Evil Dead II (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” begins like any other cabin-in-the-woods horror picture: an unsuspecting couple goes on their romantic weekend getaway and suddenly their plans are completely derailed. Something unusual, shocking, almost off-putting: not eight minutes into the picture, the woman is dead—beheaded!—and buried in the ground. The man named Ash (brilliantly played by Bruce Campbell) is left to fend for himself against the demonic forces residing in the woods. Terror and… hilarity ensues. The work, written by Sam Raimi (who directs) and Scott Spiegel, is a satire of horror movies.
It is not so much a love letter to horror films—the first “Evil Dead,” a straight-faced scary movie involving a group of friends who meet in their doom in the very same cabin of this sequel—is closer to that. This is a love letter to horror images, from the undead rising from the grave, malicious-looking trees capable of uprooting themselves, a severed hand moving on its own, to buckets of blood being sprayed from the walls. It is so over-the-top that one cannot help but smile at its earnestness, its willing to entertain no matter the cost. And it does not run out of energy.
There are numerous crafty sequences powerful enough to embed themselves in our memories. I will give two examples. The first involves Ash finding himself surrounded by laughter… not of other people but of inanimate objects (deer mounted on the wall, bookcases, lamp) that shouldn’t be capable of moving let alone laugh. The demons are mocking him for being alone, for being weak, for being terrified. The evil knows it is going to win and so it plays with Ash for as long as possible. Ash can’t find himself to do anything at that point but laugh along. That is, until his laughter turns into sobs of desperation. He is the target and the evil force aims to drive him mad; he is entertainment to them—and he, along with his tormentors, in turn is entertainment to us. Clearly, the satire has bite.
Another example: the unbroken shot involving a chase between Ash and the unknown force that follows him from the woods to the cabin. We take the point of view of villain. But notice the content of the chase: it is a slapstick comedy. Ash wriggles about, stumbles, inserts himself in various cracks and corners like a little mouse. He opens and breaks down doors… and the evil is capable of doing the same. Things go wrong for our protagonist and yet somehow the force never gets to him, perhaps on purpose. It is loyal to the theme of Ash being its plaything. The evil is not evil because the ominous Book of the Dead says so. It is evil because of its actions: It enjoys tormenting its victim for the sake of entertainment. Raimi is in complete control of not only the images but the messages he wishes for us to consider. It is clever nearly every step of the way. (“Nearly” because I am not a fan of the final scene that sets up the next movie.)
“Evil Dead II” is not just any other remake or sequel or reimagining. I think this terrific follow-up can be considered as the “alternate spirit” of the original. Both share the same setting, but emphasis is on completely different ideas. Similar special and visual effects are employed, but they must be utilized in different ways in order to accomplish a specific goal. Together, these two make an excellent double feature for those who wish to analyze and understand specific types of storytelling told through similar vein. There is plenty to appreciate here.
The Evil Dead (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
Windows magically being repaired two or three scenes later, decaying flesh along the hands and arms looking like modified gloves in order to minimize time and effort in reapplying makeup, and the fog sitting so thick in one area of the screen that one could practically pinpoint the precise location of the fog machine are only some of the myriad “mistakes” (read: charm) in Sam Raimi’s horror classic “The Evil Dead.” And yet the movie stands the test of time because it is propelled with unbridled passion for the work. Love can be felt in every square inch of this movie—flaws and all. One does not have to wonder why it has such a strong cult following.
The characters may not be smart nor do they undergo compelling development, but the writer-director is consistently one step ahead. Notice his vision right from the opening sequence in which five university students (Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly) drive toward the isolated rundown cabin in the woods. Editing is swift and generous: we are placed inside the car one moment and out in the woods the next. Both places are alive: the chattering of youth who are excited to begin their weekend getaway and the hunger of the spirits in the woods waiting to possess their next victims. There is energy in the push and pull between natural and supernatural forces. Although apparent that the film has low budget, it cannot be denied that it is filled to the brim with purpose.
Its purpose is to entertain. Nothing else. In modern horror films, it takes at least telling a third of the story until the main players get on the same page and recognize that something bizarre or horrible might be happening. In this movie, the cellar door bursts open on its own during the first ten minutes. There is no room for stupid questions like, “What’s going on?” “Is this really happening?” “Should we call the police?” These unsuspecting victims are thrown right into the mouth of hell; we expect most of them to die in gruesome ways (and they do) and for one to survive. And all this is before they find the dreaded book with human skin as its cover.
