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Saturday, 14 May 2011

Army of Darkness - 8th April 2011

Army of Darkness is responsible for this blog because Army of Darkness is responsible for me, in some way.
Yes, before it in my life there was Monty Python, the Muppet movies, Gene Wilder's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Indiana Jones, to name a few and yes, in their own way, they all had their affect but Army of Darkness, when I was but 13, started a genuine love affair with movies that has lasted 18 years and counting.
More importantly, that feeling you get after a certain type of film when you know, you've just seen something different. Something special.

I first came across the film at school where, when I think back, we used to rent all sorts of crazy films. Films like 'The Gods Must Be Crazy', 'Beastmaster' and 'Army of Darkness'.
What got me first, I remember, was the dialogue and the second thing was the animated skeleton effects. I was a fan from the very beginning. The thing was back then it was all VHS and not everything was immediately available in the UK, also, being a young teenager I was hardly flush with the old cashola and so, although memory is, obviously, a little vague, I went back to my original mission which was to collect every VHS that any member of Monty Python had ever appeared in ever. You know, as you do.

Then, in 1997, 98 maybe I wandered into my local movie/music shop and they were having a 3 for 12 offer on VHS, this was back when you could buy three of anything for 12 pounds, and they had Evil Dead 1, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness (or The Medieval Dead as it is also titled in the UK) in the offer. Now, by then, I had certainly seen ED2 or parts of it on TV, I was at 6th form college studying film and so, through chats with people there, I was becoming more and more aware of the horror and b-movie genres (I remember one hilarious conversation round a pub table with my technician friends where they told me all about a film where someone was raped by a tree!) and I am almost certain that, weirdly, I had seen Maniac Cop by this stage too. So the pieces were slotting into place.
I purchased the three VHS, went home, watched all three and a new version of me was born. Everything about them I wanted more of, the camera angles, the cheesy yet inventive b-movie dialogue and, of course, Bruce Campbell.
So that, in a vague, mis-remembered ramble, is my story and how I came to be writing this blog years later.
Years later at a point in history, thanks mainly to my generation I would imagine, that horror, B-Movies, the Evil Dead trilogy, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are firm fan favourites, with a following, almost common place and at a time when, as Bruce is known to say, Evil Dead is now available in Walmart.
The downside of all this is all the horrible remakes, bad hollywood horror and the fact that the joy of finding a rare Bruce VHS tucked away in the corner of some tiny video shop crammed to the gills with amazingly weird and dusty VHS has been replaced with easy to do 1-click shopping on Amazon.com or EBay but these, I feel, on my good days, are small prices to pay for being able to finally watch and get hold of all of Bruce's back catalogue, more or less, and for being able to make friends based on the one guy out of a hundred you might meet who knows who BC is.

Right, back to Army of Darkness:
Now, it might be worth mentioning at this point that there are five main versions of the film.
There is the American theatrical version which is the version I saw on the 8th of April at a midnight screening (completing my dream of seeing all three films of the trilogy on the big screen at a midnight screening) and that one is the shortest, has the most amount of studio interference and only features the 'Captain Supermarket' ending. There is also an American TV version of Army of Darkness which I haven't seen.
Then there is the Directors Cut 'Official Bootleg' edition which has now been released on DVD both sides of the pond and that features, basically, everything that was shot with varying degrees of quality. This has the full battle, the full windmill scene and the "I slept too long!" ending. The only trouble with this version is they changed where Henry the Red rides into battle at a point where, because there is a burning fuse, it is A) even more ridiculous than it was before and B) stops the flow of the whole ending battle. It seems like one big editing mistake that could've been easily fixed.

Then there is the International cut of the film which seems to blend the two. This is the one I own on VHS and has never been released on DVD, to my knowledge. The only DVD versions I can find currently available is the Directors Cut and the American Theatrical release.

Then, finally, there is the MGM Region 3 Hong Kong version of the film and this is  an amalgam of all other versions, with the best sound and video quality, running at 96 minutes, same length as the director's cut. The VHS I have had the same cover, this was also the art work used to advertise it in UK cinemas, it was obviously designed to stand alone and appeal to fans of Conan and Beastmaster etc.

Why the recently financially screwed MGM decided to release the best version in this territory and not world wide is a mystery for the ages. Still at least now I have a new holy grail.

Right, so with all that established, I will attempt to give a fair review of the whole film. Firstly, it's faults, if it has any, are obviously due to editing and studio interference. If you couple that with the fact that they were obviously trying to achieve an absolute ton on the budget, which stretched its effects house to bursting point, exhausted its star and frustrated it's director, it may go a little way to explaining why the pacing can be a little off in places and none of it really makes any sense.
Once you accept these things, however, then the film is one of the most endlessly inventive, humourous, bizarre and re-watchable films the studio system has ever produced.

