Writers: Mitchell Kapner & David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the works of L. Frank Baum
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox, Bruce Campbell
Plot: Carnival huckster Oscar Zoroaster Diggs (James Franco) is swept up by a cyclone and hurled away to the mysterious, magical land of Oz. There, he finds himself caught in a power struggle between three witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) over the realm’s vacant throne. A prophesy claims that a wizard from another land will save Oz from wickedness, but can this humbug of a man find in himself the hero that Oz needs?
Thoughts: Before I really dig into this movie, I think it’s only fair that I (briefly) tell you about my personal history with Oz, so you can understand where my opinion is coming from. Like most people these days, my first exposure to Oz was the 1939 MGM film, which I saw as a child and enjoyed. When I was a bit older, though, at my local public library (visit ‘em kids, they’re awesome) I found an entire shelf of Oz books by the creator, L. Frank Baum. I devoured the books they had (which, as it turned out, weren’t all of them), and since then I’ve been a devoted consumer of any book, movie, or comic book I can find that offers a different vision of the land of Oz. Although I think there is plenty of room in media for many, many different Ozzes (a phenomenon I discussed in more depth on my other blog yesterday), in my heart, my favorite visions of Oz are those that pay due deference to Baum.
And it’s with that perspective that I can say I enjoyed Oz the Great and Powerful immensely. (Don’t worry, I’ll put up a warning before I get into any spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen it.)
The biggest problem with prequels, as George Lucas proved, is that it’s difficult to maintain suspense when the audience already knows where the characters will be when the story ends. This isn’t really a big problem with this film, though. Baum gave precious little backstory on many of his main characters, and almost none on the witches of Oz (although subsequent writers would often turn to this as their inspiration), and that leaves the screenwriters an enormous amount of room to play in. They also create a version of Oz that is mostly consistent with the books, while still giving a few nods to the 1939 film that they know is what most people will use as their measuring stick.
The casting is very good. Zach Braff as Finley the Flying Monkey brings a totally unexpected element of comedy to the film, one that serves to give us a glimpse of light in very dark moments. Each of the witches feels very natural in their respective roles – Mila Kunis’s naïve Theodora and Rachel Weisz’s sly Evanora work very well as the sister witches, and from the beginning present an interesting question to the audience… which of the two will someday become the insidious Wicked Witch of the West, and which one has a date with a house that’s going to fall out of the next tornado?
Michelle Williams is almost perfect as Glinda. While Billie Burke’s portrayal from 1939 is that of a hands-off fairy godmother, the sort who prefers to pulls the strings and not get directly involved, Williams is a much fiercer, braver woman. The display of power she puts forth in this movie is impressive, and certainly more in keeping with the character Baum created. He didn’t go in for the pyrotechnics quite as much as this movie does, mind you, but it’s easy to see Williams’s Glinda capable of maturing into the strong, confidant witch she becomes in the original books.
Then there’s Oz himself, James Franco. Oddly enough, he’s the only one of the main cast that doesn’t always work for me, and it’s for an strange reason. Franco plays Oz as a snake oil salesman, a con man who has a good heart buried somewhere deep inside, and that’s all well and good, that’s how he should come across. But there are moments in the film where it feels like he’s actually overselling the overselling, moments where you’d want Sam Raimi to ask him to dial it back down to 11 from 12 or 13.
As for Raimi’s directing… it’s fantastic. His visual effects team has built a brilliant, remarkable Oz that satisfies me on absolutely every level. Even the 3-D in this film is superior to most others. It’s funny – I’ve long said that I’ve never seen a movie that convinces me that 3-D is a tool that improves storytelling, that there is no movie that does for 3-D what the 1939 The Wizard of Oz did for color… and this film almost does it. Raimi’s transition from Kansas to Oz is a truly remarkable moment, and one that uses 3-D in a very clever way, similar to the way the ’39 film did with color. It’s visually stunning and, for a few scarce moments, I was glad I saw it in 3-D. Then later on he starts throwing monsters and spears straight at the camera and I was over it. Raimi also throws in a few moments of self-reference, which I think are fun as well… there’s one scene that’s almost straight out of his own Army of Darkness, which had my friends and me in hysterics, probably because we’re the only people in the theater that got the joke.
