Upon Further Review: The Evil Dead Trilogy

This past weekend I got to see The Evil Dead on the big screen for the first time at the Music Box and it was wonderful. What makes these films so special to me, besides their repeat entertainment value, is the fact that I get something out of them every time I watch them, and this time was no different. They’re such an interesting case study in so many ways: they cross genre, despite the fact that each retreads (and reenvisions, due to this change) the prior one. The budget increases with each one, coming to a head in Army of Darkness which was distributed for the first time by a major studio (Universal). Invariably, they had a huge cultural effect that still shows in contemporary horror filmmaking and reviews–I remember actually reading a review about Cabin in the Woods that called in the most inventive cabin horror story since the original Evil Dead, or something of the sort.

I’d like to go back and retread my own steps (much like the films do) before expanding on some new observations and thoughts from my new viewing this weekend. One of my favorite papers from undergrad, although admittedly simplistic in its scope (I’d personally like to be given the chance to make it stronger at a later point), discussed how Ash’s character changed with how the dominant genre in each film made it necessary. In the original film, Ash is the timid and frightened individual when it comes both to romance and fighting away demons, contrasted with the outwardly masculine behavior of Scotty. The first real individual look at Ash in this film is when he has a coy back and forth with his girlfriend, Linda, which results in him bashfully giving her a necklace that he just couldn’t wait to gift to her. In later scenes against the onslaught he is frightfully ineffectual, the one that I always remember is when he’s grasping onto the axe, stunned, behind Scotty, who needs his help fighting demon Shelly. Later, he knows he has to cut his girlfriend to pieces like the others, but he can’t do it until he is absolutely forced to as she attacks him. This is because in the original Ash functions primarily as the last girl; I’d still say the The Evil Dead is primarily a straight horror film with hints of humor that are now mostly brought out by some of the inherent camp value (like that scene where they all stand around the entrance to the basement and spout clichés).

Now, The Evil Dead II retreads steps and reverses Ash’s character because having the timid character works really well when you’re supposed to worry about a horror film character, but to function as a horror-comedy you can’t really be completely scared for their life. How does this manifest in the film? Ash is more masculine (and Scotty’s character disappears). Instead of the cute interchange with Lisa, he plays the piano before delivering a wonderfully cheesy pick up line inviting her to share in champagne and canoodle with him because “after all, I’m a man, and you’re a woman. At least the last time I checked.” Instead of struggling to kill her, he has a slapstick fight where he bashes her decapitated, biting head all over the shed. The increased masculinity of Ash’s portrayal is only made more evident later when he cuts his own hand off; he has no problem laughing and cutting it off, a far cry from the reluctant actions of his final girl character in the first film who could barely hold an axe. This kind of shift is needed, though, to really enhance the intentional camp/comedy aspect of the second addition; you can see it all across the film as Ash is very adept at fighting the dead, enough so, at least, that his life never feels as in question as in the first film.

Finally, Army of Darkness essentially takes these character changes and heightens them to a point of absurdity while basically abandoning any hint of actual horror to be a more straight comedy; out is the cabin in the woods conceit, in comes the odd medieval setting. Since the deadites are still a factor, however, linking it to the prior installments, the character must change again; in this case Ash morphs into a ridiculously misogynistic man’s man. I don’t want to speak on behalf of the author, but I’m pretty certain we aren’t, at any point, supposed to actually fear for (or even side with) him, which makes the film all the funnier. Ash’s character essentially becomes macho to a fault–most of the conflict in the film, especially the main one, arises solely from Ash’s hyper masculinity. I’ve always read this, in a sense, as a sort of statement on the rise of the overly masculine action star; Ash’s behavior certainly seems to cherry pick from genre to genre, be it the medieval final battle, the western type way he holsters his ‘boomstick’ or carries himself, or the more overt, action sequences in which he does individual battle with his antagonist. It’s amusing, as well, to see how far the character has come in terms of romance; he know relegates conversations to being “just pillowtalk,” or kisses women triumphantly while declaring “hail to the king, baby.” What about when his medieval flame gets abducted and attacks him, well taking on his ex is no problem in this case because “baby, you got real ugly real fast.” These statements are totally out of line with the original Ash, but as a statement on pervasive hyper masculinity, they absolutely work (especially as the film is being highly satirical of Ash’s character; he might be macho but he’s still just a plain jerk who can barely get things to work because of his ego). Seeing as this is just a blog post, I’m going to cut this section short and not drone on, but, suffice it to say, Army of Darkness is both my favorite film of the trio and, I think, possibly the richest one for a discussion of portrayals of masculinity or genre in conjunction with the other two films, and the periods that surrounded them (I like the idea one of my professors suggested, that Army of Darkness inhabits a position where the other two films have basically created a genre of their own that it reacts to, but I haven’t fully unpacked that thought. Perhaps a later post on any one of these topics).

