A.V. Club conversations are often punctuated by shocked exclamations of "I can't believe you've never seen/heard/read that!" followed by grumbling questions about critical backgrounds and general worthiness. ("What kind of asshole hasn't seen Citizen Kane/Crocodile Dundee?") In an effort to catch up, we present "Better Late Than Never," in which one A.V. Clubber admits to a tragic pop-cultural blind spot, then goes about filling it.
This week, it's Evil Dead II, a movie I've been bludgeoned with references to since high school, but which I haven't seen for two distinct reasons: I'm afraid it won't live up to the hype, and I'm afraid that I'm past the age at which a movie like Evil Dead II can register as truly great. It feels like one of those movies that needs to be seen at a formative movie-going age to really stick. Maybe I'm wrong. In any case, The A.V. Club conference room was absolutely aghast that I'd never seen it, and film editor Scott Tobias insisted that I watch it as soon as possible. He'll probably end up throwing his two cents at the film in a future "New Cult Canon." Our conference room looked a lot like this scene from High Fidelity:
So here's the snap judgment: I liked it very much, thank you. I'm not generally one for campy ridiculousness or gore movies: I watched my share of Troma films way back when, and always thought they were pretty funny, but these days, I have no desire to watch gore for gore's sake, even if it's ostensibly funny. I saw Grindhouse the weekend it opened and liked it pretty well, but I don't generally go out of my way to see splatter movies. I think they're kinda played—I'm not offended, just bored.
What I apparently failed to realize after years of prodding is that Evil Dead II is, in fact, a comedy. Not a horror-comedy, but a flat-out comedy that happens to live in a world of blood and monsters. As such, it succeeds magnificently. Sure, it got a little tired for me around an hour in (I'm like Roger Ebert! See the clip below), but it was mostly hilarious, fast, ridiculous fun. Released in 1987, before the digital revolution, Sam Raimi's breakthrough looks extremely dated, but that's where a good chunk of its charm stems from: latex monsters, disembodied heads and hands, and clunky stop-motion that lends the whole thing a slapstick vibe rather than a scary one. Here's a weird word to describe Evil Dead II, but I can think of none more appropriate: It's delightful. Watching it is like watching a young band find true inspiration in cheap gear and a bad studio. There's greatness to be had even with a small budget, as long as there's a little bit of love (and various colors of blood) to be had.
Anyway, the plot, for those of you haven't seen it. (Who am I kidding? You've all seen it.) Bruce Campbell, who basically built a career out of these 84 minutes, stars as Ash. He goes out to a creepy cabin in the woods with his girlfriend, ostensibly to get it on. (Oh, I should most certainly point out here that I have not seen the original Evil Dead, only read about it. I'm told I don't really need to, but that I should see Army Of Darkness, which is essentially Evil Dead III.) Bad things begin to happen, starting with his girlfriend being possessed. Campbell chops her head off with a shovel and buries her with a certain sense of matter-of-factness.
It's after the corpse is reanimated—you saw that coming, right?—that it becomes clear how funny/weird/unscary Evil Dead II actually is: The naked body does a little dance, searching for its head, which it eventually finds. Bruce Campbell, meanwhile, emotes like a man with something to emote about, but that isn't bad acting or overacting—it's beyond either of those things.
Here's Siskel and Ebert's review, which includes some key scenes, and mentions The Three Stooges:
From there, EDII just keeps getting more over-the-top: The "book of the dead" has allowed an evil portal to be opened, and evil is represented by white smoke, a spooky first-person camera, and people who turn into rubbery monsters. (And sometimes turn back.) In the second piece of proof (after the dancing corpse) that EDII was as inspired as much by The Three Stooges as it was by any horror film, Campbell must battle his own hand, which turns evil and tries to kill him. (The only thing missing is Curly Howard's "Woob-woob-woob!" noises.)
I don't want to recount the whole movie here, because much of the fun comes from seeing how Raimi tops himself. Entire scenes are filled with screams and blood and beatings, but it's never the slightest bit scary. Let me leave you with this one, though: Campbell's severed hand is eventually replaced by a chainsaw, which he uses to battle the baddies. In a scene right out of The A-Team, he gears up, then looks at himself with satisfaction and says just one word to sum up the entire adventure: "Groovy." I agree. And I can't believe I didn't see it sooner.