I’ve got other things to say about this movie, including a few problems, but nothing I can discuss without putting up a spoiler wall. So if you’ve read this far and you haven’t seen the movie yet, let me assure you that it has my wholehearted recommendation. It’s a great fantasy film, probably too scary for the little kids, but well worth watching in the movie theater. And I won’t even judge you for choosing the 3-D this time.
SPOILERS AFTER THIS LINE. ———————————————————————————————-
Aside from Franco being a bit over the top, my biggest problem with the story itself is one of timing… not pacing, timing. Once Franco arrives in Oz, it feels like things happen entirely too fast. For one thing, I think it’s clear too early in the film that it is Theodora, not Evanora, who is fated to become the Wicked Witch of the West. In fact, I think it’s clear too early that Evanora is the real villain, and not the “Wicked Witch” the sisters are warning us about. Granted, as soon as we learn the “Wicked Witch” is named Glinda, the audience should know Franco is being conned, but that moment should be played as a reveal and never really gets that chance.
Theodora’s emotional turns are also hurt by the sheer speed of the piece. I’m not entirely sure (after just one viewing) but it seems like no more than three days pass between her meeting Oz and her transformation. In that time she falls madly in love with him, decides she’s going to marry him and become his queen, and then grows to utterly hate him when she sees a glimpse of him talking to Glinda and learns that he “romanced” her sister the same way he did her. (Incidentally, I think the film does a nice turn leaving it a little ambiguous as to whether or not this actually happened. We see Oz work his charms on various women in the movie, but never Evanora, which leads me to suspect he never did. Instead, I got the impression Evanora pulls off the con on her sister because she was spying on the two of them in her globe the whole time.) The sheer speed with which Theodora’s affections turn weakens the character, making her the fantasy equivalent of the internet Overly Attached Girlfriend meme. Even more problematic, she truly becomes wicked not because her heart is broken, but because after her heart is broken she allows her sister to make her evil. It’s still the character making a choice, but I think it’s a weak choice, she doesn’t “earn” her evil, so to speak… not so much a monster as a victim, which will give her death at Dorothy’ s hands a level of forced tragedy I don’t think works.
It seems very clear to me that this movie was made to be the beginning of a franchise, despite its prequel status – and in fact, Disney was already talking about sequel plans the day before the movie was released. I’ve got no problem with this turning into a franchise, but it’s a little too obvious that was the intent… instead of taking us from point A to point Z (“Z” being where The Wizard of Oz begins), this gets us to about… let’s say “J.” The film ends with Oz in power and the witches banished, but there are a lot of things that don’t mesh up. Evanora doesn’t have the Silver Shoes (or, if you insist on going with the MGM version, Ruby Slippers). Theodora isn’t in command of the Flying Monkeys. Both sisters have been driven out and humiliated, where Evanora pretty much has dominion over Munchkinland when the original begins. Probably lots of other little bits I’m forgetting now, but will remember when I (inevitably) see the movie again.
The biggest sequel hooks come in for the Wizard himself, though… specifically, he’s not the recluse we know he’s doomed to become. He and Glinda have a romantic relationship, which simply doesn’t fit the first movie (or any other incarnation, for that matter). This gives the screenwriters a delicate task – they have to do something to alter the relationship in such a way that they are no longer together, that he has retreated into his palace, but where she still has enough faith in him to send Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road when she drops from the sky. Then there are Finley and the China Girl, Oz’s surrogate family. Their inclusion in this story is actually wonderful, but it has us poised for tragedy. The moment Finley swears his life debt to Oz, pledging to remain with him until he (Finley) dies, I had a chill at every moment he was in danger. We know that the Wizard has no Finley when Dorothy arrives, and there’s simply no way the character Zach Braff played would ever turn on his friend… which leaves only one possible reason for his absence in the later stories.
I appreciated a lot of the little touches that were brought in from the original book, for example, the inclusion of all four of the peoples of Oz, and not only the Munchkins as the original film did. The prominence of the China Town was good too, although it does raise the question of how it will be rebuilt to the point it will be when Dorothy arrives. (Then again, as this is a point left out of the original film, perhaps the filmmakers don’t plan to address it again.) And although there were a few creatures we encountered that didn’t come straight from the books, there was nothing that would feel out of place in a Baum story, and so I’m perfectly happy with that.
