“Alright, you primitive screwheads, listen up…”
What makes a cult film a cult classic? By definition, a “cult” is “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” There is a better and more fitting definition, for the purposes of this review: “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” I believe the first definition applies to the cult when describing itself, and the second when being described by others.
We live in a time when the words “geek” and “nerd” have become credentials for coolness. These words have gained power because, after two decades of internet, individual hobbies and interests have been absorbed into the general culture. The single-minded pursuit of the esoteric and the strange, by digital osmosis, has rendered everything less esoteric and more commonplace. There is infinite access to the most strange and sinister minutiae. And this has shifted the way our culture processes itself and the vastness of individual taste. Right now, entertainment is most of what the internet has to offer, and the practice of social sharing has made it easier than ever to bring friends and family and total strangers into the loop. “Geek” and “nerd” used to stand for socially awkward and often obsessively devoted people, whose obsessions could range from intellectual pursuits to the accumulation of original Godzilla collectibles.
The one thing the internet does not have is secrets. And it is the one true thing that has ever created a geek or a nerd. There are remnants of this truth in the broadly defined “hipster” movement, a self-conscious throwback culture devoted to irony and fashion, as most fads are, in the “it’s popular, now it sucks” meme. This attitude predates the hipsters, it predates geeks and nerds. There is something special about having something that is your own and sharing it with a select group of friends, having something that is different and odd that is your own to play with. It is a very selfish instinct, and one we all share. We want to have things that belong to us, that mean something to us. “Cult” means believing in something that makes you feel you are a part of something. Whether it’s a terrible movie you love to share with your friends, a penchant for saving disfigured jellybeans, stealing spoons from Denny’s, these behaviors, these actions, lead to rituals. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is still screened in theatres all over the country, and the movie is merely a backdrop to the orgy of sing-alongs and dress up and anarchy that rules every performance. Star Wars and Star Trek have their cults. Gun owners have their cults. Even the inside baseball of politics have their geeks and nerds, though they’re called wonks. Inside baseball also has its cult (we can call it moneyball, if we like).
The point is, a cult is called a cult because it bears a close resemblance to religion, something done dutifully, for enlightenment, or gratification. “Geek” and “nerd” are today’s buzzwords, key phrases to be optimized in search engines to call the devoted to prayer. But now that the internet has every nook and cranny of fetishes and hobbies under the bright spotlights of traffic, and we as consumers are gobbling up the weird and wonderful with all the scruples of hagfish, the things that we don’t know are diminishing. Our surprises are limited.
In 1993, I was seven-years-old. My father was dead, I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, and my mother, wanting to keep me sane and out of the house, bought me a ticket to a late night showing of Army of Darkness.
I had no idea what this film was about, and neither did my mother. The internet was not real yet and would not come to my family for many years. I was seven and, having moved to an entirely new state, I had no social network. There were no reviews of this film that my mother had read and I, barely being able to read, could not have checked the paper to apprise us of our moviegoing options for the evening. There was no hype. There was no cult. We walked into the movie theatre, the enormous, empty movie theatre, and there was no one inside of it but us and two people all the way at the other end. The movie began and ended playing to us four.
Imagine my surprise. Imagine the sudden, breathtaking familiarity of the film’s opening narration as Bruce Campbell leads us through the final minutes of Evil Dead II, the writing of the book of the dead, the amputation of his hand, the temporal vortex, to the beautiful tracking shots of his boots pounding the dry sands as the story continued, not as Evil Dead 3, but as something new, and weird and wonderful. Evil Dead II had been my secret, a series of stolen images that haunted me from behind my parents’ couch. And now, years later, thinking I was very much grown up, Army of Darkness became in an instant the movie I was waiting my whole life to see.
You have to try very hard to be surprised like that today. I was utterly unprepared, and I didn’t geek out or have a nerdgasm, because those words, like the internet, did not exist. I just enjoyed the movie, in my secret, happy way.
Army of Darkness; or, “Well hello, Mr. Fancy Pants” (1993)
I love a good time travel story. (Déjà vu?) Army of Darkness picks up right where Evil Dead II left off, with Ash fulfilling the Necronomicon’s prophecy of a savior from the sky, transported from Tennessee in the late ‘80s to someplace dusty in the fourteenth century. Our “hero” is cast into chains and deemed one of Henry the Red’s scurrilous dogs, and sentenced to death by the foul deadites (the evil dead) that live under the castle of King Arthur.
What with Ash being an old pro at combatting monsters, he soon gets the better of both the deadites and the castle soldiers, with plenty of help from his chainsaw and “boomstick” (double-barreled Remington with cobalt blue steel and a hair trigger). And for anyone still crying shenanigans at this point, let’s remember that Ash gassed up the chainsaw prior to his fight with Henrietta in ED2 and has at least enough juice to tear his way through the first twenty minutes of this movie.
