There’s an observation within two horror franchises that I’ve seen communicated to a point that I can sort of meet them halfway: When it comes to the Resident Evil games’ entry into over-the-shoulder shooting gameplay around the time of Resident Evil 4 (technically its sixth entry) and to Aliens’ release as a runner-up to Alien, it simply makes sense that the franchises have now delved away from horror to becoming outright action. We’re not scared of there being monsters behind the door, we know they’re there and we’re going to hit them first (though I maintain that Resident Evil 4 is still a very scary horror game).
Evil Dead II turns that thing all the way around. As far as director/co-writer Sam Raimi was concerned, the only real evolution from horror now that we know the monsters are there… is comedy. To laugh along with them as they take out their torments on poor Bruce Campbell’s Ashley “Ash” J. Williams. While still retaining a lot of the overt yet solid creepiness of the horror genre.
If I may be frank, I honestly believe the comedy shift favors Evil Dead II more than the action shift favors Aliens or Resident Evil 4. It is as a result one of my favorite movies and one that I consider superior to The Evil Dead.
This certainly wasn’t an opinion I was willing to jump to immediately, simply based on nostalgia. While I saw The Evil Dead for the first time in middle school and so was able to latch unintended nostalgia onto it, I didn’t see Evil Dead II until I was in college. Yep. But I did see it in 35mm when I first saw it, so it had that going for it. Which is nice.
Before I go any further, I really need to be a stickler for something – constantly I see Evil Dead II referred to as a remake and it is most certainly not such a film, but it’s easy to see where the misconception comes from. Originally the screenplay by Raimi and Scott Spiegel (drafted in the middle of the production of Crimewave – a noir parody film that was Raimi’s sophomore film and written by the Coen bros. I made it sound better than it is) called for the film to be opened up with the recap of the original film using its footage, but rights issues in one way or another got in the way.
As a result, Evil Dead II opens up with a newly-shot and cast re-run into the main events of The Evil Dead sped through in the first 15 minutes – Ash is in this version of events joined solely by his girlfriend Linda (Denis Bixler replacing Betsy Baker) albeit because who wants to start a movie with the protagonist killing his four friends within the first few minutes? Like the previous film, Linda becomes possessed from the now-renamed Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (soidifying the book’s presence as a Lovecraftian Element rather than just implying it). Ash reluctantly dismembers her to save her soul and is tormented for it. And we reach the end point of The Evil Dead where the force actively rushes for Ash next right before the ending credits.
Except THIS is where Evil Dead II really starts for all intents and purposes. If you haven’t seen The Evil Dead (in which case, go watch it now! Why are you reading this?) You may use the preceding minutes in Evil Dead II to fill in where we are in Ash’s story, but if you have seen the previous movie, that opening only serves as a refresher. The editing even gives the frame a frozen-frame zooming-in motion as if to motion to the audience that NOW we’re really getting into the story.
And just as we’re left with Ash realizing he is so fucked, the first third of the movie proper has one character and one character only – Ash. By himself. In the Cabin. As one would expect, such a premise would need a charismatic and able lead actor to guide the audience through the various psychological and physical torments Ash goes through, especially one that could allow himself to be at once victim and clown to take hold of Raimi’s intent of turning this demon possession story into a Three Stooges Halloween Special without making the joke on the ghouls themselves. It’s certainly not going to be that bland handsome face who was more of a function than a character in the first movie so I guess Evil Dead II is kinda doomed.
Except Bruce Campbell is exactly that kind of actor who can perform all those demands of mugging and slapstick and jumps through those hoops ably, making me kind of mad the movie moves on to the arrival of four other characters pretty quickly. I could watch Campbell throw himself about all fucking day if I have to. When his evil hand begins having a life of its own, Campbell is so perfectly able to make his own appendage distinguishable enough in movement to be its own character and especially a threat to himself. When the hand begins to turn against him slamming plates on his head, it’s hilarious. How could it not be? But right before that, when Ash lies on the floor crying “give me back my hand”… Campbell doesn’t make it any sort of joke. He’s seriously scared and alone, his voice quavering and weak.
Maybe a trained mime or clown would know how to do it better than Campbell does it, but it fools me and that’s enough to – alongside his energetic frenzy at both fear and laughter – to make this Ash one of my favorite performances I’ve seen in a motion picture and needless to say my favorite Campbell turn (I haven’t seen his 1997 Running Time though, which Bruce would emphatically call his favorite performance he has done. Maybe it’ll change my mind).