As a lifelong Oz fan, though, there’s one glaring red flag waving in my face, one thing that simply flat-out contradicts any version of Oz I’ve ever seen, one thing I’m having a little trouble getting over, and that’s the notion that Glinda is the daughter of the murdered King of Oz. This doesn’t fit in anywhere, and I have a hard time wrapping my brain around it… not only idea that Glinda is the king’s daughter, but also the question of what this means for the true ruler of Oz in the original novels, Princess Ozma. Considering how much work was done to mine the book, making a change of this magnitude is really troublesome to me. At the end of the movie, I kept waiting for an exchange like this:
OZ: Hey, if your father was the king, doesn’t that mean you should be queen?
GLINDA: No, I had to renounce my claim to the throne when I chose to become a witch. My sister was supposed to take over, but she’s been missing ever since our father died.
Not a perfect solution, I admit, but at least it would be something. The point is, it’s not a minor quibble, but a major chance to the Oz canon that I think the sequels simply have to address.
That said, as big an issue as I have with that element, I still really enjoyed this movie. It’s a modern Oz with a timeless feeling, which is as much as anybody could possibly have hoped for, and I hope to see Disney march forward with this franchise for a long time… even, if they have the guts, rolling into an actual adaptation of the original novel. Despite all the different versions of Oz that have hit the screen, very few filmmakers have dared try a full-on adaptation of the original, fearing comparisons to the MGM film. If the Disney juggernaut doesn’t have the courage to finally make a version of The Wizard of Oz that’s closer to the book, nobody ever will. And that, my friends, is where I really want to see this franchise go.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
Writer: Don Coscarelli, from the short story by Joe Lansdale
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy
Plot: In Mud Creek Texas, there’s a quiet little nursing home called Shady Rest with a few extraordinary residents. Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell) lies in bed bemoaning how his grand “plan” went horribly wrong. As he feeling sorry for himself, his roommate loudly expires in the bed next to him. That night, a woman is attacked in bed by a huge scarab beetle. After the beetle bites her, a horrific man appears in her bedroom. Down the hall, Sebastian sees her being dragged past his door, asking for help. Thinking it’s a dream, he goes back to sleep, and the next morning, she’s found dead.
Sebastian wakes up to find a young woman going through his deceased roommate’s belongings. Callie (Heidi Marnhout), the man’s daughter, starts throwing things out, and Sebastian asks if he can keep some of them. He’s dismayed that she hasn’t been to visit him in the three years since he’d come to the home, and he wonders if his own daughter would visit him if she knew he was still alive. His nurse (Ella Joyce) comes in and he insists she call him by his given name. He doesn’t go by Sebastian Haff anymore – he’s Elvis Presley. The nurse insists he’s an old Elvis impersonator who has had mental problems since he came out of a coma years ago. Elvis claims he traded place with the real Haff, an Elvis impersonator, after he decided he was tired of the manufactured thing his managers had turned him into. Elvis isn’t Shady Rest’s only celebrity tenant, though. His friend Jack (Ossie Davis) claims to be John F. Kennedy, victim of a conspiracy. Jack says his brain was tampered with and his skin dyed black in order to get him out of the way years ago. Even Elvis is skeptical of Jack’s story.
That night, when Elvis wakes up to go to the bathroom, he sees a scarab the size of his hand. He manages to kill it and goes to Jack’s room, where his wheelchair-bound friend is lying on the floor facedown. He’s alive, but confused, saying he saw someone “scuttling” through the hall, someone he believes the conspiracy sent to finish him off (possibly Lyndon Johnson). As he thinks about the bugs, about Jack, about Callie, Elvis starts to feel an energy he hasn’t had in years. For the first time in years, something interesting is happening.
