Raimi of Darkness

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell’s cinematic CVs both have the same name at the top: The Evil Dead, the first full-length feature either of the two friends were involved with that earned Raimi notoriety as a horror director with a grisly imagination on a par with Tobe Hooper or George Romero,, and also gave Campbell credibility as a square-jawed B-movie stalwart. Each film presents a different riff on the various common features of the premise; although each time it boils down to Bruce’s character Ash facing off against demonic forces that reanimate the dead, each film offers an extremely different spin on the premise – and, for that matter, on the character of Ash himself.

The Evil Dead

The premise of The Evil Dead is nothing new – it’s the same old “teenagers or college students go somewhere isolated, scary stuff happens to them” premise which dates back to the 1950s at least in the cinema, and probably much earlier if you look at campfire ghost stories. (Cabin In the Woods is pretty much built on how generic this premise is.) In this case, the college students in question are Ash (Bruce Campbell), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Scott (Richard DeManincor), Linda (Betsy Baker) and Shelly (Theresa Tilly), the isolated place is that good old standby, the lonely hut in the middle of the forest, and the bad thing that happens involves them discovering an archaeologist’s tape recording of readings from the Necronomicon, the playing of which frees the dark forces surrounding the cabin to launch a full-scale assault against their psyches. One by one the friends are possessed by the demons described in the book, turning into grotesque, malformed parodies of their former selves (dubbed “Deadites” in the later installments of the series), until eventually Ash is left on his own to fend for himself against his undead pals.

A triumph of atmosphere, makeup effects and dry ice, The Evil Dead is a film made for horror fans by horror fans – you can see a scrap of a poster for The Hills Have Eyes in the cabin’s basement, and it does show the influence of the more successful low-budget high-gruesome films of the 1970s like Wes Craven’s early work and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s also just as controversial as some of them, making it onto the infamous “video nasty” list – a list of movies which the UK’s Department of Public Prosecutions believed were legally obscene and were therefore effectively banned from video distribution in the UK. Adding to its controversy, The Evil Dead was named the “number one nasty” by anti-obscenity campaigner and general spoilsport Mary Whitehouse, gaining the film a heap of notoriety despite the fact that it was eventually ruled in court as not actually being obscene and was taken off the list as a result. (The BBFC have a informative writeup of the story from their point of view.) Though I’m inclined to argue that The Evil Dead is vastly less exploitative and gratuitous than a vast swathe of films on the list – Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, and Don’t Go In the House all spring to mind – Raimi himself has expressed some regret for one particular scene.

The part in question comes early on in the film, shortly after the sinister tape is played, and involves Cheryl being lured out into the woods by a mysterious voice, where she is entangled and bound by vines and raped by a tree root. The incident is never mentioned again in any detail, which makes it feel especially gratuitous and needless; although it does reinforce Cheryl’s emphatic need to get the hell away from the cabin, the fact that she was spooked enough to run off into the woods in the first place kind of already establishes that, and whilst her so-called friends’ refusal to believe she was attacked could if you squint be read as condemning people’s tendency to brush off victims’ stories, the movie doesn’t really go anywhere with that angle. Recent DVD and Blu-Ray versions make the reasonable decision to include it as a separate chapter, which I think is a fair compromise – it means that the film is available in an uncensored version, which is arguably important given its release history and its role in the video nasty controversy, but at the same time if you want to skip the scene in question you can (though it’d be even friendlier to use seamless branching to offer a “tree-less” playthrough of the film that automatically skips the chapter concerned).

Once you get past the tree sequence, what’s left is an amazingly gruesome series of events, the violence and blood increasing dramatically as the film progresses. What’s particularly interesting about the second act is that, as the friends are possessed one by one and turn on each other, there’s much less of a powerless victim/powerful aggressor thing going on. Yes, the Deadites assault the living with incredible ferocity, and have the power of the supernatural tipping the scales in their favour, but at the same time the living defend themselves with equal vigour. One of the most shocking sequences occurs when Scotty decides he has had enough and dismembers the Deadite-possessed Shelly with an axe. The shot of the various parts of Shelly twitching on the floor underscores the point that literally nothing less than total dismemberment can stop the Deadites – but at the same time, the ferocity and brutality of the attack is shocking and makes us see Scotty in an unfavourable new light.

