“Well hello, Mr. Fancy Pants”
Only Sam Raimi knows how you travel from The Evil Dead‘s straight low-budget horror to the campy “ultimate experience of medieval horror” ten years later, but it’s obviously worked for him considering the series jump-started his promising career to the heights of Hollywood’s Spider-Man. Even so, that original trilogy is a curious case in cinematic history switching genres and mythology on the fly to get weirder and weirder and more loved as a result. Ask ten people and nine will probably say the cheese ball Army of Darkness is the cream of the crop (I’d be the quarter human saying The Evil Dead with the rest declaring Evil Dead II). While a tad too off-the-wall for my full blessing, it is a ton of fun.
This film ultimately becomes star Bruce Campbell’s time to shine and I seriously cannot understand how he didn’t blow up to A-list status afterwards. Not only does he improve upon the elastic Three Stooges-inspired physical comedy of Evil Dead II (often with himself), but also the sarcastic cool and bloated ego we’ve come to love “The Chin” for delivering on-camera. Between god-awful lines hilariously read with the utmost sincerity (“Gimme some sugar, Baby”) to random asides dictating his previous life’s job responsibilities at an S-Mart department store to fourteenth century knights, you’re shaking your head as you laugh it all off. His Ash is a character you hate to love but must as his unwitting hero buys into the success with confidence to spare.
As for the story, well, it’s pretty thin. After two full films stuck in a creepy cabin in the woods, Ash is suddenly thrust into the blazing hot sun of the Middle Ages with enough knowledge of future scientific and mechanical discoveries to more or less transform himself into a God. Raimi and brother Ivan (who co-writes) change up mythology again after Evil Dead II literally remade its predecessor (while also serving as a sequel) by declaring the wormhole sending Ash back in time was the evil’s doing in its prologue recap. In reality, that portal was a defense mechanism to destroy the evil, though. He unfortunately got sucked in too, paradoxically becoming a hero who of legend before stumbling upon its reawakening centuries later.
He still wants nothing to do with heroics and who could blame him considering he’s the only person to survive the previous two installments. Saving people is hardly his strong suit and he’d love to simply go back to his own time. As Arthur’s (Marcus Gilbert) wisest subject (Ian Abercrombie) explains, however, Ash’s only hope for escape is to acquire the Necronomicon like destiny has foretold. In it is the spell to return, but the evil Deadites sworn to protect its power won’t be easy to defeat. Enter a more advanced mirror trick to the one Raimi and Campbell knocked out of the park in Evil Dead II and the film turns into “Good Ash” with Arthur’s knights versus “Bad Ash” and a band of walking skeletons.
That’s it. Ash arrives, chaos ensues, and war is waged. A bit of romance enters the fray courtesy of Sheila (a young and almost unrecognizable Embeth Davidtz), but the courtship between her and Ash is ham-fisted enough to tip its hand at being intentionally mercurial yet too much for me to stomach. The chauvinistic cheese conjured more eye-rolls than laughter and frankly her character is so unnecessary to the plot that I forgot she existed for half the film. My interest really became Campbell’s to shoulder alone and he handles the responsibility with gleeful insanity whether as scarred Ash or charred Anti-Ash. We revel in the chainsaw and “boomstick’s” appeal while cracking up as skeletons are thrown into his path from the sidelines to dismember.
Despite some really amazing effects like the mini-Ashes going all Gulliver’s Travels on their larger counterpart, a lot of the film is shot with front projection and stop-motion. The former is as noticeable as it was five years earlier and the latter truly reveals itself as a major success. The make-up and prosthetics work is much more advanced too, but while it looks good it also feels stiffer than before. This might have been intentional, though: one more stilted effect to buy into its own low-budget spoof aesthetic (despite a decent budget this time around) as if Raimi was going genre meta before it went in fashion. Personally the best effect was changing the actress playing Ash’s girlfriend Linda yet again (hello, silent Bridget Fonda).
Had the original film never existed, I’d probably put this and Evil Dead II higher on my enjoyment scale. But I can’t shake it being the superior work. My enjoyment of it ultimately pushes this later campiness too far into irreverent nonsense to reconcile. So while I enjoy the goofiness and its entire cast and crew embracing the wild ride without a second thought, my mind keeps wondering what might have been if the horror trumped the comedy. Its silliness is still better than “silly” films today proving mean-spirited and bigoted rather than funny. Army of Darkness avoids that route because the situation itself is so absurd that Raimi and company never need to mock anything else. There’s no better actor than Campbell at playing the fool.