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The Nostalgic Attic: Within the Woods (1978)

13 October 2014

Within the Woods (1978)

There are some films we are so familiar with that it seems pointless even writing about them in any way at all. It's why I seldom cover bigger, well-loved genre films here, and tend to focus on the less championed entries. The likes of The Evil Dead has been spoken about so often on blogs, websites and books that you'd be hard pressed to say anything fresh about it, and if you can't do that, why bother? We know how influential it has been, and how great the sequels are, and how much fun Bruce Campbell is. But what we don't hear about too often is the film made to secure the funding for The Evil Dead, called Within the Woods.

Four teenagers head out to a remote cabin in the woods for the weekend. Ellen (Ellen Sandweiss) and Bruce (Bruce Campbell) head out for a picnic among the trees, while Scott (Scott Spiegel) and Shelly remain in the cabin playing a board game. Out in the woods, Bruce tells Ellen that where they are staying is on an ancient Indian burial ground, but that they should be fine if they don't disturb the graves. While making a fire pit, Bruce digs up an old dagger from the ground. When Ellen wakes from her nap, she finds Bruce missing, and sets off to find him. She discovers his blood-drenched body and heads back terrified to the cabin. Scott doesn't believe anything has happened at all, and heads off to find Bruce. Shelly ventures outside after awhile, and is suddenly attacked by a seemingly possessed Bruce, who kills her with the dagger. Will Scott make it back to save Ellen?  Just who will survive this night of bloody terror?

Anyone who has read the excellent The Evil Dead Companion by Bill Warren, or who has listened to the countless audio commentaries by Raimi and co on the DVD releases will know the details on this one. After deciding to make a horror picture, Raimi, producer Rob Tapert and Campbell felt they needed to make a short film to use to raise the funds needed for a feature project. The result was Within the Woods, and the rest is history after that. What is unfortunate though is what has happened to the original short. Due to the lack of rights on the music tracks used (this was made to be screened locally, remember, and never intended for wide distribution) the film has lingered in the 'unreleased' files, despite several attempts to get it onto the DVD special editions of The Evil Dead over the years.

It's a pity, as all we have now are some truly terrible 5th or 6th generation VHS bootlegs, copies so murky and noisy that it's almost impossible to see what is happening in some scenes, never mind the tape jumps and warbles. What we can make out is great though; there is tension, seemingly decent Super 8 cinematography, great editing and some excellent jump scares and gore. Essentially it's a 30 minute 'quickie' version of the first Evil Dead film, with several moments making it over to the finished feature film, such as the hand being chewed off, or the great moment when Scott sits up in the foreground, delivering a polished scare. Also on display is one or two finely done comedic moments, and though they are light, they work well, and the rare chance to see Bruce Campbell playing the bad guy.

It's also interesting to see how it developed from 'Indian burial ground' to the Lovecraftian 'Book of the Dead', which was much more effective. Despite the age of Raimi, the film looks and feels more accomplished than the likes of The Equinox, which must have played a part in the inspiration for these films. Sure, it's only 30 minutes, and not something that horror fans would line up to hand over cash for, but I think it's an excellent entry in the Evil Dead saga, and must have been great to see it when it originally screened. I'm not sure how most people feel, but I for one would love to have this to go with my annual Evil Dead screening, as I think we are sorely lacking in any other material from Raimi that matches that bleak, no-nonsense, hardcore horror of the first film. It's unlikely that it'll see the light of day on any official release soon, but if you can find it, it's worth watching, just if it's even to see where the whole Deadite cult sprang from.

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At 13 October 2014 at 12:38 , Blogger Wes M said...

Fantastic stuff John, your post really whet my appetite to see the film again, and I would have jumped straight into it were it not for the eye-searing picture quality of the version doing the rounds - and it seems the only version doing the rounds - a German label put out another edition of The Evil Dead on DVD a few years ago, with Within The Woods included, but it was the same watery, degraded VHS-sourced copy, which according to legend originated from a malfunctioning VHS tape owned by FX artist Tom Sullivan. When I posted about the film in 2010, I had to forgo screen caps as everything looked like a murky stew. If I have my facts right Anchor Bay came close to including the film a few years ago on their own Evil Dead edition - removing the copyright music heard in the film (including my favourite bit of illicit music lifted for the film - a Tangerine Dream cut from Sorcerer) but the film was pulled at the last minute with no explanation. The film was removed from the Anchor Bay disc so late in the day, the title card created to introduce the film (and explain the remixed score) is still on that disc somewhere. But back to the film, and what an impressive, accomplished bit of work it is, it really transcends that whole backyard Super8 scene and as you rightly put it, it is better than the excruciating Equinox... John, you posted on Facebook about what films genuinely scared you - Blair Witch Project would have been my choice too, and the original Evil Dead which I thought was incredibly intense when I first saw it when I was 15 or so, at home alone and shitting it, and that would have been the cut version, mind. I'm still mystified when people pick the sequel over the original - people, get it together !

