“Because it’s a brilliant film. It’s so funny and violent and the soundtrack kicks fucking ass. I never thought I’d say this, but can I go work now?” —Jack Black on Evil Dead II in High Fidelity
Most weeks here at New Cult Canon, I offer some highfalutin reason why some lowdown piece of genre fare in fact aspires to some deeper significance beyond its surface pleasures. Ginger Snaps is not just a femme-centered teenage werewolf movie, but a metaphor for the terrifying anxieties of becoming a young woman. Stuck may seem like ripped-from-the-headlines exploitation, but it’s really a stinging portrait of class desperation and man’s inhumanity to man. They Live and The Stepfather may be about aliens and serial killers, respectively, but they’re also two prominent examples of late-‘80s thrillers that rebelled in different ways against the Reagan Era. None of these readings are terribly radical: Cult movies often smuggle meaning through ostensible trash, and in-the-know audiences cherish them for that very reason, like they’re part of some secret club that “gets it.”
Then there are cases like Sam Raimi’s Army Of Darkness, for which I can make no higher argument of any kind. It’s just pure pleasure for 81 minutes, and that’s it. The undead armies are undead armies. The 14th-century setting has no historical significance, other than allowing Raimi to introduce modern-day explosions to jury-rigged catapults and flaming arrows. It’s possible to think about Bruce Campbell’s Ash as part of a tradition of confident, iconoclastic, slightly lunk-headed American heroes from John Wayne to Bruce Willis, but it isn't worth the brainpower to go too far into it. Really, my immediate reaction to Army Of Darkness isn’t any more reasoned or articulate than the Jack Black quote about Evil Dead II above. It has Campbell at his swarthy best, with chainsaw affixed to arm; wave after wave of Harryhausen skeletons coming to life; and at least five or six one-liners that seem to pause, deservedly, for a round of applause from the audience. What else do you want?
The unlikely conclusion to Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy—which follows Ash’s battles with the supernatural forces unleashed by the Necronomicon (or “Book Of The Dead”)—Army Of Darkness completed the series’ progression from horror to straight-up slapstick comedy, but it wasn’t a story that absolutely needed to be told. Having gained access to Hollywood after the second entry became a cult phenomenon—giving him currency he subsequently spent on New Cult Canon favorite Darkman in 1990—Raimi was now a kid in a much larger sandbox, and he used the opportunity to introduce the majesty of Bruce Campbell to a new audience, all while paying homage to Universal horror and recalling old chestnuts like Jason And The Argonauts and Three Stooges sketches. It’s one of those great, accidental moments when a studio loses its head (or maybe it was the producer, Dino De Laurentiis) and decides to bankroll a filmmaker’s idiosyncratic vision, caring not that he’s wrapping up a trilogy familiar only to a passionate few.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take much for Raimi to bring the newbies up to speed. After all, the first two Evil Dead movies are separated more by tone than by story, and the mythology is simple: There’s this book called the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (hat tip: H.P. Lovecraft), bound in human flesh and written in blood, that unleashes all kinds of crazy supernatural mayhem when passages are read aloud. Campbell’s Ash is the loveable doofus who unwittingly summons the forces of darkness, then brings them down. (Eventually, after getting slapped around a bit first.) Raimi acolytes can play spot-the-reference all they like, but this isn’t The Godfather or The Wire in terms of complicated backstory; it only takes a quick montage to take care of business, and even that seems a little unnecessary.
When Army Of Darkness opens, our hero has vanquished evil and retreated to the humble mission of clerking at a department store. (Ash takes to the job with the same élan he brings to killing demons—“Shop smart. Shop S-Mart!”—which somehow makes him more heroic. He may be a badass, but he comes from common stock.) But just when he thought he was out, that pesky Book Of The Dead pulls him back in, whisking him, his junky gas-guzzler, his modified chainsaw, and his 12-gauge, double-barreled Remington back to the year 1300 A.D. Initially mistaken for the enemy, Ash is enslaved and taken to a medieval castle for public execution, but his dire situation doesn’t curb his irreverence; before he’s hurled into a demon-stocked death pit, he gives one stuffed suit (of armor) a little what-for:
After Ash survives the monster onslaught in his usual fashion—getting punched in the face repeatedly, then improvising a comeback—he goes from impostor to the prophesized savior of the kingdom. All he needs to do is retrieve the Necronomicon from a graveyard, say the magic words (“Klaatu, barada, nikto,” a nod to The Day The Earth Stood Still), and be on his way. But Ash isn’t the type to stay on script, and his “close enough” phrasing summons every supernatural beastie in the book, setting up an epic battle between the Deadites (and their “Evil Ash” leader) and the vastly outnumbered men in armor. He also enjoys the obligatory bodice-ripping romance with a feisty local (Embeth Davidtz), who’s mostly around so he can end the occasional sentence with the word “baby.” (As in the classic, “Gimme some sugar, baby.”)
Apart from the joys of bringing Evil Dead hijinks to an infinitely larger stage, Raimi and Campbell get a lot of comic mileage from the fish-out-of-water anachronisms that arise from planting a late-20th-century vulgarian into medieval times. Gone is any trace of the quivering Everyman from the first two films; his fear is replaced by a goofball machismo that recalls Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China. Ash doesn’t bother adapting to early-14th-century ways when the era can be modified to suit his purposes, whether that means fashioning gunpowder out of old Chemistry 101 textbooks (“Your primitive intellect wouldn't understand alloys and compositions and things with… molecular structures”) or introducing the natives to modern catchphrases and Elvis references. Mostly, though, he just gets kicked around, as in this sequence, when he’s his own worst enemy:
Though packed with knowing winks to its formative roots in fantasy and comedy—the extended Ash vs. Ash showdown hopscotches from Gulliver’s Travels to Duck Soup—Army Of Darkness reveals a particular fondness for the Three Stooges, and Raimi has given many of Ash’s faceless adversaries the title of “Fake Shemp.” (So named after Shemp died of a heart attack and the other Stooges had four more shorts to deliver on their studio contract.) But here’s a clear case of a film far exceeding its influences: Everyone fondly remembers the eye-pokes and nyuck, nyuck, nyucks, but they forget about the excruciating comic business that prompts them. Raimi and Campbell bring much better timing and choreography to their physical comedy, and they extract the funniest element of the Stooges, which is how all that slapping and gouging raises their ire and gets them whooping. (For further evidence of this principle, check out this classic clip of Albert Brooks on The Tonight Show, where he uses pepper and a hot potato wedge to do his Curly impression. It starts at the 2:33 mark.) It’s a crime that Campbell never had Jim Carrey’s profile, but fans know him as the Goodyear of rubber-faced comics.
Army Of Darkness belongs to the “cinema of cool,” that pantheon of movies with enough style and attitude to reduce critical thinkers into drooling fanboys and fangirls. (Raimi’s recent Drag Me To Hell, a kind of de facto Evil Dead sequel, can at least be justified as a morality play about the sins of the banking sector.) I could prattle on about how corrosive fanboyism can be to film culture, with the way it feeds into our constant, insatiable desire for the next big empty-headed spectacle and makes us shifty during more patient, austere attempts at cinematic art. But I don’t have it in me right now. Hey, who else is up for watching Army Of Darkness again?
Next week & December 3: No columns due to Thanksgiving and Best Of The Decade film bonanza, respectively.
December 10: Bottle Rocket
December 17: Bad Santa