Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: The Evil Dead Series

 editor's note: this includes portions of reviews from various points in the Blogorium history.

 Other than a mention in the closing notes of Horror Fest V, you might be surprised to see there's no review of The Evil Dead anywhere in the Blogorium. For that matter, there's even less about Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn: it merits less than a sentence and a half in the Horror Fest III recap. In my defense, early Fest recaps were written between movies, usually during smoke breaks for others, so you'll find much of that coverage to be, frankly, lacking. It feels unfair to not give them a proper discussion, considering the lengthy Retro Review for Army of Darkness (see below) and their place in Cap'n Howdy's arrival to watching horror films regularly. Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are, in many ways, responsible for the person I am today. If I can talk about how Oz: The Great and Powerful is, in many ways, a family friendly remake of Army of Darkness, surely there can be some digital space carved out for the films that made both of them household names. Well, very particular households. Like ones who signed up for Starz after Ash vs. Evil Dead was announced.

 (note: I have left the Army of Darkness Retro Review largely untouched, which should be amusing considering that both the remake and Ash Vs. Evil Dead have rendered the first paragraph moot)

 The Evil Dead is, I'm reasonably certain, the last of Raimi's "Dead" trilogy that I saw, although it's very likely I'm not alone in saying that. Unless you were old enough to have seen them in the order they were released, odds are you came into the films with the second or third film, and then worked backwards. It's an understandable way of doing things: Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness are more comedic in tone, while The Evil Dead plays it largely for horror, bringing a few uncomfortable chuckles as the narrative continues. The first time I experienced any part of The Evil Dead may have been late at night one weekend, back when Syfy was The Sci-Fi Channel, back when their "original programming" consisted of Sci-Fi Buzz and they didn't mind showing horror movies to pad out their schedule.

 My memory of it is vivid: I came in at the very end of the movie, right before Ash (Campbell) kills Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) and Scotty (Richard DeManincor) by burning the Necronomicon. I can specifically remember the stop motion, clay-faced Scotty beginning to melt as he falls forward and hits the cabin floor, before the rest of his skin bubbles off and he becomes a skull in a goopy pile. I'm not even sure if I stuck around for the ending, when the "camera on a 2x4" manifestation of evil catches Ash and it cuts to black, but it's likely I did. When you start watching The Evil Dead, from wherever you start, it's hard not to finish. It's even harder when it comes to Dead by Dawn, but we'll get to that shortly.

 What I've come to appreciate over the years about The Evil Dead, and why it's still my favorite of the three (in a very hard "choose your favorite child" scenario), is the immediate sense of dread for the protagonists. Cheryl, Ash, Scotty, Linda (Betsy Baker), and Shelly (Theresa Tilly) have no idea how doomed they are as they drive up to the "cabin in the woods" for the weekend. We've already seen a seemingly untethered camera floating through the swamp, and Raimi is continually warning us with distorted visual and audio cues that something very bad is going to happen. The exaggerated attention paid to the porch swing hitting the wall, boosting the sound to a ludicrously ominous level, hints at what he'll do again in Drag Me to Hell. But most of The Evil Dead isn't played to for laughs.

 The visceral quality of the film still gets to me - when Linda takes a pencil to the ankle, I cringe. Every time. I know it's coming, but it still works. It's hard not to mention the "tree" scene, because that's clearly the moment that Raimi oversteps his boundary, even by his own admission. It doesn't stop him from making a more comical version of it in Dead by Dawn, but there's nothing funny about what happens to Cheryl in The Evil Dead, and that's really what kicks off the horror. I always found it interesting that Ash and Cheryl were siblings, because it gives The Evil Dead a different level of connection than in the prologue to Dead by Dawn (and, I suppose, Army of Darkness). It's the only time we find out his real name is Ashley, because only his sister is going to call him that, and he's more fiercely protective of her after she's violated in the forest.

