While 1978’s Within the Woods was little more than a crudely-produced short film, writer and director Sam Raimi would carry several aspects over to his big screen adaptation The Evil Dead, one of which would be his lead actress Ellen Sandweiss.
Based around a small group of friends who are overtaken by supernatural forces while vacationing at a cabin in the woods, the movie would launch both Raimi and his actor Bruce Campbell’s Hollywood careers, but the controversy that surrounded the film, particularly a scene in which Sandweiss was raped by a tree.
Joining Campbell and Sandweiss on the shoot were co-stars Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly, the latter credited as Sarah York due to union issues. In the thirty years since the film’s release, each of the stars have gained cult followings from hordes of devoted fans, many of whom have grown up seeing Campbell, Sandweiss, Baker and Theresa Tilly battling demonic forces with Richard DeManincor, who would be listed in the credits under the alias Hal Delrich.
Betsy Baker, Ellen Sandweiss and Theresa Tilly, known collectively as The Ladies of The Evil Dead, discuss the making of the ultimate video nasty.
How did you first meet Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert and how did you come to be involved in Within the Woods and The Evil Dead?
ELLEN: I went to high school with Bruce and Sam and we were in school plays together. I was also in a few of their early Super 8 films. While I was in college they asked me to be in Within the Woods, which was when I first met Rob, followed by The Evil Dead.
How would you describe your experience working with Sam Raimi?
BETSY: Sam was a great guy to work with. The same age as all of us, just crazier. The Evil Dead became an epic cult classic, but we sure didn’t think it would be when we were slushing about in the mud, the cold, the miserable conditions.
Why did both yourself and Richard DeManincor use pseudonyms and do you regret not being credited with your real name?
THERESA: The Evil Dead was scheduled to be shot at a non union production. I had just become a member within that year. I was told by a rep at the Union and by people at Renaissance Pictures that the fact that I was a brand new union member wouldn’t be a problem and that it would all be worked out before we went to shoot. Well, nothing was ‘worked out.’ So I did the movie changed my name thinking it would never be seen! I do regret that I used a different name. Alas, I ended up with a fine from SAG and a six month suspension.
What were the first issues the film encountered due to its graphic nature? Do you find that this kind of notoriety only helps to increase a film’s popularity?
BETSY: I’m not certain what the first issues were, but I can only imagine I can start to count on fingers on one hand. Let’s see; violence, gore, sexual innuendo, blood. There, that’s five so far. As far as popularity, I think any project – book, TV, film – increases its notoriety and popularity when it reaches beyond the norm and goes to the very edge, beyond the average limitations, in whatever direction it chooses to take, or be taken.
You were involved in the film’s most notorious sequence, the tree rape. Under what conditions were that filmed and what kind of reaction did you receive from viewers and friends for taking part in it?
ELLEN: That scene initially was supposed to just be a ‘tree attack’ scene – the rape part kind of evolved as we were shooting it. It was pretty gruelling, shooting in the cold, in the middle of the night, getting scraped up by trees, not a whole lot of fun. People were quite shocked when they saw it, but not quite as shocked as I was.
Despite the movie being extremely violent, would you say that this was done in a relatively inoffensive way and were you ever concerned that it cause problems with the censors?
THERESA: I never thought for one moment about the censors, I was in my twenties. And yes, it was too violent and graphic for me. However, I didn’t know that until I saw it at the premier. None of us ever knew what direction the film would go in.
How did it feel to star in a movie that the UK government had labelled as a video nasty? Were you shocked by the how extreme the reaction was to the film?
BETSY: I’m not shocked, but I wasn’t aware of all the rules and regulations that so many countries have in regard to free speech, film, TV, publications, etc. It has been an intriguing experience for me as the years unfold.
Were you aware of the film’s treatment in the United Kingdom during the early 1980s, when both the press, government and censors went on a crusade against violent movies, with The Evil Dead being the centre of the controversy?
ELLEN: I knew nothing about this at all, until way later. After the initial premieres and release of the film in theatres in the early ’80s, I knew very little about what was going on with the film until the late ’90s.
Does it seem strange to you that the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) would allow the film to pass through with forty-nine seconds worth of cuts in 1982, then soon afterwards try to prosecute it and many others for being obscene?
THERESA: You know that BBFC, just like Henry the IIIV, off with their heads!
Do you have any regrets about your involvement in The Evil Dead and were you ever approached about appearing in the sequel, which many considered a semi-remake?
BETSY: I have no regrets whatsoever! Though certainly not a fan of violence and horror. To me it’s just a movie. As for the sequel – well, I was actually asked and courted to be a part of Evil Dead 2 by Sam, Bruce and Rob. However, my husband and I were expecting our first child and somehow my protruding belly just wasn’t going to be hidden, nor could they find a reasonable plot twist in order for it to work. So, alas, I couldn’t be in the sequel. But we do have two great kids.
The film would eventually be released on VHS in 1990, with its 84-minute running time trimmed down to 79-minute 47-seconds. Why do you think the film remained a cause of debate for so long and how did this notoriety affect its success and your career?
ELLEN: I think the film remained a cause for debate because it was so over the top and unrelenting in its violence. Of course like any other notoriety, it only served to make the film more popular. In terms of my career, it did put me on the cult-film map, even though it was as the ‘tree-rape chick.’ In this business, you take what you can get!
When was the last time you watched The Evil Dead? Does it feel tame in comparison to what some filmmakers are willing to show now and, looking back over the controversy it caused in the UK, do you find the way that the censors and media reacted was ridiculous?
THERESA: I do not watch horror films, they are not entertaining to me. I don’t enjoy being scared and that is the feeling I have when I watch them. So, I don’t watch! But The Evil Dead still scares me, not so bad anymore, I just saw it about three months ago. I’m not big on censorship period. I think people should watch what they want to watch. But the rape scene is difficult and objectifies women. Not something I enjoy…again, I just don’t watch!