Within the Woods (1978)

“Abstract Plain” is a song from the album Teenager of the Year by Frank Black. The lyrics describe Black’s desire to escape from the real world to an emotional oasis:

“I need a new address. Tell me I’m not insane. Is it up or down? I want to live on an abstract plain.”

We can all relate. Is there anyone who doesn’t want to get away from it all by daydreaming of a superior existence on an abstract plain? Not me. Not Frank Black. And certainly not Sam Raimi.

In 1979, 20-year-old Raimi spent a long, grueling weekend on a farmhouse in Marshall, Michigan with friends Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Mary Valenti, and Scott Spiegel. Their goal was to shoot Within the Woods, a 30-minute Super 8 short that would hopefully prove to potential investors that they could be trusted with a pile of cash to make The Evil Dead. It worked. Three years later, the landscape of trash-horror in our lifetime was changed forever. But Within the Woods is more than just a demo version of Evil Dead. Like “Abstract Plain,” this is a manifestation of form and feeling that provides a lovely little escape for anyone who seeks it out. It’s also another reason why Michigan is one of my favorite alternate timescapes.

Like Donald Jackson’s The Devil Master, this is an intoxicating example of no-budget alchemy from The Great Lake State. The plot is minimal (white people mess around with Indian burial grounds and pay the price), but the crude ambience is overwhelming. Even within the constraints of a home movie, Raimi’s confident blend of Three Stooges-styled chaos, gross-out gore, and electric photography are all in place. The camera blasts through a haunted forest while stolen music cues warble over the soundtrack. Bruce Campbell (starring as “Bruce”) goes full-on Deadite before his hand gets partially severed — he finishes the job with his teeth. He also gets stabbed, clubbed with a statue, hit with a shovel, and chopped into pieces with an axe. There’s an aggro game of Monopoly and inspired compositions of dusty basements, melting sunsets, and ominous hallways. Also, lots of screaming. Unlike Super 8 spectres such as Ogroff and Day of the Reaper, Woods isn’t a photocopy of the filmmaker’s cinematic obsessions. The aesthetics might be similar. But in this movie, genre-defining innovation is happening before our eyes. It’s a treat to witness.

Outside of a single midnight movie screening in 1979, Within the Woods has never been released. But that’s okay. Even through the muck of a fifth generation VHS bootleg, the charm of the movie survives:

“You’re only cursed by the evil spirit if you violate the graves of the dead. We’re just gonna be eatin’ hotdogs!”

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