Lunatics and Laughter Day 11: Army of Darkness (1992)
Writers: Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert, Ian Abercrombie, Richard Grove, Bridget Fonda, Patricia Tallman, Ted Raimi
Plot: S-Mart employee Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) has had a hard time of it – finding the Necronomicon (Book of the Dead), awakening something terrible, getting attacked by zombie-like “Deadites,” being forced to kill his possessed girlfriend and chop off his own hand, and then getting hurled back in time to the middle ages. As the film opens, Ash recalls how he fell through a time portal (along with his car, shotgun, and chainsaw) and was taken into captivity by the soldiers of a warlord named Arthur (Marcus Gilbert). Although Arthur’s Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie) believes Ash to be a prophesied savior, Arthur has him chained with the men of his captured enemy, Henry the Red (Richard Grove). As the captives are marched to a pit for execution, Arthur is attacked by a woman named Sheila (Embeth Davidtz) whose brother was slain by Henry’s men. Arthur blames Henry for loosing an evil upon the land, but Henry claims his men have fallen prey to the same beast. Arthur opens the pit and a captive is tossed in, blood erupting from the bottom. Ash tries to convince Arthur he’s not one of Henry’s men, but Sheila hurls a rock at him and he falls into the pit, where a Deadite awaits. The Wise Man throws Ash’s chainsaw into the pit and, his weapon returned, he escapes. He sets Henry free and uses his shotgun to intimidate Arthur’s men, into obeying him.
The Wise Man tells Ash his only hope of returning home lies in finding the Necronomicon. He prepares for battle, making a mechanical hand for himself. Sheila gives him a blanket, hoping to apologize for her actions, but he rebuffs her at first. When it’s clear she’s upset, he instructs her to “Give me some sugar, baby,” and she sends him off with a kiss. The Wise Man gives Ash the words he needs to allow him to take the book safely: “Klatu Verada Nikto,” but the overconfident Ash refuses to repeat them more than once. He’s pursued by the dark forces from inside the book, who burst from a broken mirror as several miniature versions of himself, tormenting him in painful and amusing ways. One manages to to jump down his throat and sprouts from him as a full-grown “Evil Ash,” whom Ash manages to subdue, chop up, and bury. Ash makes his way to the stone altar where the Necronomicon awaits, but finds he has forgotten the Wise Man’s magic words. He tries to fake his way through it, but when he takes the book an army of skeletal Deadites rises from the earth. Evil Ash, now rotting and mutating, rises to lead them.
Returning to the Castle, Ash insists the Wise Man send him home as soon as possible. Before it can happen, a flying Deadite swoops in and takes Sheila captive. It brings her to Evil Ash, who is opening every grave to set free even more Deadites. When word of the army reaches Arthur he debates fleeing, but Ash is determined to stand and fight. He convinces Arthur’s remaining me to stay, and sends an envoy to Henry the Red, hoping to recruit his army to their cause as well. The Deadite Army approaches, a now-possessed Sheila at Evil Ash’s side, and battle ensues.
Ash’s homemade gunpowder gives Arthur’s forces an early advantage, but the Deadites break down a gate and get inside the fortress walls. Just as it seems the living will be overwhelmed by the dead, Henry the Red’s forces arrive and turn the tide. Evil Ash and Sheila overwhelm the guards protecting the Necronomicon, but Ash manages to toss her over the side of the wall and face his counterpart. The two battle, and Ash defeats the monster and saves the book. The rest of the Deadites retreat, and Sheila is restored. Arthur and Henry make peace and the Wise Man gives Ash a potion that will send him to his own time, provided he can remember the magic words. He bids Sheila farewell and returns to his time and his home, working in S-Mart, where we see him telling the story to an unconvinced, unimpressed coworker. Suddenly, a customer transforms into a Deadite, attacking, and Ash grabs a rifle from the store’s case, blowing her away. It’s not too bad to be home.
