An Interview With Betsy Baker from Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead!
By Lee Sobel (8/28/20)
Yes even people who live in Detroit, almost a galaxy far, far away from Hollywood, can make it in the movies. All it takes is talent and certainly no one would argue about the explosive vision young filmmaker Sam Raimi showed in his feature film debut in 1981, The Evil Dead. Cutting his teeth on making Super 8mm short films, including one called Within the Woods (1978) that was a 32 minute precursor to The Evil Dead, Raimi has gone on to a stellar directing career, including the 2002 Spider-Man, the 2004 Spider-Man 2, and the 2007 Spider-Man 3 which made billions. For those of us who love horror movies, Raimi blasted out of the gate with total glee and conviction as a movie maker. Even if horror is not your cup of blood, Raimi's full throttle imaginative story telling and jaw-dropping camera work cannot be denied.
Lee Sobel: How did you come to be cast in The Evil Dead? Did you know any of the people in the movie prior to shooting the film?
Betsy Baker: This answer sounds so like the beginning of a science-fiction movie.... "Picture this - it was a sunny day in the suburbs of Detroit. The actress received a mysterious phone call from her acting agent, saying that some young men wanted to speak to her about being in a horror movie.... Let's take a look."
.... and that is pretty much what happened. I had recently moved to the Detroit area, after singing professionally with a musical group throughout Florida in clubs and hotels. I was repped by an acting agent... now they call them theatrical agents... and she called me one day... and said, literally, "There are these young men who contacted me and said they'd like to meet you and discuss the possibility of your interest in being in their horror movie which they're going to make this fall. That's all I know. You interested? I can give you their phone number." It was 1979. "No audition, no screen-test.... they would just like to meet you first," she said. I agreed to meet them, and they offered to meet at a local restaurant ... out in public.... to make sure that I felt safe. I didn't actually feel safe, so I took along a boyfriend I was dating at the time.... to be safe. We ended up talking at an Italian restaurant at 3:00 in the afternoon for about 2 hours..... I ended up meeting them again to read a few scenes with Bruce Campbell, and they asked me right then and there if I'd like to be in their movie. The rest, as they say......
Lee Sobel: I understand the shooting conditions were uncomfortable. Can you describe a couple of memories of making the movie in which you might have said to yourself, "What have I gotten myself into?" I assume the contact lenses you had to cover your eyes with could not have been much fun!
Betsy Baker: The conditions were awful.... but we were all so excited about doing a project 'together'.... and 'making it happen'.... it was like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney having this great idea of putting together a show in the barn.... we all did anything we could to make it happen, most of the time in a good mood, but not always. The actual cabin had no electricity, no phone, no running water, no bathroom. I
think you can pretty much take it from there with your imagination. After three or four days shooting scenes on the road, or in the car, during daylight.... our entire schedule switched to night time filming. It was cold, damp, often wet and rainy. Our shooting times normally ranged from about 6 pm until daylight. Rinse and repeat. Generators were brought in for set lights and camera power, but still not an extra cord around for hot coffee. There really wasn't even enough room for folding chairs to be placed in another room of the cabin to wait until we shot our own scenes, so we sat on the floor..... Actually - truth be told, there wasn't any money in the budget to go out to the local Sears and buy folding chairs. Back in 1979, there was no bottled water in cases of 24 or 36 like today (maybe that's a good thing)...... so we brought
a Thermos of water or hot tea to keep us warm. Bathrooms back at our house where we slept and stayed were used just before we went over to the cabin, or within seconds of returning home. And when we wrapped each night, the person who was covered the most in sticky Kayro syrup (for the blood).... or dirt.... got dibs on the shower first. The sclera contact lenses were hard, large plastic ones that had to be carefully fitted into each eye, and couldn't be used in the eyes for more than 10-15 minutes at a time. Sam Raimi, the director, often forgot about watching the time .... and it wasn't until some of the actors started really complaining (or just stopped following directions, to make a point)... that we would have to stop filming... and painfully remove them without any altercations.
