Saturday, October 30, 2004

Army of Darkness

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen (for like the hundredth time) 29 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Midnight Madness)

You know, my brother said as we left a midnight showing of Army of Darkness. This really isn't a good movie when you think about it. Why have we memorized the damn thing?

And, really, he's right. The special effects are hokier than the dialogue, and star Bruce Cambpell chews, swallows, digests, and excretes the scenery. Though the director's cut available on DVD is better put together than the theatrical release, it still comes off as a series of strangely connected skits there. That it somehow comes together as pure fun is really a minor miracle.

Heck, I figure that it being made at all is a miracle. Consider: Sam Raimi had just come off a reasonably successful mainstream movie in Darkman, his first big-studio production, and what did he opt to do next? A third movie in the Evil Dead series - but one which is more slapstick comedy and Ray Harryhausen homage than horror, starring a department store employee trapped seven hundred years in the past. Sure, Evil Dead 2 had a lot of weird slapstick in it, but deep down it was mostly an action/horror movie. Army of Darkness is almost wall-to-wall jokes.

And yet, somehow it works, and works brilliantly. Maybe it's because director Sam Raimi (who co-wrote the movie with his brother Ivan) has been friends with star Bruce Campbell since high school, and thus knows exactly what the guy is capable of - which cheesy lines will be pure gold coming out of his mouth, and which would be cringe-inducing. It would be easy to scoff at how precisely Raimi and company hit all the right comic notes if not for the later follow-ups based on Campbell's Ash character that appeared when this movie became a video/cult hit - while I can't claim to have gotten far enough in the first videogame spinoff to discover whether the story/dialogue remains as wretched as the gameplay, the first couple issues of the "Army of Darkness: Ashes 2 Ashes" comic book has writer Andy Hartnell demonstrate that it ain't nearly as easy as Raimi makes it look when he tries to put new words in Ash's mouth. If New Line ever does get Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash off the ground, they need Raimi on the screenplay at some point.

Raimi's also very good with the visuals. Army of Darkness, like his other movies, features much more dynamic camerawork than was traditionally expected from a low-budget horror-comedy at the time this was made, and he knows how long to linger on something to make it seem cool. The final battle, when Bad Ash and his army of skeletons and reanimated corpses attacks the castle is a quality Great Big Battle Scene; it's good enough that Peter Jackson seems to have cribbed from it for the Battle of Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

This isn't to discount the job Bruce Campbell turns in as Ash (and his Evil Twin) - the guy has a gift for physical comedy perhaps only matched by Jim Carrey (I've heard that Campbell was up for the lead role in The Mask at one point) and also always matches the tone of the movie. In a way, Ash is a sort of idiot savant, lacking in social skills or much in the way of brains unless it's a matter of fighting demons - then, he can create himself a robotic hand out of materials found in 1300 AD, build a steam engine for his car, demonstrate perfect aim with his shotgun and be a leader of men. It's up to him to sell Ash as both badass and dumbass within the same scene, and that Ash somehow stands as a character rather than a plot contrivance is no small feat.

The other collaborators deserve notice, too - while few of the actors would go on to really notable careers (Campbell would peak the next year on Fox's The Adventures of Brisco County Junior; leading lady Embeth Davidtz would have a featured part in Schindler's List and then fade away), D.P. Bill Pope would become one of Hollywood's most in-demand cinematographers, perhaps most notably working on the Matrix films. Strangely, composer Joseph LoDuca never really took off afterward - he spent the next decade working on TV shows for Raimi and producer Robert Tapert's production company, then went to France to score Brotherhood of the Wolf, and hasn't done much else of note. Considering how great some of the cues in this movie are (such as the opening), I can't figure out why Raimi didn't hire him for the Spider-Man movies as opposed to Danny Elfman (who contributes a "March of the Dead" to the score).

So, anyway, I love this movie, even though at first glance it seems to have very little going for it.

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