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'Army of Darkness' is still a dose of pure Sam Raimi joy
Looking back at Raimi's final Evil Dead film, 30 years later.
Sam Raimi is a joyous filmmaker.
There are other words to describe him, of course, and many have been used over the course of a career that now spans more than four decades. We talk about his acrobatic camerawork, his fondness for old-school transitions and visual effects techniques, and of course the madcap humor that infuses most of his movies, even when things get dark. But above all of those other qualities, it's the joy in Raimi's films that stands out, no matter the budget or the subject matter or the time and place in which he's working. Even when the films don't always shine at their brightest, Raimi's joy for the very craft of cinema is there.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Army of Darkness, Raimi's 1992 capper to the Evil Dead trilogy which took all the goopy visual effects of the first film, and all the horror-comedy of the second, and blew them both up into a dark fantasy extravaganza full of visual gags, over-the-top performances, and pure Raimi delight. It's been 30 years since the film first arrived in front of audiences, and it remains an extraordinarily gleeful experience full of unforgettable, wild moments of invention.
Evil Dead II, most fans know, builds on the premise of Evil Dead with a bigger budget and a bigger story, but keeps the cabin-in-the-woods premise in place. It would have been easy for Raimi and his team to return for an Evil Dead III that did much the same thing, with a few new flourishes and shifts that would have certainly found their own fandom. Instead, Raimi and his brother Ivan crafted a script that made good on the promise of the previous film, catapulting Ash (Bruce Campbell and his legendary chin) into the distant past for a different kind of adventure.
Still, it's worth noting that Army of Darkness could have played things safe, as evidenced by the sequences in the film when Ash is trapped alone with demonic presences like, for example, miniature versions of himself, or a graveyard full of angry skeletons trying to poke out his eyes. It could have just been a cabin in medieval Europe, but that wasn't enough this time. No, in true Raimi fashion, the third film had to keep reaching, and so we got a movie that pulled back on the horror elements (but not the gore) even more and leaned hard into sword and sorcery adventure.
As you might expect if you're a longtime Raimi viewer, all the usual trademarks are there. The camera whips around and yo-yos in and out of shots like Raimi somehow managed to caffeinate it. Campbell is giving his all. The gore effects are both satisfyingly gooey and funny, and of course there's no shortage of comedic moments interspersed with even the most overt horror sequences. What's perhaps unexpected about Army of Darkness, and it remains a bit of a surprise even on repeat viewings, is the level of mirth poured into the filmmaking.
Raimi can make serious films, even serious films that fall back on humor and moments of levity to balance things out. We've seen him do it time and time again. We've also seen him make straightforward, unironic genre films that lean deep into the conventions of the chosen story, embracing various tropes and tones to great effect.
Army of Darkness is not that.
This film, full of moments that will make your jaw drop while you're also somehow cackling with laughter, is a Looney Tunes cartoon put through a splatterpunk blender and sprinkled with Conan the Barbarian. It's Ray Harryhausen meets The Three Stooges. Most importantly, it's Sam Raimi just letting it all go, blending his monsters with his clowns like he never has in any other film before or since. It's pure, unadulterated, cinematic glee. You can practically hear Raimi himself cackling just off camera, and that makes it a perfect film to revisit anytime, but especially with the Halloween season approaching.