Lee Sobel: I've heard that you are not a fan of horror movies. Did the
demonic possession in the film freak you out at all? Why do you think people love getting scared at movies so much?
Betsy Baker: Yes, it's true -- I am not a fan of horror films. I don't really enjoy the words 'entertainment' and 'scared out of my pants' being used in the same sentence. A lot of fans have asked me that same question.... and the truth is... sitting down with a director, and methodically and carefully choreographing a scene with camera and lights and props and sets as to when I need to scream, or visualize a demon coming around the corner, or running from something that might not even exist, is kind of just like that - choreography.... it's fun, it's
exciting...and 'pretending' is a lot more fun than actually experiencing something scary or frightening! I think people find a 'release', either emotional or psychological.... in experiencing mystery, or wonder, and often find that release in watching action like thriller, or horror, or science fiction movies.... there of course have been lots of studies as to what attracts people to be scared, and then to respond or react with that 'release' of emotions.
Lee Sobel: Did you feel like you were shooting a movie that 40 years later would still be considered a classic? Why do you think this film has remained so popular for so long and have you found this surprising?
Betsy Baker: I think I can speak for all of the actors in the movie to
some point... and remember, there were only 5 of us!..... that we did not have any idea there would still be fans and followings of The Evil Dead after all these years. I think it is a classic for so many reasons, not the least of which is the timing of local neighborhood video stores that opened up a few years after the movie opened in theaters. Before video stores, if you went to see a movie at the local theatre, you might catch it again if you had the time, and were lucky enough to see it again before it left town. With video stores, you could literally bring something home any night of the week, your VHS player was your own projection room... and you could watch something over and over and over and over again all weekend... and if you talked about it with friends later...or couldn't remember a scene, you could just go back the following week and rent it again! That was magnificent in terms of keeping The Evil Dead alive and chugging along, like so many other films. It's also a classic because of it's simplicity and the many techniques that it used to scare the audience...... and that audiences were intrigued, impressed, and happily mystified when they found out (or observed on the screen)... that it was done without fancy-schmancy special effects.... and yet it still had an effect on them.
Lee Sobel: Do you have any specific memories of Sam Raimi directing the movie? He has a very strong visual sense -- do you remember being impressed by his vision for the film?
Betsy Baker: I remember being impressed by a young Sam Raimi and his vision for getting the film done the way he wanted it done. All of us were very young, in our early 20's, but he was actually the youngest, I believe. He would convince, cajole, and eventually talk us into whatever and however he wanted a scene to work... and he always said it with a smirk of "Trust me, you're gonna love how this turns out"... or a puppy dog appeal of ..."If we can just do 2 or 3 takes of what I'm thinking, then if we have time, we can try your way." That's a very productive way for a director to work - cooperation with, and belief in his actors, and showing respect for their opinions as well. San also has an incredible sense of humor that is dry, sarcastic, and at times very childlike. All funny to me.
He makes me laugh to this day.
Lee Sobel: Sam Raimi held a big premiere for The Evil Dead in Detroit when it was completed. Did you attend that screening and if so, what are your memories of it?
Betsy Baker: I was not at the premiere for The Evil Dead, sadly... or any of the local screenings or events when it first opened. At the time it premiered, I was narrating for auto shows nationwide; I had left the cabin and the woods and the Kandarian demons behind.... and was standing on turntables with a microphone, rotating in circles talking about Buicks, Toyotas, and Fords every night... and was out of town during what must've been a really exciting time during all the premieres and screenings!
Lee Sobel: Were you surprised at the film's success when it was released?
Betsy Baker: Well, I wasn't really aware of how popular the film was when it was first released. Remember, in that old century of the 1900's... we didn't have cellphones or computers, so I couldn't rush back to the hotel from the auto show and grab any videos of any premiere parties... or get any texts from the other actors telling me what a fun night it was. It didn't play very long at any given local theatre.... and when it first started renting in video
stores, I had no idea to even look and see if it was in the "Horror" section - remember, I don't like horror movies...so why even go down that aisle?
