Army of Darkness (1992)
by Steve Habrat
In 1987, director Sam Raimi remade his 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead, dropping the simple stone-faced terror that turned the original into such a hit and planting the tongue of the series firmly into its bloody cheek. This slapstick remake, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, would go on to become even more wildly popular than the terrifying ’81 original. Personally, I’ve never cared for Evil Dead II nearly as much as the original film and I was never convinced the film struck the proper balance of Three Stooges comedy and hair-raising terror. Hey, that’s just me! In 1992, Raimi and his ever-game star Bruce Campbell brought the series to a close with the even sillier Army of Darkness, a medieval epic that, at least to this guy, was infinitely more entertaining than Evil Dead II (I can just hear some of you horror fans now). Dropping almost all of the scares and embracing more action and adventure, Army of Darkness wins the viewer over almost instantly with its ever-quotable one-liners and its never-ending string of comic book gags. Yet while Army of Darkness does keep your eyes glued to the pulpy thrills, the jokes and the plot end up getting stretched to the breaking point, causing this brief eighty minute romp to wear out its welcome near the climax. Luckily, Raimi has the good sense to wrap everything up before Army of Darkness really falls to pieces.
After briefly flashing back to the events of Evil Dead II, which concluded with Ash (Played by Bruce Campbell) getting sucked into a portal opened by the Book of the Dead and spit out in medieval England. After tumbling out of the sky, Ash is immediately confronted by Lord Arthur (Played by Marcus Gilbert) and his men, who instantly accuse Ash of working with Duke Henry (Played by Richard Grove), Arthur’s sworn enemy. Ash is taken, along with the captured Henry, to a nearby castle where he is forced into a pit, which houses a snarling Deadite waiting to rip souls to pieces. Ash dispatches the ghoul and in return, he wins the trust of the terrified villagers, the beautiful Sheila (Played by Embeth Davidtz) and the castle’s Wiseman (Played by Ian Abercrombie), who bargains that if Ash is to venture into the haunted countryside and retrieve the mysterious Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, he can return to present day. Ash reluctantly accepts the offer, but after goofing the magic words he was supposed to say upon retrieving the book, he inadvertently awakens an army of the dead. To make matters worse, this army is led by a demonic twin of Ash. After Sheila is captured by a flying Deadite, Ash decides to align himself with the medieval soldiers and destroy the advancing demonic army.
Leaving most of the toe-curling thrills and chills in that legendary cabin, Army of Darkness quickly opts for Three Stooges style humor and heaping doses of fantasy action. For those who love blood and guts, the only carnage to be found is at the beginning, when one poor sap is shoved into the pit with a Deadite and a geyser of gore sprays into the heavens. It is absolutely hilarious and almost like Raimi is purging all of the gore from his system before launching headfirst into seventy minutes of solid belly laughs and action. Most of the time, it feels like Army of Darkness is poking fun at the action genre, from the tough-as-nails hero Ash and his bottomless pit of one-liners (“Give me some sugar, baby!” “Name’s Ash. Housewares.”), to the gratuitous explosions that rain down on the final showdown. Never once does it feel as if Raimi is taking all the action and adventure too seriously and he launches it at us at breakneck speeds. While this certainly keeps Army of Darkness very interesting, it also exhausts the film by the grand finale. It appeared that Raimi was moving at such a furious rate that he almost wore himself out and lost his grip on the entire project. Luckily, Mr. Campbell and his glorious lantern jaw comes to the rescue.
The true success of Army of Darkness rests on the chain saw of Mr. Bruce Campbell, who seems to be having an absolute blast jumping and throwing himself around like a madman. Right from the get-go, Campbell’s Ash chews right through Raimi’s dialogue and he does it with plenty of fiery confidence. Just wait for the scene where he has to recite the magic words before retrieving the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (cinema buffs will remember those magic words from The Day the Earth Stood Still). When he isn’t muttering a classic one-liner (trust me, it is LOADED with them), he is busy socking, slapping, and poking himself in the face or busy battling a handful of feisty miniature versions of himself. His enthusiasm for the role is infectious and it is an absolute blast watching him throw himself into every scene with such gusto. In a way, it is almost a shame he is so good because every other actor or actress in the film is caught in his shadow. As for everyone else, Gilbert and Grove are largely forgettable as Lord Arthur and Duke Henry. Davidtz is just a pretty face until she gets to unleash her dark side near the end of the film, but most of her sinister vibe comes from the prosthetics applied to her face. Abercrombie checks in a fine performance as the Wiseman who believes that Ash is the savior that they have been waiting for. Keep an eye out for George A. Romero alum Patricia Tallman as an evil witch, Sam Raimi’s brother Ted in a number of different roles, and Bridget Fonda as Ash’s gal Linda.
