious plucking by talented violinist Lili Haydn, Lynch’s performance feels regrettably unpolished, unrehearsed.
Lynch cradles a leather bound book to her chest through her entire performance, which I think is supposed to be either her character’s journal or a foreshadowing of the Necronomicon from the movie. But it’s clearly where she has stashed her lines, and she forgets them a few times. The staging consists mainly of nervous pacing, which becomes distracting after a while. It’s not a complete failure, but it’s also not “Béla Bartók went on a bender in Ireland, and when he woke up this was all he could remember.” That’s how LoDuca described it to me. Man, I really wanted to see that.
Although this opening act seems incongruous to the rest of the night’s proceedings, directors Richard Kraft and Jaime Robledo, along with choreographer Mark Swanhart, have added metatextual musical interludes to accompany the film. This seems more in keeping with the tone of Raimi’s movie. It has to do with a haunting in the Ace Hotel Theater, (built in 1927 by stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charles Chaplin). It’s a beautiful theater, gothic meets Art Deco. According to the play’s storyline, the movie itself is so “evil” that it raises the ghosts of Ace Hollywood & His Angel City Shufflers. Various jazz renditions by the group of contemporary songs punctuate the movie throughout the evening, including a tongue-in-cheek version of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”, complete with dancing girls and a bloody axe.
The Evil Dead is like a combination of seventies Italian giallo and Monty Python. It works precisely because it’s not supposed to, and it disproves that English axiom that Americans don’t get irony. Well, they do in Michigan. Meta. That’s the key word. The thing that makes The Evil Dead more daring than say Ghostbusters or Shaun of the Dead is that it’s not actually a comedy. At least, not entirely.
Probably LoDuca’s biggest triumph in the musical reimagining is the “tree rape” scene. That sequence plays the pain and fear of Cheryl, (Ellen Sandweiss), completely straight, as bizarre and demented as the opening murders in Argento’s Suspiria. It’s a violation, a supernatural possession straight out of Lovecraft, and the audience stops laughing. We also stop breathing. You’re not supposed to laugh at that part. You’re supposed to get scared. And the terror has consequences, it persists long after. No cheeky do-overs, like you see in later horror comedies. LoDuca’s new orchestration adds a much-needed dread that ‘80s synthesizers couldn’t muster.
Though not set in stone yet, there seems to be plans to tour The Evil Dead In Concert. Exorcising (pun intended) the Edgar Allan Poe sequence would be a good idea, or at the very least tie it into the main event better. Bruce Campbell would probably not be able to do an extended tour as the master of ceremonies, (the man has other obligations as Ash). But despite all these inevitable changes, it would still be worth catching the show, if it comes to your city. Simply because of the new music. It’s a fresh experience, which managed to improve this reviewer’s appreciation of a cult classic.