If one skips over the transformative second film (as I am doing in order to cover as many of Raimi’s films as possible) the change in tone between Evil Dead and Army Of Darkness is so complete that it seems nearly alchemical. Who would take these films for kissing cousins? Let alone siblings. Army Of Darkness is singular as Evil Dead is dissonant, light hearted as the first film is bleak, cartoonish as the first film is realistic as large scale as the first is small. It literally is everything the first film is not.
Of course the film’s share a fair amount of DNA. Not just in the literal sense, with Campbell, Raimi and the mythology of the Kandarian demons. But also in the style equal parts inventiveness and irreverence and the sheer glee Raimi takes in its mayhem.
Though the 12 million dollar budget is positively chintzy compared to the level Raimi would eventually get to work on, it still gives the film a suitably epic feel and hints at the way Raimi would be able to keep his sense of fun and anarchic inventiveness to larger and larger scales. Yet unlike some of Raimi’s later films Army Of Darkness still feels endearingly handmade (Take the shot were Campbell driving the combat version of The Classic plows through an army of obviously unanimated skeletons. Their overdubbed screams the only sign of life that they are able to give.)
Both Raimi and Campbell are operating here with a complete and rare confidence. Campbell having refined Ash from his original beleagured everyman archetype to a comic persona equal parts bravado, indestructibility and an inescapable yellow streak, like if someone took Don Knotts and made him a demon killing sex god, that Campbell plays to perfection.
Raimi, fresh from the nightmare of Crimewave and the studio pressures of Darkman is clearly having a blast. There is an unfettered delight to the film, both in the torments it visits upon the characters (including a shot of an old hag spitting chewed bread as she spouts the unforgettable line “Into the pit with those bloodthirsty sons of whores!” That could be an outtake from Drag Me To Hell, sent back through time) and the increasingly unlikely ways his heroes overcome them.
Perhaps that is the key difference between the two films, the shift from The Deadites as unstoppably powerful entities who shuck the souls of their victims from their bodies like corn to an army of absurd slapstick stop motion skeletons. The Three Stooges could have defeated this Army Of Darkness without breaking too much of a sweat (despite Bill Mosely in a suitably freaky performance) which is I suppose rather the point.
While the perpetually rumored possibility of an Evil Dead 4 will always be an intriguing possibility, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting conclusion than this. Whether you prefer Ash returning to the modern day a God among retail, or him ending up perpetually screwed (which in all fairness is exactly how the other two films end) Army Of Darkness fits the bill of a victory lap so well that it almost would seem like tempting fate. Like a victory lap it perhaps lacks the intensity of the first two runs around the track. But it’s tough to hold it against it when it’s clearly enjoying its moment of glory so much.