To me, the fact that Army of Darkness isn’t simultaneously trying to be funny and scary is why it works better than Evil Dead II. I understand that many will not agree with me, but I just never thought that Evil Dead II was as funny or scary as it thought it was (I was left longing for the slow build and straight faced terror of the original). Army of Darkness is well aware that it is just a roller coaster ride and it makes absolutely no apologies about it. There are small tastes of the horror that Raimi unleashed in 1981, but for the most part, this is strictly an action comedy ripped from the pages of a comic book you have never heard of. And while the medieval action does wear thin, Raimi picks it up for one last boomstick blast of demonic action in the aisles of present day S-Mart. Overall, as a gonzo send-up of the action and fantasy genre, Army of Darkness is about as giddy and playful as they come. The action may start to slip from Raimi’s grasp, but this is Campbell’s show from the first frame all the way to the last. He may very well be the grooviest action hero of all time, and his shotgun never runs out of ammo. Gotta problem with that?
Army of Darkness is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
by Steve Habrat
In 1992, the world was introduced to a jive talking video store clerk turned screenwriter, director, and actor. He made the uptight film snobs squirm (he still does) with the way he borrowed from 70’s trash cinema and made those searching high and low for a sleazy thrill giddy with delight. His name is Quentin Tarantino and the film that shot him into stardom was the bloody crime caper Reservoir Dogs, a film that has to rank as one of the best films from the 90’s. Extremely controversial with its violence (Wes Craven reportedly walked out of a screening of the film) and unapologetically funny (the analysis of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’) even if it is incredibly crass, Reservoir Dogs is a smoothing talking throwback that doesn’t hide the fact that it is borrowing from forgotten cinema. Reservoir Dogs is a film that sucks the viewer in instantly; ripe with fast-talking criminals dressed in too-cool-for-school suits and black Wayfarers. Classic tunes from the 70’s blare over the soundtrack as these crooks, who look more like a 50’s rock n’ roll band than a bunch of jewelry thieves, strut in slow motion through a parking lot. It’s the sequence that is the epitome of cool, my dear readers, and it merely is setting the stage. That is the best way I can describe Reservoir Dogs, as a super cool caper that has the power to disturb and tickle, sometimes at the same time. I should also note that the film is incredibly influential, despite what some may say.
Reservoir Dogs introduces us to six thugs, Mr. White (Played by Harvey Keitel), Mr. Blonde (Played by Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Played by Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Played by Steve Buscemi), Mr. Brown (Played by Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Played by Eddie Bunker), who are all gearing up for the perfect heist. They find a leader in Joe Cabot (Played by Lawrence Tierney), a cranky and gravelly-voiced gangster, and his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie (Played by Chris Penn). Together, they plan to rob a jewelry store and it appears they have every angle covered. But something goes horribly wrong and the heist becomes a scene of stomach-churning carnage. Four of the thugs escape to a hideout where they begin to suspect that one member of the group may be an undercover police officer. Meanwhile, the police are gathering outside the hideout, ready to take the group down by any means necessary.
The overall setup of Reservoir Dogs is a pretty simple one but the film sets itself apart by never showing the viewer the heist. We only see the chaotic aftermath of it, allowing our imaginations to run wild. The small budget prevented Tarantino from showing us the heist but the dialogue is pretty graphic in its description to the point where I wasn’t sure I even WANTED to see it. The aftermath is disturbing, with Mr. Orange severely wounded by a gunshot to the gut, an injury that has him bleeding all over the joint. He squirms and shrieks in pain as Mr. White tries desperately to reassure him that he isn’t going to die. Meanwhile, two other group members were wasted in a hail of gunfire and we learn that the psychotic Mr. Blonde executed a handful of innocent civilians (one being only a young nineteen year old). If the bickering and the withering Mr. Orange isn’t enough to upset the viewer, Tarantino then delivers a terrifying and darkly comedic torture sequence that finds Mr. Blonde slashing a captured cop up with a blade and then hacking his ear off. It is a sequence that reportedly made Mr. Madsen a little queasy when he was filming it, especially when the cop adlibbed “I got a little kid at home!” Mr. Tarantino goes for the throat and he never even flinches while doing it.