After proving himself a man from the future and perhaps more than just a “loud mouthed braggart” (he isn’t), Ash is lavished with gifts, new clothes, grapes fed to him by adoring virgins, and a mechanical hand made with good old medieval know how (just go with it, just go with it), he is sent on a quest to retrieve the book of the dead, to banish the evil that curses the land and return himself to his own time.
It all goes to pot rather quickly. In a most epic way.
Speaking to Fangoria on the making of Army of Darkness, Director Sam Raimi explained, “We tried to hark back to the pictures we enjoyed so much in our youth. Not so much Night of the Living Dead (1968), which was the inspiration for the first movie, but rather Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). We wanted to give fans something different, something that hadn’t been done in a long time.” The third film of the Evil Dead series continues the trilogy’s trend of “like the last one, but bigger,” with a $10 million budget and a literal army of skeletons and ghouls. That said, no amount of speculation could have taken 1981’s low budget splatterfest and blown it up into 1993’s swashbuckling adventure. It may have been titled Army of Darkness rather than Evil Dead 3 for marketing purposes (so as to not scare away audiences that hadn’t seen the first two), but it truly is its own beast, a soupy blend of comedy, creepiness, and the sword and sandals grandness of Old Hollywood. Bruce Campbell summed it up succinctly: “When Army of Darkness came around, we decided to make a different type of movie altogether and made an action-adventure picture with the same imbecile.”
The imbecilic nature of Ashley J. Williams is what makes connecting the final film of the trilogy back to The Evil Dead a lost cause, as its protagonist graduates from the macho cluelessness of his ED2 persona to a full on rampaging boor. He’s not a coward, though. He spends a good deal of the movie running away from the evil, but that can be attributed to the fact that he’s well versed in all of the horrible things it can do to the unwary. If handled by any other cast and crew, Army of Darkness might have stood a chance at being a straight horror film or a straight action one, but let’s be serious: A housewares clerk transported back in time with a chainsaw hand fighting an army of monsters led by his evil twin could only ever be Raimi’s baby. That’s not even mentioning the tricked out Oldsmobile with a helicopter rotor attached to the hood.
Army of Darkness takes all the goofy things Raimi loves to do and stirs them to a frothy boil. The vaudeville antics of the evil is in full force, spectacularly enunciated in the graveyard scene, with Ash fumbling against dozens of skeleton hands and acting out a one-man 3 Stooges routine. The gore, while not as widespread as in the first two films, is released all at once in the early, hilarious and ridiculous fountain of blood in the prison pit scene. The scene echoes the sad, bubbling death of Jake (Danny Hicks) in ED2, only taken up to eleven, and perhaps its natural conclusion. And to distinguish it from its predecessors, this film has the first genuine antagonist of the series: Evil Ash, who after a shotgun to the face and a modern dismemberment (re: chainsaw) comes back as a zombified mess that is no less competent or incompetent as his twin.
There is a price to this kitchen sink approach, however, and that is the scare factor.
Evil Dead II uniquely seesawed its horror and humor elements, rolling its audience on a ride that swung them from comedy to shock with unpredictable relentlessness. Army of Darkness has just as much humor as action, but apart from a few quiet moments, and especially once the pit scene is finished, it is not scary. This was a calculated move on Raimi’s part. The film could not exist with all elements in balance; it would have been jarringly schizophrenic. However, it does divide fans of the series on their favorite installments, as those who love scary movies will find AoD lacking and those who come for the goofiness (and perhaps were first introduced to the series with the final film) will be put off by the viscera of The Evil Dead. But this is precisely what makes the Evil Dead series so bold in its approach to sequels. They offer something for everybody.
And this leads nicely into the dichotomy of the theatrical and director’s cut versions of Army of Darkness.
Theatrical and Director’s Cuts; or, “…and Jack left town”
As a fan of the Evil Dead trilogy and especially Army of Darkness, it being my first full length introduction to the series, I obtained the first edition of the director’s cut in 2000, due in no small part to the stunning artwork on the original clamshell VHS box. Again, this was in a scarce internet era, when I had no idea such a thing existed, and only discovered it while slumming in a local record store. I won’t go into a shot by shot comparison (several of them exist online), but to get a rough idea of how different it is from the theatrical cut (81 minutes), know that this version is fifteen minutes longer. That is a substantially altered running time, and it makes itself felt gradually but strikingly.
Director’s cuts are a mixed bag. When handled properly, they can add insight into characters and give a fuller picture of the filmmaker’s vision. Often what was cut, while interesting, gives a film an unnecessary bloat (the French plantation sequence in the uncut version of Apocalypse Now is a curious detour, and stops the film dead in its already plodding tracks). Sometimes a Director’s cut can be maddening (Ridley Scott’s most recent cut of Blade Runner is supposed to be the definitive version, but there are so many versions already that it drives diehard fans wild). And there are those rare director’s cuts that restore films to their integral forms (I consider the director’s cuts of Dark City and Kingdom of Heaven to be the prime examples of such).