The next night, Jack wakes Elvis up to show him bathroom graffiti that turns out to be Egyptian hieroglyphics. Jack tells Elvis that, the night before, his strange assassin tried to suck out his soul, and he believes there’s a connection. Elvis finds a book that indicates the creature may be a mummy, one that survives by eating souls, but can’t last long on “small souls,” souls of people who have little joy for life. The nursing home makes for the perfect place to feed without drawing suspicion. As the lights start to flash Elvis steps into the hall and encounters the mummy – a gnarled, ancient man in cowboy attire (Bob Ivy). Their eyes lock and Elvis sees moments of the mummy’s life. As it walks away, another resident comes out of his room and dies of a ruptured heart. Elvis and Jack take comfort in the knowledge that the mummy failed to consume the old man’s soul.
The next day Elvis tries to track the mummy, finding his way to a creek nearby. In the water, he finds a submerged van near a bridge, and recalls the mummy – from its own memories – being lost in a van crash. Jack meets him later with research that indicates there was a mummy stolen from a museum years ago by a pair of crooks in a van, on the night of an incredible storm. Although Jack wants to adopt a defensive strategy against the monster, Elvis persuades him to go on the offensive. Suited up and armed, the old men prepare for battle. When the mummy appears and tries to suck out Jack’s soul, Elvis douses it with lighter fluid and sets it ablaze. Jack implores him to “take care of business,” and dies. Elvis climbs in Jack’s wheelchair and charges, battling the mummy to the edge of the creek. He lights the mummy on fire again, and it plunges into the water, inert. Too wounded to go on, Elvis Aaron Presley dies as what he always only pretended to be in his movies: a hero.
Thoughts: By the time Bubba Ho-Tep came out in 2002, ten years after the final Evil Dead/Army of Darkness film, Bruce Campbell had legitimately ascended to the status of a cult hero, even if he’d never had any real mainstream success. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, much of the mainstream public still is unaware of his sheer awesometude. On the other hand, he’s largely avoided making any tremendous suck-fests (largely, not entirely), because he has a lot of freedom to pick movies that really speak to him. This utterly, utterly bizarre film fits that bill perfectly.
At its core, this movie has all the hallmarks of a Type-B horror spoof: Nursing Home Elvis and Black JFK team up to fight a mummy. How could that be anything but a goofy farce? But in fact, although the characters and performances are very funny, the movie is surprisingly grim, from the unending pallor of death around the nursing home to the thoughtless, sometimes cruel things the residents do to each other. An early scene features a woman stealing a tin of cookies from a friend in an iron lung, a crime for which she is targeted by the scarabs. It’s actually a neat sort of twist on the classic horror-as-morality-play motif. The characters who fall victim to that trope are usually teenagers. Seeing an old woman chosen to be struck down for her sins is an interesting change of pace.
With the horror played straight, it’s largely up to Campbell and Davis – and the ludicrous nature of their situation – to provide the comedy. Campbell’s voiceover narration does a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard. His commentary on the world around him, his feelings about being an old man, and his regret over how his “new life” went so terribly wrong, are actually pretty amusing. The flashbacks that show him trading places with Haff are entertaining as well, if they’re left somewhat unclear as to exactly how real they are. The film doesn’t bother to explain whether our heroes really are who they say they are, or if they simply suffer the delusions of old age, and I’m rather glad they don’t. Confirmation would make the film almost too ridiculous to be believed, while busting the myths would just make them sad figures. The ambiguity is practically essential for the film to remain entertaining.
Coscarelli makes liberal use of the comedy factor in seeing older characters throw around toilet humor. Elvis is constantly concerned with a growth in a private area under his pants, and is overjoyed when it starts to show a little life while his nurse applies ointment. The discussion of the mummy itself is ripe with scatological commentary (pardon the pun). It’s all justified in that it works for the purposes of the story, but one can’t help but get the impression it was structured in such a way as to wring out a few extra laughs by the juxtaposition.
One of the few bits where the laughs fall flat comes from the pair of hearse drivers who arrive after each death. The first one is treated fairly straight, but the next one comes with jokes about the smell of the corpse, and by the final time they appear it’s an outright comedy of errors, as they drop the body and stumble into the bushes. Sandwiched, as it is, between two fairly intense scenes, it’s no doubt intended to be a little light comic relief, but as Coscarelli just made us feel a sense of honor for the body they’re transporting (it’s the man who died naturally and escaped the mummy), treating him as a slapstick prop just feels wrong.