 While Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness increase the budget (and scope), I'm quite fond of the grimy, no budget aesthetic of The Evil Dead. There's something to its low-fi ambience, to Raimi's inventive ways around budget limitations, and the sound design that sets the first film apart. It's more assured than the rough draft short film, Within the Woods (which is functionally the same story, only Campbell is evil), and provides the groundwork for a lot of what became Sam Raimi auteur-ial flourishes. If there's anything that keeps it from being the classic it ought to be, it's that people often come to it last, and in doing so are often disappointed that Ash isn't as central a character as they've become accustomed to. He is, in many ways, like Ripley is in the first half of Alien - a member of the gang, but hardly the focus of the story. There's very little of the wisecracking, boomstick wielding lunkhead-turned-hero that people expect. But I don't hold that against The Evil Dead, and neither should you.


 Before I ever saw Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, I can remember reading the review in Mick Martin and Marsha Porter's Video Movie Guide. It described Dead by Dawn as "less of a sequel and more of a remake," which was sort of the conventional wisdom passed around about the film until the internet came along to set things straight. Had Raimi been able to use footage from the first film, Ash's trip to the cabin with Linda (now Denise Bixler) might have simply been a recap, picking up immediately after the camera hits him. In truth, I've always been tempted to cut the two (well, even three, really) films together into a super-cut, since the seams are actually very easy to locate.

 Dead by Dawn is still technically a horror movie, but Raimi's fondness for slapstick comedy (particularly The Three Stooges) comes through more in the sequel, and it's a much easier entry point for the series. Not as easy as Army of Darkness, which is how I imagine most of you came in, but it's a great way to ease someone into gory movies. After Evil Dead 2, show them some early Peter Jackson, and they can handle just about anything. Well, maybe not the pencil to the ankle. Or Martyrs. But Martyrs is really an outlier. Where was I? Oh, yeah, Dead by Dawn. So the first twenty minutes or so retells The Evil Dead, just without Cheryl, Scotty, and Shelly. It's just Ash and Linda, and the words are spoken on the tape and she's still possessed and he still cuts her head off with a shovel and buries her. And then the film goes bonkers.

 I actually really like the way that Raimi continues from where The Evil Dead ends to where Dead by Dawn begins in earnest: Ash doesn't die, he's just prohibitively possessed and can't leave. The bridge is still destroyed, and the "force" is still trying to find him in the cabin. But it doesn't, in one of the more amusing scenes: it's chasing him through the cabin, and all of a sudden loses him, and just gives up for a while. Then Linda comes back, and we're introduced to the chainsaw in this version (as well as Freddy's glove, if you're looking carefully in the toolshed), and what will become the hallmarks of the Ash most people know start. It's also a tour-de-force for Bruce Campbell, who spends the lion's share of Evil Dead 2 by himself, fighting with furniture, blood, and most notably, himself.

 There are people out there who don't know who Bruce Campbell is, or at least have never seen him on-screen, and without fail you can win them over by showing them Evil Dead 2. His gift for physical comedy, his willingness to go all out to sell a gag, is impressive to say the very least. Campbell makes you believe his hand is possessed and he has no control over it, and the scene where "it" drags his unconscious body towards a meat cleaver always impresses me. Sure, the sound design for the hand helps, as does the editing, but Campbell is doing the lion's share of holding up Evil Dead 2 for the first half of the movie, so much so that it almost loses steam when everybody else shows up.

 It's probably important to clarify the "almost" - it's not as though the movie was only going to be Ash, because while he's been going nuts in the cabin, we've already met Annie (Sarah Berry), Ed (Richard Dormeier), Jake (Dan Hicks), and Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley). Annie is the daughter of Professor Knowby (John Peakes in flashbacks), whose voice we hear reciting passages from the Necronomicon. She's on her way back to the cabin, so eventually there's going to be a crossing of paths, and since Ash has reduced the cabin to a smashed up bloodbath, it's not really a surprise she leaps to conclusions. Also, he shot Bobby Joe - accidentally and through the door, but it doesn't help his case. Their presence shifts the direction of the movie quite a bit, but it does lock Ash in the basement, where he meets the Deadite version of Knowby's wife, Henrietta (Ted Raimi). That's a plus.