At 14 October 2014 at 01:32 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Wes, thanks for the info regarding the source material, I assume it's the same version we've both seen then with the tape literally falling apart before your eyes. I knew Anchor Bay were going to include it on the Book of the Dead release (as far as I remember) but it was pulled at the last minute and nothing was heard after that. I wasn't aware they had removed the offending piece of music either, which makes it even more baffling that it didn't make it to release.Perhaps a last minute intervention from Raimi? Maybe he has issues with it going out in the public?

As you said, it really is an accomplished piece, far better than anything myself or my classmates produced in film school back in the day! The man had some skills! Equinox is worth watching once, but I found it a chore....

Wes, I'm an odd one, as I tend to bounce back and forth with the first and second films; I've seen the sequel 30 or 40 times, I absolutely love it, but I can't watch the first film as often. I tend to go with it these days as I've kinda worn out the sequel, but I tend to lean towards the harshness of the first now anyway as I like my horror no-nonsense. I think there's room for both!

Regarding the films that genuinely scared me, my actual answer was Ringu... That film really did mess me up badly, as I was quite jaded by the time it was released. It showed me how terrifying horror could be again after several years of Scream clones and smart ass horror...

At 14 October 2014 at 07:30 , Blogger Wes M said...

It was of course Ring, apologies for the misquote. John, I have to say this film left me completely cold. I'd like to blame Tartan's horribly flat DVD transfer, but A Tale of Two Sisters had the same effect on me - I bought the DVD (the 2-disc edition no less!) on the back of some stellar reviews but the film did nothing for me - but needless to say the door is not closed on either film and I look forward to revisiting both at some stage... I know what you mean about Evil Dead II - but I kinda resent that film for the weak second half ultimately spoiling the brilliant, breathless, outrageous invention of the first half...

At 14 October 2014 at 07:37 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I finally got to see this - from that same nearly unwatchable dub - last year. It's fantastic - and would be a glorious thing to see in a real release. Damn those pesky music rights! I really wish Raimi or Tapert or Campbell would just leak a better copy - I mean - they've made a lot of money off these releases - why not let the fans have the short in a viral way.

I enjoy all three movies - but the first is my favorite - because I enjoy the true horror a little more than the sequels' splatstick.

And I like Equinox...?

At 14 October 2014 at 08:09 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

That's odd, Wes, I too have the same Tartan discs, but to be honest, I think that's just the way the film looks... What I really love about that film is that it isn't filmed/presented like a typical horror, and much of it plays out like a tense 'race against time' mystery that if you missed the opening scene you might not even know it's a horror at all. Compared to how the remake was handled, which was just obvious horror signposting every two minutes, I think it's a masterpiece of subtle horror. I love Tale of Two Sisters, surprised you didn't enjoy it as it's quite arthouse. I think a re-watch is in order for both for you... maybe late some night, when you are alone, in the dark... see what happens!

I really enjoy Evil Dead II from start to finish, but I agree it loses steam around the 3/4 mark, but it makes up for it with the excellent effects and bonkers humour... I just wish people enjoyed the first film more over the 3rd. As fun as it is, it just isn't Evil Dead, and kinda sums up what happened to both horror and action in the 90's with how it got toned down and repackaged for kids without caring for the older fans...

At 14 October 2014 at 08:15 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Craig - fully agreed there, they really should just release it for free at this point, the people who want it are the rabid fans like us and Wes, and as you said, nobody is losing out as they all still get the royalty cheques from the official Evil Dead dvd on every new release... I think we are all in agreement on enjoying the first the most, but I still do love the hell out of part 2!

I brought Equinox up really as apart from the obvious influence it had on Within the Woods, I think it's quite amateurish in comparison, especially when you consider Raimi's age. Nothing wrong with liking it at all! I love the stop motion, I just wish there was more of it in the film, and the pacing wasn't as sluggish.


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