Skip to main content

We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound "fine"?

Evil Dead II
(1987)

(SPOILERS) Evil Dead II (also known with the subtitle Dead by Dawn) is one of the funniest films ever made, as a result of which it remains a high-water mark Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell have yet to surpass. Understandably so, it will be no blemish against them if they are unable to again equal the sheer energy, inventiveness, exuberance, glee and craziness very throw into its every frame. It’s the movie that made both their careers, and the every definition of cult fare; one that was an extremely modest success on first release, but whose reputation has grown steadily. How large that currently is will likely be gauged by the current Ash vs The Evil Dead series but, provided the central ingredients comprising Ash are intact and the camerawork is sufficiently unhinged, the ingredients that arrived fully-formed in glorious cockeyed form here, it too could become at very least its own cult item.


If The Evil Dead is a horror movie that succeeds in being gruey but fails to deliver scares (today, at least), its sequel never set out to cause chills. There’s no doubt the picture has a number of knockout shock moments, but invariably they’re in the service of delivering a gag. As Raimi’s previous flop Crimewave indicated (co-written with the Coen Brothers), humorous subject matter is probably his natural arena, or at least where reality is exaggerated to a mischievous degree (while some of his late-‘90s features show commendable restraint in the service of gaining big studio respect, their lack of fun is marked), but the real propulsive force behind the comedy in Evil Dead II appears to be co-writer Scott Spiegel.


As such, while there’s gore in the picture, it doesn’t feel like it’s gory; geysers of blood spray, arms are decapitated in slow motion, and gruesomeness occurs in silhouette (complete with blood splashing across a light bulb). The red stuff is even blue or green, underlining the sense of cartoonish macabre. The big climax is interrupted by an exchange between The Three Stooges (as a tree being), telling you all you need to know about where the makers are coming from if you hadn’t realised 70 minutes earlier. Returning composer Joseph LoDuca’s score perfectly treads a line between horror and parody in a picture that is almost shot-by-shot, idea-by-idea, gag-by-gag, brilliantly inventive; it’s full to bursting, basically.


Ash: Fine. We’re fine.
Mirror Ash: I don’t think so. We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound "fine"?

If you’re looking for a chicken and egg in terms of who informs who, Campbell or Raimi, it’s worth considering the interesting but messy earlier Crimewave, where the director didn’t get his buddy as lead, and seeing how it suffers as a result (that was only one of its problems of course). Campbell is Ash here, his character becoming iconic in the same way Mel Gibson’s Max became did in The Road Warrior (in acknowledgment, Ash’s sideburns turn white during the climax). Ash’s is the coward-as-hero in a way that hadn’t really been seen and embraced in decades; in the sense that the makers love this character and are getting behind him, you have to look back to the likes of Bob Hope to see someone so unashamedly self-serving, while Campbell’s delivery has the deliciously self-conscious bluster of a Shatner.


Of course, one of the things that make Ash a likeable anti-hero is also that he’s capable (in contrast to the previous year’s Jack Burton, who has a very high opinion of himself but is almost entirely useless). Much that he will scream and wail, and run away, he’ll also get pissed off, vindictive and petty, such that he’ll lead the charge to sort the mess out (“Then let’s head down to that cellar and carve ourselves a witch”). 


He’s also resolutely down-to-earth, dealing with all this insanity as if he’s been slighted by the kids next-door (“You bastards! You dirty bastards! Give me back my hand! Give me back my hand!”), engaging in one-upmanship with the hand he is severing (“That’s right. Who’s laughing now? Who’s laughing now?”) or generally being petty( “Gotcha, didn’t I, you little sucker?”). Then there’s the string of one-liners that only gain their stature through a combination of circumstance and inimitable delivery (“Work shed!”, “Chainsaw?”, “You’re going down!” and, of course, “GROOVY!”)


Raim’s dedication to putting Capmbell through the mill, beating him up and generally aggrieving him is to be commended, for the good of the picture, of course. Come the last scene, Ash is still the reluctant hero, in a neat subversion of mythic lore (“He was prophesised to destroy the evil”; “He didn’t do a very good job”, mutters Ash, little realising he’s talking about himself). 


The constant visual invention Raimi musters makes it easy to appreciate the way not all of those he worked with were so understanding of his priorities (notably Gene Hackman on The Quick and The Dead). Raimi brings on the Dutch angles again (Ash falling into a puddle being one of the best), but his camera isn’t just restless now, its gone berserk, pulling off repeated coups through judicious editing, such as Bobby Joe’s head heading for a tree and cutting to the smashing of the glass frame containing the Necronomicon, or both Ash and his Oldsmobile landing in the 12th century in the same shot.


Deadite: I’ll swallow your soul.
Ash: Swallow this.

This is all in the aid of comedy, mostly, and it makes it extra-worthy as a result. Characters fly around according to the rules of Warner Bros cartoon physics; Ash careers through a windscreen, Jake is lifted ceiling wards and breaks a light bulb with his head. The evil force chases Ash into the cabin, through endless rooms – deceptively labyrinthine – then loses him, looking from side to side before reversing in defeat. 