 Aside from providing Raimi with more bodies to do horrible things to (Bobby Joe swallowing a projectile eyeball, Ed getting hacked to pieces, and the many times Jake is hurt after he's been stabbed with the Kandarian dagger), the only purpose that any of the other four characters serve is to bring the passages from the Necronomicon that can banish the demons in the woods. And yeah, Ash isn't really in any state to do it by himself, so I get more characters, but there's a marked shift in the film after they enter the cabin that doesn't really resolve until three of them quickly exit the narrative. Ed gets possessed, eats some of Annie's hair, and gets an axe to, well, everything. Bobby Joe gets Raimi's cleaned up version of the "tree" scene, and poor Jake gets abused repeatedly before being torn asunder by Henrietta. And then the pages end up in the basement.

 This, if you watch the series backwards, is when Ash finally starts to meet the iconography that fans of the series associate with him. How he goes from barely functioning to able to craft his chainsaw arm is better left unquestioned, but when I saw Dead by Dawn recently on the big screen, the moment brought loud cheers, many before he even had time to say "Groovy." Much of this is where I base the "people watched The Evil Dead series backwards" theory on: not only is that how I did it - I had a VHS tape of Army of Darkness, and then a friend bought me a copy of Evil Dead 2 - but it was as though everybody was waiting for the Ash they knew to show up.

 I'm tremendously fond of Evil Dead 2 - it's the last entry in the original trilogy (to date) that makes any effort to be a horror movie, even if it's also largely a comedy. The film is a great way to introduce someone to horror, because you can ease them into over the top gore while giving them something to laugh at, so they don't get too squeamish. It's a fantastic showcase for Bruce Campbell, and if I'm being honest, it's better than Army of Darkness. Maybe not as quotable as the third film or as visceral as the first, but a happy middle ground. The effects from the fresh off of Day of the Dead KNB still hold up, and it has maybe one of the best puns to go along with cutting your hand off that you're ever going to see.


I saw an article a few weeks back perpetuating the cycle of "will Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi ever make Evil Dead 4, or will they just remake it?" where Campbell had been interviewed for something he's doing with Burn Notice and he casually mentioned that he'd read the screenplay for the ED remake. The person writing the article included some commentary about how they'll eventually "wake up" and realize that people want Evil Dead 4 and not an "idiotic redo."

The argument has been going on since a remake was announced some seven years ago, and the great "will there be an Evil Dead 4" has been kicking around since 1993's Army of Darkness, but really kicked into high gear when the director's cut arrived on DVD around 2000. This is not actually another editorial about the relative merits of ED 4 vs. ED: R, but instead will dance around elements that consistently appear in said arguments, based on the 18 year history the Cap'n has with Sam Raimi's third journey into the battle between Ash and the Deadites.

I wasn't allowed to see Army of Darkness in February of 1993, and it wasn't because the News and Observer panned the film - it was that pesky "R" rating. It was the same reason I couldn't see The Crow a year later, and why the 14 and then 15 year-old Cap'n had to wait for my Dad to "check them out" to see if they were fit for consumption*. After Dad laughed throughout Army of Darkness, he told my mother it was "too silly" to seriously corrupt my already corrupted mind**, and I was allowed to begin watching The Evil Dead films in the opposite order.

Yes, I saw Army of Darkness first; then Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn; then, eventually, The Evil Dead. I'd been aware of the other two thanks to Carbonated Video, but if you think they had trouble letting me watch the tamest, least horrific of the three, just imagine if I'd tried to rent anything from the "horror" aisle.

As I've mentioned before, horror comedies were my gateway into harder edged films of the genre, well beyond the Universal Classic Monster films that populated my youth. The violence in Evil Dead 2 is so extreme, so impossible to take seriously, it ceases to horrify and instead induces laughter.

