Ash Williams’ Fun House: rewatching the Evil Dead trilogy part 2 of 3 – Evil Dead 2 (1987)
It’s all about the hardware. Just as Bruce Campbell ‘arms’ himself with a chainsaw, Raimi retools his original shocker as a loopy splatstick comedy.
Evil Dead 2
(Sam Raimi, 1987)
Films are made for many reasons – passion, ambition, greed – but seldom out of sheer frustration. According to documentary Swallowed Souls, Sam Raimi hadn’t wanted to direct Evil Dead 2, but felt compelled to do so after the critical and commercial disaster of Crimewave undid all of The Evil Dead’s hard work in getting him noticed. Then again, comedy fanboy Raimi hadn’t really wanted to make a horror movie to start with, so he had form for turning indifference into gold. And so it proved again with his second trip to the cabin in the woods.
Evil Dead 2 is so taken for granted as a classic that it’s easy to forget how unlikely it is. Less a sequel than a bells-and-whistles remake of Raimi’s no-budget original, it takes the bare bones of The Evil Dead and (in the words of another cult 1980s favourite) ramps everything up to 11. Raimi’s response to criticism that he might be a one-trick pony is to say, “What, this trick?” Given better resources and funding from producer Dino De Laurentiis – patron saint of unlikely collaborations – Raimi tries everything, screwing with the camera speed and lenses, and creating one of the most insanely ambitious Steadicam shots ever committed to film.
And, of course, it’s funny. Raimi’s sense of comedy had gradually infiltrated the first film until it became a slapstick demolition derby between Bruce Campbell’s Ash and the possessed dead. In the sequel, it starts mad and gets madder, as Ash goes (literally) mano a mano with himself, an eyeball pops out of a demonic face into a screaming woman’s mouth, and a stuffed moose head has a fit of the giggles. The film has been justifiably compared to a funhouse, although I don’t recall Pat Sharp attaching a chainsaw to the bloody stump of his arm. But Campbell makes it look like something he was born to do. His features – statuesque yet sardonic – make him the perfect matinee idol for a film without a matinee.
It only goes awry when the story’s unwillingness to move on become apparent. The opening seven minutes, a madcap recap of The Evil Dead right down to an impressive remount of its famous final shot, provides one of the most inventive approaches to backstory ever seen in a sequel. However, after the bravura, one-man show of the opening act, Raimi forces a retread of the original’s ‘Ash plus four’ plotting by bringing in a new quartet of hapless playthings for the dead. The mid-section mines tropes familiar from The Evil Dead (a basement prisoner, a less rapey take on the notorious ‘tree rape’)for laughs, and consistently achieves them, yet it’s almost too goofy compared to the subversion with which the original’s cruelty slipped into dark laughs.
Only in the final act does Raimi realise he’s got to offer more than a refinement of stuff he’d more or less cracked first time, transforming his franchise into a full-on cult adventure by introducing a super-sized monster and a rug-pulling time-travel climax that remains disconcerting no matter how many times you see it. The stage is set for the full-on, manic-medieval Harryhausen-esque creature feature of Army Of Darkness, a film that is so different from the intentions of The Evil Dead that it highlights Evil Dead 2’s greatest achievement: to show the sheer power a sequel can have to stick or twist with a proven formula.
Evil Dead 2 is released on Blu-ray on Monday 8th April. While darker scenes are subject to fuzziness, for the most part this Blu-ray offers dazzling clarity, especially to the streaks of blood and mud running down Campbell’s face. Arguably, though, this is one of those films – like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – that doesn’t look quite right without the fuzziness of VHS. The real reason to buy the disc is Swallowed Souls, a making of doc that’s longer than the film it is about, and digs into the film with the same gusto as Ash with his chainsaw.