Similar fun with point of view comes as Ash’s possessed hand, having knocked its host unconscious through repeatedly smashing plates on his head, drags him across the floor looking for a meat cleaver. Anything involving the hand is pretty much priceless; it isn’t just Campbell’s mime (when it’s still attached) but the enormously expressive squeaking noises it makes. Then there are classic gags, likeable for how corny they are (“Baby, I ain’t holding your hand”, the hand caught under a bucket with novel A Farewell to Arms placed on top).


The slapstick embraces everything from Ash’s headless girlfriend (the gleeful comedy cackling of the female possessed is back here) attacking him with a chainsaw to Ash bashing her head against books, walls, whatever he can find; which is payback for her repeatedly slamming his head into a boarded-up window. The escalation of mayhem as the possessed break loose is almost equivalent to the test scene from The Thing, but a comedy version as the set piece “scares” are played for yuks (the demon gets a hairball after biting down on Bobby Joe, a flying eyeball ends up in her mouth). 


Some of the blackest material has Annie stabbing Jake accidentally and then repeatedly slamming him in a door, and then screaming at him to shut up screaming. If it was anyone but Jake we might feel sympathy, but instead we’re rather relieved when he’s dragged headfirst into the cellar (and a geyser of blood erupts). Some of the gags don’t even require effects; Evil Ash having trouble with a screen door, or Annie repeatedly attacking Ash with an axe eve after he’s told her he’s fine (“Damn it, I said I was all right. Are you listening to me? Do you hear what I’m saying? I’m alright. I’m alright”).


Henrietta: Someone’s in my fruit cellar!

The effects in Evil Dead II are generally pretty impressive. The prosthetic work, courtesy of Greg Nicotero (fresh from Day of the Dead, and now supervising TV zombies) particularly Ed and Evil Ash, still looks agreeably messed up, halfway between generally disturbing and hilariously grotesque (Henrietta has something of Baron Harkonnen about her). As does the animated deer head, and the moving tree (the tree assault sequence fortunately stops short of the first movie’s). 


Some of the stop motion is rudimentary, of course (the dancing Linda, although her leaping off with an “Ahhh” makes it worthwhile; the flying deadite at the end) but even that is charming. The use of green screen is generally superb, from Ash and the moon as night falls, to the time whirlpool appearing in the woods and sucking everything in (including, mirthfully, a whole stove), to Ash’s version of the 2001 star gate as he performs somersaults. The sound here, and throughout, is particularly effective. By turns discordant, oppressive, whacky, loopy, creepy.


Raimi and Spiegel power the narrative such that there is no fat, and the picture doesn’t fall into the banal repetition of the original. There’s a constant momentum, and the recap borne of necessity (rights to the first picture being unavailable) becomes a signature for the series, while also adding a further reference to Mad Max (the series is connected, but only by its main character). 


We spend loads of time with just Bruce at the outset, but its constantly inventive and hilarious and absurd. Then Annie and the hillbillies arrive. Then there’s Ash turning bad, and silly contrivances to create further the plot that work where they should create a groan (“We’ll throw him down there”, Jake dropping the pages into the cellar), and finally hurling Ash back to the 12th century.


The Evil Deads are all about Bruce of course, so it might not be too surprising that the supporting cast have made little impact beyond the picture’s confines; Sarah Berry (Annie Knowby) has only the one other movie credit, Kassie Wesley DePaiva (Bobby Joe) has worked consistently, but in TV soaps, while Dan Hicks has continued cameoing in Raimi and Campbell projects but with a performance as hilariously obnoxious and repellent as Jake (“Shhh-awww!”) he ought really to have had a greater legacy (he’s the only one here who can steal a scene from Campbell, and his cries of “Bobby Joe!” are priceless). Denise Bixler, the second of three Lindas, like Berry has worked very briefly in movies, Richard Domeier (Ed) has a had a sparse career, Lou Hancock was in Places of the Heart (as the wags on the commentary track note) and John Peakes, despite a fantastic vocal register, also has few credits. Then there’s Ted Raimi and his gallons of sweat as the monster version of Henrietta.


Evil Dead II isn’t just that rare sequel that is superior to the original; it knocks its predecessor into a hat. If it hadn’t been for Spider-Man, Sam Raimi would still be struggling to escape from its illustrious shadow. Campbell’s smart enough to know all the good it has brought him, comfortably wallowing in his B-actor status and the adulation that comes from having portrayed a cult icon. That both have finally returned to Ash this year, after a years of talking about it and a remake/cash-in that failed to set the world on fire, hopefully won’t turn out to be too much of a good thing. For some, the second sequel was that already. I’d disagree, but it’s probably fair to suggest Dead by Dawn, is The Godfather Part II of horror sequels.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

‘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…

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…