Thoughts: The Evil Dead franchise (I covered the first film in the original Reel to Reel project) is a strange animal. The first film is a straight-up “Cabin in the Woods” sort of horror movie. The sequel, Evil Dead II, is a virtual remake of the first, copying the plot and largely ignoring the first film, but providing better special effects and a brand of dark comedy the first laughed. By this third installment, writer/director Sam Raimi decided to go for a full-blown comedy. Bruce Campbell’s Ash – a struggling everyman in the first film – had become a cool-as-ice balls-of-steel action hero capable of creating advanced robotic prosthetics with 14th-century technology. And yes, we love him for it.
Early in the movie Raimi ramps up the already-gory franchise to a truly comical degree, with a literal geyser of blood early. The violence, however, has a much more comical tone than in the first two films, and after that initial spout, there’s surprisingly little blood. A lot of that comes down to the monsters that make up most of the movie – rather than fleshy pseudo-zombies as in the first two movies, the majority of the Deadites this time around are reanimated skeletons – fun to break, but not much blood to spray at the camera. As Ash battles the stop-motion skeletal Deadites, there’s a nice feel of the Three Stooges meeting Jason and the Argonauts. Every bit of action is far sillier than would have been allowed in the earlier movies, in fact. The scene where Ash leaps into the air and snaps his chains aw on to his dismembered hand would be preposterous even in a more serious, Type-A horror/comedy. This movie rides the line between the two types – the basic plot is something out of a horror (or perhaps more accurately, medieval fantasy) film. The antics of Ash and the Deadites, however, are too broad to really place in the same category as Ghostbusters and the like.
For sheer silly, though, nothing tops the battle with the mini-Ashes. This segment is full of pure slapstick, comedic moments that aren’t too far off from the antics of Home Alone, about as far from a straight-up horror movie as you can get. The only thing that keeps things even a little creepy here is Bruce Campbell’s attitude as he does battle with the miniatures, his face growing truly maniacal as he guzzles boiling hot water in the hopes of destroying one that forced itself down his throat. The rest of the scene spins wildly though different gags: Ash finds an eyeball growing on his shoulder and it’s goofy (although there is, to be fair, a nice dose of body horror in that moment), the eye begins sprouting into a second Ash and it gets silly again. If it weren’t for the unique charm Campbell brings to the character, the whole thing would be entirely too inane to give even a moment’s consideration.
That said, Ash truly is an iconic character, thanks mostly to this movie. One of the greatest horror/comedy moments of all time has to be Bruce Campbell’s “boomstick” speech, where he extols the virtues of shopping at S-Mart to a crowd of medieval screwheads (I quote him directly, of course) who live in a world where the fictional retail giant won’t even exist for another 700 years. If you know a movie fan who loves Bruce Campbell and you can’t figure out why, I can only assume you’ve never watched this movie.
The Army of the Dead itself is a pretty macabre sight. Raimi gives us a complex mixture of stop-motion skeletons, mechanical puppets, and people in costumes. Although it’s fairly easy to tell the difference between them, at this point you’ve bought so completely into the world in front of you that you don’t even care if the effects aren’t seamless, the greenscreen is obvious and the action is more like a live action Looney Tunes short than anything else. In fact, some of the more technically absurd moments are the most entertaining. Whenever one of the skeletons explodes in a sudden burst of white dust, you get a visceral thrill, and if you can watch a group of skeletons storming a castle with a battering ram without your inner 11-year-old thinking about how awesome it is, something is terribly wrong with you. By the time Bruce Campbell fights two Deadites with two different swords at the same time, you’re either a fan for life or you’re never going to appreciate what you’re watching.
I know a lot of people prefer this movie’s rather famous original ending, in which Ash is returned home via a magic sleeping potion, but he takes too much, sleeps too long, and awakens in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Thematically, it actually fits the trilogy pretty well. The first movie was unflinchingly bleak, the sequel only marginally less so. Ending the series with a completely hopeless climax would have been perfectly in character. That said, I’m kind of glad Raimi relented and gave us the ending he did. Maybe it’s just because I’m basically a positive person. Maybe it’s because I think Ash deserves a happy ending after everything he’s been through. Or maybe it’s just because the S-Mart finale gives Ash one last moment to be kick a little ass, I don’t know. All I know is that if the theatrical ending had never been filmed, we never would have been treated to Ash’s immortal “Hail to the King, baby.” And that would be a damn shame.
