It has been asked why neither this site nor Stomp Tokyo has yet ventured into the land of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies; a major reason is doubtless the amount of ink (physical and cyber) that has already been expended on the flicks. There's a lot of verbiage out there about this trilogy, some good, some bad, none indifferent. I doubt there is a horror fan in the universe today that has not seen these pictures (barring those unfortunates who live in countries where the flicks have landed on "Video Nasty"-type lists), so why add more text to an already crowded field?
Well, for one thing, because that is what we do.
The Evil Dead films, like them or no, have been influential, iconic and emblematic in fields beyond the cinematic. And whether the movies are direct causes, or Sam Raimi is simply brilliant at scoping out the zeitgeist of the periods of the picture's releases, the Evil Dead trilogy can be used as a roadmap to trace the decline of the American Horror Film.
One of the hardest things when reviewing the first Evil Dead movie is not complaining about the length of the setup. Evil Dead doesn't take any longer to get to its horrific setpieces than most other movies - the first act, roughly the first 25 minutes, are taken up introducing the characters and the situation. As I said, not uncommon. The difference is that in Evil Dead II, Raimi gets things moving in the first five minutes. At three minutes into the movie, the tape recorder is played; at five minutes, the first possession takes place.
In order to move things along this speedily, the party going to the cabin has been pared down to Ash and his girlfriend (Denise Bixler), and they're not renting the cabin, they're basically breaking and entering, allowing them to find the tape recorder out in the open. After being forced to decapitate his demonic girlfriend with a shovel, Ash tries to leave, but once more, that final hurtling POV catches him (hopefully not injuring him this time): and there it is, the final moment of the first movie at about six minutes.
A full rundown of what occurs thereafter would fill out this column to epic lengths, and it would never get posted; suffice to say that the hallucinogenic portions of the first movie here acquire greater breadth and exposure, and the comic elements of that film - which are not so readily apparent unless you look for them - come to the fore. I won't go through all of them, because most of you know what they are - and for those of you who have not yet seen this movie, I can only say: I envy you. I envy you the ability to watch this and be amazed for the first time.
After a bunch of nastiness, Ash's right hand becomes possessed and tries to kill him; Ash cuts it off with a chainsaw, which is one of the few moments of actual gore in the movie. Raimi was shooting toward an 'R' rating, but the movie got released unrated anyway. The rest of the bodily fluids on display in the movie display an impressive rainbow of colorings, 'cause they're like, the evil dead and stuff.
Ash is joined in the cabin by Annie (Sarah Berry), the daughter of the archeologist on the tape recording, her preppie boyfriend (Richard Domeier) and their two hillbilly guides, Jake and Bobbie Jo (Dan Hicks & Kassie DePaiva, who looks too much like she just stepped out of the beauty parlor, but what do I know?). Of course, finding no parents and some crazy guy with a shotgun and a bloody chainsaw, wrong conclusions are jumped to and Ash gets tossed into that creepy cellar with the possessed matron, Henrietta (Ted Raimi).
By the time we hit the third act, the two hillbillies have gotten their various stupidity-driven rewards, Ash has gotten possessed again (and fought his way clear), and the one thing that can save our two survivors are the missing pages from the Book of the Dead, which are down in the cellar - along with the monstrous Henrietta. This is the portion of the movie where a true Bad Movie aficianado's blood begins to sing: Annie and Ash rig up a harness that replaces his missing hand with the chainsaw, and Ash saws off the barrel of the shotgun to a more manageable, and deadly, length. That done, he twirls the sawed-off weapon gunslinger style, slaps it neatly into a holster at his back, and growls the movie's most famous line, "...Groovy." I still have to repress the urge to stand up at cheer at that moment. This movie alone re-introduced the word into my vocabulary.
Ash retrieves the pages, and the demon doo-doo hits the fan quite quickly, although he manages to hack up Henrietta, the Big Darkness Itself comes calling, and the ancient incantation actually opens up a supernatural vortex that sucks up everything not nailed down, including trees, demons, Ash's car - and Ash himself, who finds himself marooned in medieval times, where the local knights are having a spot of bother with the "deadites". After Ash blows the head off one with his shotgun, he is hailed as "the hero from the sky", as foretold in the Book of the Dead, which still leaves Ash in a fix, howling his denial to the 14th century sky. The End.
