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Saturday, July 19, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 20 - Army of Darkness (1992)

Army of Darkness (1992; Universal Pictures)
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Sam and Ivan Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Marcus Gilbert, Anabeth Davidtz

Way back in 1981, two decades before he turned Spiderman into a blockbuster series, a young director named Sam Raimi brought together a small group of actors to star in a low-budget horror film called The Evil Dead (inflation-adjusted, the movie cost just under $1m, Daddy Day Camp cost $6m. Was it worth it, Hollywood?).  It is the story of Ashley “Ash” Williams and his group of friends who vacation to a cabin and find that the previous resident had gotten himself involved some unworldly stuff during his research into the Necronomicon ex Mortis: The Book of the Dead (A reference to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft).  What he found opened a portal to another world, allowing vile demons to enter our realm.  The young vacationers get more than they bargained for and things get kind of tragic.

What Raimi intended here was to make a legitimate horror film, one that is both terrifying and entertaining.  What he made instead was an unintentionally-funny cult classic (which is actually better, honestly).  Raimi was not discouraged by this and he set out to do one better.  The Evil Dead II was a combination of a sequel, a remake and a sendup of horror movie tropes.  There may be no single horror comedy (or horror film for that matter) that is more beloved by fans.  It is laugh-out-loud funny with tons of gore, over-the-top moments and very, very quotable lines.  The film ends with our hero Ash being sucked into a wormhole and waking up in the middle of a wasteland, with only his chainsaw arm to accompany him… at least in the beginning.

The above build-up was essential as the story of Ash getting here is part of Army of Darkness’ greatness.  As a direct follow-up, it takes the story in a direction nobody saw coming: Army of Darkness is a fantasy/action/comedy.  Now, I do not mean a comedy in that it has a few jokes in it among the actual action and horror, no, this movie is a straight up comedy starring the epic Bruce Campbell fighting the undead in a medieval world… and it’s AWESOME!  Army of Darkness is a work of perfection because Raimi set out to make a movie that just goes all-out and does the most ridiculous things, and as a result, makes a fun, exciting and damn-entertaining flick.

AoD starts with Ash in that strange world from the end of 2 in a chain gang locked in a yoke, forced into slavery.  When he proves himself an asset in helping to defeat the Deadites that plague the land, he is tasked with defeating the titular army, but first he must retrieve the fabled Necronomicon from its resting place.  It all culminates in an epic battle with the Deadite army as Ash does everything he can to save the day and finally get home to his job at S-Mart.

Occasionally silly and always energetic, Army of Darkness goes into some cartoonish territory, but at least for me, that’s a plus.  The movie does not take itself seriously at all, embracing the insanity wholeheartedly and just doing everything it can to mock its genre and utterly abuse its poor hero.  However, beyond the intermittent slapstick humor, there is a legitimate adventure film here, with some pretty good action and great makeup effects.  The film was fortunately made before the advent (and eventual abuse) of computer animation, so the practical effects have a spirit and a tangibility to them.  Knowing the actor is actually on screen with the makeup-covered actors helps to maintain the illusion of actual stakes.  CGI has, in more recent years, taken the place of classic makeup, puppetry, stop motion and animatronics and, as a result, much of the heart of special effects is lost.  Army of Darkness just may mark the last really good fantasy adventure released before CGI gave us sweeping shots of cartoonish castles and lazily-animated copy and paste creatures.  This is a film with actual sets and costumes, rather than a few actors standing in front of a green screen.

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