Lunatics and Laughter Day 10: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Writer: Joss Whedon
Cast: Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Paul Rubens, Rutger Hauer, Luke Perry, Michele Abrams, Hilary Swank, David Arquette, Stephen Root, Natasha Gregson Wagner
Plot: Once in every generation a Chosen One is born, a young woman with the power to stand against the tide of the greatest predator in the world, the vampire. Unfortunately, this generation’s slayer is a ditzy cheerleader named Buffy Summers. Buffy (Kristy Swanson) and her friends are hanging out at the mall one day when she’s startled by a creepy figure (Donald Sutherland). She tries to shrug it off, but begins having dreams of an earlier life where she battled a vampire named Lothos (Rutger Hauer). In the present day, Lothos sleeps, but his minion Amilyn (Paul Reubens) is ready to wake him up. A pair of burnouts, Pike (Luke Perry) and Benny (David Arquette) encounter the girls a few times before wandering off, drunk. Benny is taken by Amilyn, while Pike is saved by the strange man from the mall, Merrick. He approaches Buffy and asks her to accompany him to a graveyard so she can claim her “birthright.” She doesn’t believe his claim that she is the Chosen One, but when he begins describing her dreams to her, she agrees to accompany him. Two freshly dead people rise, transformed into vampires, and Buffy instinctively stakes them.
Pike, home in bed, is approached by Benny, who hovers outside his window and cannot enter without an invitation. Benny cries that he’s hungry, brandishing a new pair of fangs, and Pike refuses him entry. Unnerved by the strange things he’s seen, Pike plans to leave town. Meanwhile Buffy, after some persuasion, begins the training she should have undergone years ago, taking to the night to slay the vampires. She winds up saving Pike, whose effort to escape town is thwarted when he’s jumped by Amilyn. Amilyn escapes, but loses an arm in the process, and is scolded by Lothos for his failure.
At a basketball game, Buffy realizes one of her friends has been turned and pursues him through the streets of the city. Pike joins in the chase and the two, on motorcycles, hunt him to a storage yard for parade floats. Lothos and Merrick both intervene in the fight, and the vampire lord slays Buffy’s mentor. Buffy’s friends show no sympathy when she turns up depressed the next day, and she and Pike get in a fight in public over her unwillingness to continue the fight. Neither of them know Benny is nearby, hears the fight, and learns that Buffy is the Chosen One. With her name revealed, Amilyn and Lothos plan to destroy her.
Pike crashes the senior dance, dancing with and kissing Buffy just before Lothos’s vampires break through the windows and attack the hundreds of assembled teens. Pike presents Buffy with a bag of stakes he prepared, and she goes on a slaying spree. Benny and Pike fight in the dance, Benny offering to change his buddy into a vampire, but Pike refuses and slays him. Buffy encounters Amilyn in a stairwell, staking him in front of Lothos, who is unmoved by his minion’s death (or melodramatic death scene). Their battle spreads back to the gym, and Buffy stakes Lothos in full view of the school. Together, Buffy and Pike ride his motorcycle into the sunrise, leaving the town to wonder what the hell just happened.
Thoughts: Joss Whedon is, today, a god among geeks, creator of such cult favorites as Firefly and Dollhouse, director of the biggest superhero movie of all time in The Avengers, and pioneer of original online content with Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. (Not to mention is more recent film Cabin in the Woods, a great entry into the horror canon, my analysis of which is available exclusively in the eBook edition of Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen.) His star began to rise in earnest in 1997, when his Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show became a hit for the fledgling CW network. That show largely ignored the film that birthed the character, though. Released in 1992, Whedon was never happy with the way director Fran Rubel Kuzui treated his script, playing it as a much broader comedy than he intended. And in truth, anybody who watches more than a few minutes of the TV show will agree that the film pales in comparison. That said, though, looking back 20 years later, there is a bit of cheesy charm in this original version of the Slayer.
Whedon’s initial concept was to take the typical horror movie victim – the teenage girl – and turn her into the hero. It’s a great, simple idea, but the final film goes a bit too far in playing up the stereotypes. Buffy and her friends (including future Oscar winner Hilary Swank) are vapid to the point of obnoxiousness. That may well be the intent, but once they start jabbering about choosing “litter” as the theme for a socially-conscious school dance, you kinda want to see them all die. The only thing more irritating is the basketball coach shouting to his team to “actualize” as though it’s a defensive strategy. Pretty much all of the humor is too broad for the characters, in fact. The only really goofy moment that works is when you realize the vampires have, in fact, been invited to the dance and thus can enter. Of course they were invited. They’re seniors.
