After injecting quite a bit of humor into EVIL DEAD 2, director Sam Raimi takes the series into the realm of all-out fantasy-comedy with ARMY OF DARKNESS, which is conspicuously lacking an EVIL DEAD 3 tag. Yet this wild, precociously visual treat is instantly recognizable as part of the Raimi canon.
The movie opens with a brief prologue outlining the events of EVIL DEAD and EVIL DEAD II, the latter of which left our clumsy hero, Ash (Bruce Campbell), stranded in the Middle Ages. Discovered by the knights of Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), Ash is dragged to his castle in chains and cast into a pit inhabited by "Deadites," creatures possessed by the evil spirits Ash had fought in the woods in the previous two films. A Wiseman (Ian Abercrombie) tosses him his trusty chainsaw, and Ash makes short work of the beasts, then uses his shotgun to subdue Arthur and free the captured Duke Henry the Red (Richard Grove). Desiring only to get home, Ash is told by the Wiseman that he must retrieve the Necronomicon, the book that can raise or put down the dead, from a haunted cemetery. Prior to leaving on his quest for the book, Ash begins a romance with the princess Sheila (Embeth Davidtz).
On his way to the graveyard, Ash is pursued by evil forces to an old windmill, where a mirror he breaks releases tiny duplicates of himself which torment him. One of the mini-Ashes jumps into his mouth, then grows into a malevolent double of Ash that splits off and engages him in battle. Ash manages to hack up his evil twin and bury him before continuing to the cemetery--but once there, he forgets the correct incantation while stealing the book and awakens the armies of the dead. Among the revived corpses is that of Evil Ash, who commandeers the walking corpses and skeletons in an attack on Arthur's castle.
In the course of the ensuing battle, Sheila is kidnapped by the Deadites and becomes evil herself, attempting to kill Ash as he helps Arthur's men fight off the dead. But the living, aided by the arriving armies of Duke Henry, defeat the zombie forces, while Ash destroys his evil twin once and for all and returns Sheila to normal. Although now hailed as a hero, Ash decides to use the Wiseman's magic to return to the present, where he proves his amazing story to his hardware store co-workers by destroying the last of the Deadites, which has followed him through time.
As if knowing that the bigger budget and expanded scale of ARMY OF DARKNESS would work against the gritty, claustrophobic horror that characterized the first EVIL DEAD, Raimi has here gone for a splashy, colorful spectacle that aims more for thrills and excitement. The movie marks a return to the glory days of the Ray Harryhausen mythological adventures, complete with an army of living skeletons who seem to have marched right out of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. The opening titles actually read "Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness," which pretty much sets the tone; the abbreviated 81-minute running time (thanks to pre-release edits) results in a reckless pace that careens from one supernatural confrontation to the next.
Raimi is a master at pacing this kind of material, however, and never allows it to become redundant. And he has a perfect, hapless hero in Campbell, who in this installment takes Ash to the apotheosis of heroic incompetence. The actor manages the difficult trick of making it clear he belives in
Ash's innate worth, even though Ash himself isn't quite aware of it. And he and Raimi work up some sly in-jokes, as when the incantation required to retrieve the Necronomicon turns out to be the old DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL phrase "Klaatu Barada Nikto," but Ash can't get it quite right ("Uh, Klaatu...Barada...Necktie?") His self-conscious tough-guy dialogue is funny too, as when he confronts his evil double, blows him away with his 12-gauge and drawls, "Good...evil...I'm the guy with the gun!"
With Ash the whole show here, the rest of the actors are left to pretty much fill functional supporting roles, which they do with good humor; Davidtz (who soon moved on to an acclaimed role in SCHINDLER'S LIST) is fetching as the princess and effectively malevolent when turned to the side of evil. The real co-stars are the special effects by William Mesa, which are varied, largely convincing and--most importantly--never stop coming. (Violence, profanity.)
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