Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: Army of Darkness (1992)

Had to miss yesterday for Evil Dead Week because of a long drive to and from Fort Lauderdale. No bother, though; there was only one movie left between now and the release of the remake, and I could've tackled it at any time between Tuesday afternoon and Thursday night (my local theater premieres new releases at 10 PM Thursday). As of now, it's Wednesday night and I've just watched the third film in the original Evil Dead trilogy...

Army of Darkness (1992)

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Army of Darkness is an odd duck in the Evil Dead series. Whereas the first film was a straight zombie horror film and the second was a slapstick parody thereof, Army of Darkness takes on a completely different genre, the medieval sword-and-sorcery film. It's not for nothing that this film doesn't carry the subtitle Evil Dead III, because apart from Sam Raimi as director and the presence of characters and mythology from the other films (Ash, the Deadites, the Necronomicon), you'd be hard-pressed to guess that Army of Darkness was an Evil Dead movie by watching fifteen minutes of it. This film is slicker than the last two, with more Hollywood-style production values and with the gore greatly toned down; outside of a literal geyser of blood early on and the creative makeup design on Ash's evil counterpart, this film is fairly dry when it comes to the red stuff. There should be no pretense that this is a horror movie.

And yet, I could not stop smiling through this film's brisk, eighty-minute run time. While it's not even in the same genre as its predecessors, it knows what it is, and that is a very entertaining adventure movie with a badass lead performance and shout-outs aplenty to classic horror films and comedies alike.

Bruce Campbell is in full form here, perfecting the "arrogant, smart-assed tough guy" that has been his character type ever since. There were some moments where I felt that Ash came off as a bit too much of an asshole for my liking; the "gimme some sugar" scene, where he forces himself upon the female lead, made him look less like a suave ladies' man and more like a rapist in my eyes. But maybe that was intentional on Sam Raimi's part, riffing on the mannerisms of medieval fantasy heroes by depicting a modern-day man acting like that; the scene where Evil Ash says the same thing to her seems to imply as much. (Or I could be talking out of my rear.) In any event, the rest of the film is Campbell's show, and apart from those questionable moments, he pulls off both the action sequences and the comic moments with equal degrees of enthusiasm and success. Most of the series' famous one-liners came from this movie, and I have yet to hear anybody do them as well as Campbell does here. I praised this man a ton in my review of the last film, so I'll stop gushing now.

Raimi's writing and direction are also right on point. The comedy flows better than in the last film, the stuff it throws at the wall seeming to stick with greater frequency. The windmill scene in particular is practically a modern-day Three Stooges sketch, with Ash fighting little reflections of himself that stepped out of a broken mirror before finally splitting into good and evil versions of himself. The fact that the gore is so toned down compared to the original probably helped the comedy in this one; looking back, I feel that there was a bit too much dissonance between Evil Dead II's slapstick gags and brutal violence. I could compare it to Shaun of the Dead, for instance, where the most lighthearted laughs occurred in the least violent scenes, and the humor got progressively darker as things went downhill for the heroes. Raimi gets the balance better here than he did in the last film, chiefly by dialing down the slapstick during the darker moments and going lighter during the funny parts.

But physical comedy isn't all that this film has to offer. In addition to being a parody of fantasy adventure films, Army of Darkness is also a pretty good example of such in its own right. The third-act climax is an exercise in awesomeness, with fight scenes that may not look so epic to those of us who have been spoiled by The Lord of the Rings, but which are still a thrill to watch. They are shot with both coherence and style, with Ray Harryhausen-esque stop motion effects that mesh seamlessly with the human actors and the practical creature effects. We get human vs. skeleton sword fights, multiple Deadite brawls, and yes, Raimi's trademark "monster cam" used to great effect. In light of what he'd go on to do, this film marks the transition between the Sam Raimi who made low-budget cult horror films and the man who made blockbusters like the Spider-Man trilogy and Oz the Great and Powerful.

Score: 4 out of 5

This probably stands as my second-favorite of the original Evil Dead trilogy, ahead of the second film but still a bit behind the first. It's nothing like the rest of the series, but it's still a very good fantasy adventure and a fitting cap to the trilogy.

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