Campbell has the face of a hero, but the practical special effects is the star of the show. Here is a movie that shows viewers dismembered human body parts but because the person—or what was once a person—had been possessed by evil, the chopped up limbs remain to tremble on their own. It is a terrifying image even by today’s standards.
Think about it: most violent horror movies settle for showing hacked up bodies—which shows the aftermath of violence—but special projects, those that go the extra mile, tend to highlight the horror after the fact. And because they do, these types of images tend to stick in the mind. This is just one example. Another is the scene involving a woman being attacked by trees in the forest. It sounds amusing: plants attacking a human being. But the way it is shot in addition to the extended duration of the attack, it feels like we are watching a woman get raped in slow motion. (Her desperate screaming for help adds further urgency to the scene.) We are meant to be horrified, uncomfortable. Perhaps we might laugh precisely because doing so is cathartic. Isn’t that the point of horror stories: to provide catharsis?
“The Evil Dead” is no generic horror film. It is kinetic, smart, daring, and atmospheric. It can be enjoyed on a superficial level: college students get more than what they bargained for after a voice from an old tape recorder utters phrases in Ancient Sumerian. Or it can be enjoyed as an experience: how sounds of demonic voices (which changes depending on the person possessed) taunting never let up, how the camera remains dead still when showing a body part being torn off, how the enthusiastic writer-director juggles suspense, jolts, and horror with seeming ease.
The Woods (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Heather (Agnes Bruckner) almost sets her family’s house on fire so her mother (Emma Campbell) and father (Bruce Campbell) send her to an isolated all-girls boarding school. Upon Heather’s arrival, the headmistress, soft-spoken Mrs. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson), gives her an aptitude test that consists of mysterious symbols for a potential scholarship. Mrs. Traverse is impressed because Heather passes with flying colors. During Heather’s stay, girls start to disappear. There is rumor going around that the missing students have been killed in the woods.
Written by David Ross and directed by Lucky McKee, “The Woods” might have been an interesting story about a girl’s discovery that she has a natural ability to perform witchcraft if the technical aspects are less scattered and more controlled. For a horror movie about a school located right next to a creepy forest with a lot of strange history, it just isn’t scary.
Perhaps the problem is that the filmmakers do not bother to establish a more sinister mood. The teachers are weird and mean but we do not even know their names. What do they teach? I had no idea. We know they are teachers because they are taller (and older) than everyone else and they keep secrets because of the way they give each other knowing looks. The place itself harbors no tension. I always felt like I was watching actors acting on set.
The characters need not and should not remind us constantly that the place is evil. Assuming that every piece manages to fall into its rightful place, the audience should feel it for themselves. There are several scenes where Heather becomes highly emotional because she misses home, is bullied by a blonde girl (Rachel Nichols), calling her names like “fire-crotch,” and has nightmares involving the missing girls. But for what? Instead of allowing us to root for her, she just comes off unstable. She does no smart detective work. When fellow students warn her not to do certain things (and end up dead the next day), she does exactly the opposite. Why is she our protagonist? What makes her special enough to enable us to see the story through her eyes?
The tone toward the end, when Heather’s parents finally come to pick her up, experiences a sudden but welcome shift. Instead of the film desperately holding onto a serious, somber tone that leads nowhere, it allows a bit of humor to seep through. The movie suddenly feels alive. Sure, the tone, as a whole, feels elliptical and almost out of place, but it is better than boring.
With the aid of actors like Campbell, who made a career by starring in horror-comedies, the funny moments feel effortless. I wished the entire picture embraced taking more risks like that. When a script does not have strong underlying messages (it does not bother establishing parallels, let alone nuance, between puberty and witchcraft), being playful with other aspects like our expectations of the characters or the genre can make up for it. In the end, the film is just a silly romp in the woods where you desperately want to be scared but there is actually nothing out there but the wind and some dry leaves.