Much of the violence and action isn’t quite believable either. An early scene where Buffy chops up a hot dog Benny is using to taunt her is supposed to be an early indicator that she’s got power, but instead just seems like the director used poor editing to cover a joke that had no punch. A few minutes later, when Merrick throws a knife at her and Buffy catches it, it’s even worse. The image is so stilted I’m inclined to believe Swanson was actually filmed throwing the knife away and Kuzui played it in reverse.
For all its faults, there are some good moments in the film. Some of Buffy’s dreams are a bit silly, but others are played for straight horror. There’s a nice one, for example, where she’s going to bed and the viewer doesn’t quite realize she’s already asleep when she lies down, Lothos beside her. For a moment you think she’s just oblivious to her enemy (even though it’s already been made clear a vampire cannot enter a person’s home without an invitation), but when he gives her a teddy bear and she curls up on him it’s downright unnerving. You feel a little relief, moments later, when she wakes up. Placing one of the fight scenes in the parade float storage yard is another nice touch – the oversized figures and statuary make for a suitably eerie backdrop for a fight. It’s kind of sad this is the last thing Kuzui directed, she actually has an okay eye for horror that would have worked well in the darker-toned Buffy TV show (where she served as an executive producer). That less broad version of the character may not have been too bad in her hands.
Buffy would later become a great character in the hands of Sarah Michelle Gellar, but the embryonic form still has a bit of steel in her. Swanson’s Buffy is never quite as vapid as her friends, and begins to grow rather quickly. She isn’t the girl power icon she would later become, though. I still keep going back and forth on an element of the character that was disposed of entirely when she transitioned to television – the use of menstrual cramps as an early warning that vampires are nearby. Somebody out there help me – is it empowering to use a nuisance that is unique to women as a weapon in the fight against evil, or is it patronizing to base Buffy’s Spider-Sense surrogate on a natural process that is so often played as a negative stereotype? I feel somehow that the answer to that question would go a long way towards explaining if it’s okay to like this movie or not, but having a Y chromosome (as I do), I don’t think I’m actually qualified to answer it.
Paul Reubens is a really bizarre casting choice. At this point in his career he was already known primarily as Pee-Wee Herman, a role that he put away after an embarrassing public incident the year before. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Doing Buffy felt like an effort to rejuvenate his career, and although it didn’t really succeed, it wasn’t for lack of trying. His Amilyn works well as a sort of Renfield, the second banana to the main vampire, with just enough of an edge to feel like a credible threat. The only time he gets silly or plays up his traits as a physical comedian is during his extremely protracted death scene. (That scene, by the way, isn’t a bad joke, but it’s a joke that goes on entirely too long.) He, at least, is memorable, though. Rutger Hauer’s Lothos… not so much. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s just dull compared to all of the other great vampire performances out there.
It’s an early 90s film, but it actually carries with it a lot of the tropes of the 80s teen sports movie: the character who doesn’t want to play the game, a training montage in which she unlocks her natural talent, and a Big Game at the end for all the glory. There’s even the requisite clueless authority figure (a very funny turn by Stephen Root) who both hassles Buffy for the change in her behavior and tries to be her pal, sharing far too much information with her than anybody is really comfortable with. There’s also a fun little game of “spot the future celebrity” worth playing. Hilary Swank has a sizable role, but you can also catch Ben Affleck as an opposing basketball player, Thomas Jane as a punk teenager, and Ricki Lake and Seth Green (who would go on to have a regular role on the Buffy TV show) as vampires.
For all the crap it gets, the movie isn’t really all that bad. It’s competently made, and none of the performances are horrible. The plot works, but the tone is off. This never would have made any credible “worst of all time” list, it would simply have been forgotten, one of hundreds of movies made every year that are completely off the cultural radar short months later. We remember it, though, if for no other reason than because it gave us one of the greatest horror heroines of all time.