For many younger horror fans, their introduction to the magic of the Evil Dead trilogy came with “Army of Darkness.” The first two Evil Dead movies were difficult to find on home video for several years, while “Army of Darkness” could be found easily on the cult classic shelf at the local video store. While not quite on the same level as the first two Evil Dead movies, “Army of Darkness” is easily the most unique film in the trilogy, and in many ways the most fun.
Picking up where Evil Dead 2 left off, “Army of Darkness” continues the saga of everyone’s favorite perpetually abused stock boy, Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell). Having survived being sucked through a vortex of evil in the previous film, Ash finds himself in medieval England and is captured by a group of knights. Mistaken for a member of a rival army, he is brought back to a castle, where he is thrown into with a vicious monster. Despite the castle lord’s intentions, Ash defeats the “deadite” with his demon-slaying experience and modern technology. The resident wise man believes his triumph makes Ash the “chosen one” who will retrieve the Necronomicon, the cursed book which will help them defeat the deadites once and for all. Ash agrees, provided the wise man use the book’s magic to send him home. Ash retrieves the book, but not before foolishly awakening an army of the dead, lead by his own evil twin. His arrogant heart softened by a local girl, Ash leads the castle into battle against the forces of darkness.
The Evil Dead series has never been about intelligent plots, and “Army of Darkness” is definitely no exception. Rather than try to be serious or scary, “Army of Darkness” is silly and light-hearted; practically a parody of the first two films. As Ash, Bruce Campbell struts around with a “seen it all before” attitude and kills demons as easily as squashing a fly. Despite the character’s obvious self-delusion and arrogance, the medieval villagers follow Ash into battle like a five-star general. One minute Ash has trouble following a simple conversation, the next he’s teaching chemistry and engineering to peasants.
This complete lunacy is what makes the movie work; Evil Dead 2 may have rehashed the plot of Evil Dead, but Sam Raimi wisely avoided trying the same trick again. To survive, the series needed to expand, and a medieval setting allowed Raimi to ply his comedic directorial style on a larger scale. While not quite as visually inventive as the first two films, “Army of Darkness” delves the furthest into pure comedy. Whereas Evil Dead 2 contains gags hinting at the Three Stooges, “Army of Darkness” lifts routines directly. While very funny, the scene in which Ash is slapped, punched, and poked by skeletal hands in a graveyard is so similar to a Three Stooges routine it could have inspired a lawsuit.
Most of the truly funny moments in the film hinge upon a similar kind of slapstick, physical comedy. In many instances the film plays out like a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon; no matter how much damage Ash sustains, he keeps coming back for more. While genuinely funny, the humor creates a problem for the horrific elements of the movie. With a tone so consistently light-hearted, the few moments in which the film tries to achieve horror fall flat. Any suspense or shocks offered by the first two films are completely non-existent in this outing. Fortunately, Raimi avoids trying to scare in most cases, and sticks to comic-book style adventure. By the end of the movie, Ash come off as a cocky, Generation-X Indiana Jones.
After watching “Army of Darkness” and his other comic book outing “Darkman,” it comes as no surprise that Raimi was eventually chosen to helm Spider-Man Having already proven he could do horror with the first two Evil Dead movies, Raimi proved he could do comedic action with “Army of Darkness,” and it seems to have paid off for him.