Skip to main content

Alright, you primitive screwheads, listen up. You see this? This, is my boomstick!

Army of Darkness
(1992)

(SPOILERS) Or, Bruce Campbell vs Army of Darkness, as the opening title suggests. In some respects, Army of Darkness follows the Mad Max trilogy comparison; it’s bigger, more sprawling, and much less concerned with the engine that should be driving these films (it’s pretty much suspense-free). Fortunately, unlike Beyond Thunderdome, it’s still a lot of fun, prone to going off at comic tangents the way Joe Dante (much more successfully) did in Gremlins 2 a couple of years earlier. If Evil Dead II mixes comedy with horror tropes, Army of Darkness does the same with the fantasy genre, most notably Ray Harryhausen. Much of it is irresistibly goofy; in fact, it only really stumbles during the extended final act when, as the Raimi brothers note, the craven side of anti-hero Ash is substituted for a more straightforwardly noble figure.


Believe it or not, there are some who attest that Ash is a genuine hero, one subject to growth and increased stature as time goes on (they’re probably also convinced Jack Burton is actually capable). Charitably, that might be an understandable misread if taking in the finale of Army and combining it with the studio-mandated S-Mart end of the US cinema version of the movie. But, as Campbell and Raimi attest (and is clearly continued in the TV series), Ash is a strange medley of coward, braggart, hero, loser and liar. His saving grace is that he knows how to deal with deadites, but spending too much time with his better attributes is liable to dilute what’s so unique about him.


While Ash battling skeleton armies is the second sequel’s big selling point (skeleton armies that are good fun when they’re actually stop motion/model skeletons, less so when they’re obvious extras/stunt men in make-do costumes), the Raimis’ screenplay comes alive when its borrowing from less adventuring sources than Jason and the Argonauts. Best of these is the riff on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with Campbell a decidedly less personable time traveller than Bing Crosby. There’s also, nominally, Gulliver’s Travels, in which, in perhaps the most unhinged sequence (but also the one that’s the biggest throwback to the kitchen sink approach to comedy of Evil Dead II) Ash is assaulted by an army of miniature splinters of himself. Then there’s the final scene of the director’s cut, taking in Rip Van Winkle/Back to the Future Part III.


That’s one of the basic standard questions of aficionados of the film, of course; which ending do you prefer? I saw the future ending first, so maybe that’s why I’m biased towards it. I’m aware that the groundswell of opinion is on the side of the S-Mart ending, and I’m quite happy to admit it plays well and is chock full of action and laughs (“Lady, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store”; “Name’s Ash, housewares”; and most famously, “Hail to the king, baby”) but it continues what is non-advantageous to the anti-legend of Ash; that he’s more of a straight-up hero rather than a bit of a weasel who just happens to do the right thing occasionally when his back’s against the wall (and someone who evidently fended off police inquiries into the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend and co-worker). 


The positioning of the apocalypse ending seems appropriate to Ash’s hapless lack of luck, mirroring the end of Evil Dead II, and it’s also appropriate punishment for a guy who brought the entire situation of Army of Darkness down on Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and his castle by not paying attention; that he again doesn’t pay attention when taking the six drops to awaken in his own time (it really ought to be seven if indeed Ash is in 1300 AD) is entirely the sort of thing dumbass Ash should do, and which there has been scant supply of since he decided to get with being a hero and defending the castle. They aren’t as overt as the S-Mart version, but there are still laughs to be had here; the Monty Python beard, his muttered anticipation of where he thinks he is (“Ha-ha-ha, manufactured products”) and his maniacal laughter over the credits.


Obviously, Ash vs The Evil Dead is picking up from the S-Mart ending, which is logistically the sensible move (the costs of a future apocalypse on a TV budget, explaining Ash living in devastation for the past 30 years… actually, both those things could be to the show’s benefit) for a half-hour comedy romp. The danger with a show is you get too much of Ash, see to much of Ash, since he’s a character rendered best in sound bites who should leave you wanting more, but we’ll see (while the sight of Campbell going at it in a bar toilet is more than anyone should have to witness, it does show Ash off as exactly the kind of dissipated braggart we’d expect). 


Ash: It got into my hand and it went bad, so I lopped it off at the wrist!

Aside from lovely Bridget Fonda’s cameo as Linda 3.0, the above is the prize addition to the now regular recapping of the series to date. There’s something about Ash’s offhand (ahem) matter-of-factness that pretty much sums up his response to the madness the series throws at him. The run of unimpressed Ash-isms is at its most sure-fire during his initial encounters with the ignorant savages of the 14th century; he should be grateful, as they at least make him look vaguely smart (they don’t understand “alloys and compounds, and things with molecular structures”).


It’s at least partly the creative vernacular that make Ash so iconic, greeting Duke Henry the Red (Richard Grove) with “Well, hello Mr Fancy Pants” and generally berating those he encounters (“Alright, you primitive screwheads, listen up. You see this? This, is my boomstick!” before seguing into his 9-to-5 speak “S-Mart top-of-the-line. That’s right. Shop Smart, Shop S-Mart. YOU GOT THAT?”) 


