- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
’m 17 years late getting on board the “Army of Darkness” cult train, but I’m pretty glad I finally did, even if I’m not certain I’ll be taking many repeat trips. A sequel to Sam Raimi’s late 80s horror comedy non-sequel, “Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn,” “Army” drops most of the horror of the prior film and combines Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” with bargain basement Tolkien and a huge dose of imaginative slapstick comedy in the vein of classic era Warner Brothers cartoons and the Three Stooges. The result is a pretty rich broth of high-style geekery.
The film opens as wisecracking, chainsaw-armed, loutish, egotistical big-box hardware store clerk hero, Ash (cult superstar Bruce Campbell) and his Oldsmobile Delta Royale fall through some kind of time hole and wind up in 13th century England by way of California’s Bronson Canyon and Vasquez Rocks. Held captive by Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), his only initial supporter is the local Wiseman (Ian Abercrombie). However, victory in battle against some hideous monsters and the chance to use his magical “boomstick” (actually, a non-magical 12-gauge shotgun) adds to Ash’s credibility and helps to attract the amorous attention of a refined and beautiful noblewoman (Embeth Davidtz, adding a touch of class and some real emotion to the proceedings).
Still, the self-interested Ash is interested only in getting back to his own time and, to do that, he’ll need to find the Necronomicon, the Lovecraftian evil volume “bound in human flesh and inked in blood” that got him to the 13th century in the first place. All he’ll have to do then is utter the ancient words, “klatu borada nikto.” Should be easy enough. Ash finds the book. However, fortunately for fans of old-school special effects and comic action, he has a slightly faulty memory when it comes to memorizing incantations. (He also apparently never saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”) That leads to a bit of magical blowback and an epic battle with the skeletal, undead Deadites.
Co-written by director Sam Raimi and his brother, Ivan Raimi, “Army of Darkness” is very much a vehicle for its star; one of the movie’s many alternate titles, and the one you actually see in the credits, is “Bruce Campbell vs. the Army of Darkness.” Campbell’s rendition of Ash is one part Humphrey Bogart, one part John Wayne, one part Clint Eastwood, five parts Moe Howard and about 18 parts Bugs Bunny.
The fact of the matter is the only one way to look at “Army of Darkness” is as a violent live-action Warner Brothers cartoon, substituting sword & sorcery hijinks for animated action. While the humor mostly works quite well, for me the most enjoyable aspect of “Army” is its unpretentious homages to the low-budget effects extravaganzas of the 60s and early 70s, most especially Ray Harryhausen’s animated skeletons in “Jason and the Argonauts” and the kind of effects favored by Roger Corman when he felt like spending a few extra dollars. Still, “Army” never loses a chance to mix in some comedy with the cool stuff, including some very funny Brooklyn-accented cartoon-style voices for the skeletal Deadites, well voiced by director Raimi.
On the other hand, while I’ve enjoyed his work in other movies, I must say something heretical and add that – unlike countless young and young-at-heart males of my acquaintance -- I’m not fully convinced of the comedy genius of Bruce Campbell in this particular effort. I’ve enjoyed his work elsewhere, but here Ash’s wisecracks and comically sexist and overconfident attitudes are just too overtly campy and stylized, at least for my taste.
Visually, “Army of Darkness” is a mixed bag. The nighttime look Raimi and director of photography Bill Pope present is inventive and kind of beautiful in its low-budget stylization, but the day time outdoor photography has the bright, cheap, flat, and ordinary look of such later Sam Raimi-produced television productions as “Hercules” and “Xenia: Warrior Princess.” It’s not my favorite approach.
Nevertheless, Sam Raimi is a filmmaker whose work – which also includes “quality” movies like “A Simple Plan,” lively, old-fashioned horror like the sadly unsuccessful “Drag Me to Hell,” and the good-natured action and soap opera of the “Spider-Man” films – emerges from a place of true cinema love. There is no calculation in his films other than a sincere desire to embrace his audience by entertaining and involving them as much as possible. In today’s prefab entertainment world, that is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. “Army of Darkness” may not be perfect, but it’s a very sincere little Halloween pumpkin patch, and that’s probably enough.
Screwhead Edition DVD Review:
Considering the massive cult behind this movie and innumerable DVD and Laserdisc editions that preceded it, it’s a little surprising that this "Screwhead Edition" has exactly one special feature. “Creating the Deadites” is a highly watchable and, yes, very sincere, new making-of featurette looking at the old school special effects used in “Army of Darkness.” Otherwise, I understand that this digitally remastered disc, which includes only the 81-minute theatrical version and not the less popular director’s cut, is far superior to all the earlier versions in terms of image quality. Sometimes, that means more than all the special features in the world.