Top Non-Cartoons: Army of Darkness

I must confess: I was kinda leading up to this.

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Let me begin by saying that I don’t like Army of Darkness. In fact, part of me — probably the serious, “artistic” part — hates Army of Darkness. I say this with no small amount of frustration, because I’m the kind of person who should love Army of Darkness. I love cheesy horror. I love irreverent comedy. I love bloody, anarchic, over-the-top violence for its own sake, and I love any movie that goes out of its way to piss people off — especially if those people are the film’s own fans. Why shouldn’t I enjoy Sam Raimi’s beloved cult classic?

Well, it’s probably because the movie is so stupid.

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Here’s the third entry in a series lauded for its original approach to horror, and it gives us some of the clumsiest acting, the dumbest gags, and the most embarrassing stop-motion I’ve ever seen. The first time I caught AoD on cable, I came in at the windmill/mirror scene, and I spent the next ten minutes scratching my head, squinting my eyes, and wondering just how in hell a movie like this could get made. What right-minded studio executive would greenlight such a travesty?

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I mean…look at it. Extreme mugging. Unfunny scenes drawn to their absolute limits. Three Stooges eye pokes with cheap-o skeleton hands. Zombie dolls tossed at actors to simulate fighting. I could forgive the bad effects if the comedy was sharp, but this stuff is so broad I almost feel bad for it. And I don’t buy the whole “it’s shitty on purpose” argument. There’s confidence here, and that makes it all the less pleasant. If I had seen this movie in the theater, I would have walked out of it, even at thirteen years old. It’s awful.

But…it’s growing on me, and oh dear god, it’s growing bigger.

Thanks to the constant references in video games, the continued recommendations of friends, and the recent TV follow-up, I’ve developed a strange fascination with AoD. My revulsion now mingles with a desire to understand, and I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere in that regard. We haven’t yet made friends, but we’re developing a language by which to communicate, and I’m willing to admit that maybe I was just a big old fuddy-duddy about it.

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Army of Darkness is not a horror film. It’s more of a fantasy-action-comedy, and although there is no other movie to fairly compare with it, I can’t help but come back to Spaceballs. The two movies just remind me of each other in certain ways. While Spaceballs had a purpose in sending up Star Wars, however, AoD ricochets about with no real plan at all. If it’s making fun of anything, it’s the expectations of the viewers.

It retains Raimi’s distinctive style, of course, which I actually really love. The first Raimi film I ever saw was Darkman, and even as a twelve-year-old kid, I knew there was something special behind that one. That film moved and screamed and ran like nothing I’d ever seen before, and it’s probably the only instance in which a film’s camerawork actually disturbed me. There’s something Ren & Stimpy-esque about the details Raimi wants to show us, and the unique efforts he makes to do so can be unsettling. AoD, however, is not unsettling. Sure, it has one or two intentionally disquieting moments, but you’d better drink them up good because they don’t last long.

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Each of the film’s acts has its own premise and tone: first we have Ash’s bonkers buffoon-out-of-water story, followed by a quest that reaches for scary but then goes full tilt stupid, and then a lengthy siege that’s neither scary or comical, just kinda dry.

The idea of Ash Williams, an angry wiseass teaching medieval Englanders what for, is actually quite appealing. Were I in Ash’s position, I’d be pretty pissed off too. Many of his quotes deserve their fame, especially the “jack and shit” line. The joke of the film is that our “hero” is an arrogant moron, gifted only with the ability to pull miraculous action stunts at will. Thankfully, this is enough to make a movie character likable, because he comes through when he has to. He chops up or blows up every monster he sees, and he always sees them before anyone else can.

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Not that anyone else in the movie is really worth discussing. The titles read “Bruce Campbell Vs. Army of Darkness” for a reason, folks: this really is the Ash showcase. His journey for the Necronomicon (the Evil Dead McGuffin) is little more than a series of cartoon scenarios in which Ash bumbles about hurting himself. He bumps his head, burns his bum, and battles a bunch of baby Ashes.

After that, he pretty much sinks into the background as a host of stop-motion skeletons takes the stage. From here it’s nothing but a giant sword-fighting jubilee, plus a few explosions. Without Ash’s character at the forefront, the movie loses a lot of personality, though it tries to make up for it with some goofy puppet gags (as a Jim Henson fan, I do enjoy this). The action has a smidgen of that Raimi style to it, but overall it’s not particularly funny or ground-breaking. Even so, I get a unique sense from the siege sequence that this was not some rote exercise. No, Raimi was chasing something: he aimed to recreate the spooky spectacles of the Ray Harryhausen movies he grew up with, simply because he liked them. As a creative person, my motivations are often similar: I just want to make things that look like the stuff I always loved.

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I can’t begrudge Raimi for taking this opportunity. I read Bruce Campbell’s book, If Chins Could Kill, and the story of making Evil Dead was not a happy one. For the Raimi boys, breaking into the biz demanded suffering, stubbornness, and on-the-spot ingenuity. Army of Darkness was the reward for their travails: a chance to finally have some big fun with a character and mythos that they invented. That I don’t get a lot of its humor isn’t a slight on the film, it’s evidence of a unique personal touch. It may be broad, but it’s no manufactured crowd-pleaser. On the contrary, it is something more precious than that: an unsullied bit of fun made by a small group of guys with earned capital — a movie that owes nothing to anyone. This finally came together for me when I heard Raimi’s last lines of commentary on the AoD Director’s Cut, and felt like a total asshole:

Sam-Raimi.jpg“Our goal was really to make an entertaining picture. That’s
all we want to do: an entertaining movie, that hopefully people would laugh at and get some jumps out of, and we hope that you were entertained.”

Well, shit. How can I, or any creative person, grind my heel on this movie, knowing the pure sentiment that birthed it? Entertainment really is the core of it, after all; any storyteller who aims for a higher goal than that has lost his or her way. Raimi didn’t care about prestige or money; he just wanted to indulge his passion. He made a film that is distinctly his own, proudly left his fingerprints all over it, and found an ironclad fan base in spite of withering odds. That’s more than I can say for myself.

I feel like crap now, so I’m going to change the subject and talk about the TV show.

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Ash vs. Evil Dead is a good show. It does just what it needs to do, which is to update and expand the Evil Dead mythology, while keeping Ash exactly the way we remember him. The loony exuberance of the movies is still present, but it’s checked by a self-aware, 21st-century jadedness, as well as some impressive special effects. You won’t see any dopey puppets bobbling about here, but it’s still leagues away from any Walking Dead grimness, and I thank God for that. Since Raimi doesn’t have his hands on it directly, there’s still a je ne sais quoi missing from it, but it works, and I liked it from the first shot without any reservations.

It is, however, falling into a formula that I’m not sure it can maintain. Since the show is just an excuse for more Bruce, there’s not much room for real tension or plot. Most of the episodes play out like Popeye cartoons; the only differences between them are how the writers keep Ash away from his chainsaw, and for how long. Once the spinach can is opened, the audience gets exactly what it expects: deadites taunting, people crashing into walls, blood spraying on faces, and maybe a one-liner or two. I can’t really complain about this, though. With the horror genre as gray and predictable as it is now, Ash vs. Evil Dead is a refreshing reminder that scary can also be fun. Still, it needs more than nostalgia and attitude to be a truly satisfying experience. If it can’t figure out how to build off its novelty, it may have been better served as a feature film/reunion thing.

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