Reviews, articles, rants & ramblings on the darker side of the media fringe

Within the Woods – Sam Raimi’s Horror Debut

Within the Woods_01Prior to making The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and their friend and producing partner Robert Tapert, who also serves as a producer on the new Dead, were enterprising college students who had been making slapstick comedy shorts on Super 8 with a group of their close friends – including fellow filmmakers Scott Spiegel and Josh Becker – and looking forward to the day when they could become big shot Hollywood filmmakers. But they quickly discovered that in order to make their names known in the industry they would have to abandon their comfort zone of goofball hilarity and make an independently-financed feature in a more marketable genre. Based on the healthy box office profits made by movies like Night of the Living DeadThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween Raimi and company chose to make their motion picture debut a dark and violent horror film.

Within the Woods_02The only thing was, Raimi didn’t really care for horror movies, and neither did most of his friends and collaborators. But one of their big Super 8 comedy shorts, a mystery spoof titled It’s Murder, though it failed to find an audience on the college circuit, did have one sequence that made those who bothered to actually see it leap out of their seats: a scare scene where a person is attacked by a killer hiding in the back seat of their car. Inspired by this, Raimi hashed out a script by his university class fascinations with author H.P. Lovecraft and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, gathered up his usual gang of movie-making miscreants (many of whom would go on to work on the original Evil Dead), and on a particularly warm Spring in 1979 they all travelled out to a farm owned by Tapert’s family in Marshall, Michigan armed with a budget of $1,600 and the best filmmaking equipment their meager budget would allow to make the short feature that would ultimately lead to the launching of serious prosperous careers in cinema and television: Within the Woods.

Within the Woods_03Campbell was the natural choice to play the lead, a curious guy named Bruce whose wanton desecration of an Indian burial ground unleashes the dark forces of evil that turn him into a murderous ghoul. Ellen Sandweiss, a friend of the boys who had also appeared in many of their Super 8 shorts, played his girlfriend and the besieged heroine of Within the Woods, with Spiegel and Mary Valenti, a Tapert family friend, cast in supporting roles.

The plot of Within was roughly what the story for The Evil Dead would be, with a few differences. Within the Woods would also give Raimi the chance to evolve his filmmaking style into what it would become by the time he made his feature directorial debut, utilizing handheld camera techniques to evoke the feeling of the unseen evil lurking in the woods advancing on its victims at top speed.

Within the Woods_04Michael McWilliams, a film critic for the Detroit News, wrote a positive review of the short in which he stated that “it will probably never be advertised alongside the glossy, big-budget horror movies of our time, but you won’t easily forget a locally produced little film called Within the Woods”. McWilliams also wrote that Raimi’s microbudgeted little film easily contained more chills and thrills than more extravagant Hollywood fare like The Amityville Horror. Boosted by the enthusiastic response Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert set out to find investors willing to fund their first full-length movie, originally titled Book of the Dead, using Within the Woods as a visual aid in their presentations. In a matter of months they had amassed enough money to commence production, and they were off to a lonely cabin in the Tennessee woods with a cast and crew in tow. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Within the Woods has never been made commercially available on any of the myriad of Evil Dead DVD and Blu-ray releases most likely because of unspoken legal complications due to it’s use of pre-existing soundtracks from Hollywood movies and the degradation in print quality, though a re-scored and remastered copy was almost included as a bonus feature on a 2002 “Book of the Dead” edition of Dead distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment. However, it is widely available for viewing online in a variety of picture and sound qualities so you can watch the birth of a legacy of cinematic horror and witness several future filmmaking careers begin to take shape. Check it out…

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