Enjoyment is the greatest of lost sensations at scary movies, and “Evil Dead II” endures as an obstinate token of those simpler times, when such vehicles were sought after for the excitement and thrill of an urgent scare-fest. Often those experiences have to be called on against normal trajectories – it is rarely in fashion to dive into the recesses of the past for a genre this volatile – but even those who are emboldened by the visceral nature of the modern catalog are willing to recognize it as more of a landmark than a relic. Though the special effects have dated in all of their obvious ways, the attitude of the material remains razor-sharp, and the hero is an infectiously dependable force that matches the crazed gazes of demonic spirits with a face that insults their ominous nature. To those who have been eagerly consuming horror films for so long, he may very well be the archetype of their desensitized nature – a man so unaffected by the vulgarity and trauma of an unfortunate situation that he has no other choice than to stare back with some level of comedic tolerance.
The film’s first half hour is a triumph of that philosophy. As the lone survivor of a terrible series of events involving the awakening of demonic energies in the woods, Ash becomes the tormented host of a plethora of nightmarish visions within an old cabin. Chief among them: the possession of his hand, which develops its own personality and makes frequent attempts to attack its owner, even after said man goes to the trouble of cutting it off. Other forms of torment also dominate his fear-filled expressions, including the chasing of an unseen entity through the camera lens, demonic possession, inanimate objects coming to life, and even the reanimating of his own beheaded girlfriend; there is a moment when she bites him and he is forced to use a vice and a chainsaw to separate her teeth from his palm, inspiring one of the greatest reaction shots in all horror movies.
But just as his wryly sadistic engagement with the evil spirits reaches a crescendo, new guests announce their arrival: two rednecks from the local town, and another two from far off in the big city. One of them, the daughter of the cabin’s previous owners, carries lost pages from the fabled book of the dead, which is responsible for the unfortunate hauntings; previously summoned by parents who were relaying their findings to a critical audio recorder, she arrives to discover both of them dead and this strange man among those possessions, inspiring many of the typical misconceptions that lead to his imprisonment. If the identities of the supporting players remain a blur among a frenzied display of blood spatters and fearful outbursts, it’s because Raimi saw beyond the point of creating full-fledged characters for slaughter; they are merely punchlines in his macabre choreography. How might one tell the difference between these targets and those in, say, a “Friday the 13th” film? There is a moment when one of the evil entities comes crashing through the floor, and when its head is kicked back through the opening, one of its eyes shoots out of the socket and into the mouth of a screaming woman; any serious connoisseur will sense the vigor of that humorous intention, whereas most other filmmakers would hardly bother when the interest is purely about the depravity of the death.
Of course casual observers of horror films can barely tell the difference, which is where Ash gains his most relevant footing. Something deeply self-aware drives the context of his persistence through these events, and unlike countless peers across miles of murky endeavors, Bruce Campbell’s face never weathers the fear of the situation; in those moments where shock becomes necessary, one senses an internal grin struggling to escape. In the era before victims became of horror became educated movie watchers or sarcastic philosophers, his presence must have been seen as rather jarring a contrast. What was the purpose of anyone surviving something so grueling if the light at the end of the tunnel was equally as dangerous? That was exactly the point: just as an audience would never expect someone to conquer something so clearly relentless, they also could hardly anticipate the survivor taking such clear delight in a narrow victory. There is such fearless personality driving his behavior that when he fastens a chainsaw to his missing hand, his one-word response (“Groovy!”) plays perfectly into the humor of the moment.
Years of imitations and homages populate the catalog, many with varying levels of success (or failure). It is easy for us to laugh at “Scream” even when the gore reaches excess, for example; there is something persistently amusing about watching characters narrate their fates based on the rules of their universe. We are less amused by remakes because they are more concerned about celebrating the violence instead of sneering at it. And every once in a while a film comes along in which glaring stupidity threatens to unravel the material, until a character molded in Ash’s image emerges to remind us of the power of irreverent identities. Those are the films that are in the tradition of the great enjoyments of the past, in which people shouted their frustrations at the screen and briefly sensed a perceptive person on the inside listening to the important directions.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Horror/Comedy (US); 1987; Not Rated; Running Time: 84 Minutes
Bruce Campbell: Ash Williams
Sarah Berry: Annie Knowby
Dan Hicks: Jake
Kassie Wesley: Bobby Joe
Produced by Bruce Campbell, Alex De Benedetti, Irvin Shapiro and Robert G. Tapert; Directed by Sam Raimi; Written by Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel