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Lunatics and Laughter Day 11: Army of Darkness (1992)

army-of-darknessDirector: Sam Raimi

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.

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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 26: The Evil Dead (1981)

evil-deadDirector: Sam Raimi

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.