Sunday, July 12, 2009

Evil Dead II

Following the underwhelming reception of Crimewave, collaborators Sam Raimi and the Coen brothers overhauled their plan to break into Hollywood. The Coens gathered some rising stars and played the farce of Crimewave with a straighter face and without the broad genre pastiches, resulting in the classic comedy Raising Arizona, which helped establish Nicolas Cage as a household name. Raimi, on the other hand, threw up his hands and ran back to the independent world (and the well) to see if a bigger version of the horror film that put him on the radar might allow him to truly get his foot in the door. So, he brought figures of the first film's Italian grosses to producer Dino De Laurentiis and received $3.5 million, tenfold the budget of the original, to make a sequel.

The result was nothing less than a schlocky masterpiece and the definitive horror-comedy film, if not horror cult movie in general. As if to prove that The Evil Dead wasn't a fluke or that Crimewave had broken his creative spark (which is on display in a few wonderful sequences), Evil Dead II took the sequel maxim of "double everything" and decided it would just be more fun to quadruple it. As he could not secure the rights to use clips from his debut in this film, Raimi decided to simply shoot new material as a recap. Aspects of the story changed (Ash travels to the cabin with only his girlfriend, while others show up later), but the gist of the entire first film is delivered in about seven minutes, which is a subtle indicator that not even The Evil Dead could fully prepare you for what was in store.

At the end of first film, Ash emerged from the cabin as daybreak destroyed the final remains of his possessed friends, only for the unseen evil to rush through the woods and catch him as the image faded to black. Most would assume this to be the end of the line but, as Bruce Campbell likes to phrase it, "positive box-office response saved Ash." The recap of the previous movie ends the moment the evil grabs Ash and we see what happens. He lives, yes, but now he too is possessed.

The first time around, Ash was no different from his compatriots: he was as weak, as dumb and as cheesy. Campbell takes a different approach to the character here, and it forever cements Ash as one of the greatest movie characters in history. In the recap, he is no longer an indecisive wretch but an ice-cold leader. Oh, he's still dumb as a stump, but you tend to listen to a man who doesn't give more than a moment's pause before taking a chainsaw to his demonic girlfriend because he knows that the woman he loved is dead. When his hand becomes possessed, he lops it off and eventually replaces it by hooking the chainsaw to his stump.

Campbell was clearly a rookie when he and Raimi started work on The Evil Dead just after they both graduated high school; his delivery, like the entire dialogue, was so indebted to the B-movies the friends grew up watching that it was simply too straight to convey the parody. No such problem exists here: Campbell can turn from scenery-chewing B-movie putz to ass-kicking action hero on a dime, and that's not even counting all the times he gets possessed in the film. He's as much responsible for the film's brilliance as Raimi and Scott Spiegel's script.

That script bursts at the seams with madcap genius just waiting for Raimi's direction to send it over the edge into cult timelessness. They didn't invent horror-comedy with this movie -- one could argue that the genre goes all the way back to Abbot and Costello's run-ins with movie monsters -- but never had a film so effortlessly mixed scares with laughs. Ash's possession offers up some chilling moments, but when the demon focuses in his hand and Ash must hunt down his own body part, it becomes transcendent farce. And that's not even the best bit involving rogue appendages: remember the eyeball?

And that's the tip of the gory iceberg. Even revisiting this trilogy, it's hard for me to process that The Evil Dead is downright tame compared to this. Going for scares made the filmmakers somewhat restrained (it should go without saying that this is relatively speaking), but now they just threw caution to the wind and went completely and utterly insane. And damned if it doesn't work. The scene were Ash's dead girlfriend rises from her grave and dances using her severed head like a pork pie hat is a creepily hysterical nod to Fred Astaire, while a possessed Ash crying over his lady's necklace might seem like an emotional moment but is just so (deliberately) absurd you'll be crying from the laughter, not the drama.

I want to write about this film all day but I'm afraid that I'll just end up listing every moment of the film, because not a single moment fails to elicit scares, laughs or awe at Raimi's low-budget prowess, and often they inspire all three. As I watched this for the second time, I couldn't help but wonder if Tim Burton ever sent Raimi a royalty check, as Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas openly steal elements and even creature models from Evil Dead II.

Though Campbell and Raimi only spent 6 years on other projects in between the first two Evil Dead movies (with Raimi only making Crimewave in the interim), Evil Dead II appears to be the work of studied pros. While its computer and stop-motion animation looks incredibly dated, the film as a whole hasn't aged a day because it straddles the line between serious filmmaking and mad self-awareness perfectly -- the pendulum swung the other way when the third, hopefully final, installment arrived and completed the journey from straight horror to outright farce, though that too is an excellent picture. As an example of a seamless blend of horror and comedy, only 2004's Shaun of the Dead comes close to the level of Raimi's magnum opus. When people tell me to just sit back and enjoy a thrill ride when I pan something like Transformers, I just think wistfully of Ash's hand giving him the finger before he basts it with his boomstick.

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