Halloween may be long gone, but I’m still checking out some classic horror! (Contains spoilers!)
So I was watching ‘Cabin in the Woods’ (2011) the other night and it occurred to me that the films which are most heavily referenced – or at least the ones which the story is most dependent on – are the ‘Evil Dead’ series. And then it occurred to me that this trilogy had somehow passed me by up to now. So I gave them all a watch and here’s what I thought.
The ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy, directed by Sam Raimi, spans from 1981-1992, with a remake of the original released in 2013. The first two installments revolve around the discovery of an ancient text which unleashes hell upon a group who’re residing in a cabin in the woods (hence the name of the 2011 horror satire). Part three – Army of Darkness – sends the series’ main protagonist Ash (played by Bruce Campbell) off to England; 1300 AD.
The Evil Dead:
So let’s start at the beginning, with ‘The Evil Dead’ (1981). First off, I loved the opening. It wastes no time putting the characters straight into danger. The use of aggressive POV shots makes the audience think something is going to burst out of the woods and kill the protagonists at any second, despite the film being in its infancy.
Comparatively, when considering it against other horror movies around the same time (I’m thinking Friday the 13th which came out the year before), they tend to be extremely slow to get going. Think: adult actors posing as teenagers mooching around, chatting, basically doing fuck all until they’re put into a situation of peril. It does wonders for pacing when it doesn’t take a horror film 30-50% of its runtime for anything meaningful to happen.
The movie had a budget of just $350,000 and while I don’t want to criticise it for constraints and problems which largely exist as a result of that nominal amount, it does have some issues. For one, it’s very cheesy and the acting is a perfect representation of this. Let’s just be kind and go with hammy. It ends with a deus-ex machina which I’m never a fan of. And to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about watching a woman get raped by trees – even if they were demonic trees. Just typing that feels weird.
What I liked more than anything else though, and I’ll re-mention the tiny budget, was that ‘The Evil Dead’ does horror really well. Not properly showing the ‘evil’ until just before the halfway point is a smart move – the idea of something is often scarier than the thing itself. The initial reveal of the demonic entity – through possessing one of the characters – feels unexpected, despite everything which is going on. And the scene (if you’ve seen it) when one of the characters correctly guesses cards, followed by a wide close-up shot to reveal Cheryl’s face, is fucking scary and very well done.
The blood and gore is frequent without ever feeling gratuitous. Why? Because Sam Raimi understands the genre and understands what it takes to scare people. Violence doesn’t appear needlessly – Raimi creates situations where it can be utilised, as opposed to using it needlessly.
Evil Dead II:
The sequel, ‘Evil Dead II’, represents the beginning of a tonal shift which spans parts two and three of the trilogy. This is made evident through fantastically funny imagery and Ash’s transformation into an icon of horror. I won’t go into the plot too much as its close to a carbon copy of its predecessor; with the changing cast (excluding Bruce Campbell) being the only real difference.
For an example of imagery, I’m talking watching an eye pop out of its socket and fly straight into a woman’s mouth. Superb. It sounds gross but is actually more comedic when put in the context of the film. As for Ash, Raimi clearly recognised his popularity from the first film and transformed him from someone merely coping with the situation to someone who is actively dealing with it (more or less). I mean, with a willingness to stab himself in the hand and then cut said hand off with a chainsaw, how could you not be on-board with this guy as the protagonist?
Having a bigger budget does lend itself to being more akin with tropes of the genre however. The use of the cliche ‘redneck’ character is pretty annoying and it feels as though he massively overstays his welcome, despite not being in the film for that long. And the cinematography is so bloody annoying at times! There are some really weird shots/editing choices throughout. I guess the aim is to create an otherworldly feel (to mirror supernatural going-ons) but the effect is more irritating and jarring than anything else. It isn’t technically bad though. In fact, ‘Evil Dead II’ seems to really benefit from a bigger budget ($3.5 million vs. $350,000). Where the original was a little rough around the edges, the sequel is better shot (with professional looking tracking-POV shots in place of clumsy quick-cuts).
‘Evil Dead II’ is everything its predecessor was and yet most of what it wasn’t. Though it clearly loses some level of authenticity, this sequel is a fully realised vision, thanks to the removal of budgetary restrictions and Raimi developing his style. ‘The Evil Dead’ is a rough cut/prototype and the sequel is fully realised, confident and trimmed of the fat. It embraces the B-movie genre which it now firmly belongs to – yet elevates itself above other entries of the genre through clever dialogue and direction.
Is it better though? I still think I prefer the first entry. I see outright horror as being more difficult to tackle than comedic horror – and the original does horror well, really well at times.
Army of Darkness:
And then we have ‘Army of Darkness’. Any criticisms of a lack of plot deviation between the first and second films certainly can’t be levelled at part three. It opens with Ash discovering he’s been transported to 1300 AD. Ash is captured by Lord Arthur who believes him to be an agent of Duke Henry who Arthur is currently at war with. Once this is cleared up, Ash is hailed as a hero and must return to his own time using the ‘necronomicon ex-mortis’ whilst fighting deadites. It’s worth noting that the opening credits were very reminiscent of ‘The BFG’ (1987). I’d love to think that Sam Raimi’s ultra-violent, ultra-bloody horror comedy was in some way influenced by an adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel.
Where ‘The Evil Dead’ was outright horror and ‘Evil Dead II’ signalled a transition into horror comedy, ‘Army of Darkness’ bridges this gap much closer to the realm of comedy. There are some stupidly funny visuals. My favourite was Ash cutting off a deadite’s hand, watching it fly in the air and eventually land over someone’s mouth – like putting your hand over your mouth in shock. It sounds pretty simplistic as I type it out now but I still found it hilarious. And ‘Army of Darkness’ is full of great quotes! “Well, I’ve got news for you, pal, you ain’t leadin’ but two things right now: Jack and shit… and Jack left town” has to be the pick of the bunch.
For me, ‘Army of Darkness’ is slightly lacking to the two previous entries as it misses out on the horror of the original and rarely displays the wicked combination of comedy infused gore/shock value used in the second. It seems to be a lot of people’s favourite of the trilogy and though I don’t share that opinion, I can understand why. I think it boils down to the Alien vs. Aliens debate: Do you prefer horror or more light hearted action? Personally, I’d always go for the horror as I’m not generally a huge fan of action movies
It was still a great conclusion to what might be the best *horror* trilogy of all time. Consistency is pretty important when thinking about this. ‘Scream’ is brilliant. ‘Scream 2’ is great but the third part is completely crap to be honest. I love ‘Alien’, ‘Aliens’ is really enjoyable (though not really horror), but again, Alien 3 is comparative shit. Though now I think about it, George Romero did a little known zombie trilogy from the 60’s-80’s didn’t he. So maybe the ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy is the 2nd best ever.
The Evil Dead: 8/10
Evil Dead II: 7.5/10
Army of Darkness: 6/10
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