Savagery aside, Reservoir Dogs is loaded with explosive performances from almost everyone involved. It is constant tug of war between Madsen’s Mr. Blonde, a psychopath who enjoys torturing his victims before he puts them out of their misery and Keitel’s Mr. White, a fatherly figure who isn’t afraid to get a little nasty himself when his back is against the wall. Madsen steals the show with his steely glares and you’d never guess that he got a queasy tummy while filming the notorious torture sequence. And then there is Buscemi, a smart but wimpy gangster who smells something rotten in the group. Buscemi is the king when it comes to playing oily low lives like this and I have to say Reservoir Dogs finds one of his best performances. Roth sends chills down your spine as the wounded Mr. Orange, really doing a lot with a role that demands he lay on the ground and bleed out. It never gets any easier to watch him shriek in pain in the back of a car and wither around in agony. All I can say is I hope I never, ever get shot in the gut. Penn and Tierney bring plenty of hotshot swagger as “Nice Guy” Eddie and Joe Cabot. Tierney is especially intense as Joe, the glaring don who does put up with any shenanigans or backtalk for his team. Tarantino and Bunker do well with the small roles they have but I would have liked to see a bit more from their characters, especially Mr. Blue. Tarantino gives rich back-stories for the thugs yet he leaves out ones for Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue, which doesn’t really make any sense to me. The only theory I have is possibly the tiny budget prevented him from doing anything further with the characters.
Reservoir Dogs is the film that introduced the world to the “Tarantino style” of filmmaking, which includes drawn out conversations and colorful exchanges between the characters, use of ironic music, nonstop film references, and chilling bursts of violence. Some say that this style has ruined film (mostly film professors that are steaming mad over the fact that Tarantino never went to film school and educated himself on film by taking trips to the local grindhouse) and made it unoriginal considering that Tarantino enjoys nabbing his favorite scenes from old exploitation cinema and stitching them all together. I have to disagree that his work is unoriginal considering that he fashions these references into unique creations that could only come from Tarantino’s mind. I really don’t think anyone else could have made Reservoir Dogs as likable as it is and trust me; this film contains some seriously shocking moments that make it a tough pill to swallow. Overall, Reservoir Dogs is maddeningly simple, wickedly funny, and waiting to spring one hell of a twist on the viewer near the end of the film (trust me, the reveal is really awesome). It is best going into the film with as little knowledge of the film as possible and it is one that you won’t soon forget after you’ve seen it. Good luck listening to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ the same way ever again.
Reservoir Dogs is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Batman Returns (1992)
by Steve Habrat
While I credit Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman for shaping me into the hardcore fan of the Caped Crusader that I am, my favorite Burton Batman film is without question the bizarre 1992 sequel Batman Returns. Darker, uglier, and meaner than the 89’ original, Batman Returns is a macabre circus of freaks that goes right for the jugular in more ways than one. Burton punches up the violence, the gore, and the sexual innuendos that would make overly sensitive young children cower in fear and nurse scars for life. Burton still makes the grave mistake of putting more emphasis on the formation of the foes rather than Bruce Wayne/Batman’s demons that plague him but Keaton does still get the chance to elaborate on the classic character, giving him more depth here than in Batman. Criticized by many critics and fans for putting more thought into the gothic world of Gotham City than the storyline, Batman Returns does have an even more flamboyant style than the original film but with this style, Burton piles on a sense of dread that practically snaps the film in two. With Batman Returns, Burton goes full goth on the viewer and I love it.
Batman Returns flashes back thirty-three years and ushers us in to a the lavish home of the Cobblepots, a wealthy couple who has given birth to a deformed child that they quickly smuggle out into the snowy evening and dump into the Gotham City sewers. The film jumps to present day with the deformed Penguin (Played by Danny DeVito) readying his plot to reveal himself to the world. It is the Christmas season and hundreds of Gotham’s citizens have gathered in Gotham Square for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony held by the Mayor (Played by Michael Murphy) and crooked businessman Max Shreck (Played by Christopher Walken). The Penguin unleashes his merry gang of freaks onto the city as a diversion so he can kidnap Shreck and blackmail him into helping him re-emerge into the world. Shreck, meanwhile, takes out his frustration with the incident on his timid secretary Selina Kyle (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) by threatening her and then shoving her out of a window in disgust. She survives the fall and in the wake of the accident, she takes to the streets as a mysterious leather-clad vigilante who enjoys helping women in trouble while also leaving a trail of destruction across Gotham. As the violence escalates, Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) is forced to call upon the mysterious Batman (Played by Michael Keaton) to protect the city.
