Within the Woods, Evil Dead and a love affair with film


Within the Woods was the proof of concept short that helped launch the legacy known as Evil Dead. Five years ago, I was lucky enough to see a fourth-generation version of that effort. It was a time capsule that brought me right back to the 80’s and how my love affair with the genre began.

Darkly Hidden Love

Within the Woods is like the Holy Grail of Sam Raimi. We hear about that proof of concept short, maybe some of us caught it years ago but unfortunately, it will probably never see the light of day in this current age due to unforeseen issues. Which is a real shame but sometimes that is how the cookie crumbles.

Most people know that this effort was the precursor to the Evil Dead legacy that we all know and love. I have recounted my personal story with that film many times and it remains influential because it cemented my love for a genre that some people might consider weird or highly unusual.

During my formative years in the 80’s, I went to a midnight showing of Evil Dead in my hometown. Now, that doesn’t sound too spectacular, however, I happened to be underage. No, I didn’t do anything illegal to get in to the theater.

My best friend’s parents were just horror hounds so they took us there for fun. I had always been enamored with film from an early age and things that go bump in the night. But seeing that gritty and visceral Deadite splatstick fest sparked my imagination and would serve as a muse later in life.

The Woods Are Calling

In 2013, I was fortunate enough to have seen Within the Woods. The much talked about project that acted as a calling card for the dynamic trio of Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tapert to secure financing to make their feature length film.

Despite the fact that the quality of the copy that I viewed was fourth generation, it didn’t really matter. For those of you reading this that have never seen it, trust me it is a superlative effort. When I watched it, I was immediately transported back to an easier time.

Crazy I know but that is what movies are supposed to do and the reason why I love them so much. They take your mind off whatever melodrama is going on in your world and transport you into another space. You forget who you are for a while.

Shot in 1978, this short starring a 20-year-old Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Scott Spiegel and Mary Valenti reminded me of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. The graininess of the film stock, the cinematography and the primitive feel made it very similar to the popular exploitation movies of that era.

I found myself drawn in from the get go. It was a familiar scenario from every horror effort in the slasher era. Friends in a remote location stumble upon a crazed or possessed maniac who is hellbent on killing every young person on site.

Bruce plays a guy named Bruce. Ellen Sandweiss is Ellen, Scott Spiegel portrays Scotty and Mary Valenti stars as Shelly. The party of four are spending the weekend at a farmhouse and everything seems pretty normal.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

While Scotty and Shelly play Monopoly, Bruce and Ellen decide that they are going to go on a picnic in the woods. That is the first problem.

Campbell’s character is kind of dorky. He likes natural history and collects arrowheads and seems to have a wealth of knowledge about Native Americans at his fingertips.

Unfortunately, his discussion about the history of the land and the indigenous peoples doesn’t really thrill Ellen all that much. When they get to a spot that they like, Bruce suggests that Ellen find some wood for the fire.

While she is foraging, Campbell starts poking around and begins to excavate a few buried items culminating in his finding a dagger. And no, it is not a Kandarian one. However, it is steeped in Shaman folklore.

Prior to his adventure, he told Ellen about the consequences of disturbing Indian burial grounds which at this point seems ironic. Of course, this is following every horror trope but you are happy to play along despite the fact you know the destination.

Because the sacred ground has been tampered with Bruce ends up dead (sort of) and Ellen has to go back to the farmhouse to warn Shelly and Scott. Meanwhile Deadite Bruce shows up to play and like Michael Myers, Shelly meets a creative end.

Scotty gets stabbed accidentally by Ellen who mistakes him for Bruce. Of course, he bleeds out while Ellen has to fend off Campbell who is clearly enjoying himself to the hilt telling her to “join us.”

In an interesting turn of events or perhaps foreshadowing his future actor self, Bruce gets his hand cut off.  Ellen ends up a final girl however, in the process, loses her mind rocking back and forth muttering to herself.

In Sam We Trust

Because Within the Woods made such an impression on me, I can remember it as if I watched it yesterday. In some ways, I enjoyed this film more than Evil Dead.

While it was traditional with having a final girl rather than a final guy, all of the principles gave decent performances. Although Sam wasn’t a horror fan, he studied the genre enough to understand how to scare people and how to craft the screenplay for maximum effect.

What I enjoyed about the actors is that they were natural and they weren’t emoting. Because everyone was lowkey when it came time for the more intense scenes, it made them highly believable.

More from Bruce Campbell

Most of why I love film and the horror genre in particular is I dig the adrenalin rush. I like the fact that you get taken to the edge and out of reality for a specific amount of time.

Another aspect of not being a huge blockbuster tentpole event is what attracts me to B movies especially those that are scary. They fit my personality slightly off center and not giving a damn about what anyone thinks.

Movies like Within the Woods can be inspiring as well. Out of that effort grew something more substantial which turned into a cult phenomenon and lifelong careers for Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Rob Tapert, Ellen Sandweiss and Scott Spiegel.

Related Story. Brunch with Bruce Campbell at the Eastern Oregon Film Festival. light

In other words, despite the dark subject matter, horror films can give you hope. No matter how many obstacles you encounter in your travels during this life, if you stay focused and remain on track anything is possible.

Have you seen Within the Woods? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. We want to hear from you.