THE EMPIRE MASTERPIECE
EVIL DEAD II
Director Sam Raimi’s gloriously gory, groovy horror sequel
1987 / RATED R18+ WORDS CHRIS HEWITT
THERE’S A SCHOOL of thought that, in order for a movie to be considered a masterpiece, it has to be about more than just sight and sound. It has to have something to say. It has to be about something. It has to illuminate insight into this crazy little thing we call the human condition.
Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II is the glorious exception to this rule. It’s the crazy, coruscating Ofsted report that shuts down that school of thought. It doesn’t have a profound message, or a weighty theme, unless that message is “don’t turn on a tape recorder in a creepy old log cabin in case it contains a message that will resurrect an evil spirit you’ll spend the entire night battling”. It doesn’t have a thought in its demented, blood-spattered head. And yet it’s as pure a piece of audio-visual cinema (and what audio, what visuals) as it’s possible to get.
It came from a position of adversity for its director. Raimi and his old high-school chums, Robert Tapert (producer) and Bruce Campbell (jutting-jawed leading man), had burst onto the scene in dramatic fashion with the lo-fi The Evil Dead in 1981. Billed as “the ultimate experience in gruelling horror”, it gained notoriety for its relentless grot and got caught up in the British video-nasty commotion, but marked the obviously talented but undisciplined Raimi as one to watch.
After that, anxious not to get typecast as a horror guy (the trio had chosen to make a horror film for their debut primarily because it was a lucrative market), Raimi moved onto
his ambitious caper comedy Crimewave… and had about as awful a time as it’s possible for a young director to have. Overruled by the money men (Campbell was reduced from star to bit-part player), the film was a disaster, with few of Raimi’s signature flourishes surviving intact. Critics hated it. Audiences shrugged.
Licking their wounds, Raimi, Tapert and Campbell retreated into the welcoming bosom of the evil dead. With funding from Dino De Laurentiis, and a script co-written by Raimi and Scott Spiegel, they headed to Wadesboro, North Carolina, to start production on a movie that would once again pit Campbell’s beleaguered hero, Ash, against a group of vicious, mocking demons in a cabin in the woods. That’s the basic logline, but it doesn’t even begin to describe the lunacy that transpires in Evil Dead II, a movie in which an entire roomful of objects comes to life just to laugh and point at its hero.
Watching Evil Dead II now, it feels like the work of a director who fears he may never be allowed to direct a motion picture again, so he’s deploying every trick in his arsenal, and breaking every rule he can think of, while he still can. It’s a film in which anything goes, established from the off by the decision to effectively remake The Evil Dead in the first five minutes. There are seemingly impossible tracking shots, and crash zooms aplenty. There is stop-motion animation. The film is speeded-up, slowed down, stretched. The sound design is incredible, growls and otherworldly screeches lurching at us like a stranger in the dark. It is an extraordinary tour de force of technique.
One key decision was to recalibrate the film as a horror-comedy, changing The Evil Dead’s bleak, fatalistic tone into something far funnier and OTT. There are still plenty of scares in a film billed as “the sequel to the ultimate experience in gruelling horror” (Raimi has the timing of a master when it comes to jump shocks), but the decision to showcase the director’s impish, Three Stooges-inspired sense of humour gives the film a delirious, feverish freedom. It allows Raimi to construct a deliciously daft toolingup montage, or have its hero drenched in gallons of sticky multi-coloured goo, or throw in a last-minute twist ending that out-planet
Of The Apes Planet Of The Apes.
And he has, in Campbell, the perfect collaborator. Ash was once voted the greatest horror character of all time by Empire readers, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a wonderful performance, neatly sketching Ash’s transition from shocked, shaken survivor, to brittle coward, and finally badass, chainsaw-wielding hero. Campbell never became the megastar he deserves to be, but this glorious, gurning performance will be his legacy.
It’s become almost a cliché to refer to a film as “the Citizen Kane of [insert genre here]”, but in Evil Dead II’S case, that description fits like a glove. It is the Citizen Kane of horror films: a technical exercise where a director, giddy with the potential of cinema, runs wild and shows other directors the way ahead. But — and this is one hell of a hill to die on — it’s better than Citizen Kane, because instead of a bloke banging on about a sled, it has a bloke attaching a chainsaw to the stump where his demonically possessed right hand used to be, then using said chainsaw to slice off the head off an evil witch. You can shove your subtext up your arse — this is what a purely cinematic masterpiece looks like. And it is groovy.
EVIL DEAD II IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD
The horror: Ash (Bruce Campbell) and f(r)iend.