The Evil Dead and Army of Darkness are grand movies: one terrifying, one wacky, and both a crazy amount of fun. But 1987's Evil Dead II, the middle film in Sam Raimi's best trilogy... it's just well and truly special, a real once in a lifetime sort of movie. Astonishingly, a quarter of a century on and with pretty much everybody in the world agreeing that it's one of the best horror films of a generation, it's still not like anything else - as though it's so brilliant and sacrosanct in its corkscrew personality and nervy low-budget filmmaking chops that even the most wanton and whorish industry in the modern world is too full of respect to try ripping it off.
As is well-known (all things about this movie are well-known within a certain audience segment), Evil Dead II is, for the most part, a rehash of the same situation presented in the first movie - though it's plainly not a remake, as was commonly claimed back in the days when The Evil Dead was hard to come by and known more by reputation than fact; and this misapprehension is repeated sometimes even still - in which a handful of people, among them a certain Ashley "Ash" Williams (Bruce Campbell), try to survive a night in an abandoned cabin in the woods, beset by ancient demons that can possess the bodies of the dead. Evil Dead II switches things around a little bit:where the last film killed off everybody first, and then subjected Ash to the battery of psychological torture that pushed the movie right into "Italian Gates of Hell movie" territory, this one opens with a solo Ash being plagued by inexplicable horrors, before introducing him to the rest of the cast about a third of the way in. Also, and infinitely more importantly, Evil Dead II makes all of it funny. For it is a horror-comedy; it is perhaps- no, I'm not going to qualify it. It is the best horror-comedy ever made, splitting the difference between the two states so evenly and smoothly that half the time I'm not even sure whether it's the horrific or the comic part of the movie that I'm watching. It's that perfect marriage of two seemingly disparate modes that makes this such a dazzling gem of a movie. Raimi understood here, as very few directors ever did, that funny and scary aren't so different: we get a shock that triggers a physical reaction, which at its best involves short, heavy breaths that ultimately give way to a clenching feeling in the lungs if we're really into it.
Evil Dead II does, undoubtedly, tip its hand frequently: the scene of Ash stalking around the cellar at the end is definitely meant to be scary, the bit where his possessed hand keeps hitting him on the head with plates is obviously comic. But the best parts of the movie simply cannot be classified: the scene I always think of first when I think about the movie is when Ash watches in absolute terror as his dead girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) rises out of the ground, becoming a stop-motion puppet performing a morbid ballet with her detached head. It's creepy and hilarious in some mixture that oughtn't be possible (and, for good measure, feels singularly like the morbid animation of the Brothers Quay), and boy is it ever memorable, wedging itself in your head precisely because it's so hard to make out what you're looking at.
Other places are simpler but still effective: when skeletal arms try to pull Ash through a window, and they end up re-enacting a bit of Three Stooges physical comedy, for example. The curious effect is still the same - is this tense, or deflating tension - but the primary feeling that I, at least, get in these moments is the joy of creativity: Raimi getting to make a live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon with Bruce Campbell as his endlessly abused Elmer Fudd.
That, too, is maybe part of what makes Evil Dead II so important: it gets that comedy and horror are similar not only in their effect on the viewer, but on the characters as well. In either tonal register, what's happening is generally an accumulation of exaggeratedly awful incidents befalling a character: it's funny when we laugh, and frightening when we're made to imagine ourselves in his shoes. What makes a really top-drawer horror comedy sparkle is playing it both ways: Ash still behaves like he's in a horror movie, but we regard much of what happens to him from the superior perspective of comedy.
All this is good and theoretical, but it's not really even scraping at the topmost level of what makes Evil Dead II such a hell of a movie. It really is just blazingly imaginative. Not at the narrative level, of course - like The Evil Dead, it consists largely of recycling generic tropes, not all of them from movies (there's a lot of Lovecraft here, still), and this time the pool of tropes being stolen from includes the plot of The Evil Dead itself; the film opens with a seven minute recap of the first movie that cheerfully parodies the seriousness of the director's debut, though this was largely accidental At the level of how that narrative is presented visually, though, this is surely the high point of Raimi's career. All of the style we've since come to expect of the director is in full force - racing cameras, heavily skewed camera angles with distorted lenses - but never elsewhere did Raimi do this good of a job of using his style to bring out the moods of his scenario. The Fulci-esque descent into raving visual madness that marks the last sequence of The Evil Dead marks the entirety of its sequel, particularly with Campbell having abandoned and pretense of being a stern-jawed all-American hero, pulling any number of weirdly exaggerated faces for his director's weird close-ups. It's a seriously off-kilter movie, clipping along in its editing, the camera lolling about with messy purpose. The whole thing is patently deranged, something that both comedies and horror movies can be, but in neither case is it typically this aggressive.
The whole thing is so effective at being what it is that it's easy to breeze right on by the question: what is it? Being an impeccable horror-comedy is well and good, but to what end was the "ultimate experience in grueling terror" transformed into a platform for gory slapstick? A few possibilities suggest themselves. One is that Raimi (possibly under the influence of his new friends and recent collaborators, the Coen brothers, who'd written the director's 1985 sophomore effort, Crimewave) had developed a kind of detached cynicism about the genre he'd dove into so deeply, and was now content to take the piss, gently mocking the same tropes he'd exploited so vigorously six years prior. It makes a certain kind of sense that, having exploited horror to the hilt, Raimi would now be unable to revisit it unironically. Another possibility, suggested within the film itself (during it's lengthy, bravura "the house is laughing at Ash" scene), is that Raimi was forwarding the argument that after a certain level of intensity, you can't keep finding horror scary; eventually, as Ash does, you have to regard it all as being too absurd for words, or go totally insane.
It's also entirely possible that there's no meaning behind any of this, and Raimi was just high on the possibilities of the medium. The other Evil Dead movies are fun, for certain, but the most salient feeling I get from Evil Dead II isn't "fun", but giddiness: a palpable delight at how flexible cinema can be that, in Raimi's career, I only see in the same form in his much later horror-comedy Drag Me to Hell, a film inordinately predicated on the idea that there's not much that's more delightful than a good creepy story. Evil Dead II unquestionably takes a lot of delight in its haunted house theatrics, from the opening montage of stop-motion creepy-crawlies right through to Mark Shostrom's unbelievably good gore make-up, less disgusting or scary than it is amazingly creative in its campfire story freakishness. More than anything else, this is a movie that wants to be watched and enjoyed for the boundless energy and out-of-control feeling, and it's so great at that, it ends up being something even better: one of the best-made, liveliest, and most inexhaustible genre films of the 1980s.
Reviews in this series
The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981)
Evil Dead II (Raimi, 1987)
Army of Darkness (Raimi, 1992)
Evil Dead (Alvarez, 2013)