Imagine you got the Naturom Demonto, and use its pages of finely cured human flesh to go back in time to 1981. A year later, New Line Cinema acquires the distribution rights to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, but even as it makes the film successful, it denies him and his crew the rights to make a direct sequel: one Evil Dead and the Army of Darkness.
But the Book in your hands is a Monkey’s Paw, and the mere existence of you here at this time in history changes everything. Evil Dead is released in fifteen theatres, but all the people that saw it in the original timeline do not see it. Or Stephen King doesn’t write a review of the film, and someone else creates an article that attracts another distribution company. Or producer Irvin Shapiro didn’t help screen the movie at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982. Maybe the film goes underground and builds a large following over time. Or it becomes a rare oddity horror fans talk about in small viewings: pondering just how something that looked like The Exorcist piggybacking on The Night of the Living Dead just could not have caught on? Perhaps if you told these hypothetical film students and watchers that it might have been different had there been a sequel, and some Three Stooges elements – which is hilarious as Raimi directed a short film in 1978 called Shemp Eats the Moon – injected into the high energy, insanely paced cinematic monstrosity, with more of a callback to his proof of concept work of the same year Within the Woods.
Yet there is a demonic force, a demented genius, in Evil Dead that could not be ignored. It wouldn’t just end with one weird, incredibly gory, disturbing high octane aberration. Certainly, the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, if it were called that, would not allow it to be so, and that Kandarian Demon is restless as fuck once you mess with that Book in general. Yet if that first film had a different set of reviewers or critics, another distributor, or if Raimi and his crew gained more capital in those early years, could the Evil Dead franchise have evolved differently?
I think about what would have happened if Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn hadn’t existed and we simply gained a direct continuation from the first film. Maybe Raimi attained the fame and influence needed to convince New Line Cinema to let him make the film he planned, or simply produced and distributed it himself that early on. What would we have seen?
It’s more than possible that we might have gotten Army of Darkness almost immediately, placing Ash in a medieval era surrounded by Deadites. Whether or not Army of Darkness would have had different production scale, or practical effects in 1987 instead of 1992 is anyone’s guess as temporal manipulation goes, but perhaps Ash would be a different hero entirely.
When you look at Ash Williams in Evil Dead, he is fairly toned down from the loud-mouthed ultra-masculine chainsaw wielding badass that we all know in popular culture. He genuinely seems to care about his friends, and especially his sister Cheryl and his girlfriend Linda. Ash isn’t the one that turns on the tape recorder in this movie, but it’s his obnoxious friend Scott that does it just out of some morbid curiosity, or to freak out the rest of his friends. Ash is a young man that wants to do right by his girlfriend, and his sister: and even after being forced to do horrible things to the bodies of his possessed friends and loved ones in order to survive, the magnifying glass necklace he gave Linda keeps him going. He destroys the Naturom Demonto and the Deadites boil, sizzle, and die away in putrefaction. Everything is horrifying in this film, and there is no respite: and even at the end, when everything seems finally put to rights, the Kandarian Demon – whose perspective we’ve seen as it violated Cheryl with the trees and attacked the others – lunges at Ash, and ambiguously kills him.
But what if the Kandarian Demon, without the anchor of the Book – which isn’t called the Necronomicon at this point, the name borrowed from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, but rather the Sumerian version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead – uses the last of its waning power, which had been latent in the Knowby cabin and its grounds even before Scott played the recording along with the energies of the Book’s destruction to send Ash back in time to kill him, and therefore save the Book and continue its reign of terror on humankind?
What I’m trying to get at here is what if a serious Ash, without the Three Stooges comedy of Evil Dead II, went back to this medieval era in what might be a version of Kandar Castle? What would the characters look like? What would the franchise look like going forward from that?
I do not have the Necronomicon with me, sadly, to tell me about the dark pasts and futures that could have been. But it is possible that there could have only been two films as a result of this lack of comedy, or very little of it. On the other hand, this version of Evil Dead II might have been a major hit of a darker Ray Harryhausen variety, and inspired the need to make more of itself, and gain more profit. It is also possible that, like most popular horror franchises that start out with darker and grimmer tones, that so many sequels would have resulted in the work eventually parodying itself. You don’t have to look far when you consider Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. So it is possible that Raimi may have led the series to the camp and black comedy it was meant to go into itself, or someone else directing the future films would have begun that process with varying results of quality.
