Guess who’s coming to dinner in Ash Vs. Evil Dead?

Guess who’s coming to dinner in Ash Vs. Evil Dead?

“That, my friends, is how we do it,” Ashley “Ash” Williams declares at the start of this week’s episode, “Bait”. Standing over the ragged, headless corpse of last week’s Top Deadite, Vivian Johnson (Sian Davis), our hero couldn’t appear more determined, more pleased, more assured. Yet it’s almost as if he’s speaking on behalf of Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, or anyone else involved in the production of Ash Vs. Evil Dead. Because after that bloody spectacular pilot episode, they’ve earned the right to be so bold. And let’s be real, it’s not like fans weren’t thinking or saying the exact same thing.

Similar to every film in The Evil Dead trilogy, “Bait” picks up immediately where its preceding chapter left off, which is a key move. What has always made Ash’s plight so exhaustively tongue-in-cheek is how it’s forever been this never-ending battle; after all, evil never sleeps, and neither must he. Since we’ve only just begun, as they say, it makes sense that the action escalates—and does it ever. What begins as a road trippin’ brawl, set to Deep Purple’s muscular jam “Highway Star”, swiftly evolves into a strange family dinner that’s equal parts Gilmore Girls and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

As promised, Kelly’s estranged mother (guest star Mimi Rogers) has returned, and she’s prepared a home-cooked meal for the gang. The problem is that by “estranged” we actually mean she was previously believed to be dead. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with Ash, who’s outspokenly suspicious right from the moment he breaks down their door with his chainsaw in tow. “When it comes to evil, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he tells Pablo, who really just wants the best for Kelly. Sadly, that’s not in the cards for the young woman … not at all.

Now, if you recall, I ended my review of “El Jefe” by tossing out a few questions to consider. No, don’t go and look for them, I’ll share it all right here: “Will this work if Raimi isn’t directing each week? Can showrunner Craig DiGregorio and his team of writers match Campbell’s signature beats? Are we comfortable with the 30-minute runtime or will it become suffocating?” Well, it only took a single episode to answer all three questions and it’s a simple, resounding, “Yes!” If you want to get technical about it, that last question is: “Yes, the 30-minute runtime is just right!”

Director Michael J. Bassett steps into Raimi’s muddy, worn-out shoes, which have tirelessly led every Bruce Campbell-starring incarnation of The Evil Dead, dating way, way back to the spring of 1978, when the two of them pieced together the 32-minute short that inspired it all, Within The Woods. What should have been a tall order simply becomes aced homework for Bassett, who retains a number of the cult auteur’s charms with ease—an overhead shot swims above shaky tree limbs, a rearview mirror startles upon adjustments, and the end of Ash’s boomstick proves ideal as a crude POV.

The young English filmmaker knows his way around a horror film—even if his credits don’t exactly scream as much (2006’s Wilderness, notwithstanding)—and he sets up a number of jarring visuals to take to bed. There’s a creepy windmill outside Kelly’s house, seemingly borrowed from the original Twister set, that squeaks and twirls at just the right time to tickle the spine. A fork turns deadly before dessert’s even served, making one dude’s future attempts at a Snake Plissken costume easier. Though nothing tops the feels at hearing “Hush Little Baby” from a Deadite’s lips again. Yikes.

By the way, has there ever been a more chilling force of evil in this series? Physically, sure, Linda or Cheryl take the whole rotten bakery in the 1981 original. But mentally, there’s something truly disturbing about the touch-and-go narrative of Kelly’s mother and the damaging effects it has on our new hero. Did she really commit suicide or was she purely taunting Kelly? Take a closer look at the household: The father’s a spineless hunter who can’t even speak up at his own dinner table, while Kelly’s clearly the rebellious type and may or may not have ignored her mother over the years.

Hard to tell. Much like the re-animated ghouls in Stephen King’s novel, Pet Sematary, Deadites tend to scrounge up the darkest truths from inside anyone’s soul. If that’s the case here, and Kelly’s mother did drive off that highway purposefully, then those are some wild demons to behold. Odds are we’ll never know, as their sordid reunion ends in a bloodbath, robbing Kelly of the same innocence that once belonged to Ash, back when he was the soft-spoken Ashley and believed in things like “relationships” or a “future.” Hey, at least they have something in common going forward.