It’s at this point where you can start to see the roots of the second film’s slapstick comedy, with Ash being flung against the furniture and breaking shelves with regularity. The slapstick comes out even more in the third act, where Ash is more or less alone and is under assault by his dead friends and inanimate objects alike (the sequence where he ends up stumbling around the poltergeist-infested cellar with blood oozing out of every piece of furniture properly crosses the line from horrifying into silly). At the same time, the movie remains rooted in horror as opposed to comedy through the emotional reactions of the people involved. One notable feature of the film is that, whilst it does prominently display a chainsaw to the viewer, the saw itself is never actually used; Ash finds himself on the verge of using it as a particularly overkill-tastic way of dismembering Linda’s corpse to prevent it reanimating yet again, but can’t bring himself to do it. It’s this, and the earlier reaction to Scotty’s dismemberment of Shelly, that makes this horror rather than comedy – the fact that, even as these horrible creatures are trying to murder and torture you, simultaneously you can’t quite get away from the fact that they are your buddies.

To be honest, making Ash the last remaining survivor was the right call, since Bruce Campbell is the best actor present – at least when it comes to playing a human being, the others are all great when it comes to being growling, cackling, possessed maniacs. Either way, if you’re watching The Evil Dead in the first place then you’ve not come to see amazing performances, you want to see Sam Raimi and his pals come up with a million different ways to use fake blood and odd camera tricks to scare or disgust you, and on that front the film delivers by the truckload. Raimi’s camerawork on this one is legendary, and rightly so; the so-called “Raimi cam” where the camera rushes along close to the ground never fails to look good, but that’s far from Sam’s only trick. Likewise, the gore effects range from simple splattering of fake blood all over the place to an incredible stop-motion sequence at the climax.

Such is Raimi’s craft that you’d never realise that most of the cast and crew abandoned the film partway through due to the shoot overrunning massively, forcing Raimi to use the remaining cast and crew and whoever he could rope in to act as stand-ins for some scenes. In fact it appears that at points some of the possessed characters aren’t played by the same actors, but by stand-ins wearing extensive makeup effects – this actually works to the film’s advantage, since it exacerbates the massive changes to the characters’ physical appearance, mannerisms and voices as a result of being infested with demons. To be honest, I’d say that The Evil Dead is more interesting for the technical skills on show than for the story, but it’s pretty indispensable if you’re a Raimi fan who wants to see how he managed before he had a proper budget.

Evil Dead II

Evil Dead II is as much a restart for the series as it is a sequel, opening as it does with a super-brief remake of the action of the last film. The recap at the start was most likely necessary because the original movie was banned in several markets at the time, so many audience members wouldn’t have had a chance to see it, but Raimi turns the necessity into an opportunity by taking the chance to change a few of the facts around to make room for the sequel.

Thus, it’s just Ash and girlfriend Linda (played by Denise Bixler this time) who go out to the cabin in the woods, and find the deadly book and tape recorder conveniently set up in the study rather than stashed deep in the cellar, and the action of the first night is summed up briefly as Linda is possessed, attacks Ash, and gets decapitated and buried for her trouble in short order. In a nice touch, the recap ends with a remake of the exact same shot which concluded the previous film – a Raimi-cam rush from the point of view of a demonic spirit as it lunges at Ash.

For the first part of the film the action is split between Ash’s continuing efforts to survive the evil at the lodge, and the attempts of Annie (Sarah Berry), the professor’s daughter who’s followed her father into the archaeology profession, and her research partner Ed (Richard Domeier) to get to the cabin. It turns out that Ash and the professor double-booked the cabin, so Alice and Ed expect to find Alice’s father there – and by sheer chance Alice happens to have uncovered the missing pages of the Necronomicon, which include the rites required to exorcise the demons the book calls up. Though the bridge to the cabin is out (which is why Ash couldn’t leave), they’re able to enlist the help of local rednecks Jake (the appropriately named Danny Hicks) and Bobby-Jo (Kassie Wesley) – but of course, when they get there they find no sign of the professor or his wife, and instead find Ash brandishing a shotgun, covered in blood after severing his own hand, and with a bloodstained chainsaw sat in the corner of the living room. They jump to the obvious conclusion at first, but it’s not long before they believe his story when the demons begin their latest assault.