Raimi's second feature after the success of Evil Dead was not this sequel, but a strange film called Crimewave (originally The XYZ Murders), which was a cartoonish noir exercise which left everyone scratching their heads. Raimi once said that with Crimewave, he was seeking to give the filmgoing public a complete experience - thrills, laughter, tears. As most people have neither seen or heard of Crimewave, things didn't quite work out that way, primarily because the movie seems to be reality-based, with Raimi's somewhat-extreme Looney Tunes sense of humor way out of place... which just makes it funnier, if you have a similar sense of humor. Most don't.
The magic of Evil Dead II is that, by placing these humorous elements in a horror setting - by its own nature, already quite outrageous - the average movie audience is much more willing to accept and flow with the frenetic happenings onscreen. I've spoken with people who were quite terrified by the goings-on (as they should be) until Ash has a fight scene with his own possessed right hand, which smashes plate after plate over his head until his eyes cross and he goes unconscious... when they thought, wait a minute...is this supposed to be funny?
This confusion is understandable and wonderful - Evil Dead II remains unpredictable and absorbing throughout, yet retains its intensity. Once, during a party, I was discussing horror films with a friend, and the subject of Evil Dead came up, along with the fact that we both really hated the ending. I asked if he had seen Evil Dead II, and its continuation of the ending; he had not, so I put it in the VCR, intending to show him just a few minutes of the movie. As it progressed, though, the party ground to a halt as more and more people were drawn to the TV. Eventually, Evil Dead II became the party.
The acting in the sequel is quite good, with a stand-out monster performance by Ted Raimi. Sarah Berry's Annie is quite strong, a good match for Ash, and I am forced to wonder why we have never seen Ms. Berry again. And then, of course, there is Bruce Campbell, who solidified his career as a human cartoon. Oh, Ash took his lumps in the first movie, but that was largely restricted to smashing two shabbily-constructed bookshelves and having whatever gooey substance was currently erupting pointed squarely at his face; In Dead by Dawn, he easily becomes the most abused character in the history of film, which only adds to our delight when he becomes Mad Max in the last act. And some mention must be made of the typically good Mark Shostrom makeup: I am always astounded by the amount of emotion Campbell can make play through the possessed Ash latex.
Yes, Evil Dead II may be (I will go so far as to say) the perfect spookshow: scary, funny, invigorating. But I also feel it is emblematic of some troublesome trends in the horror movies of the time. First, more and more humor was being injected into horror films, and without the mastery of a Raimi or a Tim Burton (as in Beetlejuice), most efforts proved unfunny and frustrating. After its third outing, the Nightmare on Elm Street series stopped even trying to be scary, satisfying themselves with outre deaths and a boogeyman who had stopped being a personification of evil and instead became a (failed) stand-up comic. This, of course, led to similar films without even the saving grace of some scary early moments (I'm thinking Leprechaun here), and complete misfires like Dead Heat, for which somebody still owes me money.
There are exceptions, of course - there always are (think Tremors). But these only serve to throw their lesser brethren deeper into the pit of damnation.
The other trend, even more damning, is the tendency to show us everything. Again, this trend was not started by Dead by Dawn (more likely culprits include the first Friday the 13th and Dawn of the Dead), but it is a prime example. At no time are we required to exercise our imagination; although the camera looks away when the chainsaw is employed, we are either shown the actual act in silhouette or the immediate effect itself, as with various body parts of Henrietta flying through the air (yeah, I saw the wires, too, but I'm inclined to be forgiving). There are some things you shouldn't try to show, and the Big Darkness poking its head through the front door is a prime example.
But once more, we can forgive this, for Raimi and crew have taken us on a fine ride, one like Space Mountain, where you can't see the upcoming flips and turns; in short, it keeps you guessing. In more formulaic horror movies, however, there is no need to invest one's imagination; indeed, with the entire plot known ahead of time (wisecracking killer will off characters A, B, C, D and F, but get killed... several times ...by virginal character G), the entire reason to even see these movies became the FX sequences, where, again, everything is shown. This crop of films forsook the entire experience the film could have offered for isolated moments - much like watching an hour of TV simply to view the commercials.