It’s not exactly where one could say Campbell developed his awesome ability as a magnetic (if one-note) lead who isn’t used half as much as he should (I’d claim it was just prior when he played Renaldo “The Heel” in Crimewave; maybe Cleveland Smith if we really want to go back), but the amount of over exaggerated caricature in a single eyebrow arch or drop of a jawline is what makes Campbell one of my favorite actors.
Anyway, that’s a lot of gushing for Campbell alone and there’s still plenty of movie to talk about. Maybe I’ve remained on it because for the most part, Evil Dead II still does all the things The Evil Dead did right: Peter Deming’s cinematography re-incorporating all the fog, the motion of the camera with off-kilter angles, blue lighting (this time without ever letting us see the light sources). But now with a decent budget, funded by Dino de Laurentiis – thanks to Stephen King’s vouch – giving designers Randy Bennett, Philip Duffin, and Elizabeth Moore much to up the theatricality so we don’t have moments where we catch it being a movie so much as a ride. Such showcases of their newfound budget includes the movie having stop-motion (most notably the undead Linda dance Ash witnesses) that looks like something out of Ray Harryhausen’s nightmares or the bigness of scenarios like the final battle where the house and woods become a living breathing monster set and completely go against Ash and his new sidekick Annie Knowby (Sarah Berry), the only other character who doesn’t seem to just be there for the sake of body count and the daughter of the Professor whose voice is heard in the tape recording found in the cabin played throughout the film. It should be thrown in that even if the characters of Evil Dead II don’t have weight, they are all stock types to its immense favor of at least cannon fodder having personality within it (I wonder if Bobbie Joe would have been better if Holly Hunter, a friend of Raimi and Campbell’s who B.J. is based on, instead of Kassie Wesley DePaiva – though if I have to admit, she’s at least second-best in the small cast even above Berry. She’s got attitude at least.).
But Campbell and Raimi’s glee at just throwing the movie into whatever tonal gear they feel like without making it clunky (praise to editor Kaye Davis for keeping up) is undoubtedly the biggest anchor that turns Evil Dead II into such a one-of-a-kind movie that could only be made by the sort of folks that at once just love to make movies for the fun of it and yet at the same time know exactly what about the elements all together work to give the experience it needs. Going whiplash from psychological terror to live-action Looney Tune to underground trapped with a zombie to bloodbath to outright heroics in the end (everybody’s gotta love when Ash gets his chainsaw arm and shotgun it’s just so g… no, I won’t say it) and just when it makes the most unexpected turns of design and direction (the final beats are obviously De Laurentiis-esque though I don’t doubt they were entirely of Raimi and Spiegel’s invention), it leaves itself ready for another adventure of fear and laughs.
Maybe the biggest element that personifies Evil Dead II as a movie is where Ash is still in the cabin by himself and the Cabin elements – the lights, the windows, the boards, the cabinets, most ghoulishly memorable of all a single deer head mount with eyes as white all the possessed characters in the franchise – begin laughing at him, cruelly and cartoonishly, jerking around in sync with their giggles. And Ash, absolutely appalled by this point at how much he’s been messed with, goes into hysterics laughing along with the cabin all around and joining them before those bellows of delirious laughter become anguished screams and cries of despair without Campbell missing a beat.
That really is Evil Dead II in a nutshell and maybe the finest scene in both Raimi and Campbell’s career and watching it by itself as a short film makes a pretty obvious tell towards both how viewer will react to the movie (I’ve seen rooms of people laugh at it; rooms of people silent in horror) and to how certain and dedicated Raimi and Campbell are to leaving you just as crazy and exhausted as Ash, but completely fulfilled out of pushing through it all with him.
On a final note only vaguely related to Evil Dead II that I can’t discuss anywhere else, the 35mm screening I saw the movie in for the first time still had all of its trailers attached to the print and one of the things that played right before the movie began was a Loews Theater bumper of theater etiquette.
Featuring. Fucking. Sesame Street characters. And I am an unapologetic Sesame Street enthusiast. It was so awesome to watch it right before an Evil Dead movie.
Man, if the print burned up right before the movie started but after this video I would have felt like I got my goddamn money’s worth.
Oh, sorry, I probably should’ve ended this post about laughing scene. Yeah, we’re done here, I’m gonna watch this video again and again.