No. 14: EVIL DEAD II
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A RETRO NOSTALGIA BINGE AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
As I mentioned on one of the early episodes of Culture Dogs (our Sam Raimi retrospective timed to tie-in with the release of the first Spider-Man feature), Evil Dead II rocked my world. Sadly, I was rather oblivious to both it and it's predecessor's existence for quite some time. I completely missed the theatrical release, but I did have a friend who saw it and thought it was the stupidest thing he had ever seen. I was aware of the cool skull-with-human-eyes poster artwork that (I'm pretty sure it was) Aerosmith appropriated for their stage setup during their Permanent Vacation tour. And lastly, I was exposed to the 'eyeball swallowing' scene during a television special called Stephen King's World of Horror.
Thus it happened that one summer night during what must have been 1988. I noticed that one of the cable movie channels was showing Evil Dead II at two in the morning. I later learned that this was the perfect time to watch such a thing. I was hooked. Yes, it was stupid and hilarious. But the earlier bits (where Bruce Campbell's embattled antihero Ash is constantly hounded by entities from the beyond) really sunk their hooks into me.
The story is not quite a remake of the original, but it does play that way for a portion of it. Campbell's Ash is a horny collegiate fella who decides to take his lady love Linda to a (romantic?) cabin in the wooded recesses of nowheresville. Shortly after squatting in the spooky log domicile, he discovers a reel-to-reel tape recorder containing the audio diary of the cabin's previous tenant. Unwisely, Ash plays back the tape (which contains recitations from the Lovecraft-inspired Necronomicon ex Mortis, or Book of the Dead) and summons the diabolical forces of the underworld. Demonic forces quickly abduct Linda, leaving Ash to wallow in a nightmarish pool of insanity.
Sam Raimi is a well respected dramatic and action director nowadays, but at the time he was a fledgling horror auteur. The odd thing is that his main inspiration was the film work of The Three Stooges, so his 'horror' films were chock full of slapstick humor as a result. His camerawork was revolutionary, and the sheer off-the-deep-end brilliance of this film's look is part of what hooked me on it. The most famous of Raimi's gimmicks is the Sam-O-Cam, a demonic POV shot resulted from strapping a camera onto a plank of wood and having two people at either end run around the woods with it. Coupled with an odd, demonic groaning sound effect, the result is fabulous. And the numerous scenes in which Ash keeps running while the unseen force constantly nips at his heels really left me with palms a'sweating.
The film is feverishly paced, as the story is never quite as important as the overall thrill ride experience. It's really a sequence of set pieces, with brief moments of character work stringing them along. Eventually the plot encompasses the stories of the doomed professor's daughter and her entourage, who never quite get along with Ash despite the nefarious beasties (called 'Deadites') out to kill them all and 'swallow their souls'.
The numbers of ‘cool' moments are hard to collate - there's the great early segment where Ash (and the camera in a demented version of the snorricam effect made popular by Frankenheimer's Seconds and used much later in Darren Aronofsky's Pi) flies through the forest during a demonic possession. Not to mention the fantastic way in which the evil forces are sucked back into the ground as smoke while the soundtrack plays a screeching backwards growl. There's the cheesy yet awesome wrecked bridge scene in which the twisted steel forms the likeness of a malevolent claw. This is followed by a supercool bluescreen segment wherein an enormous sun sets remarkably fast. There's the chase through the bowels of the cabin, and the famous possessed hand sequence (look for the Farewell To Arms reference!). And that's just in the first twenty minutes or so. The film explodes with visual invention. By the time we get to the previously referenced scene (in which a demonic eye is forcibly popped from a Deadite's a socket, only to fly across the room in a camera POV shot and land in the mouth of a terrified victim), we've been exposed to countless scenes in which Sam Raimi has proven himself to be a supremely talented young filmmaker.
I went nuts over this flick, and exposed every single friend I could to its frenzied madness. I even finally managed to convince my parents to bow down to its greatness (my stepfather had been another naysayer who had seen parts of it before me and informed me that it sucked). I loved the ending, and chomped at the bit for the imminent sequel that it set up. That is a story in itself, and even though I obsessively collected video copies of that sequel (Army of Darkness), Evil Dead II is still my absolute favorite. Anchor Bay has released a few very good DVDs of the film; the first had a great transfer and included a commentary track (it will expose you to the Evil Dead crew's ties to the Coen Brothers, Bridget Fonda and Quentin Tarantino) and some cool featurettes. It was released again in the cool 'Book of the Dead' format (an idea already explored with the previous film Evil Dead) in which the remastered DVD is housed in a latex 'book' replica of the Necronomicon crafted by the film's effects man/artist Tom Sullivan. This one has a bulging eyeball that yields a ghoulish scream when you press it.
But the thing that cemented this film in my mind as one of the best of all time wasn't a sawed off shotgun battle with deadites or even the chainsaw hand. It was one single word. One word that elevated it from horror/comedy oddity to Citizen Kane-ian greatness. That word was...