I give Coscarelli some slack, though, for the way he manages to pull some genuine tenderness out of these two truly absurd characters. The friendship between them feels honest and genuine, even if you suspect they’re both totally off their rockers. The scene where Elvis asks Jack what Marilyn Monroe was like in bed would feel crass in most other cases, but instead, it comes across like a bonding moment between two old soldiers, and it makes us believe in both of them just before they’re about to risk their lives to stop the monster. By the time Jack dies, it’s actually heart-wrenching. When Elvis dies a few minutes later, his last words are simultaneously funny, sad, and absolutely perfect: “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
On paper, even as a spoof this movie would sound like a ridiculous, unbelievable, unworkable jumble of big ideas that can’t possibly work in concert. Somehow, though, Coscarelli wrings out a clever, entertaining, and impressively emotional film, one of the deepest movies we’ve yet encountered here in Lunatics and Laughter. That’s not the sort of thing I would have expected, and it’s surprises like this one that make this project worth doing.
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.
Writer: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich, Sarah York
Plot: Five college students head out to a cabin in the woods, looking for a short getaway. From the very beginning, though, the trip seems to be in trouble. The bridge they have to take is crumbling and their car almost gets stuck. The cabin isn’t in any better shape than the bridge itself. And something, some presence in the woods seems to be watching them for some malevolent purpose. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), while sketching an old clock, finds her hand seemingly possessed, and draws a crude image of a book with a face on it, then sees a trapdoor rattling in the corner. She dismisses her experience and returns to her friends, where her brother Ash (Bruce Campbell) lightens the mood with a stumbling toast that’s interrupted when the trapdoor is thrown open. Ash and Scott (Hal Delrich) investigate the cellar, finding some horrific artifacts, including an ancient book wrapped in human skin and inked in blood, The Book of the Dead, and a tape recorder. When they play back the recording, they hear a message from the cabin’s previous occupant – an archeologist who was studying the Book of the Dead and the demons it can summon. The voice on the tape recites an old chant and a horrible light glows from beneath the ground. Horrified, Cheryl storms off. Ash is left alone with his girlfriend, Linda, and gives her a necklace with a magnifying glass pendant. Cheryl, believing she’s being watched, walks out alone into the woods (a stupid move that girls in horror movies had been doing for years and would keep doing for years to come), only to be attacked by a demon in the trees. (Literally, in the trees.) She demands Ash drive her back into town, but the bridge they used on the way in has been destroyed. Returning to the cabin, Cheryl suddenly transforms into a “Deadite” – possessed by a demon, possessing strange power. She attacks, stabbing Linda with a pencil and throwing Ash into a shelf before Scott manages to lock her in the cellar. Shelly (Sarah York) is next, transforming and attacking Scott, and he kills her to save himself.
Scott wants to leave the injured Linda behind and look for a way back to town, but Ash refuses, so he wanders off alone. Linda’s injury spreads, transforming her into another Deadite, and Scott reappears, horribly wounded by something in the woods. While the possessed girls taunt them, Scott tells Ash there’s a trail in the woods. The girls suddenly become themselves again, but when Ash goes to free Cheryl, she breaks through the floor and tries to strangle him. He escapes and drags the again-possessed Linda outside, and returns to find that Scott has died. The girls attack and Ash kills Linda. Remembering that Shelly didn’t stop until her body was completely dismembered, Ash chains up Linda and is about to cut her up with a chainsaw when he sees her pendant. Grief-stricken, he carries her outside to bury her intact, but she reanimates and attacks him again; he finally beheads her. Returning to the cabin, he finds that Cheryl has escaped and arms himself with a shotgun. As he barricades himself in, Scott reanimates and Ash loses the gun. He gets free of Scott as Cheryl breaks in, and the two Deadites try to hold him down and kill him. Ash manages to use Linda’s necklace (which somehow, miraculously appeared at the right time) to grab the Book of the Dead and hurl it into the fireplace. The two Deadites deteriorate before his eyes, collapsing into piles of gore. As the sun rises Ash – broken, battered, and covered in blood – stands up, alive and victorious. But as he steps into the light, something else approaches… and attacks.
