Army of Darkness
Or, Bruce Campbell vs Army of Darkness, as the opening title suggests. In some respects, Army of Darkness follows the Mad Max trilogy comparison; it’s bigger, more sprawling, and much less concerned with the engine that should be driving these films (it’s pretty much suspense-free). Fortunately, unlike Beyond Thunderdome, it’s still a lot of fun, prone to going off at comic tangents the way Joe Dante (much more successfully) did in Gremlins 2 a couple of years earlier. If Evil Dead II mixes comedy with horror tropes, Army of Darkness does the same with the fantasy genre, most notably Ray Harryhausen. Much of it is irresistibly goofy; in fact, it only really stumbles during the extended final act when, as the Raimi brothers note, the craven side of anti-hero Ash is substituted for a more straightforwardly noble figure.
Believe it or not, there are some who attest that Ash is a genuine hero, one subject to growth and increased stature as time goes on (they’re probably also convinced Jack Burton is actually capable). Charitably, that might be an understandable misread if taking in the finale of Army and combining it with the studio-mandated S-Mart end of the US cinema version of the movie. But, as Campbell and Raimi attest (and is clearly continued in the TV series), Ash is a strange medley of coward, braggart, hero, loser and liar. His saving grace is that he knows how to deal with deadites, but spending too much time with his better attributes is liable to dilute what’s so unique about him.
While Ash battling skeleton armies is the second sequel’s big selling point (skeleton armies that are good fun when they’re actually stop motion/model skeletons, less so when they’re obvious extras/stunt men in make-do costumes), the Raimis’ screenplay comes alive when its borrowing from less adventuring sources than Jason and the Argonauts. Best of these is the riff on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with Campbell a decidedly less personable time traveller than Bing Crosby. There’s also, nominally, Gulliver’s Travels, in which, in perhaps the most unhinged sequence (but also the one that’s the biggest throwback to the kitchen sink approach to comedy of Evil Dead II) Ash is assaulted by an army of miniature splinters of himself. Then there’s the final scene of the director’s cut, taking in Rip Van Winkle/Back to the Future Part III.
That’s one of the basic standard questions of aficionados of the film, of course; which ending do you prefer? I saw the future ending first, so maybe that’s why I’m biased towards it. I’m aware that the groundswell of opinion is on the side of the S-Mart ending, and I’m quite happy to admit it plays well and is chock full of action and laughs (“Lady, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store”; “Name’s Ash, housewares”; and most famously, “Hail to the king, baby”) but it continues what is non-advantageous to the anti-legend of Ash; that he’s more of a straight-up hero rather than a bit of a weasel who just happens to do the right thing occasionally when his back’s against the wall (and someone who evidently fended off police inquiries into the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend and co-worker).
The positioning of the apocalypse ending seems appropriate to Ash’s hapless lack of luck, mirroring the end of Evil Dead II, and it’s also appropriate punishment for a guy who brought the entire situation of Army of Darkness down on Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and his castle by not paying attention; that he again doesn’t pay attention when taking the six drops to awaken in his own time (it really ought to be seven if indeed Ash is in 1300 AD) is entirely the sort of thing dumbass Ash should do, and which there has been scant supply of since he decided to get with being a hero and defending the castle. They aren’t as overt as the S-Mart version, but there are still laughs to be had here; the Monty Python beard, his muttered anticipation of where he thinks he is (“Ha-ha-ha, manufactured products”) and his maniacal laughter over the credits.
Obviously, Ash vs The Evil Dead is picking up from the S-Mart ending, which is logistically the sensible move (the costs of a future apocalypse on a TV budget, explaining Ash living in devastation for the past thirty years… actually, both those things could be to the show’s benefit) for a half-hour comedy romp. The danger with a show is you get too much of Ash, see too much of Ash, since he’s a character rendered best in sound bites who should leave you wanting more, but we’ll see (while the sight of Campbell going at it in a bar toilet is more than anyone should have to witness, it does show Ash off as exactly the kind of dissipated braggart we’d expect).
Ash: It got into my hand and it went bad, so I lopped it off at the wrist!
Aside from lovely Bridget Fonda’s cameo as Linda 3.0, the above is the prize addition to the now regular recapping of the series to date. There’s something about Ash’s offhand (ahem) matter-of-factness that pretty much sums up his response to the madness the series throws at him. The run of unimpressed Ash-isms is at its most sure-fire during his initial encounters with the ignorant savages of the fourteenth century; he should be grateful, as they at least make him look vaguely smart (they don’t understand “alloys and compounds, and things with molecular structures”).
It’s at least partly the creative vernacular that make Ash so iconic, greeting Duke Henry the Red (Richard Grove) with “Well, hello Mr Fancy Pants” and generally berating those he encounters (“Alright, you primitive screwheads, listen up. You see this? This, is my boomstick!” before segueing into his 9-to-5 speak “S-Mart top-of-the-line. That’s right. Shop Smart, Shop S-Mart. YOU GOT THAT?”)
