Evil Dead II (1987)
I always loved horror and science fiction films. I did watch some cartoons, but I remember growing out of them earlier than most kids. Scooby Doo was fine, but Godzilla is what I really looked forward to on a Saturday morning. I was aware more of the stars of the films like most people, which meant when it came to Star Wars I cared more about Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill than I did about George Lucas.
I did not see Evil Dead II when it first came out. I read about it from the guy who first started getting me into b-movies: Joe Bob Briggs. As can be expected he loved it, but what really piqued my interest was seeing scenes from it on a Siskel and Ebert special going over their guilty pleasures. Happily, 1988 or 1989 was one of those years my parents could actually afford cable, so I finally got to see it. Things changed forever.
I will get to Bruce Campbell's performance, but the fact is Evil Dead II shows what a truly talented director can do with a film when he has complete control. Sam Raimi is just as much a star of this movie as Campbell, even if he is only in front of the camera in a cameo toward the end. The steady-cam work, disorienting camera angles and willingness to try anything enhances the feeling that you have suddenly been removed from the real world. Instead of intrusive, it is part of the story-telling, which is an amazing feat when, in the end, you are watching as much a comedy as you are a horror film.
Ash (Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) head to an isolated cabin for a weekend of fun. It's pretty much breaking and entering, but they figure it'll be okay as they don't expect the inhabitants to show up. Things take a turn when Ash finds a tape recorder and plays it, learning that a professor (John Peakes) had retreated to the cabin to finish his translation of the Necronomicon Ex Mortis. The tape contains a recording of his phonetic readings, which raises a demonic force in the woods surrounding the cabin. The force breaks through a window and takes Linda.
Ash tries to find her, only to be attacked by the possessed version of her. He decapitates her with a shovel and buries her near the cabin, but is attacked by the force himself. Ash becomes possessed, but the demon is driven off as the sun rises, giving him the opportunity to leave - a hope that is dashed when he finds the one bridge in has been destroyed overnight. Returning to the cabin and pursued by the force once again as darkness falls, Ash begins a desperate bid to survive the night - an ordeal that leads to him having to remove his possessed hand, which escapes into the recesses of the house.
At a small airport an hour away the professor's daughter, Annie Knowby (Sarah Berry) lands with her boyfriend Ed (Richard Domeier). She has the actual pages of the Necronomicon in a glass case, and plans to bring them to her father and help him finish the translation. Driving to the cabin they encounter Jake (Dan Hicks) and Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley DePalva) at the bridge. For a price, the two agree to show Annie and Ed a trail to the cabin, where Bobby Joe ends up getting a flesh wound when Ash mistakes her for a demon. The four overpower Ash and, thinking the worst, lock him in the cellar.
After a search of the cabin reveals no sign of her parents' bodies, Annie plays the recording and discovers that her mother Henrietta (Lou Hancock) had been possessed and her father, overcome with grief, failed to dismember her, instead burying the body in the cellar. Cue Henrietta (Ted Raimi), who comes after Ash and almost gets him before he is rescued. Ed is possessed and attacks Bobby Joe, but is dispatched by Ash. Afterward, everything goes quiet, and they are led into a room where the professor's spirit informs them that they must use a spell from the pages of the book to send the evil back where it came from.
Bobby Joe is attacked by Ash's hand and, after the lights go out, they find that she has fled into the woods. Jake wants to go after her, but Ash tries to discourage him, believing her to be dead. Jake won't take no for an answer, and takes the pages from them and throws them in the cellar before forcing them at gunpoint to search for Bobby Joe. Jake is killed, leaving Ash to go down in the cellar and face Henrietta to retrieve the pages so that Annie can read them, forcing the evil to manifest itself in the flesh so she can open up a doorway and send it packing.
Ash is the only returning character from The Evil Dead, and this was truly supposed to be a sequel, rather than the reboot it feels like. Sam Raimi was not able to get the rights to show footage from the end of the previous film as he didn't have the copyright at the time, so he had to truncate the events from the first, which leads to some confusion about whether this was a comedic remake of the first one. The Evil Dead ends with the unseen force coming after Ash, so the new story really begins at the point after he buries his girlfriend, and the rest of the movie is what happens after he is attacked at the end of the first, up to a rough draft of the beginning of the events in Army of Darkness. This has the advantage that, despite the confusion, it is possible to watch this movie without seeing the original and, in fact, that's how it was for me. I didn't see The Evil Dead until a number of years later and, while it is a great movie, I did find myself disappointed that Bruce Campbell wasn't as much the focus and that it wasn't as outrageous as this one.
Campbell would become a much better actor as his career went on, but one thing he was already great with was the physical comedy. Sam and Ted Raimi, as well as Campbell, were fans of Three Stooges films, and that was just as much an influence on this movie as were the traditional horror and slasher films of the 1980s. As a result, a good portion of the movie involves Ash alone in the cabin and its environs, repeatedly being tossed around, hosed down with jets of blood, dealing with his girlfriend's severed head and his own possessed hand. This level of goofball humor was completely unexpected at the time, and had more than a little influence on directors like Peter Jackson. It is hard to imagine Bad Taste or Dead Alive existing without this movie.
Raimi had in fact followed up The Evil Dead with the comedy Crimewave, which uses many of the innovative camera techniques found in this movie. While I remember that movie being merely okay, it allowed Raimi to tweak his approach so that Evil Dead II established him as one of the more important horror directors. It's a frenetic style of directing that is also on display in Darkman and Army of Darkness, and has sadly been missing in many of his more popular big-budget films since.
For a movie made on a low budget the special effects are great. Not a surprise, since Doug Beswick, one of the main stop-motion artists from The Empire Strikes Back, did many of the effects. Kudos to Sam's brother Ted for making Henrietta one of the most memorable movie monsters.
The rest of the human characters are largely plot devices or stereotypes, but are obviously meant to be so - especially since it becomes apparent by the third movie that Ash is the one relating the story, and if there is one thing we have come to know from Ash vs. the Evil Dead it is that other people rarely matter in his life other than in a context of what they do for him. He's not as developed yet into the self-centered anti-hero he would be, but he's getting there.
But, except for watching Bruce Campbell do what he does best, this is where I began to care more about directors in most cases than who is in the movie. This is often more important in horror and science fiction than it is in other genres, as seen by the recent spate of super hero films. Often mainstream action films could have been directed by anyone, and that's even true about Raimi's Spiderman films, even though his old style occasionally peeks through, and why Drag Me to Hell was a welcome return to form. Whether it be John Carpenter, Raimi or Dario Argento, you can start one of their movies in the middle and, not even seeing it previously, have an idea of who is responsible. It is also why older directors like James Whale and Alfred Hitchcock are still respected to this day.
Evil Dead II (1987)
Time: 84 minutes
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wesley DePalva, Richard Domeier, Ted Raimi
Director: Sam Raimi