You’d never guess that Burton was hesitant to return to the world of Gotham City because Batman Returns comes at the viewer like, well, a bat out of Hell. The film begins with the disturbing images of a horrified couple dumping a baby into frigid waters and then quickly shifts over to the Penguin unleashing the Red Triangle Circus Gang on the city to commit mass murder. He cuts the scene up with the Batsignal shooting up into the sky while Bruce Wayne sits sulking in his darkened study, alone and away from the world yet completely comfortable in this isolated world of darkness. He notices the signal in the sky and he dutifully stands up to ready himself for battle. This is one of my favorite scenes in any of the Batman films that have made it to the big screen. Now you understand why I prefer this film to the original blockbuster. Burton isn’t playing it safe anymore and he keeps the gloom up for slightly over two hours. We get to spend quite a bit more time with the man behind the cowl and Keaton continues to fascinate us. He has apparently learned to let love in, yet this time, the destruction is deadlier and he fidgets if he has to make a dash to the Batcave. Keaton sizzles when he plays off of Pfeiffer, who is both his love interest and his villain here. When the two are all dressed up and prowling the rooftops, get ready to have your world rocked. Their showdowns are explosive.
Batman Returns gives us a brief look at the tragedy that has given birth to the Penguin but it takes its good old time to really give us Catwoman, a sultry menace who aligns herself with both Batman and the Penguin. Her shift from timid to seductive is compelling and is a testament to Pfeiffer, who single handedly creates one of the best villains in this series of Batman films. In many ways, she overshadows most of the other villains because you never quite known if she is going to be playing friend or foe. Her origin, though slight cheesy, is one that will have the feminists cheering as she ditches the “His Girl Friday” routine and becomes a snarling liberator who warns the women she saves that they shouldn’t count on the BatMAN to save them anymore. After slicing up a mugger’s face, she whispers to the victim, “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar!” When she is paired up the slobbering sicko Penguin, a perverted freak of nature, it becomes a gothic Beauty and the Beast. DeVito is absolutely perfect as the sad sack Oswald Cobblepot, one who is eager to drain the citizens of their empathy and cackles behind closed doors at people’s gullibility. When he finally reveals his master plan, many may be covering their mouths in horror. Oh yes, Burton plans to go there and when one of Penguin’s gang members speaks up and tells Penguin that his plan may be a little too dark, he quickly reaches for his shotgun and blows the softie away. When I saw this in the theater, my jaw was on the floor.
Burton scales back some of his action in Batman Returns, making things a bit more claustrophobic but still thrilling nonetheless. There are lots of brawls in the snow-covered streets of Gotham between the vicious Red Triangle Circus Gang and Batman that are a lot of fun. The opening riot is appropriately shocking, especially when you see the whacked out appearance of the gang members. There is a fire-eater here, a pair of maniacs on stilts, and tons of freaks on motorcycles that don some horrifying skull masks. Near the end of the film, things take a turn into silliness with the Penguin unleashing hundreds of armed penguins on Gotham. It takes things into campy territory, which is a bit perplexing considering how dark the film was up until this big reveal. Burton regroups with a gruesome four way stand-off between a maskless Batman, a battered Catwoman, a dying Penguin, and a desperate Shreck, who seems slightly out of place in this trio of freaks. Much like the 89’ original, the effects have held up marvelously. Wait until you get a load of the scene where Batman glides over the chaos riddled streets of Gotham City, blending in with a swarm of bats that are filling the streets.
Batman Returns is certainly not a film for children and it erases some of the goofier elements that bothered me in Batman. Luckily, there is no villain dancing around the tunes of Prince, which was a giant relief. The plotline does get a bit weak in points, with the style masking the fact that the story is flying off the rails. Burton botches it at the end with the army of penguins and a funeral procession with six gigantic penguins, but I am willing to forgive due to how great the other 95% of this film is. Once again, Burton wastes the character of Commissioner Gordon, with the beloved ally only making a few minor appearances in all the action. Michael Gough shows up again as Alfred, the kind butler who realizes that he may have to aid Bruce in his battle against two foes looking to level Gotham. Walken is also a lot of fun as Shreck but he sort of clogs up the story at times. Overall, if Burton were hesitant to make this film, you’d never know it because it seems enthusiastically made. It also seems like he got a bit more freedom from the studio to really get weird. Once again, there are some minor tweaks to the stories, which will no doubt drive the fanboys like me nuts but I love this film because it dares to venture deeper into the darkness of the comic books. For that, Batman Returns remains my favorite Batman film from Burton.