He’s resolutely disagreeable towards Embeth Davidtz’s Sheila (“Probably was raised in a barn, like all the other primitives”), dismissing her peace offering (“Good, I could use a horse blanket”) and acting like he’s irresistible when it comes to the ladies (“Give me some sugar, baby”). As the crown prince of jerk, his lines alternate between Ash the blowhard (“First you want to kill me, now you want to kiss me. Blow”), luxuriating with grapes and legs of mutton, surrounded by serving wenches, and OTT posturing (his leap to secure the chainsaw on his wrist, mid-air, his backward shotgun slings, his sublime battle invitation, “Yo, she-bitch. Let’s go”).
It’s perhaps a shame Ash isn’t chainsaw enabled throughout, but that’s indicative of the choices made in the picture; this isn’t the frenetic, tornado of a movie that its predecessor is. If Ash’s construction skills (making a robot hand, the Ash-mobile) are rendered as a call back to the series’ greatest line “Groovy”, they also signal a picture that is more sporadic in inspiration.
It’s very noticeable throughout that Ash is at his best (or his most-Ash-ish) when he’s hoisted by his own petard, or when he’s desperate, and the construction of Army of Darkness doesn’t sufficiently foster that unhinged Ash (“Alright, who wants some? Who’s next? You want some?” as he beckons the crowd of primitives after escaping the pit).
Even those scenes that most evoke Evil Dead II, such as the pit, show a bit too much indulgence as opposed to hyperbolic energy. The make-up is great, but somersaulting deadites ultimately reposition the pit as spectacle rather than berserkly engaging. It’s a relief then, when Ash is sent off to retrieve the Necronomicon, and we have extended Campbell playing against Campbell(s) (how many roles does Campbell play here? There must be at least a dozen versions of himself).
This is the gleefully infectious Raimi who loves riffing on The Three Stooges, complete with eye pokes, snickering laughter and playground taunts (“I’m bad Ash, and you’re good Ash. Little goody two shoes”; the director’s cut follows Ash shooting his Evil self with “I ain’t that good”, admittedly inferior to “Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the gun”). This is the same Raimi who delivered one of the best scenes in the Spider-Man trilogy (Evil, or Emo Peter Parker does his dance act) to frequent outrage from Spidey devotees; ironically it represents the most perfect rendering of his oft-tempered sensibilities in those movies.
The fight with a multitude of mini-Ashs includes such choice slapstick as Ash slipping up on soap, getting his cheek glued to a hot stove (and prizing it off with a medieval spatula) and drinking the contents of a hot kettle in an attempt to kill the mini-Ash he has swallowed (“Okay, little fella. How about some hot chocolate, huh? Eh-heh-heh. How’d you like the taste of that, eh?”)
There are also some suitably weird-weird moments, such as the eye growing from his shoulder, and the two-headed Ash bounding out of the windmill as if he’s on the set of a 1930s Universal horror.
Evil Ash is never as much fun as he probably seemed on paper. Probably because sneery Campbell (“Hey what’s that you got on your face?” he asks his evil severed head before tossing dirt over it “See how that works?”) is not far off anyway. Evil Ash gets the occasional memorable line of mock Shakespearean “Pick yourselves up and sally f…forth”, “Come on you bony devils, hurry up or I’ll send you to the glue factory”) but it suggests Campbell’s appeal lies in the whole package. Something is lost burying him under prosthetics.
Ash’s encounter with the book, on a magnificently stagey graveyard set, is another fine dose of Raimi comedy, as fake books (“Three books?”) suck him inwards and give him an elongated face, or fly around biting at him, Then there’s his coughing on “Nikto” because he can’t remember it (“Necktie. Nickel noodle. Definitely an ‘N’ word”) and his false optimism that he’ll get away with it, announcing it to no one in particular (“Okay, then, that’s it”).
Ash: Look, maybe I didn’t say every single tiny little syllable, no, but basically I said ‘em, yeah.
His inability to remember “Klaatu, barada, nikto” (“I got it, I got it”) brings down the titular army, but the demise of hero Ash (“Wretched excuse for a man”) is alas short-lived, as he chooses to back the disenchanted peasants who now have little interest in sending him home. There are some curious moments here, from Ash’s assertion of “We can take them, with science!” to his teaching fighting moves (where did he pick them up, precisely?)
There’s also evidence of Raimi’s often juvenile sexual politics, with Sheila carried off by deadites, raped by Evil Ash (“You found me beautiful once”; “Honey, you got real ugly”), and then brought back to normality at the end (the skeleton’s cry of “Bring on the wenches!” is pretty funny though).
I’ve always found the finale a bit too unfocused and larky, although many of the skeleton asides are highly amusing, from one coughing dust on being exhumed, to Scottish skeletons playing bagpipes, but the sequence just goes on and on, without much sense of pace or purpose. Sort of like many of the epic fights its homaging in that sense (Ash goes all Errol Flynn).
Arthur: Are all men from the future loud-mouthed braggarts?
Ash: No, just me baby, just me.
Army of Darkness (The Medieval Dead is definitely a better title) attempts to be the next step beyond Evil Dead II, moving from horror into fantasy comedy. But it loses something in the process. Chiefly, that’s momentum, with the giddy mayhem of its predecessor only really approximated during Ash’s surreal expedition to fetch the Necronomicon. But it also stumbles through side-lining Ash’s status as a self-interested, reluctant hero. Hopefully that lesson will be learned in the new TV incarnation. Army of Darkness is no slouch, though, and can’t be accused of resting on its predecessor’s laurels; it remains flawed good fun.