Yet Raimi, when he did get Stephen King’s aid, along with Dino De Laurentiis, did something truly amazing. Not only did Raimi make a soft reboot of his original concept, removing or not mentioning the existences of Scott, Shelly, and Cheryl, and take a cue from Within the Woods where Ash actually gets possessed, he takes the comedy and ridiculous parody that might have happened to his franchise anyway, and institutes in the second movie. It’s almost as though he, and his crew, anticipated this change in tone, or mythology. Horror, more than a lot of cinematic genres, loves to reinvent its own continuity if only to create and propagate more of itself. Ash becomes more belligerent and arrogant, even absent-minded. There is an aggression there that is exaggerated as opposed to the PTSD-fuelled fight and flight of him and his companions in the other film iteration. The chainsaw arm, of course, its utter madness makes its appearance. The other companions that come in afterwards are all antagonistic until they work together, and then they don’t.
And Henrietta Knowby, played by Ted Raimi, changes the relation of the Deadites not only to Ash and his companions such as Annie Knowby, but to the audience as well. Before this, we saw a group of friends turn on each other as the invisible turned tangible and monstrous through their bodies. And while this does happen in Evil Dead II, we have the presence of the tangible malformed evil of Henrietta locked in that horrible cellar. The Book is now called the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis as well, and more about Kandar itself is revealed through missing pages, and the Dagger. After this, we see Ash sent through a portal into the medieval period: even though by the time we get to Army of Darkness, the beginning is different from the Evil Dead II ending.
The change in continuity would not have phased Raimi and his crew either, or even the tone of the series. Raimi himself had background in comedy films, and it is more than possible that he not only paid attention to Friday the 13th and A Nightmare, but also Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm: a franchise that constantly reinvented its own mythology in hallucinogenic, dreamlike ways.
But I keep on thinking about what would have happened if Evil Dead II had been made the way Raimi originally intended, or if the comedy simply hadn’t entered into its sequels. I wonder about which film I like more: Evil Dead, or Evil Dead II. The second film does add a lot more to the Evil Dead Mythos: with the Book, the Dagger, the Pages, a terrifying being in Henrietta who we don’t see transform into a Deadite like the others but is well into her advanced stages, Ash facing his own dark self through possession and also his severed hand, the chainsaw prosthetic, the portal into the past, and the whole iconic insanity of this world.
Yet there is a simplicity in the first film that I greatly appreciate. It is straightforward horror with suspense, and tension. Evil Dead II has us laugh at the hijinks that happen, helping us with moments to release the tension that has been wound throughout every mad action and gore scene while wincing at the weirder moments, but the first Evil Dead makes us sympathize more with the people in that cabin. The sequel lets Ash survive, while the first one seems to kill him off, and it just hits harder in my opinion.
But if the franchise continued without the comedy, what would it look like? The closest thing I can think about, when I consider alternative paths, is The Evil Dead remake directed by Fede Álvarez, but also produced by Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tapert. It is, arguably, another soft reboot of the original but there is no comedy in it whatsoever, or tongue in cheek references – popular-cultural or otherwise – and it is genuinely unsettling, and upsetting. David Allen is an Ash Williams analogue, a throwback from the first Evil Dead film, who actually dies at the end. And Mia Allen, a drug-addicted artist, is like a darker version of Cheryl Williams who actually survives and is freed from her possession in a ridiculous but clever way, as well as some mutilation on her part. The other characters are almost different versions of the ones from the first film, and the Book is called The Naturom Demonto again. Mia does take that chainsaw, but she doesn’t make it into a prosthetic, and I can’t help but wonder that even with the Ash Williams cameo at the end, what a sequel to this film would have been with that evil Book of the Dead still in existence. In some ways, I think a sequel to this 2013 remake would have answered a lot of my speculative questions.
As it is, Evil Dead Rising, written and directed by Lee Cronin, with our usual suspects as producers might provide another possibility: with a girl named Beth going back to her sister Ellie and her family, and finding that damned Book. The funny thing is: Ash’s love interest in Within the Woods was called Ellen. And maybe Mia Allen’s journey, this Cheryl WIlliams analogue that survives, is continued at least spiritually by Beth in a world of Deadites and Kandarian Demons without laughter for humans, but plenty of slaughter for their enemies.