Batman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Evil Dead II (1987)
by Steve Habrat
I’m going to sound like the stickler here but I’m just being honest, I really don’t care much for Sam Raimi’s 1987 free-for-all Evil Dead II, a loose remake/reimagining of 1981’s low budget The Evil Dead. Brash, frivolous, and gallingly noisy, Evil Dead II never really justifies its existence outside of setting up for 1992’s Army of Darkness. I guess I’ll never understand why Raimi wanted to fiddle with a good thing, reimagining The Evil Dead as a horror comedy, shoving in as much slapstick as he possibly can, and sucking all the terror out of the experience. I detest the glossier finish on Evil Dead II and the bigger budget feel to the project. The film is nothing but a continuous stampede of special effects and gags, only a few hitting their mark and the rest just splattering the audience with black goo. It truly breaks my heart because this film is legendary in the horror genre, praise coming from fans and critics alike and when I saw it all those years ago, I was extremely let down, especially after being taken aback by The Evil Dead. I’ve given the film multiple chances over the years and my disappointment is still firmly in tact. What am I missing?
Evil Dead II hits the restart button and begins with a small introduction/explanation of The Book of the Dead. After a zippy, special effects heavy intro, Ash (Played once again by Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Played by Denise Bixler) retreat to that dreaded cabin in the woods for a romantic getaway. This time, they are not accompanied by a handful of other friends looking to have a good time. As soon as they arrive, Ash stumbles upon a recording of spoken passages by an archeologist from The Book of the Dead, which naturally when played wake up that moaning unseen force lurking in the woods and opens up all the occupants of the cabin to demonic possession. Linda gets possessed early on, leaving Ash to battle the forces of evil by himself. Soon, the archeologist’s daughter Annie (Played by Sarah Berry) and her research partner Ed (Played by Richard Domeier) arrive at the cabin with recently found missing pages from The Book of the Dead. Two tobacco-chewing locals, Jake (Played by Dan Hicks) and Bobby Joe (Played by Kassie Wesley DePaiva), who are familiar with the several trails that lead to the secluded cabin, accompany Annie and Ed. When the new group arrives, they quickly start working on a way to stop the evil forces from preying upon the cabin and possessing those inside.
Evil Dead II hits the ground running in the first few minutes and then moves at the speed light for eight-four minutes, never stopping once for a break. I’m not opposed to Raimi’s banshee-out-of-Hell approach with the sequel but it is such a far cry from the original, I was left wishing for the slow build of the first film. The film also dares to venture outside the cabin to other places (an air strip, a brief flashback to the archeologist finding The Book of the Dead), diminishing the out-of-the-way anxiety that hovered over the original film. The sad part of all of this is Raimi could care less if he is scary this time–he just wants to shock the viewer repeatedly, making us jump out of our skin by the relentless power of everything in the frame. His camera does more darting around, loud howls and bangs are turned up to twenty on the soundtrack, fake blood is sprayed everywhere, and his monsters have grown in number. The film is so excessive, it almost borders on gluttonous.
Then we have Ash, our all-to-eager hero from the first film who returns to be even more of a macho hard ass. Campbell embraces a more physical style of acting, aiming for slapstick rather than rattled, cautious terror. He fights with his possessed hand, he mutters chuckle worthy one-liners line “Groovy”, dashes through the cabin screaming bloody murder, and is showered in more fake blood than you can ever imagine. Campbell is a talented guy and a joy to watch as he is clearly having the time of his life dispatching demons with a chain saw, but I liked him better when he was an everyman, scaled back realistically to a genuine normal guy with no where to run. Evil Dead II is the film that builds him up into the unstoppable horror hero that he is, with severed hand replaced with a chain saw and packing a sawed off shotgun to shatter heads. He is a complete riff on the macho hero of the 1980’s, even loosing one of his shirtsleeves to show off his built arms, his face always covered in sweat and perfect gashes, and a girl always super glued to his arm. Campbell does end up being the highlight of Evil Dead II, his character actually becoming more of a classic than the film itself.
Evil Dead II never allows our minds fill in the blank and this is what causes it to trip over itself. Everything gets explained, from The Book of the Dead to even that terrifying force lurking in the woods (you get to see it here). Perhaps if The Evil Dead never existed, I might have different feelings for Evil Dead II, maybe more accepting of its horror comedy act. The film is well made and well executed from a technical standpoint; the effects are pretty good but just severely out of place. I just can’t figure out why this film is hailed as being scarier than The Evil Dead. I don’t think there are many scares to be found throughout the film. Maybe it is the fact that it continuously assaults the viewer every step of the way, but even then, I think the film comes off as more irritating the bloodcurdling. Overall, Evil Dead II is mildly enjoyable and worth taking a look at just to see what everyone raves about. But if I want to see something that is going to send me hiding behind my couch, I’ll take the original any day of the week over this nutty circus.
Evil Dead II is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.