I have always been a fan of that most improbable of all subgenres, the horror comedy. It has been around for a very long time, dating back to the silent era with The Cat and the Canary and the early talkies with James Whale’s genre twisting films like The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein. In the late 40’s, comedy team Abbott and Costello met most of the classic monsters before Roger Corman twisted the nose of the subgenre with A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors in the late 50’s and early 60’s. The classic monsters would get brand new comedic treatments in the 1970’s from Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein and in the form of George Hamilton as Dracula in Love at First Bite. In the 80’s Re-Animator, The Return of the Living Dead, and Night of the Creeps among others all successfully parodied horror conventions while also delivering legitimate gore and scares.
As a kid I practically wore out our Ghostbusters videotape and Gremlins was a regular staple in our house. As I got older, The Howling and Friday the 13th Part VI were most often in the rotation. But for me, there was one movie that exemplified the apex of the horror-comedy, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. For me it was like the arrival of the Chosen One, splitting the genre into two distinct eras with one fell swoop of an arm-mounted chainsaw. Now there is Before Evil Dead II and After Evil Dead II. It is the flashpoint where the conventions of horror-comedy were redefined and crystallized. It is a crude comparison to be sure, but Evil Dead II is the Citizen Kane of splatstick. As the Welles classic brought the techniques of a certain kind of filmmaking together in one monumental film, Sam Raimi’s sequel did the same for another kind of filmmaking and horror-comedy has never been quite the same since.
It is arguable whether the film invented splatstick, but it certainly perfected it.
Evil Dead II is such a unique and singular vision that, though the style is often imitated, it has never been equaled. It is energetic to the point of frantic, comical to the brink of farce, gory to the verge of parody, and all the while, genuinely frightening to such a degree that at first audiences didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. That same kind of confusion met other classic horror comedies like An American Werewolf in London and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The latter film is in several ways the perfect analog for Evil Dead II. In both cases the second installment serves as parody, partial remake by restating several memorable scenes, and partial sequel to the original film. In both films, the tone the second time around is wildly different from the original while clearly remaining the work of the same filmmaker. The originals in both series are scrappy, handmade, guerilla filmmaking ventures by gifted amateurs, while the second installments are made with more budget and experience by more battle-weary professional filmmakers.
Despite its reputation, The Evil Dead is not completely devoid of humor, though I’m not sure all of it is intentional, and it is clearly the work of the same filmmaker of the later film. Evil Dead II, however, leans into the humor inherent to the story rather than trying to avoid it. Raimi then heightens it by infusing the film with his love for the Three Stooges and Looney Tunes cartoons and making full use of Bruce Campbell’s considerable talents as a physical actor with impeccable comic chops. Comparisons to the first film also illustrate how poised upon a razor’s edge horror and comedy are. Slight adjustments in one direction or the other make massive differences in tone and mood. A blending of the two is an even more precarious balance, verging on impossible to attain. Several deadly serious scenes from the original are restaged in the second for laughs and they serve their purpose effectively in both cases. It all comes down to nuances in performance, camera, and editing and leaning ever so slightly toward horror or humor.
According to star and producer Bruce Campbell and several others, The Evil Dead and its follow-up Crimewave were absolutely miserable shoots in which no one really knew what they were doing. They were young and reckless enough not to mind too much at the time. It’s something if a miracle that the original Evil Dead has any coherence at all considering the conditions and their lack of basic production knowledge. It is a testament to Sam Raimi as a visionary filmmaker that it works as well as it does.
Conversely, Campbell said for the 25th anniversary documentary on the making of Evil Dead II that the film was a comparatively pleasant experience. Much of the rest of the cast and crew beg to differ, especially Sam Raimi’s younger brother Ted Raimi who sweat pounds a day off his body while encased in the undead Henrietta makeup and body suit (in one shot that appears in the film, Ted’s sweat can be seen pouring out of Henrietta’s ear). Cast members Sarah Berry (Annie), Dan Hicks (Jake), Kassie DePaiva (Bobby Joe), and Richard Domeier (Ed) all looked back on the film with humor and fondness, but also seem to be glad to be looking at the experience from a distance. There also appears to be a special bond created among cast and crew that only forms in the crucible or the thick of battle. Campbell’s more sunny view is largely based on comparisons to the misery of the Evil Dead shoot and the great challenge to come with Army of Darkness. Clearly, ultra-low budget filmmaking is hardly glamorous and when it’s a film as ambitious as Evil Dead II, it is particularly taxing on everybody. By all accounts, Sam Raimi is a demanding filmmaker, but one who gains a great deal of trust and loyalty from those he works with and whose vision ends up on the screen.
A big part of that vision is the many visual, stop motion, and makeup effects that give the film so much of its manic flavor. The makeup effect alone, created by a small band of madmen led by the great Mark Shostrom, are miracles in themselves. For such a low budget feature, the film is filled with remarkable creations. The Evil Ash makeup, Possessed Ed, and the undead Henrietta costumes would be enough to make the film’s makeup effects monumental, but Evil Dead II goes far beyond with dozens more iconic elements to point to. Greg Nicotero called the film “the proving ground for KNB,” the now legendary makeup effects house responsible for some of the greatest effects work in modern film history. The stop-motion effects created by Tom Sullivan, Doug Beswick, and Rick Catizone and miniatures by Jim Beloheovek are equally impressive and should not be overlooked. In our current CGI-laden world, effects like these can seem dated, but here they still work beautifully to underscore the film’s tone and heightened, nightmare reality.
As great as these effects are, perhaps the film’s greatest special effect is Bruce Campbell as Ash. Somewhere between Schwarzenegger and Shemp, we find Ash Williams. He has the dry wit, tough exterior, and one-liners of the action greats of the 80’s mixed liberally with the slapstick sensibilities of the Three Stooges. The entire film is endlessly engaging but the most memorable scenes are the “one man show” sequences in which Campbell is essentially alone on screen. Fighting his decapitated chainsaw wielding girlfriend, going to war with his own severed hand, laughing maniacally as the cabin comes alive around him all while being sprayed with fire hoses of blood. Perhaps most inspired of all and with a comic athleticism reminiscent of Buster Keaton and Donald O’Connor, grabbing himself by the back of the head and flipping himself over after having hit himself repeatedly over the head with dinner plates.
For all its over-the-top, twisted slapstick, Evil Dead II still delivers the goods when it comes to effective scares. There are genuine stakes involved, ratcheted suspense, and some of the best jump scares of the 80’s. This is the genius of Sam Raimi, whose vision, along with the script co-written with Scott Spiegel, creates a balancing act so precarious that the slightest miscalibration would completely destroy the effect. Every moment of the film manages to sit on that edge while somehow never going headlong over the cliff, making it the ultimate example of horror-comedy at its finest.
The Evil Dead series is, in terms of quality, one of the most consistent in all of horror. Even more rare, a case could be made for any entry to be the best of the franchise. For me Evil Dead II is that highest point, but I certainly would not begrudge anyone preferring the original, Army of Darkness, or the remake over it. Strong cases can also be made for the Ash vs. Evil Dead television series and even the stage musical version. When it comes down to it, Evil Dead II is one of the great examples of what creative people can do when given the space to do what they do best. They innovate, solve problems in unique ways, and break all the rules, giving us something we’ve never seen before. Sometimes these films are successful right away, others build over time as was the case with the Evil Dead films. These cult classics endure while so many other films fade.
Evil Dead II has only grown in esteem to become a crowning achievement of inspired insanity. After thirty-five years it remains, in a word, groovy.
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