Monday, October 24, 2016

Drive-In of Terror: Evil Dead II (1987)

Taking different genres and merging them together is something that normally results in success.  Horror is no stranger to this idea, and examples are plentiful, from the tension-fueled action of James Cameron's Aliens to the comical and zany anarchy of Joe Dante's Gremlins, these films and others have proven you can take a scary concept and make it acceptable to the public.  At the top of this mound lies Evil Dead II, a sequel that moves away from the gritty, shocking nature of the original and into slapstick-inspired, adrenaline-fueled terror.

Initially beginning with an abridged retelling of The Evil Dead's events, without the presence of Scotty, Shelly, or Cheryl though, Evil Dead II's actual story picks up at the ending of the first movie, with the demonic presence coming after Ash (Bruce Campbell) and sending him flying through the woods before crashing into a tree and collapsing.  He is initially possessed but the presence of sunlight immediately frees Ash from their control.  Ash tries to flee, but the bridge him and Linda (Denise Bixler) took has been destroyed, so he heads back to the cabin to try and wait it out.  Meanwhile, Professor Knowby's daughter Annie (Sarah Berry), along with her colleague Ed (Richard Domeier), are traveling to her father's cabins with missing pages from the Book of the Dead, now called Necronomicon ex Mortis.  When they arrive at the bridge, a local (Dan Hicks) and his girlfriend (Kassie DePalva) are putting roadblocks up, but the man agrees to take them to the cabin via a hiking trail, so long as the two pay him well afterwards.

In the midst of all of this, Ash is dealing with the evil spirits, who have been taunting and torturing him through various means, one of which involves his dead girlfriend Linda.  At one point, she comes back to life, with her severed head biting Ash's right hand.  After cutting her decomposed body apart, his hand starts to attack him, forcing Ash to cut it off with a chainsaw.  Soon, the group arrives during one of Ash's paranoid freak-outs, and they decide to throw him in the cellar after seeing the bloody chainsaw, which Annie believes he used to kill her parents.  Ed finds Knowby's tape recorder and plays it, and Knowby reveals in his logs that after killing his possessed wife Henrietta, he buried her in the basement, which Ash is currently locked in.

With its abridged retelling that acts as a means to transition into the real meat of the movie, Evil Dead II can be watched by those unfamiliar with the prior film and still enjoy the picture for what it is, an hour-and thirty-minutes nonstop-reel of exaggerated but slapstick-heavy violence, dramatic tension, and enough moments of pure insanity to make the viewer think that they are stuck in a mental asylum.  If there was an example to the definition of insanity, it's Ash Williams when he's being mercilessly tortured by the demons.  The movie doesn't get under your skin like how The Evil Dead did; rather, it goes straight for the jugular, with ludicrous sequences of madness that leave both the main character and the audience constantly questioning the perception of reality.

On that note, the character of Ash Williams receives much more development in this follow-up.  In the original, he was an everyday guy who found himself trying to survive against a demonic presence that was gradually possessing his friends, and while he starts off on similar footing in the sequel, as the film progresses, he gradually transitions from avoiding responsibility to taking it.  As the evil spirits try to consume the ones who arrived at the Knowby cabin, Ash realizes he has to step up and take initiative, especially when the missing pages brought by Annie end up in the cellar with Henrietta, and they are the only way the demons can be expelled from the woods.  Therefore, with the help of Knowby's daughter, Ash gears up with two weapons that help made his character the icon he is today, a chainsaw where his right hand used to be, and a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun to deliver the pain.

Besides further expanding the role of the main protagonist, Evil Dead II is also an improvement on its predecessor when it comes to storytelling and technical prowess.  Though the set-up is the same and the movie does follow similar beats to the original, it's a more focused affair and doesn't suffer from any pacing issues like The Evil Dead did, it's also not as scary.  As alluded to earlier, there is a stronger presence of comedy in the sequel compared to the first, while it was there in the original, it was more subdued and dark since it stemmed from the constant laughing and taunts spouted by the demons.  There are many moments that feel like they were ripped straight from The Three Stooges.  When Ash's right hand is throwing and beating him around, one can't help but think that if sound effects were added in, then it would be a very violent, but hilarious Three Stooges tribute.  Towards the end, Evil Dead II completely transforms into an action-fantasy spectacle, with Ash fighting not just the monstrous form of Henrietta, but also contending with the true form of evil itself as Annie tries to finish reading the passages.

Technically, the movie looks more refined and polished than the first, even though the budget was still quite low for this endeavor, costing around three million dollars to make.  Still, what director Sam Raimi and the effects artists create is imaginative and inventive.  The make-up for the possessed is more fleshed-out, with elongated faces and razor-sharp hands indicating that someone has been taken over.  The camera-work is equally strong, with plenty of point-of-view sequences and other techniques present throughout; additionally, the higher budget means that there aren't as many noticeable slip-ups or goofs, not to say that they are completely gone, but they aren't as easy to spot as in the first one.

Evil Dead II is one of those sequels that is not only better than the original, but it is also capable of standing on its own as a great experience.  The stronger writing and presence of humor create a manic sense of energy that permeates through the film, combine that with great performances and inventive effects, and you have an imaginative but thrilling experience.

Final Score: 9/10

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