Similarly, the blood geyser in Army of Darkness (anyone familiar with the film knows exactly what I'm talking about) became the great ice-breaker in high school - just throw on Army of Darkness in the dressing room during plays and watch as every single cast member shifts their focus from last minute line memorization to Bruce Campbell involved in skeleton-related slapstick. The film (which is honestly harmless in just about every measure you'd gauge "horror" by) was a great introduction to crazier movies, not only Raimi's other films, but Peter Jackson's gross-out trifecta of Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead Alive.

Now I've mentioned that Army of Darkness has a Director's Cut, and that it had a VHS and DVD release in '99 / 2000 (respectively), but the funny thing is that I already knew it existed well before it came out. Though I cannot recall why or how I found it, clips of the original ending were already available on the internet in 1997, albeit in postage stamp-sized Quicktime files that took hours to download on a 28.8 modem. This, coupled with the launch of BC Central - the original version of Bruce Campbell's official website - allowed the high school era Cap'n to pursue more information about the "two" Army of Darkness's.

When I say "original" version of Bruce Campbell's website, I don't mean this. That's what BC Central became (the original domain name is now up for sale, I just checked), but in the beginning, Bruce recorded .wav files that were embedded into the page and shared personal anecdotes (many of which ended up in If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor). He also had an email address to send questions to, and back in those early days of the "internet," Bruce Campbell would respond personally to your email (things were different back then, you see).

Logically, having seen the original ending where Ash oversleeps and finds himself in a post-apocalyptic London, I thought I'd be the clever fellow who emailed Bruce asking why they'd changed the ending. While the email is lost to time, I still remember what he replied:

"We didn't change it - the studio did. Cheers, Bruce Campbell"

That's all; I didn't say he wrote long responses, but he did respond, and in all fairness Bruce Campbell did answer my question, which was poorly worded to be sure.

Okay, so the Director's Cut was out there, including on a bootlegged VHS tape we had a copy of in college from a video store that no longer exists but still doesn't have to be "out-ed," and it entered the rotation with the likes of Clerks, Cannibal! The Musical, and Pecker***.

Over the last 15 years or so, I've had a copy of Army of Darkness in just about every iteration you can find: the 1996 VHS release, the Universal DVD, on Blu-Ray, and even on HD-DVD. Oh, and then there are the numerous Anchor Bay releases, of which I only didn't have the "Bootleg" edition, in part because I still had the "Limited" edition with the Theatrical and Director's Cuts. You'll find pictures of all of them scattered around this Retro Review.

With time, I've come to prioritize my Evil Dead preference in the opposite order I saw them: The Evil Dead is a relentless, disturbing, graphic horror film that I enjoy more every time I see it; Dead by Dawn is basically the same movie but with the disturbing replaced with some seriously wicked black comedy, a more enjoyable experience but hints at the direction Raimi was going in; Army of Darkness is essentially a series of one-liners with a dash of Ray Harryhausen "horror" in the guise of an adventure film. There's nothing scary about Army of Darkness, and one will find the 90% of "Ash-holes" prefer the Ash from the third film to the other two - he has the better catchphrases. I watch Army of Darkness less than the other two, but the Cap'n still appreciates its role in dragging me back into horror.

As to whether a remake or sequel happens (or, more likely, doesn't) I must admit I don't give it much thought. Drag Me to Hell was by and large as close as we're going to get to an "Evil Dead" -type film from Sam Raimi, and to be honest, I'm happier with that than a continuation of the "give me some sugar, baby" that closed out the Ash saga.


 And then there's the remake. Oh, I know, Sam Raimi didn't direct it: he merely produced it, along with Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert, thereby giving it their tacit "seal of approval", but you didn't really think I was just going to pretend it didn't exist, did you? I may not like it very much, but Fede Alvarez's reboot-sequel-thing can technically be argued to continue the story, thanks to some specific visual cues, and who knows what's in store after Ash vs. Evil Dead...

