You need to have some idea of what's going to happen next if you're going to be afraid of what's about to happen. But if you KNOW what's about to happen, it's not scary.
Walking that line is just one of the challenges of making a scary movie.
There's also a line between the grotesque and the absurd, and The Evil Dead certainly thins that line to the point where you need a magnifying glass to see it. The later movies crossed the line and let the absurdity take more and more precedence, and in doing so they became much less interesting films. Sam hasn't made a film as powerful and challenging as The Evil Dead since, and only Spiderman II really shows what this hyperactive, passionate, fearless director is capable of. I have a feeling that Sam's best films lie ahead of him. That he's spent the past 24 years figuring out how to make more movies with the same fury and humour and inventiveness that The Evil Dead shows.
It's STILL scary. I jumped again and again, and there were moments where I was genuinely creeped out. So many elements contribute to that feeling -- the score, the sound, the swooping camera moves (Peter Jackson owes Sam a large debt) and the liberal amounts of spewing gore all generate a freakish, carnival sort of atmosphere where anything is possible -- as long as it's bad.
It's also a goofy film. But it still manages to hold on to its scariness, in spite of the years that have passed and the endless numbers of imitators it has spawned. What makes THIS film stand out from the endless ranks of low-budget quickie horror films?
Well, it's inventive. There's plenty of stuff in this film that you never saw anywhere else. The gore effects, the camerawork, the reverse motion effects, all sorts of stuff is unique to this film.
It also plays the horror perfectly straight. In later films there started to be some winking at the camera, some nudging and sly looks. But The Evil Dead has no pretensions to comedy -- it wants to scare you and it is devoted to that task.
It's also well-structured. The threats are laid out well and there's always a different combination of threats -- while Ash is struggling with one animated friend-corpse, another is beginning to stir. While he's trying to bury his still-reasonably-active deceased girlfriend, his still-extremely-active-not-exactly-deceased-but-not-doing-at-all-well sister is escaping from where she's been imprisoned in the basement.
The differences from the work of George Romero are worthy of comment, I think. Romero's characters are always extremely well-observed, very realistic people. The characters in The Evil Dead are more of a throwback to 50's sci-fi films. You can easily picture Ash at the malt shop, trying to work up the nerve to ask Shelley to the prom.
Of course, Ash's character is central, isn't he? And the film is about his growth. He's spectacularly ineffective for the first two-thirds of the film. He stands by as his friends and family are terrorized and destroyed, unable to take action. This is one of the things that I think contributes to the film's scariness -- we watch Ash screw up time and again, and it's stressful because we're worrying that he is US, that we are as useless and helpless in the face of an uncaring world as he is. And even once he gets his act together and starts defending himself, we worry that it's all too late, and that there's nothing we can do to avoid our inevitable fate.
Which is of course perfectly true. The later films turned Ash into a hero, which renders the stories easier to watch. It's much easier to watch some idealised image of oneself, especially to watch that image succeed against the world. But it isn't nearly as scary as watching something that is maybe a little closer to the truth. And seeing that what waits for us all up in the dark dark woods is not something anyone can defeat.