I've reviewed Sam Raimi's loopy, gloopy helter-skelter horror sequel a couple of times before, so what follows is an expanded, re-jigged and appropriately transformed version of that write-up for this UK Special Edition from StudioCanal, which is released in April to coincide with Fede Alvarez's intense remake of the first Evil Dead.
"Now ... let's head down into that cellar and go carve ourselves a witch!"
After Evil Dead II's troubled first entry on to Blu-ray from Starz and Anchor Bay, things were rectified for the celebrated horror classic in the form of Lionsgate's 25th Anniversary Edition on a US region A-locked disc. And, thankfully, it is this version that now claws its way from the beyond the grave in a direct port over to the region B shores of Bloody Blighty. So, once again, 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 (thank you 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 most outrageous 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?”
Precipitated by not having the rights to showing footage from the first film, 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 – Shelly, 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 are awoken from their spectral hibernation by the recitation of ancient incantations foolishly spoken aloud, and 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 bound by 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, perilous predicaments and insane 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 the people working in special makeup 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, The Walking Dead) Nicotero, Bob Kurtzman and Howard Berger employed at the admitted expense of the nastiness that they may have expected.
These guys had just done Re-Animator and From Beyond for Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. They loved to get mucky, and their delinquent energy would ensure that whatever Raimi and Campbell dreamt up, they could not only deliver it, but they could give it wings as well. Has this level of passion left the movies in this age of CG? Yes it has. But not quite as emphatically as many like to make out. When you learn that the legendary Rob (The Thing) Bottin left the business, stale and disillusioned, several years ago because he thought the writing was on the wall for the imaginative special makeup Fx artist, it is a sobering thought. But, hang on a moment, air-bladder-fans … Greg Nicotero is handling an enormity of prosthetic appliances and makeup for The Walking Dead, the new prequel to The Thing sought to marry-up the two disciplines, and there are all manner of grotesque in-camera effects doled-out for us in the likes of the Hatchet films, The Human Centipede 1 & 2, Crawlspaceand Dominic Brunt’s excellent Brit zombie movie, Before Dawn, and a whole slew of grungy torture-porn titles. And, in a gory coup to warm even the most rotting of hearts, the remake of Raimi’s original Dead is almost entirely practical and CG-free! So, whilst it is great to look back upon the likes of Evil Dead II and its splashy, pulsating 80’s brethren as though they are the last of an elite breed, it is only fair to remember that there are many passionate practitioners of the latex art-form still championing foam-rubber and full-head-casts today.
Everything gets thrown at Ash including the kitchen sink.
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. Will the next shock tickle the funny bone, or will it unload the contents of your stomach? Or will it do both? 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 precisely 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 it will last. This twisting of our allegiances and our trust is a gimmick that only a film with that Harlequin style of 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 in a wonderfully literal and symbolic gesture of enraged self-sacrifice, is an extraordinarily bold move, and one that really runs the risk of alienating him from us. 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, bruised and battered, but imbued with ceaseless energy that won't quit or back down, and he seems to exist in a purely instinctive domain that we can only sit back and marvel at.
“Gotcha, didn't I ...you little sucker? ”
Severed or possessed hands have played a major part in the traditional horror pantheon - from the excellent The Beast With Five Fingers to the Oliver Stone-written The Hand to the daftly effective Idle Hands, 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!”
I always used to find that the new characters roped into the movie were 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 a touch ill-fitting for 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 (Danny Hicks) and Bobby-Jo (Kassie Wesley) who all contrive to end up in the strangely labyrinthine cabin alongside Ash, find themselves in. But it is hard not to wind up warming to the rednecks. Danny Hicks, especially, is superb as the sleazy, cantankerous hillbilly who can't resist putting the hurt on Ash at every opportunity. Well, who wouldn't – I mean he's such a terrific punch-bag, isn't he? And Sarah Berry ensures that Annie harks back to the aggressive femininity of the first film – stout-hearted and willing to fight. Though at least this is a lady who fights for the good team.
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. That we can plainly see the horrendous, sweat-filled costume tearing around the backside is all part of the fun. 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. Even the more subtle things such as the ghostly eyes and mouth that are superimposed over the cabin (reminiscent of the subliminal shots of the demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist), and the little skull face that Linda's necklace makes on the floor to tempt Evil Ash back from the Dark Side add to the spectral ambience of a visually overloaded broth.
“You know that trail we came in on? Well, it ain't there no more. It's like the woods just swallowed it up!”
Yet as much as I love the film, I can't help feeling that the helter-skelter atmosphere of “anything goes” supernatural bedlam loses a bit of its magical edge once other characters appear at the cabin. As good as they may be - lousy loudmouth-redneck Jake is the clear 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 by the time the worm turns. And, as we’ve seen, 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 whole 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 acid-trip 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, somehow summing-up all the chaos and slaughter and madness in just one unhinged grin. 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, exaggerating those already exaggerated features all the more.