Raimi’s direction and his script (co-written with Scott Spiegel) abandons the more realistic and gorey violence of the original for a more slapstick approach, which they assert early on with a series of lunatic Ash-versus-the-demons sequences in the lead-up to the other four human characters joining Ash at the cabin. They succeed mainly due to Bruce Campbell having a fantastic talent for physical comedy. There’s a long and patchy history of actors having to pretend to fight inanimate objects in horror and SF/fantasy cinema, and most of the time it looks about as daft as Bela Lugosi flopping about pretending to be eaten by a stuffed octopus in Bride of the Monster. Bruce Campbell is asked to pull off the trick not once but twice in the opening portions of the film – the first time when he’s attacked by Linda’s severed head, and the second when his own hand gets possessed and tries to kill him. Both times he manages to make the fights seem believable, mainly because he doesn’t seem to have any regard for his own personal safety during them. The supporting cast are, to be honest, just that – there to support Bruce Campbell’s role as the lead – though Ted Raimi deserves mention for sporting an incredibly uncomfortable-looking makeup job as Annie’s possessed mother.

As in the last film, the other stars are Raimi’s camerawork and the makeup and special effects, and on this score Evil Dead II ups its predecessor’s game impressively. The long, continuous shot from the point of view of an unseen entity chasing Ash through the house is a particular highlight as far as the camera tricks go, and the increased use of stop-motion effects show off the film’s heightened budget impressively. (I especially like the way the picture quality goes grainy for the very end of the film, making Ash’s trip to the medieval past look like an extract from a classic Ray Harryhausen movie.)

Whilst it doesn’t quite have the pure shock value and the intensity of the original film, Evil Dead II is probably much more enjoyable for non-horror fans than its predecessor. It never made me uncomfortable or want to look away in the way that The Evil Dead did (and it doesn’t include any missteps as galling as the tree-rape sequence either). It’s not quite the best fusion of gore-soaked horror and hilarious comedy I’ve ever seen (that has to be Peter Jackson’s Braindead), but it’s pretty close.

Army of Darkness

Raimi had wanted to call the third film in the series The Medieval Dead, but apparently rights issues prevented that. Whatever you call it, it once again opens with a super-fast semi-remake of the last couple of films, which includes a redone version of the end of the last movie in order to change the facts about and set up the plot. Rather than being hailed as a conquering hero by the 13th century knights he encounters after falling down a time hole, Ash is taken captive; it turns out that the land is caught up in a civil war between Duke Henry (Richard Grove) and Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), both of whom accuse the other of starting the violence and unleashing a terrible evil upon the land. Ash and Duke Henry are caught and taken to Arthur’s castle, where they’re face with being dumped down a deep pit which it turns out his Lordship keeps captured Deadites at the bottom of. When Ash beats his opponent in single combat thanks to his trusty chainsaw, he wins the acclaim of the people, and is soon sent on a perilous quest to seek out the Necronomicon and cast the spell which will end the deadite plague. No prizes for guessing that he fucks it up and unleashes a full-scale army of the undead across the kingdom…

The new film heralds another genre shift, in which Raimi abandons horror more or less entirely in favour of fantasy – ultraviolent, gory slapstick fantasy, but fantasy nonetheless. This shift is accompanied by a noticeable change in Ash’s character – this time Campbell seriously ups the extent to which he plays Ash as a cartoonish, self-centred asshole, which didn’t really register in the original and wasn’t really a major feature of the second movie either. Whether you think the changes in Ash’s character are a good thing or not is down to you – personally, I find him pretty unbearable in the early parts of this one, but in a good way because he’s the sort of guy you like to see smacked down – but for my money I think the genre shift was necessary simply because Raimi had, at this point, run out of ideas for things to do in the same vein as the first two films.

