Evil Dead II Review
“Now ... let's head down into that cellar and go carve ourselves a witch!”
Another celebrated horror classic makes the leap to the high-definition format as Sam Raimi's excessively produced and performed Evil Dead II makes its Blu-ray debut. Alongside the likes of Halloween, Dawn and Day Of The Dead, Starz and Anchor Bay have greeted Blu-ray's horror fans with some real treats ... and just in time for Halloween, too. Once again, this is a movie that has been paraded in a variety of versions and the onus upon Starz is, naturally, to ensure that this release is a worthy upgrade over all of the rest. But, for now, let's just bask in the demented glory of the halcyon days of pre-CG monster-mashes from the man who changed the shape of movie nightmares and created his own trademarked brand of splat-stick. Naturally for a movie this well-known, it would be impossible and downright pointless to discuss its merits without presenting a wealth of spoilers. For those few who haven't yet seen the film (shame on you!), I would recommend skipping to the technical details and the final verdict. But the rest of you Deadheads (thankyou to Mr. Bruce Campbell for the loan of the phrase) can just sit back and indulge, along with me, in the nostalgic delight of prosthetics, blood-tubing, wacky camera-angles and latex ghoulishness that made the mid-eighties such a horror-highpoint and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II one of its leading lights.
“I'm fine ... I'm fine ...”
“I don't think so. We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound fine to you?”
Raimi takes the unusual step of re-tooling the premise of the original movie in the rapid-fire prologue, so that Ash (Campbell) and Linda (Denise Bixler) are now the only ones who venture up to the lonely old cabin in the woods - Scotty and Cheryl consigned to the vagaries of low budget continuity limbo. It is now widely known that Evil Dead II thus becomes more of a remake than a full-on sequel, its themes remaining exactly the same - long-dormant demons awoken from spectral hibernation by the recitation of ancient incantations foolishly spoken aloud return to wreak bloody havoc in their ferocious quest to possess and torment the living. But the emphasis of the film is shifted so as to accommodate horror-icon in-the-making Bruce Campbell's heroic-dufus in a much more dominant role. He may not be the greatest actor in the world, but Campbell sure is one of the greatest “performers”. And boy does he suffer for his art! No sooner has his “darling Linda” been hellishly whisked from the cabin by some unseen and malevolent force from out there in the dark woods than he is harassed, attacked, sliced and diced, haphazardly possessed in either part - that notoriously renegade hand of his - or as a whole, and largely battered by goodies, baddies and even by himself for much of the film's pell-mell running time. The screenplay, as mythical as it likes to be - what with the legend of the Lovecraftian Book Of The Dead (“inked in human blood and boundby human flesh.”) and the time-travelling destiny of Ash's prophesised saviour - is just a threadbare line upon which to hook as many gruesome incidents, predicaments and scenarios as the giddily gore-loving minds of high school geeks and chums Sam and Ted Raimi, Bruce Campbell and animator and producer Tom Sullivan can dream up. With the first Evil Dead movie - an amateur project that took several years to complete - taking the world by storm and virtually instigating the entire “Video Nasties” furore in the scapegoat-hunting UK of the eighties, it was pretty much assured that a follow-up be produced. That the resulting endeavour became so beloved by critics - including some of the same newspapermen-cum-hecklers that had so vilified and condemned the first film - was nothing short of spectacular, and it marked a brand new swing-shift in mainstream appreciation of the horror genre and catapulted special FX into an altogether new realm of ingenuity and fandom. Even the die-hard gore fans who salivated at the prospect of more flesh-ripping, eye-gouging, head-lopping fun couldn't deny the creative verve that effects gurus Greg (Day Of The Dead) Nicotero, Bob Kurtzman and Howard Berger employed at the admitted expense of the nastiness that they may have expected.