“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 evolution of Ash into a one-man-army of incompetence, resilience and dumb-ass reluctant heroics. 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 Transformers, we have run, fought, screamed and giggled through many unforeseen scenarios, but Campbell's Ash is, without a doubt, the ultimate geek-goofball-cum-champion. 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 notion of working towards the bigger picture. This isn't John McClane or John Matrix or Taken’s Bryan Mills, who have abilities, determination and other driving issues - hostage wife/daughter etc - that help make them the heroes 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, that 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, to grasp 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 as he tightens the handle and wonders where that trusty chainsaw has gotten to. 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, Wile E. Coyote and Tom and Jerry. His great use of distorted lenses, pivoting angles, zooms and tracking shots, the fantastic “Shakey-cam” that has us whirling through the woods on the snout of the big demon, and the “Ram-o-cam” that goes smashing through car windows and cabin doors at breakneck speed showcase Raimi's innate sense of visual pizzazz and almost acrobatic directorial style. The occasional use of anamorphic lenses twist and bend the frame, creating wacky compositions. Reverse shots muck us around with some of the more nauseating effects, especially when it comes to Wesley’s poor Bobbie-Jo, and under-cranking becomes a thing of brutal beauty as Ash gets pummelled, beaten and flipped-over. I love the marvellous shot when each member of the gang moves into the frame after Evil Ed has been chopped-up, with Ash, equipped with gooey axe, rising up into view last of all.
Photographer Peter Deming stepped in after the initial crew failed to adhere to the “stop-at-nothing” ethic of Raimi, Campbell and Tappert, and he rose to the challenge of such unorthodox, seat-of-the-pants techniques so well that his director came straight to him to lens Drag Me To Hell and Oz: The Great and Powerful. He clearly learned a thing or two about pitching audiences into a cinematic waltzer from this gravity-defying genre debut, as he would employ some similar, though production-restricted chutzpah for Scarecrows, From Hell and the last three Screams, and there is also the clear Evil Dead rip-off in Drew Goddard’s meta-thriller The Cabin In The Woods, written by Joss Whedon. When I think of a Raimi film, my head sort of cocks to one side and then to the other in an instinctive emulation of the rollercoaster twists that the camera tends to take. He was lucky to have found a DOP as adventurous and game-for-a-laugh as Deming.
With all of this imaginative creativity and desire to just go-for-it in mind, it is no wonder that Raimi was the best man for the job of bringing Spider-Man to web-flinging, sky-diving big screen life. He creates great framing of individuals and group shots within his usual 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; drowning his movie in a welter of needlessly self-conscious showboating. He takes what is little more than an 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 it 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, and he conjures up a mock-heroic fanfare for him as he climbs out of the cellar to do final battle with Henrietta. 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. And the weirdly tragic serenade that spins with him as he falls into the vortex. Lots of little cues, but a rich variety of wonderful melancholy and energetic supernaturalism. There is a helluva lot more going on in here than I had originally appreciated. LoDuca would also score the less impressive supernatural yarn, Bogeyman, and also provide the terrific music for the phenomenal Starz/Raimi-produced Spartacus TV show.
“I'll swallow your soul! I'll swallow your soul! I'll swallow your soul!”
Ka-blam! Ash gets to work with his “Boom-stick”.
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 documentaries found on this disc do show us some of 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. They needn’t have bothered – there was no way this was going to get a rating. In the UK the film was actually cut, 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 act of on-screen mayhem upon its inaugural arrival on that moral-guardian-baiting medium of home video. Disc-wise, until now 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 Anglo BD edition.
Interestingly, like with Jason And The Argonauts, there has been a dash of wire-removal here and there, but, thankfully, there's no Lucas-like effects modification with CG. Puppet-heads still alter their appearance between shots, and there is that crazy bogus quality to certain creations, such as the Pee-Wee head for the pus-filled Henrietta. Plus, we can still see the shadow of the camera-rig travelling over the ground as the Ram-o-Cam charges after Ash. Personally, I don't mind the slight wire clean-up, although Evil Dead II is just the sort of jape-fest that can actually wear its vintage in-camera stylings with pride ... and get away with them.
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. Without his kinetic exuberance, we would never have had the gooey wayward charm of Re-Animator, or the dark vision and artistry of Hellraiser.
Drag Me To Hell was an awesome return to outrageous panto-horror, Raimi’s intense visual flair in full effect once more – something that has been fabulously realised in his somewhat old fashioned but large-scale fantastical homage of Oz the Great and Powerful. He has made it clear that he would love to return to his even smaller-scale horror roots, and given the ferociously exciting word-of-mouth that the Evil Dead remake from Uruguayan Fede Alvarez is gaining, there is now very definite talk of him helming a fourth instalment to his original series. After a slew of enjoyable, yet forgettable roles in the likes of Bill Lustig’s Maniac Cop and My Name Is Bruce, Campbell became the king of the cameo, making well-received appearances in lots of genre fare from the likes of Escape From LA to the Spider-Man outings, and now even in Oz. Knowing, feature-length winks to the audience in Bubba Ho-Tep andMy Name is Bruce were fun, but the great and iconic chin that once fronted one of Horror’s most enjoyable franchises has now fallen into behind-the-scenes respectability and guest appearances. And even more weirdly, that once-indomitable chin has now receded as the face around it has gained width, but it is actually great to note that Campbell now sports genuine Ash-like silver flashes in his hair … and sports them well.
Evil Dead II may be the middle film in a series that began as out-and-out gore and ended-up as Harryhausen-homaging comedy, but it straddles the grue and the guffaws with such infectious wit that it cannot fail to make new devotees with each generation that encounters it. This is the sort of movie that you wish you’d been a part of and, as demented and gratuitous as it can be, has the appeal of an anarchic cousin who comes round at Christmas and just steals the show.
It's The Three Stooges meet Charles Manson in Hell's country retreat, but ...
“That’s right … who's laughing now!”
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