Lee Sobel: What do you recall about the way audiences reacted to the film? Did people scream or shout at the screen?
Betsy Baker: Audiences STILL react to the movie - even 40 years later -- they laugh at 22 and 23 year olds being so naively unafraid of something in the basement, they laugh at some of Sam's lines that he wrote (which probably weren't intended to be funny), they scream at the screen constantly warning Linda or Shelly or Sheryl to stop being so stupid and to get out of the cabin, and they jump when Sam meticulously has shot or edited a scene that resulted in jump out of your seats fright - even with bad special effects. It's still astounding to me after all these years... and yes, I still also jump when I watch certain scenes today.
Lee Sobel: Have you kept in touch with Sam Raimi or any of the cast of The Evil Dead?
Betsy Baker: Sarah York, affectionally AKA Theresa Tilly - and I are very good friends... and have been for many years. With Theresa and Ellen
(Ellen Sandweiss)... we formed 'The Ladies of The Evil Dead' nearly 20 years ago, and appear at conventions and celebrity autograph signings all over the world. We definitely keep in touch with "Scotty" as well, Rich de Manincor, and yes, we are all still in contact with Bruce Campbell as he flits from one success to another on film and TV! Theresa, Ellen, and I had the great fortune to all be involved together in a few films and projects as well, including our own "Dangerous Women" doppelgänger
comedy mini-series, Brutal Massacre: A Comedy - and Sam Raimi's Oz, The Great and Powerful. We're pretty fortunate to have maintained friendships and relationships all through these years.... it doesn't happen on every film set.
Lee Sobel: Do you go to fan conventions and have you met any weird, memorable fans? Do people come up to you and sing, "We're gonna get you"?
Betsy Baker: We have been guests at conventions for almost 20 years..... in all different cities and states, and Europe. We have met so many fans.... and I'm not sure who has the most fun .... all of us, or all of them. We love meeting the fans, and I am still completely in awe of their knowledge of the movie, it's history, it's trivia, and it's cult following. People do indeed come up to me and start singing... but more often, ask me to sing it for them, for their grandmother on the phone, or for their eight year old standing next to them who is also a fan. But... I've also had fans come up to me and ask that I please NOT sing the song... as it gave them nightmares, and it might again... "So please, can you just shake my hand or give me a hug, but don't sing the song?" We laugh... and then, as they walk away, just when they feel it's safe......I quietly sing the song. Ha!
Lee Sobel: When the movie was made as a musical, did you go see it?
Betsy Baker: The "Ladies" were honored to be asked to join the cast and crew and be members of the "Splash Zone" audience at its premiere in New York City. Now THAT was exciting! And my college alma mater, Michigan during its run - performing on the same stages where I had performed 'Peter Pan', 'The Rimers of Eldritch', 'King Lear', and 'Our Town' as a college student. It was a pretty spectacular time for me...and they did an amazing job! We were also guests with the gang at Vinyl Music Hall in Pensacola, Florida last year - and invited us up secretly onto the stage with cameo performances, which made the audiences go wild!! It was a blast!
Lee Sobel: You've gone back to acting after having taken time off. Was it difficult to get back into the business after a long break? Will you work with Sam Raimi again?
Betsy Baker: I took some time off to raise our family - and to run a business in the film and entertainment industry. I also teach music enrichment and vocal music at elementary schools where I live... but love being back in the business after being gone for some time. And guess what?....everything is different... and the same. But no more black and white pictures... no more running off to the printing store down the street to print 10 more resumes'.... everything is online now, easy to print off at home... and we are now even taping auditions from home as well. What's exciting is being back on a set, working with talented directors and cameramen, and watching people use skills they were trained for... and do it so well.... and work so hard to make something. And yes.... I would work with Sam Raimi any time he wants me to. Anywhere. Anytime.