“Army of Darkness” turns “Evil Dead” into giddy fantasy slapstick

Army of Darkness Army of Darkness

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. October sees not only the onset of Halloween but the birthday of cult horror maestro-turned-mainstream filmmaker Sam Raimi; all month, we’re web-slinging through his vibrant, diverse filmography. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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What happens when a horror franchise decides to stop being scary? Sure, we’ve had series that have stopped succeeding at scares (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street), but Army of Darkness is a strange beast: an Evil Dead sequel that steadfastly and intentionally throws every ounce of horror out of the window in favor of a campy, bloody riff on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And honestly, thank God it does: while it’s the most lightweight of the Evil Dead series, its sense of slapstick fun is as infectious as a Deadite bite.

After a whirlwind recap of the first two Evil Deads (Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend find the Necronomicon, open up a portal to hell and unleash pure evil, yadda yadda), Sam Raimi and brother/co-writer Ivan waste no time in sucking their one-handed hero — and his Oldsmobile Classic — back to the Middle Ages. There, he’s quickly wrapped up in a quest to retrieve the Necronomicon from the past in order to return home — and turns the eye of a comely maiden (Embeth Davidtz) as well. But in classic Ash fashion, he screws up the incantation (klaatu barada nikto, a droll nod to The Day the Earth Stood Still) and unwittingly unleashes the evil Deadites, who plan to raze the countryside and destroy all of humanity led by a scarred, evil clone of Ash.

Army of Darkness is Raimi finally starting to work in big-budget studio mode (at $11 million, it’s the most expensive and ambitious of the Dead series), and the expansiveness is both an advantage and a handicap. On the one hand, it’s a thrill to see Raimi work with all the special-effects toys at his disposal: creature effects from KNB mix with Ray Harryhausen-esque stop-motion skeletons and green-screen mini-Ashes, making for a veritable feast of practical horror effects. The climactic showdown makes inventive use of multiple techniques to sell the gags and gore of an army of skeletons besieging a medieval castle; if nothing else, it’s a hell of an effects reel.

Army of Darkness
Army of Darkness (Universal Pictures)

Still, it does feel like something gets lost in the series’ switch from cosmic horror to “Three Stooges meets Jason and the Argonauts“. At eighty minutes, it also feels lean to the point of rushed, speeding from plot point to plot point with all the expediency of a theme park ride. By the time you actually get to the big castle siege at the end of the film, you’ll be rubbing your eyes and thinking, “Oh, we’re already at the end?” Evil Dead II masterfully combined its slapstick humor with blood-curdling frights; Army of Darkness leans so far in the other direction that it doesn’t even try to scare.

Despite these flaws, it’s really, really hard to get mad at Army of Darkness‘ pathological efforts to delight and entertain at every possible moment. Raimi’s acrobatic camerawork is in full force here, canting and zooming with near-reckless abandon. He leans hard into the near-Vaudevillian gags of Evil Ash pushing his face back together to give an order or the two Ashes duking it out Larry, Curly, and Moe-style in an abandoned windmill.

What really pulls the mangy experiment together is Campbell, who’s never had a better time on screen than he has here. It’s grand fun to watch him smarm his way from setpiece to setpiece, cracking wise in that meatheaded-jackass way that would spawn the likes of Duke Nukem and so many other pop-culture wiseacres.

He also gets to cut his teeth as one of the ’90s quintessential macho-posturing antiheroes, getting his ass beat so much even Harrison Ford would give an approving nod. Both actors have that unerring ability to balance action-hero might and the relatability of a working-class schlub; as Ash, Campbell’s innate coolness is always leavened by his dunderheaded idiocy, which more often than not causes the trouble he has to climb his way out of. Plus, the film gives us iconic lines like “Gimme some sugar, baby” and “This is my boomstick!” You can’t be mad at that.

In the end, Army of Darkness feels like a transitional point in Raimi’s career — one last go-round with the franchise that made him (and Campbell) a household name before moving on to more studio-friendly fare like A Simple Plan and For the Love of the Game. Plus, this time he had the budget and the license to opt for go-for-broke goofiness over scares. (An alternate ending, in which Ash bungles his time-potion proportions and wakes up in a post-apocalyptic London, was canned by Universal for being too dark; instead, he puffs his chest and blows away a witch with a Winchester in S-Mart.)

Sure, it sands off the spine-tingling edges of its forebears, which can grate if you’re not in the mood for “what if Moe Howard had to fight off an army of zombies?” But it’s always charming to see a series swing for the fences in terms of genre and tone, and Army of Darkness is one hell of a swing. Hail to the king, baby.

Army of Darkness Trailer:

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