My Name is Bruce (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Jeff (Taylor Sharpe) and his friend visited a graveyard to meet a pair of girls and expecting to get laid. But when Jeff accidentally woke up the Chinese protector of spirits, Guan-Di (James J. Peck), Goldlick, a small town with a population of 339, began to live in fear because Guan-Di seemed to kill indiscriminately. Jeff had a solution. Being a lifelong Bruce Campbell fan, he decided to kidnap the B-movie horror veteran (playing himself) so that he could help the town regain peace and quiet. “My Name is Bruce,” written by Mark Verheiden, was amusing because it took many jabs at Campbell. From his appearances in many independently produced horror and science fiction films, many of which were considered to be unsuccessful, to the dirty details of his personal life, I began to wonder how much of it was accurate. Campbell was shown to be a diva on set, prone to treating women with disrespect, and often relied on alcohol to keep his sadness at bay. He was also shown to be unkind to his fans. However, in reality, his fans adore him immensely so we get the sense that perhaps not much of it was true. The hyperboles were played for laughs; they weren’t smart but they worked. I especially liked the scene in which Campbell tried to convince himself that he wasn’t a loser… as he revealed to us where he hid various liquors and imbibed them as if they were water. The story was relatively thin but it didn’t need to be groundbreaking because each scene served to refer to other Campbell movies where he had to battle aliens and other monstrosities. He did a lot of running, screaming, and admitting of guilt. Despite the film’s inherent silliness, I stuck with it because its enthusiasm didn’t waver. However, the pacing felt stagnant when Bruce tried desperately to be liked by Jeff’s mother (Kelly Graham). The disastrous dance scene at the bar was an awkward attempt at slapstick. Furthermore, there was no chemistry between the actors. I was more interested in Jeff and the disappointment he felt when he realized that the man he looked up to was far from extraordinary: Bruce was only wonderful in Jeff’s imagination and the B-movies he cherished. His perspective, given focus and sharpness, could have been the emotional core of the film. B-movie fans will be amused by “My Name is Bruce,” directed by Bruce Campbell, but those who aren’t quite used to deliberate bad acting and barely passable special and visual effects will most likely be disappointed. That’s why the picture needed to have something all audiences can relate with. Nevertheless, Campbell’s love for the genre shined through and I consistently wondered what groovy thing he would try to pull off next.
Army of Darkness (1992)
★ / ★★★★
Ash (Bruce Campbell) was sucked into a vortex which sent him to the Dark Ages in England. He was equipped with three objects: a chainsaw, a shotgun, and a car. The Wiseman (Ian Abercrombie) believed that he was the chosen one, the person who would bring peace between the humans and the Necronomicons, the living dead. Our protagonist was instructed to find the Book of the Dead in the cemetery and say three words prior to taking it. Naturally, scatterbrained Ash was unable to recall the phrase and took the book back to the fortress anyway. As a result, zombies rose from their graves to collect their valuable possession. Written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi, “Army of Darkness,” while successful in making me laugh from time to time, missed the mark because it had forgotten its roots. It was no longer scary or darkly comic. The skeletons, instead of looking even remotely evil, looked like something I would want in my room. Some scenes went on for too long, particularly when Ash had to fight miniature versions of himself, and although things happened for the sake of something happening, there was no real drama in Ash’s predicament. For example, when he was with Sheila (Embeth Davidtz), he seemed perfectly content so why did he want to go back to his own time? The special and visual effects looked schlocky instead of endearing. Sure, the claymation in “The Evil Dead” and “Evil Dead II” was no masterpiece but at least the images were driven by a defined concept: the spirits in the forest wanted to possess living beings and kill whoever got in their way. In here, we were left with one-dimensional humor that often missed the punchline. I mentioned the scene when Ash faced mini-Ashes. It showed us that Ash wasn’t very smart. The Ash we met in the first sequel wouldn’t grab a kettle and drink the burning hot water from it. He certainly wouldn’t refer to someone as a “primitive” with such disdain and arrogance. We came to know and love him because he had humility and, despite the insanity around him, he was intelligent enough not to burn himself. He came up with other creative and less painful ways to deal with the dead. Not only did the material lose touch with its roots but it also lost touch with its main character. Nevertheless, I did come across one or two amusing scenes. I loved the part when Ash grabbed a “Chemistry 101” book from the trunk of his car and used it as a guide to make gunpowder. He treated the book like it held a recipe. This was the same guy who put hot water in his mouth, so I had a very hard time believing that he could convert two moles of potassium nitrate into grams. Maybe his Chemistry teacher in high school drilled him in stoichiometry that he never forgot how to do it but I had to chuckle at its inherent silliness. If the recipe for gunpowder were in Chemistry books, crime would most definitely increase. Directed by Sam Raimi, I wasn’t convinced that the “Army of Darkness” was a required appendage in the series. It felt more like a possessed hand that needed to be cut off.