 The presence of "the classic" - Sam Raimi's 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 - covered in vines seems to indicate that this is the same cabin that Ash was in at some point, although it's not clear that he ever left based on the film. The grittier, less "comedic" approach Alvarez brings to the remake allows for certain elements from The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 to be reused - the tree rape (even more uncomfortable), losing a hand (even more graphic), and the chainsaw (more blood), while pushing the boundaries of Deadites in different directions. Now they're self-mutilating demons, not unlike the possessed Ghosts of Mars, and you should never want me to have to compare your movie to Ghosts of Mars. Ever.

 It's no secret that I don't like Evil Dead, and I've tried to give it another chance. I kind of like the idea that Mia (Jane Levy)'s friends bring her to the cabin to detox, and they don't listen to her when things get nasty because she's prone to lying in order to use. Unfortunately, that plotline is all but abandoned halfway through the film, and it's never really explored enough to be more than a device to kick off the movie. The idea that the Necronomicon has been in the cabin and that people try to keep it out of the hands of others is a good one, but is again not especially well developed. Instead it seems to provide a good excuse for Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) to bleed on the book. I don't really think that addressing the raining blood third act or the Abomination (the, uh, ultimate manifestation of the Deadites) is worth getting into. Or why Mia needs to rip her own hand off - not cut, like literally tear it off - in order to get away. that's just how this Evil Dead rolls.

 Here are my original thoughts, from a recap written in 2013. I think they cover how I feel about the tone of Evil Dead pretty well:

  I get that people like that the remake of The Evil Dead is really violent. Like non-stop, unpleasant, close-up on the gore violent for most of the movie. Got it. I 100% don't believe the continued insistence that the effects are practical and that there's "almost no digital effects" in the movie. Sorry, I've seen it twice and you can see the digital effects, even during parts of the commentary where the director claims there aren't. But that is another argument for another day. The problem with Evil Dead isn't that it exists - there can and are good remakes of horror films out there, so I'm willing to put aside my affection for the original and let this exist in its own right.

 The problem with Evil Dead is that it's extremely violent, and nothing else. If you're looking for a movie where people are slowly, painfully mutilated, with long shots of the aftermath where they're half-crying and half in shock while removing needles or nails from their skin, good news - you'll find it in spades in Evil Dead. There's no humor, no characters, not much in the way of plot (that isn't abandoned, anyway), but lots of moments designed to remind you that this is a remake of The Evil Dead. Just one that's grittier and gorier and more hardcore. Because that's all horror fans care about, right? Oh, also just throwing Bruce Campbell onscreen after the credits to say "Groovy" in silhouette., because you gotta have Bruce, right?  It's no secret why the best and worst reviews of this film said the same thing: "It's REALLY violent." That's all there is to Evil Dead, and it's not enough.


 For now, that's all there is of The Evil Dead series. That's going to change in a little over a week, when Raimi, Tapert, and Bruce bring Ash back for a new series. They've hinted it could be more than just a one-off, but I'm looking forward to seeing how Ashley J. Williams has been living in a post-Army of Darkness world. Well, also one where they aren't allowed to say "S-Mart" or have a metal hand because Universal won't let them use anything specifically from Army of Darkness. I've tried to steer clear of learning too much about it, but Bruce is looking good and it appears to be tonally similar to Dead by Dawn. Bring it, I says. Then I'll have to update this sucker again...

* The issue for The Crow was the "raped" part of "criminals rape and kill the hero's girlfriend before killing him."
** Long time Blogorium readers are already aware that the Cap'n had been exposed to Blade Runner, Downtown, Aliens, and Animal House at a much younger age. For that matter, they would take me with them to see the much harder "R" Alien 3 later that year...
*** Sorry, I know we had to watch more than those movies, but for the life of me I can't think of one right now and I know we DID watch Pecker at least once...

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