Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead trilogy (consisting of the schlocky 1981 horror The Evil Dead and two sequels, 1987’s Evil Dead II and 1992’s Army Of Darkness) is one of the most cherished cult horror franchises of all time. Fans wax lyrical about Raimi’s winning mix of horror and comedy, and for many years have celebrated the increasingly endearing performances of the trilogy’s star, Bruce Campbell. The first film in that trilogy, Raimi’s debut, lays down the template for 30 years’ worth of copycat ‘cabin in the woods’ horror films and contains a bucketload of low-budget video nasty thrills interspersed with a sprinkling of belly laughs. With the second movie – arguably the best in the trilogy – the blend of comedy and horror was equally balanced, thanks mainly to Campbell’s way with physical comedy and seemingly effortless sense of timing. Army Of Darkness completes the switcharound, in that it’s a bucketload of belly laughs interspersed with a sprinkling of low-budget video nasty thrills: around 80% action comedy to just 20% horror.
A goofy, slapstick gem, Army Of Darkness picks up where Evil Dead II left off, with the main protagonist Ash Williams (Campbell) finding himself in medieval England with just a shotgun, a chainsaw and a 1973 OIdsmobile for company after being inexplicably dragged through a time portal by evil forces. In order to get back to the present day he must convince two warring factions of knights to unite, do battle with a dozen miniature versions of himself in a twisted take on Gulliver’s Travels, steal a Lovecraftian book of the dead called the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis and scrap with an army of angry skeletons that rise up from their graves. And after all that, his success in getting back to 1992 depends entirely on the version of the film that you happen to watch. (The film was released with two endings; in the version I saw most recently Ash drinks too many drops of a magic potion and wakes up in a post-apocalyptic future, which contains a neat nod to Planet Of The Apes. The other version – which I think is just as good – includes a final showdown inside Ash’s workplace, the S-Mart. Both Raimi and Campbell preferred the post-apocalyptic ending as it highlights just how much of a screw-up the main character is.)
Raimi wears his influences on his sleeve here, and this is warm, unashamed, fan-boy filmmaking at its most unrestrained. There are shades of the adventures of Robin Hood (particularly the swashbuckling Errol Flynn incarnation) here, as well as the schlock and cheesy delivery of countless B-movies, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, The Three Stooges, the movies that incorporated the stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen (most notably Jason And The Argonauts) and even – weirdly, and not entirely successfully – an odd pastiche of The A-Team.
It’s a riot of camp action, cheesy lines and slapstick humour, which probably disappointed some horror fans slightly at the time, as the fayre on offer here wouldn’t even force the milkiest milquetoast to hide behind a cushion. However, the comedy is successful enough in its own right for that not to matter too much, and the laugh count is high throughout the movie. The fish out of water angle is milked for all its worth early on, with 20th century boy Ash casting out some Indiana Jones-style weariness toward the medieval humans, before the slapstick takes hold later on as he battles the evil forces. Campbell excels at this goofy physical horseplay; when Ash has to fight a load of skeletons in a graveyard, or when he must wrestle an evil version of himself that has grown out of his own body, it’s difficult not to picture Larry, Curly and Moe in full tweak-his-ears-and-poke-him-in-the-eye mode. Raimi even incorporates a bunch of honks and other comedic sound effects just to ram both the silliness and the homage home.
The character of Ash was changed considerably by Raimi and his screenwriter brother Ivan for this installment; where previously he had been written and portrayed as a laid-back everyman, or a prototype slacker, by the third film he has transformed into a brave hero, albeit an utterly incompetent one even at the best of times. In Army Of Darkness he is also a cynic, a move that suits Campbell’s laconic delivery of withering put-downs as well as his exaggerated, Elvis-style proclamations. The success of this film is partly due to Campbell’s adaptability, and considering he had twice before played slightly different versions of Ash he handles the change in dynamic and the extra helping of comedy superbly. His timing is excellent, and it’s little wonder that Empire magazine named the character one of the 25 most memorable in cinematic history (and number one on its list of memorable horror characters).
It’s surprising that Campbell remains to this day a cult actor, his thunder stolen at the time perhaps by the sudden rise of Jim Carrey, who started off as an exaggerated, turbo-charged version of the horror star. Indeed under slightly different circumstances and with a few different choices it’s easy to imagine Campbell having had a similar career to that enjoyed by Carrey, had he wanted it. His most famous appearances since Army Of Darkness have been in cameos (a few with Raimi, and a few with the Coen Brothers), although he has worked as a writer, director and producer in the past decade. Campbell has always found acting jobs, though, and more recently has been celebrated for his voice work in animated films. Still, it’s strange that the starring roles have been few-and-far-between over the years, with the post-Ash career highlight probably coming in Don Coscarelli’s oddball indie Bubba Ho-tep.
Released in the year before CGI experts made sudden, impressive forward leaps, nearly all of the effects in Raimi’s film look cheap and most were well out-of-date by 1992, but you can sense that a fun time was had with their creation. The make-up – all scabby, scaly skin and fright wigs – is stuck in the glorious VHS years of the previous decade, the stop-motion animation is even older, and other special effects – such as the temporary, elongated face Ash has after almost being sucked through another time portal – are unashamedly naff; they are all, however, well-suited to the knowing tone of the movie, and it’s interesting to see them being used to amuse the viewer rather than to scare them witless. At this point in his career Raimi was effectively making the ironic, meta-horror sub-genre into a serious, money-making concern, and he would be joined shortly thereafter by another jaded 1980s veteran by the name of Wes Craven.
As an homage or a vehicle for Campbell’s comic talents, Army Of Darkness is a success, but if you haven’t seen it before I’d advise not to expect anything more than that. The plot is threadbare (in fact it’s amazing – and a testament to his creativity with horror set pieces – that Raimi managed to stretch the ‘man terrorized by evil forces’ theme across three whole movies), the romance with Embeth Davidtz’s princess is corny as hell (although really this just serves as another outlet for Ash’s one-liners) and the acting (whether deliberate or not) is very bad indeed. It’s unfortunate too that the final battle with an army of skeletons led by Bad Ash, the hero’s nemesis, goes on for far too long, although it’s not without its moments as a variety of evil creatures are introduced to the explosive qualities of gunpowder before deserting in a cowardly fashion. The decision to ‘humanize’ the evil forces here – they crack jokes, argue with one another, run away and act sneakily, among other things – fits with the overall tone of the film but it renders them completely redundant in terms of scare factor, it must be said. Still, it’s easy to tap into the enthusiasm of Raimi and his crew for the character of Ash: Army of Darkness is always a fun watch as a result, and not to be taken seriously at all. Though few would seriously argue that it’s a comic masterpiece, the daft humour will have most people chuckling throughout.
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz
Running Time: 88 minutes