Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Evil Dead 2: Horror. Comedy. Whitesploitation?

Sam Raimi has a gift. He writes fun, clever stories, then films them with an excellent, distinctive style. Evil Dead 2 (1987), then, is an experience. It's also a great introduction to comedy-horror and Raimi himself.

I saw it when I was a teenager, and twice since then (once at a midnite show). People rave about ED2 (an abbreviation that's ruined by modern medical euphemisms) and for good reason. I won't write the type of review that I usually give to films I enjoy this much.

For those who don't know the story: A couple takes a cabin retreat in the woods. They settle in for a nice weekend, but find an audio tape left behind, and there's always one jerk in the room who has to play it, right? Here the problem begins, because our lead breaks (by proxy) a classic rule of horror cinema: don't read a weird old book aloud.

The creepy tome is basically a dark magic bible, and the tape recording is the diary of the professor who found it. The audio plays with a perfect creakiness, the record of a scientist studying an artifact.

What he just said.

Meanwhile, the professor's daughter has returned to America with new discoveries, which I guess she just pilfered. The daughter goes straight to her parents, thinking they're at the cabin (uh oh). Everyone who's alive tries to survive the night; everyone who's not alive tries to kill everyone who is.

Raimi and the rest of the film's creators made something easy to praise. It features an array of monsters as frightening and unpredictable as 2006's Pan's Labyrinth, but with nothing more than technical skill and hard work. They come in different shapes and sizes, sometimes seeming to be the woods themselves, while at other times there's some.. thing that can uproot trees as it chases you down.

I'm not the only one who was impressed and scared, even if some of the dangers are never actually shown. I know I'm not alone because it nearly doubled its budget domestically.

The way the characters are used is half of what makes this work. First, we have Ash, played by Bruce Campbell. The reason this pic can be called "Whitesploitation" begins and ends with him. If you disagree, read up on some elements of Blaxploitation films, then consider what I'll write next.

Ash is a guy who has a lot going for him, even if he doesn't have a lot. He's arrogant and goofy and kind of dim. He doesn't make the best decisions, but - most importantly - he doesn't lose his head when things go badly. As such, he's the perfect audience substitute: he's getting his ass kicked but keeps going, being neither too perfect nor too imperfect to ruin his strong charismatic appeal.

Looking at the other characters, we find that they're either bland or unlikeable people. Ash's girlfriend certainly doesn't do more than be pleasant. The 4 new additions also inspire a disconnect with the audience.

The professor's daughter comes off sort of prissy and superior. Her boyfriend is largely a blank; he's... preppy? and looks young for a professor. The two locals are walking cliches, ignorant townies that annoy and provoke. The local dude is dumb and mean, while his girlfriend is a punchy jerk that can spit chaw like an MLB pro. Everyone is used so well, with such good timing that ED2 is like a great fireworks display.

In this sense, "Whitesploitation" feels like exactly the right word, as the cast is either pretty vanilla or just unappealing. The stereotypes are all put into a cynical anything goes situation. It makes Evil Dead 2's heavy use of slapstick easier to take. This same slapstick is what brings us back around to Ash; everyone gets hurt, but he gets it worse than anyone.

Seldom in movies is a protagonist so beaten, scarred, and screwed with as badly as he is here. Die Hard surely approaches this level, but that's an action pic where humor is not derived from the injuries. We laugh at the inventiveness of Ash's problems, and we respect him more for taking it all and surviving.

Early on, Bruce Campbell is playing corny yet charming, clever but also dumb. The role is pretty vanilla, too. Ash just develops so well. He's resourceful and endearing; all the emotions in this ridiculous horror story work, and if his part were different, they wouldn't. But they do.

The second standout, for me, is the quality of the visuals and the storytelling. Although Sam has stumbled once or twice, his work speaks for itself. There's a reason that he made a strong impression on the then-unknown Coen brothers and established a long-time working relationship with them.

The surprise cult-hit popularity of his independent debut, Evil Dead, established a reputation that he cemented with the sequel. Evil Dead 2 feels more like a redesign, tho, with the events of the first pic either changed or played out differently. More importantly, ED is a pure horror film with some jokes in it, whereas the followup is less pure horror and has a much greater emphasis on humor.

Raimi's skills as director and writer mean his stories will generally make sense and have a good pace. The dialogue won't be unintentionally bad - at worst, it will be serviceable. Better still, his visual aesthetic is unusual and inventive. Raimi, to me, nearly guarantees something worthwhile.

The way the camera is framed in unusual locations, or how it tracks an object - seeing this sort of quality work helps the audience accept the gore. Even if it'd normally bother you, this... icky, messy, gruesome stuff becomes another successful visual element in an emotionaly-satisfying movie. This warped but brilliant piece shares a lot with Brain Dead, Peter Jackson's 3rd flick.

Without the camera tricks, you probably couldn't get as much comedic play out of the gallons of blood. The entire movie would become more typical for the genre, and would seem less impressive for it. While not quite as gonzo-and-gory as Peter Jackson's other splatter-opus Bad Taste, it's in the same vein; laughter is key to the success of both.

The appearance of the Watcher in the Woods, and the awesome chases that follow are so fresh and fun. It's not just cool to watch, it's a different kind of fright and the variety helps. The emotion generated makes you a little scared and also creeped-out and happily excited, all at the same time.

You can mute the audio on the clips I've embedded here - don't the scenes still connect with you? Visually, Evil Dead 2 is a gift, whether you're watching Ash wreck the cabin at his own expense or stumble around a giraffe-necked monster that looks like it's from the original Clash of the Titans.

I accept that Evil Dead 2 is less a horror pic than the first ED. Still, I will always love the moment where whatever it is that got loose tries to drive Ash insane. And the speech in the 3rd clip is so ominous and unnerving: Dead by dawn! Dead by dawn! Dead by dawn! This film is wonderful.

ED2's audio, is of course also excellent

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