Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Film Appreciation - The Medieval Dead

Cody Hamman fights a battle with Army of Darkness, Sam Raimi's 1992 conclusion to his Evil Dead trilogy, for Film Appreciation.

Director Sam Raimi had the sole writing credit on his feature debut The Evil Dead, the only movie in his entire career that he didn't have a credited co-writer on. When the time came to make Evil Dead II, he crafted the screenplay with his friend Scott Spiegel (Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except, Intruder) and for the film that would cap off the trilogy, he recruited his brother Ivan Raimi to be his collaborator.

The third film in the series is very different than its predecessors. It's a much bigger story, the scope has been expanded significantly. Rather than a horror tale set in an isolated cabin, it's an adventure film throwback with horror elements to it.

One of the earliest titles Raimi considered for what would become Army of Darkness was Evil Dead 1300 A.D., giving away the setting that the series' lead character Ash, played by Bruce Campbell, finds himself in after being sucked into a vortex that was meant to rid the forest he had spent two films trapped in of the evil forces that had been tormenting him and killing everyone around him. Ash gets dumped out on the other side of the vortex into a desert landscape, where he's quickly surrounded and captured by knights on horseback.

Ash and his fellow prisoners are taken to what is presumbably the Castle of Kandar, although it's never referred to as that within the film, the place where, as we learned in part 2, the Naturon Demonto, the human-flesh bound, blood-inked Book of the Dead, was discovered by Professor Raymond Knowby in a rear chamber where it had been hidden away since 1300 A.D. Knowby started off the series' horrific events by making the mistake of taking the book, which is called the Necronomicon Ex Mortis in Army of Darkness, back to that little cabin in the Tennessee woods and reading its demon-summoning passages aloud while translating it.

Ash has landed in the middle of a conflict between the king of the castle, Lord Arthur, and a man called Henry the Red, "Duke of Shale, Lord of the Northlands and leader of its peoples". Ash is accused of being one of Henry's men... and Henry's men get dumped into "The Pit".

Both Arthur and Henry's lands have been besieged by an evil force, and within The Pit resides a couple of the demonic creatures this force creates. Things called Deadites. Something which Ash is very familiar with at this point. So when Ash is dumped into The Pit, he is able hold his own against the Deadites long enough for the village wise man to drop down to him his trusty chainsaw, which he turned into a prosthetic for his right hand after having to lop off the possessed appendage in part 2.

The wise man believes Ash is the hero the Necronomicon prophesied would fall from the sky to deliver them from the evil of the Deadites, and the way Ash handles these monsters seems to confirm that.

Ash isn't out to be anybody's hero, though. He's been driven around the bend and back again, he has evolved from meek and incompetent in the original film to now being a capable Deadite slayer, so confident in his abilities that he has become a loudmouth braggart. He's tired of dealing with demons, doesn't want anything to do with these "primitives" who gave him such an unfriendly welcome... well, maybe that girl Sheila isn't so bad... He just wants to get back home.

To get back to his own time, Ash needs to retrieve the Necronomicon from a graveyard far out in the countryside where the evil forces roam, and once he has it he must keep it out of the hands of the Deadites, who could use it to spread their evil through the entire world.

Ash replaces his chainsaw with a super-powerful metal hand and sets out on this quest. As the film continues, the greatest threats Ash faces are actually himself... evil versions of himself. First, he's tormented by a gang of tiny, mischievous look alikes that rise from his reflection in the shards of a busted mirror, and then he's faced with a full-on doppelganger, Bad Ash, who becomes a leader of the Deadites and assembles the army of the title, a legion of undead skeleton soldiers, an homage to the stop-motion skeletons Ray Harryhausen created for the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts.

The film escalates into all-out war for the climactic sequence, which finds Ash having to lead a ragtag excuse of a defense force as Bad Ash and his soldiers attack the castle.

Army of Darkness was my gateway into the Evil Dead series, specifically the marketing for it. The film was advertised in the pages of the comic books I was reading in 1992/'93, and as soon as I saw its poster art, I knew it was a movie I had to see. I had no idea at first that it was connected to The Evil Dead, thanks to the distributor not wanting to include any sort of reference to Evil Dead in the title, not even in the sly way Sam Raimi suggested, which was to call the movie The Medieval Dead. But eventually, probably thanks to Fangoria, I did realize that it was a sequel to those Evil Dead movies I had seen on video store shelves. I had long been fascinated by their VHS boxes, particularly by Evil Dead II's, which had a skull on the cover that stared back at me with its brown eyes, but I had never gotten around to renting them.

When Army of Darkness hit VHS, I watched the entire franchise in quick succession. The Evil Dead blew my mind and scared me out of my wits, immediately earning the honor of being considered the scariest movie I've ever seen. After that, I was slightly letdown that Evil Dead II traded in its predecessor's level of horror in favor of enhancing the humor, but I was entertained by it.

Maybe I shouldn't admit this, it seems blasphemous now that Army of Darkness has been embraced as such a beloved part of pop culture, but the first time I watched it, I was deeply disappointed by it. The humor had gone way too far, it was way too over-the-top and silly for my taste, too far removed from the movie that started it all. It was just short (81 minutes) and ridiculous.

And yet, even though it was by far my least favorite installment in the series, I kept on watching Army of Darkness many times over the years, because I'm a completionist and I couldn't just stick with the two Evil Dead movies, I had to watch the entire series. As viewings went on, I began to appreciate the movie and its humor more and more, and of course I always thought Bruce Campbell was one of the greatest actors ever. Soon I had joined the legion of fans the film has, finding it to be absolutely hilarious and a whole lot of fun to watch.

What really helped Army of Darkness in my eyes was the release of the director's cut, which runs fifteen minutes longer than the theatrical version. The moments that were cut back in really help the movie out. Sequences are better, scenes make more sense, and there's a lot more to the final battle... What fool thought removing action was a good idea?

There are only two things about the theatrical cut that I prefer over what's in the director's cut - when Ash pulls his shotgun on Bad Ash in the director's cut, his reply to his evil clone calling him a "little goody two shoes" is, "I ain't that good." The line that reached theatres, "Good, bad, I'm the guy with the gun," is much stronger. I also like the theatrical ending, which has Ash back in his own time and fighting a Deadite in the aisles of the S-Mart supermarket where he works, better than the original ending, which has Ash going too far into the future and ending up in a post-apocalyptic world.

Army of Darkness and I got off to a rocky start, but I have come to love the movie and count it as one of my favorites, a great ending to a fantastic trilogy.

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