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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

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…

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

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…

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.