Are you ready for the memories...they're eviiiil
by Scott Saffran
Staff Nostalgic Reviewer
Since the earliest October 31st that I can remember (1999, and I dressed up as the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, thank you very much), Halloween has been my favorite holiday. I could never fully grasp that I was actually encouraged to dress up as my favorite fictional characters and would be rewarded for it with pounds of candy. With each ensuing All Hallows’ Eve (post-my costume peak), a new facet would be added to the celebration: one year a Haunted House; the next a neighborhood costume party. In 2004 my sisters and I crowded around the Zenith television in our basement for Cartoon Network’s showing of Scary Godmother’s Halloween Spooktacular. For those of you who have not been graced by this spectacular work of animated cinema, you really ought to dig up this gem. It was my first true Halloween movie; a tradition my family has held close ever since.
In the decade-plus since then, I have accumulated quite a few films: some in the traditional Halloween theme, and others of just a generally spooky persuasion. My most cherished Halloween movie, and the subject of this review, is Evil Dead II. While not especially Halloween-y, I feel the film captures the spirit of the holiday spectacularly, creating an atmosphere that is equally funny and frightening.
Evil Dead II (or Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, if you’re that much of an anal purist) hit cinemas across America in 1987 as the sequel to its 1981 predecessor, The Evil Dead. The relationship between the original film and its sequel is odd, at best. The first film is strict horror fare, albeit tremendously entertaining, and recounts the story of five college students who encounter a mysterious ancient text on their cabin getaway, and accidentally unleash a terrible evil which consumes all but the unwitting hero, Ash Williams, played through both films by the granite-chinned Bruce Campbell. The picture concludes with a horrified Ash facing down an unseen evil force, careening through the forest.
Evil Dead II, on the other hand, begins with Ash and his girlfriend, Linda, who was featured as part of the original’s cast but portrayed by a different actress, journeying to that very same cabin. The pair reenact a simplified version of the plot of The Evil Dead, and the sequel then takes on a life of its own after we see that familiar shot of a screaming Ash and the invisible incubus.
The movie finds its successes in its breakneck speed and original composition. Director Raimi utilizes a patchwork quilt of unorthodox camera techniques to instill a particularly uneasy feeling in the audience, complementing the tone of the work itself. Most of the exposition is kept to very limited dialogue, which allows Raimi to showcase this impressive knack for visual storytelling. Ash, the protagonist, is effectively portrayed as a reluctant hero, which the audience can very much feel itself. Outright character development is not the chosen path here. As much as Ash is forced into his hero role, so is the audience alongside him. We are as uncomfortable as he is, but we both grow to fill out these new relationships. While the emphasis is really on the fun and insanity, I feel it quite important to appreciate this not-insignificant feat.
The greatest triumph of the film is that it toes the line between not taking itself too seriously and not taking itself seriously at all. Horror-comedies like Scary Movie are populated with actors who very apparently find the whole affair just as ridiculous as we do and true horror films are often cast with actors all too engendered in the dramatic. Evil Dead II departs entirely. Campbell especially at once over-acts and, yet, can still pull off believable fright. Faced with the task of chainsaw-ing his once beloved’s detached dome, Ash draws genuine emotion just before the still-sentient body rushes through the tool shed door and we collapse into laughter.
The film is best characterized by this gross-out, gut-wrenching gore saved from excess by a belly-aching laugh. No scene best exemplifies such masterful balance better than the decayed, headless corpse of Linda rising from its makeshift grave to perform a dance number complete with severed head prop before miraculously ascending to the heavens. Every scene, whether truly inspiring in its terror or fantastically funny, feels perfectly at home and gives this theatre of the absurd film a strange sort of coherence. There really is no other movie quite like it; it fully earns its rightful spot in the canon of cult film.
Evil Dead II is everything a Halloween movie ought to be. The chills are complemented with raucous laughs, the gross-out gore balanced with tongue-in-cheek visual gags. It’s light, digestible, and yet it sticks with you. Evil Dead II is a rare bauble, one of the few of its genre to succeed on a large scale. It has inspired generations of filmmakers and legions of devoted fans, it’s a film that won’t soon be forgotten. It’s a cherished part of my library, and I hope I’ve encouraged a few of you to give it a watch some time around October 31st.