Way too long
Fiction: 'Lost in a Pyramid' by Louisa May Alcott

Film 101: Army of Darkness (1992)

Army_of_DarknessFilm 7: Army of Darkness

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: I have a Sam Raimi thing. I’m sorry; I wish I didn’t. I wish I liked his stuff better. I feel like I should – dude loves pulp and bad horror and hammy acting and ridiculous over-the-topitude like no one’s business. And maybe that’s the problem – I think he likes all of that too much. He lets all the appurtenances of B-moviedom get in the way of his actual movies, to the detriment of his overall films.

And he’s awful at women, but we’ll get back to that.

Army of Darkness is the third in Raimi’s career-defining Evil Dead trilogy. The short version of the story, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is that he made the first Evil Dead film (1981) on a shoe-string budget. A series of fortunate events and good word-of-mouth resulted in a bit of a cult developing around the film, enough so that he was able to secure a little more funding for The Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987), a combination remake of and sequel to the first Evil Dead film. Both are widely considered horror classics, though Evil Dead 1 is a properly serious horror movie, and Evil Dead 2 is as much satire and slapstick as it is horror.  And it ends the way all works of art end when the creator doesn’t want to kill his characters off – the protagonist of both films, Ash, is thrown into a portal through time and winds up in the Middle Ages. (Along with his car and his chainsaw-hand, of course.) Following Raimi’s mainstream success with Darkman (which doesn’t hold up, though it’s worth watching to see Liam Neeson ham his way through two hours), Raimi secured funding to make the Evil Dead 2 sequel, Army of Darkness.

(Spoilers forthwith)

Army of Darkness picks up almost immediately where Evil Dead 2 lets off: Ash (played by Bruce Campbell, at the peak of his square-jawed matinee-idol good looks) has been captured by hostile knights and is being led through the desert in chains. He escapes, fights off a deadite (zombie skeleton thing), is proclaimed a hero, makes nice with a pretty girl, and learns that, to get back to his own time, he’ll have to journey to a graveyard, recite the words Klaatu barada nikto, nab the Necronomicon, and head back to the castle where his pretty girl awaits.

On his way to the graveyard, he wanders through a haunted wood and breaks a mirror (hanging in a haunted windmill) which shatters, creating tiny versions of himself that tie him up and torment him, Gulliver in Lilliput-style. It’s a very well known, and extremely weird, scene, and Bruce Campbell seems to be enjoying the hell out of it. Anyway, the important bit is this: they create a clone of Ash, whom Ash kills and buries before escaping.

Once he makes the graveyard, Ash finds three books instead of one, and can’t remember the incantation he’s supposed to recite – so does as anyone would do and mumble-coughs it then grabs the nearest book and takes off. Alas, the forces of evil are both possessive and pedantic about their incantations, and a whole bunch of angry skeletons arise from the earth and chase after our hero. Ash’s dead clone rises from his grave and unites the dead as an army. Ash gets back to the castle, his homicidal fandom hot on his heels, and the 14th century soldiers fight the mouldering remains of the dearly departed in a half-brilliant, half-bonkers battle sequence that’s equal parts Ray Harryhausen and local amdram. Meanwhile, Ash’s lady-friend has been captured and transformed into a deadite, and floats around making a nuisance of herself while the battle rages.

After a lot – and I do mean a lot – of screaming and shouting and death and dismemberment, the forces of good prevail, the girl is returned to her pure and boring self, and Ash is given the spell that will return him to his own time. Which, somehow, involves him holing up in his car in a cave and drinking magical water, which casts him into a magical sleep.

I understand the studio mandated a happy ending for Ash (you can watch it here). But the version I saw ended with Ash overdrinking his magic potion and waking up in the wrong time, a hundred years too late. Which totally works! Ah, well. (End spoilers.)

I had seen Army of Darkness before – at some point in the dim distant past, however, so very dim and distant that I don’t recall which ending I saw. I do, however, recall being disappointed; AoD was sold to me as the greatest horror-comedy ever but mostly felt like a lot of yelling and cheesy set-pieces. Although now I can of appreciate AoD more than I did then, I still don’t like it very much.

But whyyyyy, my inner ten-year-old whines. It’s got so much stuff you liiiiiike. And that’s true! But it also has so much stuff I don’t like. I am not a huge fan of hammy acting, and even though Bruce Campbell is one of the few actors from whom I can tolerate it – in small amounts – his entire performance is wall-to-wall ham. That’s his thing! I’m also not a fan of lots and lots of yelling. (See, e.g., Young Frankenstein.) And AoD is movie where half or more of the dialogue is delivered at the top of the speaker’s lungs. It is…just…too… much.

Which brings me straight into the film’s major problem. You know, surely, the old canard about taking off one accessory before you leave the house? AoD piles its entirely jewellery collection on and then goes shopping for more. It is Smaug on his hoard. IT IS SO MUCH STUFF, YOU GUYS. It’s entirely overwhelming.

Too much stuff is a problem because it makes a film relentless; there’s no time to stop and breathe while you’re watching it. More importantly, however, there’s no balance in AoD; it just tumbles downhill in an ever-expanding snowball until it smashes itself into smithereens against the end credits. Because Raimi’s films don’t end so much as they explode. That’s the problem with AoD in a nutshell – the film builds up so much momentum that there’s nowhere for it to go. It doesn’t simply race to the finish-line; it takes a howitizer to it. It’s the definition of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, where that unstoppable force is the 5 ton juggernaut that serves as the film’s nominal plot and the immovable object is the inescapable fact that every film must, eventually end.

Also, Raimi’s terrible at women. I got bogged down about 3000 words into an Oz the Great and Powerful review over the 2013 holidays because I got stuck in a negative feedback loop while railing against the way he portrays women in his films. Someday I’ll finish that – if I can summon the energy, that is – but let’s stick with AoD for the time being.

There’s only one woman to speak of in AoD, Sheila the love-interest, who has no personality whatsoever until she’s turned into a deadite and reaches desperately to make up for what she lacks in compelling characterization with fright-makeup and a lot of shrieking. Then she gets knocked around pretty badly – for humorous effect, naturally – before being saved, at which point she’s miraculously returned to her wet-rag non-character and left staring after Ash as he rides into the sunset. Surely I don’t need to do a Hookers, Victims & Doormats analysis of that? Surely?

Anyway, everyone loves Army of Darkness even if I don’t, and I accept that. Your mileage may vary, etc., etc. (But, really. He is awful at women.)