Thoughts: To be perfectly, frank, this isn’t a masterpiece of a movie. Sam Raimi is still very raw as a director at this point, with ineffective angles and stiff performances from his actors. But the film is significant nonetheless in that we can see the germ of greatness in here. Raimi, who has gone on to do a great many very good movies, was cutting his teeth at this point, and was learning the basics of telling a story. Campbell was not yet the tongue-in-cheek master of camp that he would later become.
Some scenes, in fact, are downright awkward. The scene where Ash pretends to be asleep to give Linda the necklace, for example, includes a weird game where the camera keeps doing close-ups of Campbell and Baker’s eyes while she tries to decide if she’s going to take the box and keeps feigning sleep, while watching her at the same time. It’s supposed to be sweet, but even for the audience, it’s kind of uncomfortable. And while that feeling fits in with the rest of the film very well, in this scene it somewhat undermines the intent. Ash himself has a long way to go before he becomes the badass we know from Army of Darkness. When Shelly attacks, he’s actually paralyzed with fear, leaving Scott to take care of dismembering her himself.
But one thing that was effective right away was the mood. Raimi managed to put together scenes that combined shadow, nice tricks of the camera, and haunting music to make you feel that the characters’ fear was justified, even if it wasn’t presented in a flawless manner. There are several moments where the viewer is placed in the eyes of the Evil itself, as it zooms in on the characters, watches them from the woods, and otherwise stalks them.
By the time we reached the sequel, 1987’s Evil Dead II, both Raimi and Campbell had improved dramatically. In fact, the sequel is little more than a more successful remake of the original – it tells the same story, but injects it with superior storytelling, a healthy dose of black comedy, and a much stranger ending, making it a true classic of the horror/comedy mashup genre. (If and when I do the follow-up to this project about horror/comedies, you can bet Evil Dead II will occupy a place of honor.)
That’s not to say that none of the scenes work, though. The scene of Cheryl’s “possession” (which, let’s be honest, is a nice way to say she’s “raped by a bunch of freaking trees”) is horrible in all the ways the filmmaker wants. Considering that so much of it is dependent on our ability to believe that the branches and sprigs that are wrapping themselves around her body are acting of their own accord and not being manipulated right off-camera by a guy in a sweaty t-shirt, it looks very convincing and pretty horrifying. In fact, the makeup and gore effects on the whole are very well-done. There’s also some impressive stop-motion animation at the end, as the book burns and the two Deadites decay.
Speaking of them, the Deadite makeup is instantly frightening, and the scene where she stabs Linda with the pencil is convincing as all hell. And man, man is there a lot of blood in this movie. Every wound, every cut, every scrape absolutely gushes, and it all looks real enough for me. It multiplies when Ash hides in the cellar – pipes drip with blood, electrical outlets, blood flows into a lightbulb, drips down the lens of a movie projector… Raimi must have spent half his budget on corn syrup and food coloring. This does, however, lead to some amusing continuity errors. At one point, Ash bashes the possessed Cheryl’s hand in the door and it explodes with blood – in the next shot he slams the door shut and the door and frame are totally clean. Similarly, the pattern of gore on Ash’s increasingly dirty face and clothes changes noticeably from shot to shot. It’s a small thing, but when you notice it, it takes you out of the film.
The ending of the film is particularly – if justifiably – bleak. Ash, who has managed to survive all the horror around him – is attacked once more as we cut to black. Raimi’s philosophy for the movie, he says, was “everything dies,” and if he had stopped here, that would have come across very well. Of course, in the sequels we learn that not only does Ash live, he rules. But that’s neither here nor there. If nothing else, we owe this film and Sam Raimi an unending debt of gratitude for giving the world the awesomeness that is Bruce Campbell. And even though you know the forthcoming remake has both Raimi and Campbell’s stamp of approval, there’s just no way it capture the thrill of watching Ashley Williams become one of the great cult movie heroes.
After spending a couple of days in the woods, let’s get back to civilization… a nice little house in the suburbs. In a film called Poltergeist.