“You’re kind of like me,” Ash tells Kelly after burying her parents. “Deadites ruined your life and you’re hot as hell.” And we’re back! Such extenuating humor relieves the proceedings of becoming too funereal, which is a core strength of “Bait”. Workaholics writer Dominic Dierkes exudes the same grace as Bassett, picking up right where Raimi left off at the typewriter. There’s nothing lost in the transition; Campbell chews up every scene with some of his funniest lines thus far. Meanwhile, a nightmarish origin story sneaks by, masked under another gory misadventure.

And how! We’re only two episodes deep and already our clothes reek from rotten blood and guts. Fortunately, any scenes dealing with the macabre have been unique enough to retain their own identity, which is partly why the 30 minute runtime works so well. Another reason is how the action has been storming through one establishing setting to the next, assisting in the world-building that’s patiently being nailed together. In hindsight, such attempts at plotting feel slightly akin to the franchise’s second video game, 2000’s oft-forgotten and hideously underrated, Evil Dead: Hail To The King.

Written off as a Resident Evil knock-off, the admittedly difficult game brought Ash and a new fling back to the creaky cabin, where the Kandarian demons were once again summoned and all hell broke loose as per usual. But what was really gripping about the story was how the action pushed Ash out of the cabin’s claustrophobic confines and into the gloomy surrounding areas. Hillbillies, boy scouts, preachers, and woodsy terrors all wanted a piece of his soul, and it was this sort of sequential unknown, both in locales and in dangers, that made the experience rather harrowing and thrilling.

Right now, we know where things are heading: Shortly after Kelly reluctantly joins Ash and Pablo’s revenge quest/run from the law, the underwritten Amanda Fisher is seen arriving at Books From Beyond, where the ever elusive Lionel Hawkins conceivably dwells. What lies within is another mystery waiting to be decapitated on Ash Vs. Evil Dead, which brings us to our latest round of questions: Where the hell does Lucy Lawless factor into all of this? Will Fisher and Ash be adversaries or enemies? And might Pablo also experience loss? If this week’s any indication, we’ll get answers soon.

Catch ya on the flip-flop.

Stray observations

  • Hats off to Dana DeLorenzo, who had the unenviable task of finding an agreeable balance between sardonic humor and substantial drama. Nothing gets too heavy, but the actress adds a sobering depth to her situation that we haven’t really seen in any of the Evil Dead films.
  • Ash’s Jerry Maguire Mission Statement: “But I’m trying to save all the dads everywhere, and the mommies and the babies…”
  • One disclaimer Ash is wont to use in (probably) every episode going forward: “I know it’s not a very PC thing to say these days…”
  • The open container laws in Michigan are really lax, apparently.
  • There’s no way Deep Purple will get tiring, especially if they keep using the songs to great effect. Gotta love watching Ash stab his boss repeatedly to the rhythm of Jon Lord’s organ solo on “Highway Star”. Something tells me we’ll be hearing more off Machine Head. Here’s hoping it’s Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar grooves on “Lazy”.
  • Always take the moist towelette, Pablo.
  • Let’s hope Fisher gets some harder detective work in future episodes. That business card discovery was a perfunctory breadcrumb, to say the least. However, next week’s episode is titled, “Books From Beyond”, and that’s where we last saw her, so Jill Marie Jones should get more screen time.
  • The energy Ray Santiago contributes to each scene is commendable. He’s so goddamn endearing, from the way he recounts Ash’s nasty deeds seconds after they occur to his habit of reconciling any differences at hand.
  • Well, look at that! Eli, Ash’s bearded dragon, survived—-and loves brains!
  • Can we get more interrogation scenes with Ash, please? The back and forth innuendo between Campbell and Rogers was just delicious.
  • Speaking of which, Mimi Rogers really chews into the gooey middle of her meaty cameo. The way her teary eyes gloss over in those extended close ups is giddily terrifying. She’s easily this week’s Top Deadite, no doubt a step up from her former spooky days as Diana Fowley.
  • Can we get another round of applause for composer Joseph LoDuca? The original score that pops up in the bedroom scene was essential.
  • Shots fired: When Pablo stabs Kelly’s mother in the head with a butcher knife and acts as if the job’s done, did that not feel like a subtle barb at The Walking Dead? As if to say, “Try dealing with Deadites, Mr. Grimes.”
  • “Goodnight, mother.”

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