Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cult Classic Movie Review: Evil Dead II

If you go into watching Evil Dead II with anything other than the desire to laugh, you’re likely to be disappointed. Director Sam Raimi and his collaborators, high school friends Scott Spiegel (who co-wrote the screenplay with Raimi) and Bruce Campbell, who stars in the film, set out specifically to make a horror comedy.

In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: Raimi and Campbell make a low-budget horror film called Evil Dead. It’s a standard group-of-friends-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods, supernatural evil, genre film. It’s by no means an inept film, but the seams are visible, the acting is poor and audiences respond with jeers and laughter. It achieves a bit of cult status. They decide to ‘remake’ the film, but as a comic send up of low-budget horror flicks, and call it a sequel.

The plot is beside the point and to even give it more than a moment’s thought is to miss the point of the exercise. Evil spirits taunt Campbell’s character Ash in an isolated cabin. He periodically becomes possessed, providing the makeup department an excuse to blow the budget on rubber and latex for his face. What’s worth paying attention to is the atmosphere, the effects, and the comedy.

That said, it’s admittedly hard to enjoy the humor of Evil Dead II at home. It demands an audience. It demands a shared experience with other like-minded people. Repeated viewings may become tired and humorless, though not less appreciative.

If the main impetus for making the film was for the brothers Raimi and Bruce Campbell to one-up themselves, the secondary reason appears to be to provide any excuse to simply abuse Campbell in every imaginable way. His acting is absolutely heroic. He is beaten, tossed, turned, spun, and splattered and doused with red, black, and green liquids. There is hardly a frame of the film he’s not in, and there’s a hardly a frame of film that doesn’t involve some kind of tremendous physical feat of endurance or comedy – or both together.

At various stages in the film, Campbell has to be either possessed or battling demons or longing for the girlfriend he had to chop up and bury in the first ten minutes. Sometimes he has to do all those things together. And then his hand has to play possessed! And then he chops that off and Campbell has to play a handless hero for the second half. There is a sequence that reveals him to be a tremendous physical actor in which his hand has to appear to act independently from the rest of his body. Then a (hand to hand?) confrontation ensues between them. This requires that Campbell repeatedly punch himself, smash dishes over his own head and, the coup de grace, flip himself over onto his back.

I’m throwing a lot of praise Campbell’s way and for good reason. He is the only actor really worth mentioning and who really has any acting to do. The other five actors in the film, including the aforementioned girlfriend and four strangers who turn up later, are primarily there to give the evil spirits someone to kill. Because Campbell is the hero and this is a horror film. And horror films need someone to maim.

But without a doubt, much praise has to be given to Raimi as a director. Evil Dead revealed him to be an innovative filmmaker, able to cobble together convincing and interesting effects with virtually no budget. In Evil Dead II he had more money, though still very low-budget by contemporary standards, and finds endlessly fascinating ways to create gore and use inventive camera work to make a genre film look unique.

His use of tilted angles, shaky-cam, distorted lens views and surreal images made him perhaps one of the few filmmakers who could really capture the visual landscape of comic books on film. That may go a long way toward explaining how he was selected to direct all three Spiderman films. While his style became mostly subservient to the Hollywood studio genre machine for his work on that trilogy, you can still catch signature Sam Raimi moments that he was still developing during Evil Dead II. They are also techniques that have continued to serve him as he has remained one of the best directors of the macabre working in films today.

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