Despite the repeated and increasingly exasperated attempts of a lifelong best friend, I cannot quite experience Evil Dead as a "fun" film. It's the very thing that grates on my nerves that also drives its fan boys crazy. To wit: This B-grade cheese fest, in addition to being a showcase for spectacularly bad special effects and Bruce Campbell's crazy-eyed machismo, is also a minor masterpiece of ambiguity. Even in the film's most ridiculous moments, it is impossible to believe that director Sam Raimi wasn't on some level attempting to make a serious horror film, just as its most serious moments can't quite convince me that Evil Dead isn't mostly a joke. You never see it wink, nor does it flinch when it bleeds.
Evil Dead: The Musical at Promethean Theatre follows the same story line as the movie: Five college students venture deep into the mountains of the American South to an abandoned cabin for a week of booze and sex. Once there, they discover The Book of the Dead. They also find a tape recording from the last man to possess the book, a scholar of ancient languages. The college students play back the recording, a recitation of the book's mystical formula, causing the scenic Tennessee woods to fill with demons. The students are possessed, one by one, and die excruciating deaths.
In the movie version, Bruce Campbell is the last man standing. He slays the demons by tossing The Book of the Dead into the fireplace. That's not exactly how things go in The Musical, which, I should mention, guarantees that the first two rows of the theater will be covered — covered — in fake blood. This is to the good, if you ask me — mostly because Matthew Chivezer, the Bruce Campbell stand-in, has such fabulous physical instincts. Whether menacing a demon with a shotgun or having the shit beaten out of him by his own demon-possessed hand, his every twitch is a pose. Eyebrows akimbo, chest bulging, declaiming his lines in a baritone of Bunyonesque American bigness — Chivezer isn't exactly mimicking Bruce Campbell's iconic turn, but he's jazzing on it, and he's awesome.
Also awesome: the tricked-out craziness of Promethean's set. Check out the stuffed animals and game heads mounted all over the cabin walls. It may not be readily apparent, but they move. So, it seems, does everything else. When the demons start throwing their toys around, there's scarcely an object in sight that doesn't spin, flop, wag, bark, mumble frightening things, scream, whathaveyou. As it happens, geysers of blood explode from the necks, arms, and — in one cringe-making scene — ankles of the battered thespians.
The beaten-up actors themselves are a mixed bag. Troy Davidson is a glorious over-actor, and this is his second role in as many years in which he gets to recapitulate at least part of a Michael Jackson routine. Noah Levine is splendid, shucking his way through the haunted woods as a wizened old hillbilly, and you can almost smell the soiled sour mash cloud through which he sings the show's funniest ditty. David Dearstyne, as a pipsqueak assistant who grows cojones only when possessed by a demon, is a creature of nigh-perfect comic timing. Expect big things. And as a buxom, no-shit-taking professor type whom Dearstyne is supposed to assist (and wed, apparently) — Lindsey Forgey is pure, burnished brass.
But the rest of the cast feels curiously underpowered, either vocally or dramatically. The latter I'll chalk up to a couple of gals having a bad night, but the absence of vocal heft from Jamie Mattocks — and sometimes even from Chivezer and Davidson — is troubling. Sometimes their voices disappear beneath the music, which itself isn't nearly loud enough. It is a rule in most theater, and especially in slapstick, that an audience ought to forget it's watching paid actors pretending to do things. But when the gentle throat-clearing of a lady in the back row remains audible against the prerecorded instrumentals of a splattercore musical comedy, suspension of disbelief becomes difficult, at the least.
And this is very much an out-there, in-your-face comedy. Evil Dead: The Musical has little interest in ambiguity, unlike the film that inspired it. The music is broadly composed genre-riffage; the gags are mostly physical and leave you wondering about nothing much. I'm not sure if that makes the show a fitting tribute to Sam Raimi's old warhorse, but it does make it more entertaining. If you like that kind of thing.