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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.