The film was, and still is, a glorious, non-stop cavalcade of deliriously-rendered ghouls and demonic creatures that may seem to water-down the extreme gore of its infamous forerunner, yet remains a pillar of fantastical surrealism. Mixing the innate slapstick humour of The Three Stooges, Laurel And Hardy and Tom And Jerry with bizarre delinquent gross-out gags, Raimi and Campbell create an unholy stew of mirth and madness. With such an air of unpredictability running through it, the film wrong-foots the audience continually with gleeful mastery. For instance, just when you get a handle on the fact that the Deadites can bring into play all manner of supernatural paraphernalia, from re-animated corpses to rapid sunsets, we become unsure whether or not this is all just happening in Ash's befuddled brain. Doppelgangers lurching suddenly out of mirrors to throttle our hero and dead girlfriends longing to trip the light fantastic with him notwithstanding, Ash is often left reeling in and out of reality, the things he has just witnessed either hellish illusions of his own creation or actual tricks being played upon him by the rudely awakened spirits of the woods. We know they're there all right, but we can't always be sure when it is they who are responsible for Ash's dementia. But the best stroke that Raimi plays is in having Ash succumb to Deadite possession himself. Neither he nor we can foretell when this will occur, or for how long. This twisting of our allegiances and trust is a gimmick that only a film with Evil Dead II's own unique tone could get away with. Likewise, reducing the hero to a cripple by having him sever his own right hand is an extraordinarily bold move, and one that really runs the risk of alienating us from him. Once again, only Raimi and the forever loveable Bruce Campbell can pull off such a trick, making Ash even more formidable, even more stupid and, consequently, even more damn sympathetic. One minute a cowering wreck afraid of his own shadow and barely even able to stay on his own two feet, the next launching into a do-or-die, shotgun and chainsaw mission behind enemy lines. Campbell is the visual equivalent of Raimi's virtuoso direction - dynamic, ever-ready, and existing purely in an instinctive domain that we can only marvel at.
“Gotcha, didn't I ... you little sucker?”
Severed hands have played a major part in the traditional horror pantheon - from excellent “The Beast With Five Fingers” to “The Hand”, via individual episodes of the cosy portmanteau collections from Amicus and even Hammer's “Blood From The Mummy's Tomb”, but the wicked intentions of Ash's Deadite-digits in Evil Dead II sure do take some beating. The scene of a bashed-unconscious Ash being dragged across the floor by his own possessed hand towards an even-more handy meat cleaver lying amongst the scattered debris of a pots-and-plates free-for-all is simply circus-camp suspense par excellence. For one thing, his hand can talk! Well, it chitters and gurgles, whispers and chatters like a little skirting-board-dwelling goblin. If you listen closely, you can even make out the odd word or two amongst its screeching litany of midget-rage - usually a derogatory insult hurled at its former master, who is pursuing it with a shotgun. The bit when the hand flips Ash the bird for laughing at its careless stepping into a mousetrap is absolutely priceless - Campbell's subsequent anger not unlike a parent who has been well-and-truly embarrassed in public by an unruly child. Classic stuff.
“Your salvation lies there ... in the pages of that book!”
Additional characters roped into the movie are initially hard to take to. The ill-fated Prof. Knowby, whose cabin it is, is now revealed as the discoverer of the ancient Book Of The Dead, the tome that releases and ultimately destroys the ferocious Candarian Demons. He and his wife, Henrietta come over as eminently twee and ill-fitting in an Evil Dead movie until, that is, their fates are brought roaring into the present situation that Ash, the Prof's daughter Annie (Sarah Berry), her rock-headed boyfriend Ed (Richard Domeier) and country yokels Jake (Dan Hicks) and Bobby-Jo (Kassie Wesley) who all contrive to end up in the strangely labyrinthine cabin as well, find themselves in. The bloated bag of pus and cellulite that Henrietta's cellar-dwelling witch becomes is a showstopper, of course. With the director's brother Ted filling the latex bodysuit, the scene is set for a couple of confrontations that are quirkily uncomfortable and horridly absurd. That lumpy, offal-sack walk of hers as she beckons and croons sadistically to a trapped Ash is perhaps the most frightening thing in the entire film. Her transformation into the Pee-Wee Head is a joyous return to the stop-motion animation treasures of Ray Harryhausen, and with a couple of winged monstrosities courtesy of Tom Sullivan that practically bookend the film, the effect of this procession of grotesques is decidedly Old School. Some of the sights no longer look all that effective, it is true ... but with Evil Ed's slab-fanged maw quaffing down Bobby-jo's hair by the yard, monstrous, cabin-battering trees, flying eyeball gobstoppers and that putrid red mist issuing from a monster's severed neck to the sound of a long drawn-out raspberry, there is simply no shortage of manic spectacle to gape at.
