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…

Your honor, with all due respect: if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it.

The Verdict (1982)
(SPOILERS) Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.

And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meetin…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Who are you and why do you know so much about car washes?

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
(SPOILERS) The belated arrival of the Ant-Man sequel on UK shores may have been legitimately down to World Cup programming, but it nevertheless adds to the sense that this is the inessential little sibling of the MCU, not really expected to challenge the grosses of a Doctor Strange, let alone the gargantuan takes of its two predecessors this year. Empire magazine ran with this diminution, expressing disappointment that it was "comparatively minor and light-hitting" and "lacks the scale and ambition of recent Marvel entries". Far from deficits, for my money these should be regard as accolades bestowed upon Ant-Man and the Wasp; it understands exactly the zone its operating in, yielding greater dividends than the three most recent prior Marvel entries the review cites in its efforts at point scoring.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

The simple fact is, your killer is in your midst. Your killer is one of you.

The Avengers 5.12: The Superlative Seven
I’ve always rather liked this one, basic as it is in premise. If the title consciously evokes The Magnificent Seven, to flippant effect, the content is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but played out with titans of their respective crafts – including John Steed, naturally – encountering diminishing returns. It also boasts a cast of soon-to-be-famous types (Charlotte Rampling, Brian Blessed, Donald Sutherland), and the return of one John Hollis (2.16: Warlock, 4.7: The Cybernauts). Kanwitch ROCKS!

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

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…