A case in point is the windmill sequence, which is the part most reminiscent of Evil Dead II, notably because it has the same premise – a wooshy thing chases Ash through the forest until he holes up in an abandoned building, murderous comedy ensues. The windmill bit is also, I’m sorry to say, just not very good. Campbell’s slapstick performance when he’s assaulted by a dozen tiny versions of himself is nowhere near the standards set by, say, the possessed hand bit in Evil Dead II, because Campbell plays it a little too much for laughs – it’s less funny because he’s clearly pretending this time, whereas you giggle in Evil Dead II because he looks like he’s actually injuring himself. Some of the special effects in that sequence just plain fail. And it ends with (yawn) yet another bit where Ash dismembers someone and buries them in the woods. (Even the bit where he whacks the makeshift cross into the dirt is a direct reference to a scene from Evil Dead II). It’s all very well establishing continuity and making the odd sly reference to earlier films, but it really needs to be in the context of some fresh ideas, otherwise it makes it start to look as though you’re running out of material.

Although the genre shift is, like I said, something that needed to happen, it isn’t particularly well-handled. For a lot of the movie Raimi seems to be flailing around working out exactly how he wants to handle the material, and there’s points in the film where Ash’s slapstick descends into Loony Tunes physics, which is just taking the ideas of Evil Dead II to an extreme rather than coming up with something interesting and new. The film finally gets awesome once Ash gets the book and his evil twin becomes empowered to raise a proper undead army – the part of Army of Darkness which works best is the conclusion, in which Ash leads a desperate defence of the castle in the face of the besieging undead. Even then, this part has some serious missteps – in particular, the implications of zombie rape are just fucking crass and make me believe in the sincerity of Raimi’s tree rape apology a little less.

Another issue I have with the shift into fantasy is that it feels like something which would have worked much better if they hadn’t had half a decade of faff between finishing Evil Dead 2 and starting this. It’s very apparent that Army of Darkness is trying to parody a particular style of mid-1980s post-Conan fantasy movie; even the official poster is spoofing the sort of Frank Frazetta muscletastic posters which those films loved. The thing is, by 1992 the point when such a spoof would have been timely and topical had well and truly passed – if anything, things had come full circle and the subgenre was becoming ripe for a resurrection, which ironically Raimi would helm as producer of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.

The currently-available Region 2 DVD from Optimum Releasing is the director’s cut, with the downbeat ending and some slightly redone scenes and some tweaked dialogue – so it doesn’t have “Good, bad – I’m the one with the gun” or “Hail to the King, baby”, arguably the two most quoted lines from the movie. It’s kind of a shame that they couldn’t include both versions of the film on the disc – after all, Night of the Demon managed to do it – consigning the more familiar versions of the famous scenes to bonus material. Optimum’s more recent blu-ray release is hardly better; it presents as default the theatrical cut of the film, with the original ending and the familiar versions of the scenes, but if you did want the director’s cut, it’s only presented in standard definition – a bizarre decision given how seamless branching works on Blu-Ray. But that said, I wouldn’t weep if a better release of Army of Darkness never saw the light of day. The siege is fun, but it isn’t fun enough to justify what comes before it. The best thing I can say about this film is that it left Raimi and company with a big heap of archaic costumes and a massive stockpile of swords, which presumably came in handy when making Xena.

The Bottom Line

The first film is a classic simply because it’s Raimi’s first great film, not to mention a great horror film salvaged from a disastrous production process, but at the same time I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone – the tree rape bit is incredibly distasteful, and even without it you’re looking at a horror film which is pitched primarily at a horror audience and isn’t really interested in winning over any converts to the genre (or, for that matter, displaying a shred of restraint or subtlety). The second film is excellent simply because it takes the premise of the first and manages to find a way to make gushing blood and self-mutilation hilarious for everyone, and I’d recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have a big problem with onscreen blood. The third film… baffles me with its popularity. I don’t get it, guys. I just don’t get it.

3 thoughts on “Raimi of Darkness

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