Tuesday, October 28, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Evil Dead II

Bruce Campbell is groovy ... and a little insane in Evil Dead II.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 28: Evil Dead II (1987)


It would be hard to own a word as thoroughly as Bruce Campbell owns the word “groovy.” The man just radiates groove. For crying out loud, his Twitter handle is actually @GroovyBruce. The screening I attended last year of Fede Alvarez’s fantastic remake, Evil Dead, was a raucous, jubilant affair with a packed house of people who knew what they wanted and got it. They cheered, cringed, and laughed their way through the whole movie – and I was right there with them – but the biggest cheer of the night came in the three-second after-credits moment when Campbell appears in near silhouette as Ashley J. Williams and says, “Groovy.”

The transformation of Campbell from Bruce Campbell Actor into Bruce Campbell Ambassador of All Things Groovy took place right here in Evil Dead II. Director Sam Raimi has always taken a perverse delight in tormenting longtime friend and collaborator Campbell. This is egged on by the fact that Raimi has not just a little contempt for his and Campbell’s most famous creation, going so far as to call Ash the equivalent of a clueless moron.

To be fair, the Ash who shows up at the cabin in The Evil Dead is a bit of a bumbling fool, but what can any of us say we would do when faced with an ancient and unstoppable evil? Evil Dead II is a direct sequel to The Evil Dead, though some confusion is created by its opening 10 minutes, which play like the events of the first movie told as a short film. This was necessitated by Raimi’s desire to recap the first picture for the audience coupled with an inability to obtain the rights to the footage from The Evil Dead.

As it is, for the uninitiated, it could read as though Ash is returning with a new girl to the cabin of his previous torture. To Raimi, the distinction makes little difference, a view he addresses on the DVD commentary, saying that people have asked if Ash would be so stupid as to return to the cabin. In Raimi’s view – yes, yes he would. So, sequel, remake, unrelated standalone film, it does not matter. Ash is at the cabin, and the dead are on the loose.

However, this is not the old Ash. Whether you want to say he has evolved from the events of the first movie or this is a reimagined take on the character, this Ash has gone from apprentice to master in the art of killing Deadites. The Ash of Evil Dead II is resourceful, cunning, brave, a little crazy, and just a bit sexy, if that is your thing. When fans get their Evil Dead tattoos, this is the version of the character they get. He is beaten and bloodied. His shirt his torn. He has lost a hand and replaced it with a chainsaw, and his good hand carries a shotgun. To put it briefly, Ash has got his groove back.

Campbell carries the first half of the movie basically on his own. It takes a long time for the supporting characters to show up, and by the time they do, the audience really could care less about any of them. All we want to know is the fate of our hero. Campbell gets knocked in some corners for being a B-movie actor – a moniker he has embraced if we go by the title of his autobiography – but the quality of his film projects has no bearing on the quality of his performances. I will take an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink performance from Campbell any day over some of the stuffed-shirt performances so often heralded.

In one of my favorite scenes in film history, the inanimate objects of the cabin come to life and shriek with laughter at Ash’s predicament. By this point, we can forgive Ash for having gone a touch insane, and he returns their shrieking with a maniacal burst of laughter of his own. What I remember is a rocking chair, a mounted deer head, a particularly sinister lamp, and an unhinged, all-or-nothing performance from Campbell.

It is hard for me to discuss Campbell without sounding like a gushing fan, but I embrace it. I have been a fan since before I knew who he was. He lends his voice to the main character from one of my favorite video games as a child – “Pitfall 3D.” To me, Pitfall Harry was as cool as Indiana Jones, and Campbell is Pitfall Harry. Then I saw Evil Dead II. I was too young to understand everything I was seeing, but the visceral thrills and unmitigated joy I felt watching that movie could not be matched by anything else.

For all intents and purposes, Evil Dead II is a horror-comedy, a genre changeup from The Evil Dead. It features Raimi’s love of Three Stooges-style slapstick and the kind of wild pratfalls of which Campbell is a master. It is a near-perfect exercise in genre blending that is sometimes regarded as superior to their first effort. I cannot go that far because the first time is always the best, but this gets damn close, and as experiences go, Evil Dead II is damn groovy.

Tomorrow, we bring the Evil Dead series to a close with yet another genre switch and a hell of a lot of medieval insanity.

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