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Army of Darkness Print E-mail
Friday, 01 December 2006

Image Housed in a transparent red plastic box that designates a high-definition DVD (as opposed to the transparent blue plastic box that denotes Blu-Ray) comes yet another video release of Sam Raimi’s “Army of Darkness.” This must be a new and improved plastic box, as it has a hinged fastener, evidently intended to slow down sneak thieves. Unaccountably, this release has none of the extras that graced earlier DVDs of the movie—but it does include a standard DVD print on the reverse side. But why? If someone wants a standard DVD, surely they’d choose one of the other extras-laden versions; if they want the high-definition version, what’s the point of having the standard version? (The title, by the way, is actually “Bruce Campbell Vs. Army of Darkness.”

That being said, there is a point this time to releasing this film in high definition. It wasn’t a lavish production, but Raimi fills the screen with detail. When hero Ash (Bruce Campbell, of course) comes crashing to the ground in scene following the brief “flashback” (actually all new footage, featuring Bridget Fonda, who doesn’t get a word in), now you can easily see he’s landing on a floor, with panels. This isn’t explained or seen again, but visually it’s crystal-clear. Every grain of sand is crystal clear; every scar and wound on Campbell’s face seems fresh and moist; all the popping eyes, discolored fangs and eroded cheeks of the Deadites and friends are detailed and distinct. This clarity works against the film at times, as with matte shots, featuring stop-motion (Peter Kleinow) puppets in one spot, the live action characters in the other. But this movie isn’t trying to fool you into thinking it’s all really happening. The rusting metal and spikes of the unexplained—and unlikely—pit Ash is tossed into at the castle of Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert, maybe THAT Arthur) are almost tangible.

As the story thunders on with multiple Ashes, divided Ashes, dismembered Ashes and finally Evil Ash vs. Good Ash (“good, bad, I’m the guy with the gun”), you may see details that eluded you even in theatrical screenings. A hardcore “Evil Dead” fan simply has to have this high-definition disc; if you’re a newcomer, this probably isn’t the place to start, but if you get with the movie’s rhythms and wacky tone, you’ll have a good time. It’s an astonishing, fast-paced scramble of horror movie themes, castle-and-sword adventures, tough-guy thrillers and Three Stooges slapstick. It has time travel, a beautiful princess, a parody of a tough-guy hero who is a hero, special effects galore, and a zany, try-anything attitude.

It's safe to say there's never been another movie quite like this, not even its two predecessors, “Evil Dead” (1983) and “Evil Dead II” (1987), to which “Army of Darkness” is a sequel. The plot is secondary to the goofy, eye-popping, anything-goes activity in the movie, and boy is there a lot of activity. Swordfights, monsters, galloping horses, exploding skeletons, flying books, and an army of the dead advancing on a medieval fortress. (Raimi toyed with calling this entry in the series “Medieval Dead.”)

It opens with Ash falling out of the sky along with his chainsaw, shotgun and automobile, sent by some kind of evil time vortex back to the 13th century. He's promptly captured by one of a pair of warring factions, and tossed into a convenient pit in the courtyard of a castle. He escapes from the pit—Ash isn't very bright, and not such a nice guy, but he is, by gum, a survivor—and dominates the proceedings. He demands to be returned to his own time, but this means he has to go get the magical book the Necronomicon from its cemetery resting place. (There's been a rash of “Deadites” lately, it seems, somehow caused by the book. Evil demons possess people and go berserk. These are what Ash was battling in the first two movies.)

This leads to some wild slapstick and amazing special effects, usually at the same time. For example, Ash stops overnight in a windmill, only to be confronted by nasty six-inch duplicates of himself; when he's forced to swallow one of the imps, he splits into Good Ash and Evil Ash. Good Ash, being a survivor as I said, promptly chops Evil Ash up and buries the pieces..

Ash, being Ash, blunders in using the Necronomicon, and accidentally raises an army of the walking dead, most of whom are dusty, wise-cracking skeletons. These are led by Evil Ash, who also comes back from the dead, very much worse for the wear; he, too, is a survivor, and leads the army of skeletons and bedraggled corpses in an assault on the castle.

The script, written by Raimi and his brother Ivan, gives Campbell a ton o' funny mock-heroic lines; this guy is tougher than Melmac-coated steel, as indicated by his strong jaw, flashing eyes, and language. “Gimme some sugar, baby,” he snarls at heroine Sheila (Embeth Davidtz, also in “Schindler’s List”), as he hauls her close for a kiss.

“Army of Darkness” is entertaining, but kind of divided against itself. Some of the comedy doesn't quite work because of the horror, while the horror elements are soft-pedaled. Some of the jokes fall flat, and others are lost in the general babble of the busy sound track. However, the movie does go zipping on to the next gag or special effects delight. Raimi tends to overdo some kinds of comic takes (mostly involving crowds), but his eye is sharp and his ideas are excellent. His problem is mostly one of timing, getting the performers to come up to the Platonic ideal of the shot that Raimi has in his head.

There's something both loosey-goosey and yet disciplined about “Army of Darkness.” It wants to be a horror movie, a Ray Harryhausen-type effects wonderama and a comedy. There's simply no way that this movie can do all those things consistently, but it comes awfully close a lot of the time.

“Army of Darkness” wasn't the Ultimate Sam Raimi Movie, but a notable step in the building of his career; most of it works, some of it doesn't.. This is exactly the kind of movie that creates new moviemakers: children are going to see this, and think “Wow! I wanna do that!” As with Raimi's previous films, ultimately the greatest value “Army of Darkness” may have is in creating a legacy of inspiration. His “Spider-Man” movies transcended this.

The movie had a hard time reaching its audience. Because of the complexities regarding ownership of the character Hannibal Lecter, Universal locked horns with Dino De Laurentiis (who backed this movie)—and the victim was “Army of Darkness.” Trying to force De Laurentiis’ hand, Universal temporarily shelved “Army of Darkness,” even though promotion had already begun; when it was released many weeks after the original schedule, the movie didn’t do as well as expected at the boxoffice. Raimi never made a fourth “Evil Dead” movie, instead trying out various genres in movies like “For Love of the Game,” “The Quick and the Dead” and “The Gift” before being handed the film he was born to direct, “Spider-Man.” He still occasionally gives signs of unleashing Ash again.

As with the other two “Evil Dead” movies, “Army of Darkness” was repeatedly released on video, including VHS, laserdisc and DVD. But for no doubt complicated legal reasons, this release features none of the numerous extras previous video releases included—no commentary track, no behind-the-scenes footage, nothin’. Furthermore, this is the standard theatrical release, running 81 minutes; it doesn’t include the 93-minute director’s cut, which has been featured on some previous video releases. If you want to know more about the films, you might check the book “The Evil Dead Companion,” written by what should be a familiar name.

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