As I wrote in my last post, bad movies can teach you a lot about how not to write. This week, we’ll look at one of the most awful movies of all time – The Evil Dead. Long before the Syfy channel cashed in on the “movies that are so bad they’re good” genre, film buffs were enjoying this 1981 cult classic from Sam Raimi.
Just in case you actually don’t know the plot of this wretched bit of cinema, it unfolds like so: A group of college friends, intending to spend a weekend relaxing in a cabin in the woods, discover a strange book in the cabin’s cellar. They then play back a tape recording on which the previous tenant muses on the book. It’s through this recording that the group discovers that the book is bound in human skin and written in human blood.
Strangely, this is not enough to make them flee; instead, they continue listening to the tape. The voice on the recording pronounces incantations from the book, then reports that this has raised the demons mentioned in the book. These demons have possessed his wife, whom he must now dismember. Naturally, this recording raises the same demons, who possess several of the group; the possessed then do away with all but one of the group (the ever-entertaining Bruce Campbell, playing Ash).
Quite apart from its entertainment value (which, if you have not seen it, you really must), The Evil Dead can teach writers much about giving characters consistent and believable motivation for their actions. Examples of poor decision-making abound in this film, but I’ll give you three.
- The tape recording drives Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) to hysteria. Then, when a storm drives a tree through the cabin window, she begins to hear strange voices in the woods. Naturally, as anyone would, she goes outside alone and unarmed, calling out, “Who’s there?” Then, clad in a nightgown and slippers, she begins to wander in the woods. Why this action has no rational motivation: Do I even need to explain it? No reasonable person would wander around in the woods at night, alone, unarmed, and in slippers, especially after hearing mysterious voices in those woods.
- As Cheryl wanders in the woods, the trees come to life and attack and rape her. When she escapes and returns to the cabin, once again hysterical and clearly having been attacked, the group pooh-poohs her story. Even more ridiculous, Ash must be convinced to drive Cheryl – who is actually his sister – into town to stay at a hotel (although this plan falls through). Why this action has no rational motivation: True, generally when someone claims to have been attacked by trees, the first impulse is to consider the person nuts – but Cheryl has clearly been attacked by something. This should have been reason enough for the group to abandon their vacation plans. But the incoherent motivation is compounded when Ash is reluctant to drive his own sister into town – if not because she is hysterical, then for medical attention.
- When Ash does attempt to drive Cheryl into town, they discover that the bridge connecting their part of the woods with town has been destroyed. Ash thus return with Cheryl to the cabin, where the other two women, Linda (Ash’s girlfriend, played by Betsy Baker) and Shelly (Sarah York) have a great time playing psychic games with cards. Why this action has no rational motivation: No one is troubled by the destruction of their route back to civilization, especially when they have obvious evidence that at the very least, wild animals lurk outside. This bizarre reaction is aggravated by the smashed cabin window, which provides easy entry for those wild animals. What’s more, why are the other two women settling down to an enjoyable game of cards, instead of comforting their companion, who has been attacked?
Almost none of the characters’ behavior in The Evil Dead is rooted in believable motivations. The characters’ failure to take a single reasonable action throughout this film is so egregious that it will cure even the most inobservant writer of the habit of forgetting to consider motivation when crafting a story.
So if you’ve never watched it, do so. Not only is the movie fun for playing Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s a valuable lesson in what not to do in your fiction.