To sum up: Dead by Dawn , in its end credits, contains the copyright notice "Evil Dead II: The Sequel to the Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror". It should have read "The Remake of...", but that's beside the point. Far from being the source of the woes of horror movies at the end of the 80's, it serves as an example of Doing Things Right - but, as ever, Hollywood seized upon the most obvious facets of the exercise, and ignored the parts which could not be speedily photocopied: untiring devotion to one's (admittedly perverse) vision, and the ability to have fun.
Then there was the time I was discussing Dead by Dawn with a friend. I mentioned Ash's seeming indestructibility, and he opined, "He's dead in the first five minutes. The rest of the time, he's in Hell." It's certainly an interesting theory, and if he is in Hell, it's run by the Three Stooges. However, in Army of Darkness, Hell is run by Ray Harryhausen.
With typical revisionism, Army of Darkness opens with Ash, hailed as a conquering hero at the end of the last movie, in chains, a 'slave', by his own voiceover. In the mini-flashback that follows, we are given a very sketchy outline of Dead by Dawn (and we note that Ash's girlfriend has been upgraded to Bridget Fonda!). The final scene is restaged, but without the interference of Dead by Dawn's flying Deadite, it is assumed by the warlord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and his men that Ash is one of the defeated Duke Henry the Red's (Richard Grove) men. Ash is summarily tossed into the queue of prisoners, over the protests of the wizardly Wise One (Ian Abercrombie), who feels that Ash is "the hero from the skies" foretold in The Book.
Back at Arthur's castle, Henry's men are tossed one-by-one into a pit that contains the community's pet Deadite. When Ash is tossed in, the Wise Guy manages to toss in his chainsaw, allowing Ash to make short work of the demon and impress - and scare the hell out of - the "primitive screwheads". Ash releases Henry, prompting the ire of Arthur, who backs down after Ash demonstrates his sawed-off "boomstick".
The only way for Ash to get home resides in our old pal, the Book of the Dead, which just so happens to be what the Deadites would love to get their claws on, too. Everybody wants that book: the Deadites, to take over the world, the humans to destroy the Deadites, and Ash to get back to his own time. As the resident Hero From The Sky, Ash has to journey to a remote and horrific graveyard to retrieve the book.
After a detour to provide us with the usual Ash-alone-in-a-building-fending-off-weirdness weirdness, culminating in his "bad" side splitting off from his body, Manster-style, Ash retrieves the Book from the cemetery, only to find that he has forgotten the magic words necessary to make that act safe. Having mumbled and coughed his way through an approximation of the words, he is dismayed to find that he has set off a curse that causes all the dead in the land to rise and take arms against him - led by his Bad Double, which has a terminal case of the Uglies brought on by Ash's blowing his face off.
Bad Ash's skeletal army besieges the castle, but is stymied by Ash's introduction of gunpowder (thanks to a chemistry textbook) and a tricked-up '73 Oldsmobile, delaying them long enough for the cavalry, in the guise of Henry the Red (who owed Ash a big favor) to arrive. Bad Ash goes out in a blaze (literally), the Deadites are routed, all is sweetness and light. Ash is given a potion to drink that will make him sleep until the 'present' rolls around - trick is, he has to get those magic words right...
Which apparently he does, as the movie ends with him relating the tale to a fellow clerk at S-Mart. "So did you get the words right?" asks the clerk (Ted Raimi). "Yeah... basically." But Ash's mangling of the incantation has allowed the Deadites access to our modern world, and he winds up having a fight with one in the Housewares department. The end.
Well, an end. It's fairly common knowledge that Universal found the original ending too downbeat: Ash screws up the magic words (or drinks too much potion, I haven't seen the actual ending), sleeps too long and wakes up to a bombed-out, Post-Apocalyptic world. This ending would have been much more satisfying, retaining the feel of the earlier movies and continuing Ash's career as the Most Royally Screwed Character in film history. There has been a brisk business on the gray market of the laserdisc of the Japanese release, Captain Supermarket, which preserves that ending. A Mad Max-style Evil Dead adventure would have been a hoot; however, given the revision of the setup and the ending, it might have ended up as a Spaghetti Western (Raimi did eventually make his Spaghetti Western, The Quick and the Dead. Despite the title, there are no Evil Dead present).
The revisionism didn't stop there either. The Evil Dead can now be killed by a few well-placed gunshots, for example. The white streaks in Ash's hair, gained when he looked into the face of the Big Darkness in the last movie (and quoted in the flashback), mysteriously vanish. Ash was always good in a knock-down, bar fight sort of way, but when did he become so proficient with a sword and a spear? How the hell is he operating that mechanical hand?