“You know that trail we came in on? Well, it ain't there no more. It's like the woods just swallowed it up!”
As much as I love the film, I can't help feeling that the helter-skelter atmosphere of “anything goes” supernatural bedlam loses the edge once other characters appear at the cabin. As good as they may be - lousy loudmouth-redneck Jake is a standout - Campbell is definitely the outright owner of this film. In the first one, Ash was a purely ineffectual wimp for its first half, with Scotty being the more dependable one. Just count how many times he ends up trapped beneath those wafer-thin, ultra-light shelves and cupboards to see what I mean! In that he only finds his feet because he is the only one left standing. In the sequel/remake, we already know that when the chips are down he will come good, it is just a matter of how much of him will be left still attached and un-possessed at the end. And Campbell is such a strong performer - as opposed to what we could term a good and versatile actor - that he simply doesn't need other “human” beings to interact with or against. Just Ash, some weird sound effects, a shotgun blast or two and a bloodstained cabin are all you need for a riotously exciting time. In a strange sort of way, Evil Dead II - or, at least, half of it - would make a perversely enthralling stage-play. One man, one set ... and a lot of special FX ... would be enough to guarantee success. And with this overt theatricality in mind, let's just consider the infamous “Have a Laugh” sequence, that is truly one of the most audacious set-pieces in horror film history and it goes right back to the silent days with its use of furniture and other normally inanimate objects coming to life and having a rip-roaring guffaw at the entire ridiculousness of it all. But it is down to Campbell that this eye-opening scene actually works as well as it does. That simply hysterical shot when Ash turns to face us in leering close-up, his blood-smothered face peeling back into the broadest laughter imaginable is, for me, the single greatest image from the whole trilogy. Campbell's visage is so lively and expressive - again similar to a silent movie star who would be compelled to embellish every look to comically-heightened levels just to get the emotion across - that it becomes a story-telling device in its own right. A cocked eyebrow here, an astonished grimace there - he has the malleable features of a makeup-fx artist's dream. No-one makes gelatine cuts and scars look as good as Bruce Campbell. Knowing this, the creative team went a good stage further in the third part, Army Of Darkness, when Ash has to recover that pesky Book Of The Dead from the old graveyard and various nasty spells stretch and elongate his face just for the sheer hell of it.
“It's in there ...”
“We'll all go in together.”
“Hell no! You're the curious one!”
It can be seen in many ways, this one-man-army of incompetence, resilience and dumb-ass reluctant heroics of Ash's. Cinema has a long tradition of pitching Johnny-Everyman into outlandish experiences and situations. From Taylor in the original Planet Of The Apes to Sam in the new Transformers movie, we have run, fought, screamed and giggled through many unforeseen scenarios, but Campbell's Ash is, without a doubt, the ultimate geek-goofball-cum-saviour. From working in a hardware store to becoming a time-travelling demon-battler, Ash survives only by virtue of having the strongest chin in the world and, frankly, nothing more. It certainly isn't his common-sense, his physical skills or his cunning that gets him through one grisly scrape after another. Ash survives only by re-acting to his immediate predicament, not by any semblance of a plan or working towards the bigger picture. This isn't John McClane, who has abilities, determination and other issues - hostage wife/daughter etc - that help make him the hero of the hour. This isn't Austin Stoker's wrong-place, wrong-time cop in John Carpenter's excellent Assault On Precinct 13 who adapts and overcomes by virtue of tact and intelligence. Ash gets knocked about so much, battered and sliced to Hell and back, but he is only able to bounce back each time because he is simply too damn dumb to know that he is beaten or, at least, just how badly hurt he is. That Desperate Dan chin is the only real armour he has. Oh, and a wonderfully deadpan sense of humour that sees him able to relate to the monstrosities that beset him with cavalier and utterly foolhardy bravado ... when it suits him, that is.
“Someone's in my fruit cellar! Someone with a fresh soul!”