He’s resolutely disagreeable towards Embeth Davidtz’s Sheila (“Probably was raised in a barn, like all the other primitives”), dismissing her peace offering (“Good, I could use a horse blanket”) and acting like he’s irresistible when it comes to the ladies (“Give me some sugar, baby”). As the crown prince of jerk, his lines alternate between Ash the blowhard (“First you want to kill me, now you want to kiss me. Blow”), luxuriating with grapes and legs of mutton, surrounded by serving wenches, and OTT posturing (his leap to secure the chainsaw on his wrist, mid-air, his backward shotgun slings, his sublime battle invitation, “Yo, she-bitch. Let’s go”).


It’s perhaps a shame Ash isn’t chainsaw enabled throughout, but that’s indicative of the choices made in the picture; this isn’t the frenetic, tornado of a movie that its predecessor is. If Ash’s construction skills (making a robot hand, the Ash-mobile) are rendered as a call back to the series’ greatest line “Groovy”, they also signal a picture that is more sporadic in inspiration. 


It’s very noticeable throughout that Ash is at his best (or his most-Ash-ish) when he’s hoisted by his own petard, or when he’s desperate, and the construction of Army of Darkness doesn’t sufficiently foster that unhinged Ash (“Alright, who wants some? Who’s next?  You want some?” as he beckons the crowd of primitives after escaping the pit).


Even those scenes that most evoke Evil Dead II, such as the pit, show a bit too much indulgence as opposed to hyperbolic energy. The make-up is great, but somersaulting deadites ultimately reposition the pit as spectacle rather than berserkly engaging. It’s a relief then, when Ash is sent off to retrieve the Necronomicon, and we have extended Campbell playing against Campbell(s) (how many roles does Campbell play here? There must be at least a dozen versions of himself).


This is the gleefully infectious Raimi who loves riffing on The Three Stooges, complete with eye pokes, snickering laughter and playground taunts (“I’m bad Ash, and you’re good Ash. Little goody two shoes”; the director’s cut follows Ash shooting his Evil self with “I ain’t that good”, admittedly inferior to “Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the gun”). This is the same Raimi who delivered one of the best scenes in the Spider-Man trilogy (Evil, or Emo Peter Parker does his dance act) to frequent outrage from Spidey devotees; ironically it represents the most perfect rendering of his oft-tempered sensibilities in those movies. 


The fight with a multitude of mini-Ashs includes such choice slapstick as Ash slipping up on soap, getting his cheek glued to a hot stove (and prizing it off with a medieval spatula) and drinking the contents of a hot kettle in an attempt to kill the mini-Ash he has swallowed (“Okay, little fella. How about some hot chocolate, huh? Eh-heh-heh. How’d you like the taste of that, eh?”)


There are also some suitably weird-weird moments, such as the eye growing from his shoulder, and the two-headed Ash bounding out of the windmill as if he’s on the set of a 1930s Universal horror. 


Evil Ash is never as much fun as he probably seemed on paper. Probably because sneery Campbell (“Hey what’s that you got on your face?” he asks his evil severed head before tossing dirt over it “See how that works?”) is not far off anyway. Evil Ash gets the occasional memorable line of mock Shakespearean “Pick yourselves up and sally f…forth”, “Come on you bony devils, hurry up or I’ll send you to the glue factory”) but it suggests Campbell’s appeal lies in the whole package. Something is lost burying him under prosthetics.


Ash’s encounter with the book, on a magnificently stagey graveyard set, is another fine dose of Raimi comedy, as fake books (“Three books?”) suck him inwards and give him an elongated face, or fly around biting at him, Then there’s his coughing on “Nikto” because he can’t remember it (“Necktie. Nickel noodle. Definitely an ‘N’ word”) and his false optimism that he’ll get away with it, announcing it to no one in particular (“Okay, then, that’s it”).


Ash: Look, maybe I didn’t say every single tiny little syllable, no, but basically I said ‘em, yeah.

His inability to remember “Klaatu, barada, nikto” (“I got it, I got it”) brings down the titular army, but the demise of hero Ash (“Wretched excuse for a man”) is alas short-lived, as he chooses to back the disenchanted peasants who now have little interest in sending him home. There are some curious moments here, from Ash’s assertion of “We can take them, with science!” to his teaching fighting moves (where did he pick them up, precisely?)


There’s also evidence of Raimi’s often juvenile sexual politics, with Sheila carried off by deadites, raped by Evil Ash (“You found me beautiful once”; “Honey, you got real ugly”), and then brought back to normality at the end (the skeleton’s cry of “Bring on the wenches!” is pretty funny though).


I’ve always found the finale a bit too unfocused and larky, although many of the skeleton asides are highly amusing, from one coughing dust on being exhumed, to Scottish skeletons playing bagpipes, but the sequence just goes on and on, without much sense of pace or purpose. Sort of like many of the epic fights its homaging in that sense (Ash goes all Errol Flynn).


Arthur: Are all men from the future loud-mouthed braggarts?
Ash: No, just me baby, just me.

Army of Darkness (The Medieval Dead is definitely a better title) attempts to be the next step beyond Evil Dead II, moving from horror into fantasy comedy. But it loses something in the process. Chiefly, that’s momentum, with the giddy mayhem of its predecessor only really approximated during Ash’s surreal expedition to fetch the Necronomicon. But it also stumbles through sidelining Ash’s status as a self-interested, reluctant hero. Hopefully that lesson will be learned in the new TV incarnation. Army of Darkness is no slouch, though, and can’t be accused of resting on its predecessor’s laurels; it remains flawed good fun.



Popular posts from this blog

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.