I expected to have a ball with Army of Darkness, that it would build on the dazzling formalism of Evil Dead 2 with the added spark of fantasy and a medieval setting. But just as the first film has too much gore, this one has too much slapstick. The seedy, sexist overtones aren’t pleasant to watch either, whether or not they’re mocking action movie machismo. The trilogy functions as its own tonal spectrum: the first film is too gory and dark and the third too silly and overblown, with the second striking just the right balance between the two.
Evil Dead 2’s cliffhanger ending is quite bizarre in hindsight. This was a sequel to a cult film: a third entry was far from guaranteed. Yet Sam Raimi and co nonetheless chose to end it by sending Ash through a time portal to medieval England. While the script had established the Necronomicon’s presence there due to a saviour prophecy that clearly referred to the chainsaw-wielding Ash, it’s still a left-field and daring note to end a cabin-in-the-woods movie on.
But the funding came through six years later, and not only the setting has changed. The first two films riffed on a traditional horror premise, but Army of Darkness is both a low-fi medieval fantasy film and a spoof of fantasy and action movies. It’s also an uninhibited comedy with lengthy sequences of Three Stooges-style slapstick as Ash gets bashed, burned, tripped, and otherwise injured. Not even the second film went this far. If a minutes-long parade of silly violence amuses you, you’ll have fun with Army of Darkness. But if, like me, you find slapstick best in small doses where timing is everything, it’ll be something of a chore.
But Ash hasn’t been reconfigured as only a Stooge. He pulls double duty as a spoof of the intolerant, sexist, intellectual-hating action hero. For much of the film he disdains the locals trying to help him, mocking the Wise Man’s expertise on the very problems he’s trying to solve. He has a love interest, Sheila (Embeth Davidtz), who he callously seduces with ‘gimme some sugar, baby’. He later isn’t too bothered when she’s turned into a Deadite. While part of his arc is for the townsfolk to finally realise he’s a cowardly moron and temporarily abandon him, the script never follows up on this, leaving the satire half-baked.
It’s not entirely clear if the film’s treatment of Sheila is actively rebuking the treatment of women in 80s and 90s action cinema. The scenes add some knowing absurdity, but otherwise just sit there, bereft of purpose. The notorious tree rape scene in the first film doesn’t say much of value about the exploitation of women in horror films just by being over the top, and they casually and inconsequentially replicate the formulaic female nudity of the genre at the time. And before being turned into a Deadite, poor Embeth Davidtz is stripped naked by Ash’s evil replica and then forced to kiss his gory, decomposed face.
Because Davidtz has virtually no material or characterisation outside of these scenes – and nor does any other female character – it’s hard to believe this is a calculated commentary on female exploitation. Raimi offers no telling counterpoint to confirm this is satire. If the aim is actually anti-humour, where cringingly bad jokes or tropes are deliberately presented without irony, you have to be part of the niche that finds the unfunny funny.
I’m not, and perhaps that’s why the term ‘cult’ is actually accurate in reference to Army of Darkness. Whether it’s aimed at offbeat comedy buffs or simply genre fans who relish excessive machismo whether it’s serious or farcical, the film deliberately isn’t meant to be widely appealing. That’s fine, but it’s a little surprising that a major TV series is being produced from it. It turns out Ash vs Evil Dead may have more in common with the anti-humour laden Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp than just being a direct TV series sequel to a movie.
The stop-motion animation and single castle set are appealingly tangible and low-rent at least, and the dire Director’s Cut ending is cute. Raimi and cinematographer Bill Pope’s dynamic camerawork and editing are less prominent this time around, but what remains is as arresting as Evil Dead 2, such as Ash’s fight in the pit. But Army of Darkness feels outmoded in a way its predecessor ironically doesn’t.
So where does that leave us with Ash vs Evil Dead? The contemporary setting aligns it more with the first two films and Campbell’s age should hopefully neutralise the posturing. With luck, Raimi will bring the maturity of subsequent films like A Simple Plan and The Gift to bear in pinpointing what worked best and still works in the original trilogy. If he can marry that with modern sensibilities and expectations for horror and comedy, we could have a charmingly chaotic treat coming on October 31.