If its success, or rather lack of it on initial release, was based on the American Theatrical version then I am not entirely surprised because, being the shortest of all the versions, it makes the least amount of sense and races at an utterly breathless pace from the start to the finish. What the studio did by trimming it down and trying desperately to make it a straight stand alone action/adventure film was utterly miss the point. It lacks the beauty and clarity of Sam's direction and vision in some places, it wastes a lot of the fantastic sequences towards the end that they probably spent a lot of the budget on and it reduces some of the finer points of Bruce's character and acting so he is just, predominantly a buffoon.
The longer versions, however, give the images and more importantly the amazing Joe LoDuca score room to breathe.

AOD, whilst following on from Evil Dead 2 in plot, it doesn't follow on in tone at all. It is a play on the plot of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by way of a Warner Brother's cartoon performed by the Three Stooges and with the dialogue lampooning the quips of everyone from Errol Flynn to James Bond. It probably confused or even angered horror fans at the time because of it's departure from the gross out antics of the first two but this trilogy of films, if they're about anything then they are about Sam as a director and Bruce as an actor. The pair of them infuse every frame of each film with their considerable talents and while Evil Dead 2 might be the best film out of the trilogy, Army of Darkness is the best all out Bruce Campbell movie, maybe ever made.
It's where the longer versions again succeed as they seem to manage to contain Campbell's incredibly funny, frantic and dextrous performance better, although, to be fair, it's him and the character of Ash that win out in every single one of the edits.
Its continued success now, I would say, is based almost entirely on him, his ability to turn the mock-heroic dialogue into a sort of amazing poetry and the way that he makes us like and sympathise with this cowardly, idiotic braggart.
Everyone made a big hoot about Jim Carrey in The Mask two years later but I honestly feel that Campbell is a more capable, more complex and more adventurous actor and he did it all without the use of CGI.

Hollywood would most likely have softened and marginalised Campbell, much as it has Raimi, had he got the recognition for Army of Darkness and indeed, the Evil Deads, that he deserved. What it has given him, eventually, is a loyal fan base that has allowed him longevity and the chance, occasionally to do an interesting or quirky script the likes of which other actors may only dream of.

Another reason to watch Army of Darkness is that it sort of represents the last of Raimi as a truly innovative and creatively original director. Yes, The Quick and The Dead was covered in his trademark camera work but the performances in it are far too earnest and serious, Spiderman 2 had glimmers of his deft use of sound and video editing but the rest of the trilogy had so much money behind it that the sense of effort and innovation wasn't there and it's true to say that Drag Me To Hell returned Raimi to his gross out and mischievous roots but without a strong script or a Campbell, a lot of it looked like he was treading water.
In AOD though, he took studio money and a serious supporting cast and peppered it with absolutely everything he had ever learnt from the super 8 days onwards, filled it full of friends and family cameos, wrote in Stooges gag after Stooges gag, strapped cameras to everything he could think of, put Bruce's name above the title of the movie and utilised, not just every old technique he could find and muster from stop motion animation, prosthetics and puppetry but tried to incorporate the latest techniques that were being attempted at the time too, like the Introvision front-projection system.

AOD stands as one of the last movies to use all these fantastic, mostly entirely practical effects all in one spot. A year later Jurassic Park would come out, showing the world this new thing called CGI and sadly movies have been using it ever since. Occasionally it is used in an inventive and exciting way but mostly it is half-arsed, boring, repetitive, unimaginative and unrealistic. Give me talking skeletons animated through stop-motion techniques any day of the week.

It's true to say that while every version of the film is a bit of a shambolic mess for one reason or another and that may, indeed, be some of it's charm, it is obvious that everyone's time, energy, blood, sweat, tears and passion went into every single frame. There isn't a wasted moment, they thought big and then on a small budget, made big, as big as they could go.

The reason there aren't hundreds of films out there like this, the reason that this film leaves you with such a feeling of 'man I wish every movie was as good and as entertaining as that', the reason it has stood the test of time, grown into a cult, spawned comic books, toys, t-shirts and all manner of merchandise and the reason why the rumour of a fourth one will never die is because:
A) studios rarely give a chance like this to film-makers and they take it with such boundless creativity and enthusiasm and
B) I can't think of a film since, in this genre and with this style, that has even come close to rivaling the weirdness, the wildness, the laughter, the action, the adventure and the energy of Army of Darkness and if some have tried they have done it with that horrible 'we know we are being wacky, look at us being wacky' post-modern, winking at the camera crap that boils my blood and drains my soul.

Into the pit with them!

10 out of 10 a big fist full of hearty medieval, tasty, sweet and never sour grapes.
"First you want to kill me, now you want to kiss me... blow!"
Points from the Wife - 8 out of 10.
     

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for recognizing the brilliance that was the Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell pair. The pair would still be alive if Raimi's budget didn't grow so big...

    ReplyDelete

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