Now that the extended background is over (or new material to anybody that was not the professor that read that paper), I come to what I noticed this time around at the screening, something that adds to how I had previously read the film (and warrants me creating a post to essentially summarize a paper I wrote that I’m very fond of). This time around, I noticed the lack of narration in the first (and only the first). This seems silly, and it feels like something to glaze over, but when carefully contrasting the three films the importance of this detail emerges. In the first there is no narration, and precious little details of the evil characters are given, leaving the possession and such to a surprise in order to present the material with a straight face, as if its being recounted (as horror films generally do). The second one is a bit tricky to decipher; it opens with a narrations that essentially summarizes the events to catch lagging viewers up to speed (I guess) or maybe even to further flesh out details that were ignored in the first (like the necronomicon and why the ending of The Evil Dead worked). Interestingly, this brings attention to the artifice of the film’s narrative from when Evil Dead II commences, which I think further helps out the comedy bit; when you’re reminded something is a film via a “last week on the evil dead” type flashback, it becomes hard to be engrossed in the horrible idea of how Ash is now disembowling his girlfriend with great ease. At any rate, where things truly become interesting is in the third’s framing: the narration is now how the entire film is told, as Ash is telling the story of his exploits to a crowd at S-Mart (“Shop S-mart, shop smart.”)

And as I sat in the theater at 2 AM on a Friday night, this struck me as a genius addition to the way I’ve approached Army of Darkness in the past, further continuing my love affair with it. The final film is told completely through Ash’s bias, and his story, hence the fact that he becomes the stereotypical caricature of an action figure: its how he markets himself as he boasts to the crowd. He’d rather seem like the guy who’s too cool to remember ‘Klaatu Barada Niktu’ than the one who barely escapes for the night. I’m not sure why I’d missed this, I suppose I was either wrapped up in the prior narrative or the hilarity of the final sequence rather than actually dissecting it. It’s a pretty outrageously obvious thing that, for all the thinking about this series I do, I just happened to look past. It’s a small detail, but obvious, and to me it confirms both Raimi’s brilliance as well as the total calculated genius of the series down to the framing devices: Army of Darkness represents the boastfulness of the action obsessed male psyche at its worst (or funniest, at least to me). In Evil Dead Ash is always in danger, and in the sequel Ash can at least be threatened by the other characters, even if just in the comedic way his hand haunts him, yet in Army of Darkness the only threat to Ash is his own masculinity. Now, what a wonderfully powerful statement that is when poking fun at the rise of the hyper masculine action star around the time of Army of Darkness’ release.

This all essentially just further works to cement my love affair with the trilogy, as the films evolve from portraying the most ‘realistic’ way the situation would unfold towards portraying how the character would dictate it after all was said and done. I’m not sure if this is intentional, I think it was, but I don’t think that matters. At the end of the day Raimi’s trilogy is just so great at both revealing a whole lot about each separate genre the individual films inhabit as well as cross checking the notion of masculinity against each and, in a sense, demystifying it totally. And leaving a theater at 2AM on a Saturday morning, I was totally happy coming to this conclusion and knowing that the true brilliance of The Evil Dead Trilogy is that I’ll probably notice something even better next time.

 

—Image Courtesy of BookOfTheDead.ws/Renaissance Pictures—

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