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.
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.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.