This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today’s pick is…well, honestly, Evil Dead II needs no introduction.
I love the Evil Dead Trilogy. The Sam Raimi-helmed, Bruce Campbell-starring series began with a rather mean-spirited, cabin in the woods film which sadly introduced the term “tree rape” into the cultural lexicon, and concluded with a broadly comic, Harryhausen-aping, Medieval-set, horror-adventure film. Stuck between these two extremes is Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, bridging the gap between Evil Dead’s pure horror intentions and Army of Darkness’s campier approach. Evil Dead II keeps one foot planted in each camp, offering both jump scares and Three Stooges-esque slapstick. As a result, it might be the most impressive, because it’s intentions must be so precariously balanced.
I usually end up watching this film with its fantastic DVD commentary featuring Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi, and other crew members turned on, because their MST3K approach to discussing their own film is nearly as awesome as the film itself. However, in honor of Halloween, I attended an Evil Dead II screening at a local theatre to relive its brilliantly campy, roller-coaster ride, glory.
The setup, largely borrowed from the first film, is gloriously simple. Ash (Campbell) and his girlfriend, Linda (Denise Bixler) retreat to a secluded cabin in the woods (because nothing ever goes wrong in such a setting). He finds a tape recorder and turns it on. A man’s voice reads a translation of text from the Necronomicon ex Mortis (Book of the Dead). Within moments, Linda’s trying to murder Ash, Ash is decapitating her with a shovel, and trying to cope with a recently possessed hand. Eventually, other characters show up, because movies like this need a body count, and hilarious, grisly mayhem ensues.
Raimi’s genre work distinguishes itself by its rapid-fire pace and kitchen-sink approach, and Evil Dead II serves as a prime example of his glorious excesses. We meet Ash and Linda for all of 5 minutes before the horror kicks in. The other characters get probably 2-3 minutes of introduction before they arrive at the cabin. This is not a film series built on nuance or character depth. It’s built on gore and violence-based comedy. There isn’t even an attempt at any kind of continuity since the amount of gore draped over its characters shifts dramatically from shot to shot. I mean, sure, the film tries to give Ash a bit of time to mourn his recently deceased girlfriend, but it’s more obligatory than critical to the narrative. And you know what? That’s totally fine. Sometimes Raimi’s bigger is better tendencies can become a hindrance (cough- Spiderman 3-cough), but he’s completely in his element here.
Raimi effortlessly shifts from horror to outright zaniness, which lends Evil Dead II a gleefully surrealistic feel. Gore of all colors splashes about the setting. Amputated hands have a tendency to pop up when they’re least wanted. A corpse’s head faces one direction while its body twirls like a figure skater. Mounted deer heads laugh maniacally. There’s no shortage of sight gags.
The film flies through horror ideas and imagery like this at an almost exhausting pace. A more normal group of filmmakers would have either run out of steam after twenty minutes or spread the gags out more evenly, forcing them to fill the spaces with character development and dialogue. Evil Dead II, however, never relents. Raimi always has some new inventive horror gag to pull out of his bag of tricks.
Of course, none of this would work if you didn’t have a lead who was game for whatever his gleefully sadistic director was willing to – sometimes literally – throw his way. Raimi found that in childhood pal Bruce Campbell. Blessed with a unique combination of a leading man’s looks and a character actor’s quirkiness, Campbell plays the film’s slapstick to the hilt and males Ash a fairly dimwitted protagonist. If you accept Evil Dead II as the next chapter in a trilogy (as opposed to a remake), you also have to accept Ash would have once gone to a cabin, played a recording of ancient Sumerian text that unleashed demons who possessed his friends, and then did the exact same thing just a few years later. The way Campbell plays Ash, that’s almost a believable turn of events.
Ultimately, Evil Dead II works because of its scrappy, grimy charm, inventive special effects (including the completely cool fast-moving, POV approach to the oncoming evil), and willingness to pile on so much gore that the film sails past horrific right into gleefully over-the-top. It does a nice job of setting up the next chapter in the trilogy and lays the foundation for what the Ash character would eventually become in Army of Darkness and Starz’s canceled-too-soon revival series Ash vs the Evil Dead. It also serves as kind of appetizer for the kind of gleeful mania director Sam Raimi could harness and turn into genre brilliance (see also Drag Me to Hell), and no matter how many times I watch it, I’m struck by how flat-out entertaining the movie remains.
But, seriously, if you’ve already seen and love Evil Dead II and haven’t heard the DVD commentary yet, rectify that immediately:
Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:
Tomorrow: Sticking with the 80s and looking at The Gate