The riff on the A-Team's knack for weapons-construction in confined spaces is beautifully captured with Ash's improvised chainsaw-arm and sawn-off shotgun combo - “groovy,” indeed. His use of the vice is equally adaptive - “You're going down!” he informs his girlfriend's vicious rogue noggin. But it is great the way that Raimi utilises the whole tool-shed element with hints of true video-nastiness, playful genre winking to the likes of Texas Chainsaw and The Toolbox Murders butting up against the colourfully extravagant frenzies of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote and Tom and Jerry. His great use of distorted lenses, zooms and tracking shots, and that fantastic “Shakey-cam” that has us whirling through the woods and smashing through car windows and cabin doors at breakneck speed showcase Raimi's innate sense of visual pizzazz and almost acrobatic directorial style. It is no wonder that he was the best man for the job of bringing Spider-Man to web-flinging, sky-diving big screen life. Raimi creates great framing of individuals and group shots within his 1.85:1 aspect, and has a marvellously skin-crawling way with extreme close-ups or shots that irresistibly draw you in close to his subject. Check out the bending and stretching woodwork and the hugely bizarre camera climb up and down the window-frame accompanied by what sounds like a prehistoric dog sniffing and snuffling during the awesome homage he pays to the famous sight-and-sound set-piece of Robert Wise's The Haunting. You just have to admire a filmmaker who employs every trick in the book to embellish the screen without drowning his movie in a welter of needlessly self-conscious showboating. He takes the threadbare plot - which is an inarguably simplistic excuse for relentless violence - and does everything his warped mind can conceive of to bring it to full-on hyper-reality, yet somehow also keeping the whole shebang coherent, well-paced and attentive to character-nuance (if not properly realised characters par se). Not every filmmaker can have his cinematic cake and eat it too ... but Sam Raimi achieves exactly that with Evil Dead II, if nothing else.
“Even now we have your darling Linda's soul. She suffers ... in torment!”
I had never really thought much about Joe LoDuca's score for this film and its predecessor, the series coming over as much more of an amalgamation of screams, chainsaws, crashes and unearthly sound effects than anything resembling musical coherence. In fact it wasn't until I heard the composer's terrific score for Les Pacte Des Loups (a movie that literally rocketed into my top ten favourites the very first time I saw on its initial - and appallingly sporadic - theatrical run in the UK, and has remained there ever since) that I went back to specifically listen to his work on Raimi's films. Surprisingly, there is much to commend it. He concocts some deliciously creepy cues that float ethereally around the walls of both the cabin and Ash's anguished mind. Listen out for the eerily beautiful tune to which Linda's doll-headed corpse rises from the grave to dance to, and the mournful lament that lashes Ash whenever he remembers his lost love. There is a lot more going on in here than I had originally appreciated.
“I'll swallow your soul! I'll swallow your soul! I'll swallow your soul!”
Sadly, the film still does not contain the full Chop-top Evil-Ed sequence and subsequent dismemberment - stills of which are widely available. It is also worth noting that this sequence is shorn of a moment when Ed's lopped-off scalp and skull scampers across the floor, reminiscent of Rob Bottin's “spider-head” effect in The Thing. But such imagery has now passed into filmic folklore ... we don't even get to see them in any full deleted scenes, although the FX-documentary “The Gore The Merrier” also found on this disc does show us some of makeup man Greg Nicotero's video test footage of how it would have looked. To obtain a contractually obligated R rating in the States, Raimi and co. had to hold back on the excessive bloodletting that audiences had been looking forward to. The gore was now available in green, black and pink varieties - anything to get away from the controversial red that would have had the MPAA seeing even redder - and the violence altogether more comical than savage. In the UK the film was originally cut still further, with a vicious kick to Ash's head and some horrible vines worming through Bobby-Jo's face removed - though this was getting off lightly compared the much gorier first film which had suffered snips to virtually every on-screen act of mayhem upon its inaugural arrival on that moral-guardian-baiting home video. Disc-wise, I have only ever seen the US versions of part II, subtitled in the States as “Dead By Dawn” which have always been intact and, thankfully, that is also the case with this BD edition, which is tagged as Unrated.
The film is a classic of its kind, smashing the boundaries of cinematic convention and actually going far beyond the promise of its equally groundbreaking, but more taboo-gouging predecessor. While Carpenter and Romero struck psychological and societal chords with their revelatory horrors, and Cronenberg explored the possibilities of the New Flesh, Sam Raimi rediscovered something that had been all but forgotten by the trendsetting genre offerings of the seventies and eighties - the mindlessly chaotic fun of it all.
“Who's laughing now!”