Art as figurative conjuration in Evil Dead (1981)….and not in Evil Dead (2012). August, 2013

Why, one wonders, would the convention of the mad artist thrive in modern American horror? Some clues as to the underlying reasons for this are offered by the prominent role that art played in the original 1981 Evil Dead. After the college kids get to their mountain cabin, and some discoveries have been made, boding ill, we hear and see the ticking of the clock,

mad 1

But the clock is not in a dormant or unattended to stage, as it had been for all the while the cabin had sat empty before the kids showed up, it is in a gaze, it is being looked at, and looked at intently, by the smart girl, who is sitting in the corner, making a realistic sketch of it.

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It’s just a way of passing the time, in those days, and in days in which those days
were connected to the century before then, cultivated young men and women,
especially while travelling, would document and cultivate the beauty of a place
or thing, by making a drawing of it. They were not artists, they were
pre-artists, they were just persons offering a deeper and slightly more intense
level of attention to a thing. And, so, the clock is under her gaze, as an
object being drawn, and then, as she draws it, the clock stops,

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With this act, they enter into the no-time of possession. Very quickly, the girl’s drawing style undergoes a dramatic decline. She rips off the sheet on which her clock drawing is, and dives in after another drawing, she has something else on her mind, it is square, she draws it with such intensity that she tears the page

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And then, scribbling now furiously, more than drawing, she sees in it a face, and she rips her pencil this way and that, making crude marks, not drawing,

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And then we see that what she is seeing is not what is in front of her, but the cover of the grimoire that has just been discovered in the basement

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She has drawn the book and the face on the cover of the book. What this means is that, simply put, she had placed herself in a more introspective state of mind, she had put herself in a more concentrated kind of thinking, she has focused her attention on an object, to draw it, her eyesight turned into, at that point, a gaze, as gaze is seeing that reflects an inner power to control. By this slightly deeper level of mindfulness, she opens up an interval between normal relatively inattentive, superficial seeing the world, and the more focused and concentrated way of looking at the world by artists, and created a space in her mind which the demon could then possess. Through art, she opened the door. Thus, it is suggested, art, its introspection, conjured up the demon, and brought it in. For this reason, art is suspect, and somewhat dangerous, the state of mind that it demands can lead one astray. It is also likely that the gaze of the artist can be likened to the evil eye, a look with too much intention in it, and for all of this, art is culpable of letting the demon come back to life.

So, art itself, at a very basic level, below even the equation of expressionism and being a psycho, is represented as the state of mind that calls up demons. It is suspect. But then the movie follows that, by opening up the book. By the way, the cover of the book is quite good in this version of the story, and better than in the remake. The cover is made out of flesh, but the flesh it is made out of also had a malleable quality that was able to be sculpted or distorted into a vague semblance, or physiogomy of the demon’s face. The book in the sequel is just bound in skin, and stitched like Frankensteinian surgery. The book in the first is related to the chomping book in Harry Potter, the book in the second to the editions created by Ed Gein out of human skin and also the lore of the Nazi lampshades made out of victim flesh. The first book was both a good and a bad idea, leading on in the movie.

But the book also hosts a lot of good drawing. The book is more of a sketchbook, and an art book, with roots in occult drawings going back to the 18th century

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Many of the drawings are just inserts in a running text, in the Sumerian language, the marks come from any number of mumbo jumbo grimoires created by Hoodoo hillbillies who syncretized Hohman’s Pow-Wows, The Seventh Book of Moses and African American voodoo tradition too. Some of the drawings are anatomical, giving the book as a whole a kind of DaVincian quality. The drawings are works of art, again suggesting that it is the introspection of artmaking that leads to all the trouble.

The sculptural dimension of the book likely represses the expressionism of the drawing. The book is accompanied by a decorative ceremonial knife that will also feature strongly in the following

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there is a suggestion that it belongs to a set with the book, the best picture of the
book is a picture of the demon, a real work of art

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And it is suggested that the inside of the book is then expressed on the outside of the book and then that is expressed and “figured forth” in the knife too. Then the movie continues along that way. The director further figured out the grossness of the knife by having it held by a severed demon hand, the property getting better and better

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It even has a life of its own, meaning the demon spirit is still surging out through it, stabbing one of the possessed in the back

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Like I said, I do not care for the subsequent fights, but it is interesting that the book is brought into the fight, and animated by the fight. It ends up near the fire, a player in the scene,

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In one shot, carefully set, the hero and the face in the book, face off, and since the book has been singed, it seems gooier, more alivemad 13

Then the instrumentation of the book is enhanced still again as it is thrown in the fire, and joins all of the objects in so many horror movies thrown into the fire

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But the punchline here is that, we find out, in the fire, that not only is the
book sculpted to look like the demon, but the demon is actually in it, as we
now see it being burned out of it, and dissolving,

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This involves some claymation stop motion that seems in keeping with its origins as the sculpted flesh of the book cover

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And then, in a chain reaction, the burning of the book, and the demon in the book, touches off the burning up of all of the demons in all of the others, so all their gooey bindinglike demon faces also melt away in a jerky flood of tapioca pudding.

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What this means is that the book itself is the central instrument of the horror drama, and the action, and the movie as a whole is a figuring-forth of the potential of the sculpted book cover, as it contagiously spreads, and gains bigger and bigger form, in other manifestations, and then is burned up, and everything else goes with it too. This is an example of figurative instrumentation, and the frequency with which this kind of mis en scene was created in the pre-1980 period is what sometimes makes me refer to this classic horror as either melody-based or figurative or storybook, in this case, it actually IS the book that is at the center of the movie and all of its actions an unfolding and unravelling of the book. Thus, it is art, and art and drawing in secret books, that not only put the mind in an evil eye state which brings evil in, but it is books and drawings that these demons live. Thus, Evil Dead is a very good example of why art is so demonized in classic horror.

In Part II of this note, the point will be emphasized in the negative, by comparing the original to the remake of 2012, where this instrumentation is largely absent. More to come.




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