Catching Up With: Army of Darkness – 1993

I mentioned in my review of “Evil Dead 2” that the movie disappointed me in the fact that it didn’t provide enough of a fresh spin on the demon/cabin/mayhem formula set down by the first movie. Luckily, “Army of Darkness” has no such problem. At the end of “ED2” Ash (Bruce Campbell) was sent back in time to the year 1300 by the Necronomicon, unwillingly fulfilling the prophecy of a chainsaw-wielding “Hero From the Sky.” Stuck in medieval times and immediately captured by the nearby kingdom, Ash once again has to fight off the evil curse of the Book of the Dead.

Time travel is a great way to bring something new into the crazy universe this series exists in. “Army of Darkness” also has a huge cult following, just like the Evil Deads. But the legions of “Screwheads” may be disappointed to learn that “Army of Darkness” is an ecstatic lark of a comedy-adventure but not much more  from director Sam Raimi, But before you arm your boomsticks, I don’t think it’s a complete waste of time and effort.

Ash is in captivity at the hands of Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), until he proves himself in battle against one of the “Dead-ites.” Wowing the primitive “screwheads” with his chainsaw and sawed-off shotgun, he quickly earns their adoration, and he demands that the wise man of the court send him home, which can only be accomplished by securing the Book of the Dead. That’s a sketch of a story, and for the most part it’s a sketch of a movie. What gives it some life however is , like the first two films, Raimi’s insane wit and sense of style. With an even bigger budget, “Army of Darkness” is gorgeously shot, with colors bursting off the screen, truly creating a living comic book, along with some still-impressive special effects. Also, Bruce Campbell is a freaking rock star in this movie. He still gets put through the ringer, with an undead clone literally bursting from inside of him. But he is in full action-hero mode, selling the bounty of one-liners (“Good, bad, I’m just the guy with the gun”) like an extra-gonzo Han Solo.

But, the movie doesn’t have much else. It’s a good thing this movie runs a scant 80 minutes, because it may have worn out its welcome if it ran longer. The film mostly consists of the epic battle between Ash and Arthur’s army against the legion of Deadites, who have ensnared the maiden Sheila (Embeth Davidtz). Made up of legions of animated skeletons (a tribute to “Jason and the Argonauts” and the work of  FX legend Ray Harryhausen). The battle is a mixed bag; it is funny and cleverly shot and staged, showcasing Raimi’s affinity for Three Stooges slapstick. But the humor comes from one of my motal enemies: puns. There are so many painfully lame jokes that will have you rolling your eyes quite often. I just don’t find enjoyment in a skeleton saying he has a “bone to pick” with someone. It’s annoying on “Sex and the City” and it’s annoying here. The campy humor and tone gave me the same reaction that I had to Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” movie: this is a Power Rangers episode with a bigger budget and better acting. I know “Army of Darkness” is self-aware, but there is only so much stupidity one can take. It stops being enjoyable and starts being exhausting.

But this film still has style to burn and the wacky charisma of Bruce Campbell to keep it afloat, but just barely. Overall this series has been a slight disappointment for me, with “Army” and “Evil Dead 2” being mild disappointments after the fantastic first movie. Neither one came close to Raimi’s excellent 2009 horror comeback “Drag Me to Hell.” It might be expectations, it might be my prejudice of beat-up old Oldsmobiles. There is still plenty of gory, irreverent fun to be had.

Grade: B-

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Catching Up With: Evil Dead 2 – 1987

If the original “Evil Dead” was writer/director Sam Raimi’s “Mean Streets,” than “Evil Dead 2,” made six years later on a much larger budget, is his “Goodfellas,” in that it takes the skeleton of the first film and expands on its execution; every insane idea Raimi had that was limited by a small budget in this movie. There’s more gore, more Scorsese-on-crack camerawork, more everything. But does bigger mean better in the case of “Evil Dead 2”? Not quite. I know this movie is hailed as possibly the greatest horror sequel ever made (a title that can be filed under “Faint Praise, Damning With”), and it does improve on the first film in several areas, but I think it’s a notch or two beneath it. But don’t get me wrong. This film is still one hilarious, demented trip.

There is speculation as to whether or not “ED2” is really a sequel or just a remake of the first one. Ash (Bruce Campbell) is at the same cabin, and he loses his girlfriend Linda to the evil curse that was unleashed by playing the tape of the Necronomicon scripture, turning her into another walking corpse. We see what might be a continuation of “Evil Dead’s” final shot of the camera swooping in on Ash the morning after the carnage. But the sequel/remake quandary falls by the wayside. All that matters is that Ash is trapped in this house, and he has to hold out until sunrise, which can keep the curse at bay.

Meanwhile, Anna Knowby (Sarah Berry), the daughter of the professor who found the book and made the recordings, is on her way to the cabin to find out what happened to her father, and along the way she runs into Jake (Dan Hicks), a local truck driver, and Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley DePaiva), a local…they never really say, she’s just a moron. They end up going to the cabin with Anna to take part in the mayhem.

These two threads represent what is great and what is underwhelming about “Evil Dead 2.” What does work: Bruce Campbell as Ash. Ash gets more to do in this movie, and Campbell amps up the bug-eyed intensity that is uniquely his to the extreme. The scene early in the film where the curse takes possession of his hand is a flat-out marvel. Campbell puts on an astonishing display of physical comedy on par with Chaplin or Keaton. It’s the most perfect crystallization yet of Raimi’s melding of blood-soaked horror and “Three Stooges” comedy.

The bigger budget has unleashed Raimi as a director. The blood is literally shooting out of the walls, the special effects are dramatically improved (even though they haven’t aged particularly well), and the camerawork is more out-of-control than ever, with Steadicam shots moving at 100 mph and seemingly impossible angle shots. This is reckless imagination completely unfiltered.

But when the movie moves away from Ash and the madness and focuses on the other characters, the middle part of the film becomes a chore to watch. The three new characters and the actors who play them are pretty horrendous. The bad acting wasn’t a problem in the first movie, since it added to the crude, student-film atmosphere. But “Evil Dead 2,” for whatever reason, the bad acting sticks out even more, especially with Berry as Anna. The relationship they try to set up with her and Ash falls completely flat. Emotional cores are of little interest to Raimi and his co-writer Scott Spiegel. They want to keep the grungy, fly-by-night spirit of the first movie while making everything bigger and on a larger canvas. Those two things don’t always mesh, and all the cartoonish violence threatens to reach the tipping point. It doesn’t build suspense, everything but the kitchen sink gets thrown at you throughout the 84-minute run time. All the insanity may be exhausting to some.

Despite these flaws, Raimi and Campbell make a pretty wild team. It’s great to watch Ash transform from a scared hardware salesmen into a chainsaw-and-shotgun wielding badass. The dismemberment, monstrous transformations and even time travel collide in the film’s climax. “Evil Dead 2” doesn’t have the element of surprise that the first film had, this is still a wild ride. A filmmaker with lunatic sensibilities and an actor willing to follow are still, in Ash’s words, pretty “groovy.”

Grade: B+