Before I get on to more hurtful stuff, I should stop to mention that the battle scenes with the Army of Darkness are quite good, an often-clever combination of live actors and puppetry. Even the occasional stop-motion skeleton works well, instead of merely drawing attention to itself, as is so often the case (Evil Dead II was especially bad about that - though it just adds to the cheese factor).
This is the first of the Evil Dead movies that actually has time for character development for its protagonist, and it's unfortunate that this development all goes toward proving that Ash is a jerk...and I find it hard to cheer for a jerk. The comedy is much, much more overt in Army of Darkness, to the point that the constant Three Stooges references become tiresome and sorely out of place, interrupting the story rather than progressing it. The segment with Ash in the windmill, in particular, feels like so much padding, a sop to the fans of the first two movies, even if it does introduce Ash's nemesis.
Even more out of place and jarring are those "magic words" that Ash can't remember. For the record, they are Klaatu barada nikto, the immortal words from The Day the Earth Stood Still, which have been quoted so many other times in so many other movies that they now seem quite tired and shopworn.
Worst of all, Army of Darkness is not a horror film, which was certainly what we ticket buyers were expecting. Although it achieved a high ranking (#29) in a Web poll-based listing of The Top 100 Horror Films of All Time, it is difficult to find a moment that is truly horrific, frightening or even creepy. Army of Darkness is an action film with monsters. At best, it should be categorized as Fantasy. If it is a horror film, so are Jason and the Argonauts and any Sinbad movie you might care to name.
And it is here that Army of Darkness serves as our final benchmark in the steady decline of the American Horror Movie - quite simply, by this time, horror movies ceased to be horror movies. Most of the product released were either action or comedy films with monsters, or worse, simply went through the motions of being scary, aping movies that went before them, like a diminishing hall of mirrors. Sadly, what had begun as The Ultimate Experience In Grueling Terror ended up as little more than a dress rehearsal for Raimi's hugely successful Hercules and Xena TV series.
Though we can speak disparagingly of the Decline of the American Horror Movie, there is no denying that in the last few years, things have been looking up. Although horror has attracted its share of over-bloated misfires (the CGI-laden extravaganza that was the remake of Robert Wise's beautifully subtle The Haunting), there have been some movies that have worked to bring the genre back to its roots, and tapped into that Urban Legend vein that immediately brings a familiar shudder to our backbones.
First, there's the hugely successful Scream; before the movie descends into Post-Modern irony and cynicism, the prologue, with Drew Barrymore terrorized by a mysterious caller, employs the same setup used for any number of campfire stories. And for campfire stories made flesh, we need look no further than the even more successful The Blair Witch Project.
Blair Witch is probably more appropriately the Poster Child for being Victimized By One's Own Hype Machine, rather than the Second Coming of Horror - I was more frightened checking out their Web site in the middle of the night than I was in the theater - but its major contribution to the genre at the end of this century is the return of the central concept of engaging the audience's imagination. Even the one moment of explicit gore in the movie is more implicit than anything: the opening of the bloody bundle found outside the tent. The identity of the contents of that bundle differs with each audience member.
Almost universally, the audience for Blair Witch seemed quite young, judging from the audience I saw it with, and the many lines I saw waiting for entrance in the weeks to come. This is not only due to the buzz generated among the Internet-savvy (I feel), but that a generation of filmgoers, raised on the Freddys and the Jasons, and used to being shown everything, were suddenly called upon to flex the long-disused muscles of their imaginations. The nighttime scenes in Blair Witch were more like old radio shows than anything else, and those could be frightening.
Ah, but we're here to talk about the Evil Dead movies, aren't we? There is no denying the series' impact. The popular computer game, Duke Nukem 3-D lifts damn near all its one-liners from either Evil Dead II or Army of Darkness; the Mad Max Ash from the end of Dead by Dawn made a cameo appearance as a bad guy in the excellent Canadian CGI TV series Reboot; and the most frequently requested action figure on Usenet is, you guessed it, Ash with chainsaw hand and sawed-off shotgun. I've said it before, the series is influential, iconic, and emblematic - it's just a shame that it strayed so far, just like its genre, from its roots.