Army of Darkness offers two separate but almost equal options for your viewing pleasure, and I am not certain which I’d recommend over the other. The theatrical cut is of course the version I grew up with and which remains a cohesive, fun action-adventure. The director’s cut, in its best moments, offers a taste of the schizophrenia Raimi calculated against, and makes one question if that craziness isn’t what we wanted all along.
As a critic, it’s easy to see why certain sequences and moments were cut. When chopped down, the theatrical run loses none of the story and keeps the pacing tight. Conversely, as a fan of Evil Dead, and as a lover of the Old Hollywood epics, it is more fun to take the side of the latter, precisely because it more appropriately fits the tone of both types of films. The theatrical AoD is a movie, in the plainest sense of that word. Uncut, AoD becomes something that does stand on its own two feet, apart from its more obvious differences from The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, as an immersive tale. Little moments like Ash standing on the battlements after a love scene with Sheila (and, yes, the love scene with Sheila itself, down by a medieval fire no less), standing on the ramparts before the climactic battle, seeing the horses approach the castle in miniatures (for even two or three reclaimed seconds), different angles of sets, these things add texture to the film. Larger differences, like a lengthened and chilling windmill sequence, the entire pacing of the final battle between Arthur’s men, the deadites, and Henry the Red (in the director’s cut, the battle is much longer and is almost lost before Henry’s late arrival), and the entire ending itself change the tone of the film drastically. Especially where the ending is concerned (and more on that in a moment), the director’s cut of Army of Darkness is tonally a much better match to the previous films in the series.
Even alternate lines give events a much darker tone. The perfect example is the fight between Good Ash and Bad Ash at the film’s midway point. There is a little more back and forth in the director’s cut, but the most obvious change is its conclusion. In the theatrical cut, Ash stops Bad Ash’s taunts with a shotgun to the face. Camera panning up to his action pose, he utters the immortal, “Good, bad, I’m the guy with the gun.” Boom. Hero moment. In the director’s cut, we have almost the same pan, but then Ash says, “I’m not that good.” Lyrically, the first version is more pleasing; it rewards all the bravado of Ash’s character and what we’ve come to expect from an actioneer. The second version, as it’s spoken, is actually a little sinister. It is not easy to fit that second version to the Ash of the theatrical ending. And that is what will determine the viewer’s preference.
On Endings; or, “That’s just what we call pillow talk, baby”
The theatrical cut of Army of Darkness ends with Ash back home, in housewares (“Shop smart. Shop S-Mart”). After telling his epic story to Ted Raimi, he gets to flirt with the cute new girl, admit he bungled the magic words to bring him to the present, and fight a possessed shopper using an S-Mart dolly, a trampoline, and a shotgun. The movie ends with the Evil dead, Ash a hero, giving the girl a kiss and saying, “Hail to the king, baby.” It’s hard, after these three films, not to love that.
The director’s cut of Army of Darkness ends with a lingering shot of Sheila as Ash rides away to the cave where his Oldsmobile is parked. He detonates the cavemouth so that it shuts him in, then he drinks the magic potion that will make him sleep until his own time. However, he accidentally drinks one more drop than he should, and after a montage of his beard growing, history being made, he awakes and crawls out of his cave, only to discover…the world is a wasteland. Ash stands in the aftermath of the apocalypse and collapses, screaming, “I slept too long!” and as the credits roll we hear his mad laughter.
(In Germany, there is a 104 minute cut of the film that uses the theatrical ending as a dream sequence while Ash is sleeping. From the makers of schadenfreude, ladies and gentlemen.)
When Ash says, “Good, bad, I’m the guy with the gun,” it hits a sweet spot. Just as with the rapid cut montage of Ash and Annie making the chainsaw hand in Evil Dead II, the ending of the theatrical cut, as silly as it is, gives us all it’s got to give. And yet, the bleaker ending, the conclusion to the trilogy that sees Ash screw up once again, the Ash that admitted he’s “[N]ot that good,” that is the Ash that has been through the Hell of 1981, and 1987, that is the Ash that says maybe Arthur’s boys have a chance against the Evil Dead (“Yeah, and maybe I’m a Chinese jet pilot”).
It’s possible I’m getting cynical in my old age, but as much as I love the movie Army of Darkness, and love seeing Ash blowing away the S-Mart shopper with his pump action derring do, in my heart I know he’s really stuck in the future; a strange, haunted future; and for some reason that makes me happier. It delights me because as much fun as I’ve had watching Ash survive the Evil Dead trilogy, I know the Necronomicon won’t leave him alone. I know there are still sick, twisted adventures for a crazy man out of time.
As Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi could tell you, it’s the crazy ones that start the cults. They give us something new, something weird and wonderful to believe in.
And nightmares, of course. But you can always ask them to leave the store.
Army of Darkness (1992, International; 1993, US)
Directed by Sam Raimi