“Who’s Laughing Now?”
Within the opening ten minutes, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II has already retconned any issues regarding continuity by recapping the entire previous film. It quickly introduces us to a different Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), no longer a witless sad sack and now a wisecracking ladies-man, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (Book of the Dead) and all its doings, and shows us what the book can do by having Ash decapitate his possessed, ballerina-dancing girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler). It’s startlingly fast-paced and a little jarring at first, but by the time the first window smashes you know you’re in good hands. Campbell has since gone on record as saying the recap at the start of the sequel was necessary as they couldn’t legally use footage from the original due to some copyright disputes, and whilst that may be the case it allows Evil Dead II to act as one singular flowing narrative from start to end.
If I had to reach for anything negative to say about the film it’d probably be in its unwillingness to do anything different. You see, not only does the first ten minutes recap the previous film but the whole plot for the remainder of the 90 minutes involves just another group of people succumbing to the evil of the Necronomicon within the same cabin. With this in mind though it should be clear that Raimi is no slacker. His camera is erratic, swooping in and out, twisting through vines and windows and slapping characters in the face with such gusto that it’s a miracle anyone wanted to work with him again. Campbell has many stories about how Raimi likes to play pranks on his actors thanks to the adoration of slapstick/physical comedy, and this sequel allowed him to stretch his comedic muscles as well as his blood-cannons. Early in the film Ash’s hand becomes infected by the book, and as it it possessed by the drawn-lines of evil from the first film it begins to attack him, leading to a brilliant short sequence of cat and mouse worthy of an R-rated Tom and Jerry cartoon. Campbell is brilliant in these moments, already questioning his own sanity after decapitating his girlfriend; it’s strange that he seems most at home when he’s the only character within the film (well, I guess sometimes there are multiple versions of him). He grunts and scowls like Laurel and Hardy, with a back-and-forth that’s delirious onscreen to the point where you forget it’s actually Campbell controlling the hand…until he chainsaws it off.
The whole first half hour is filled with these set pieces designed to show off Raimi’s camerawork, Ash’s physicality, and the art department’s dedication to set design and gore. There’s some wonderful harryhausen-like stop-motion when Linda rises from the dead and continues her headless dance, an extension of the finale to the previous film, but this time used to highlight the transformative aspects of the deadites as well as the comedy.
Meanwhile, the owner of the cabin and founder of the book, Raymond Knowby’s daughter Annie (Sarah Berry) and her research partner Ed (Richard Domeier), respectively, exit a plane on their way to the cabin to conduct some research on the book, having found the missing pages elsewhere. It’s a thin excuse to get more bodies into the cabin but it’s thankfully brief and allows Ash some breathing room. After Ash’s laughing fit alongside everything else in the cabin (which looks like a wonderfully cartoonish hell along the lines of Pee Wee’s Playhouse), he is mistaken for a murderer and is locked in the basement whilst the now-group of four contemplate what went on in the cabin.
What comes next is the source of many a nightmare from my childhood, as Knowby’s voiceover dictates the burial of his wife Henrietta in the basement after she succumbed to her own possession. Out bursts Ted Raimi from the ground as an undead Henrietta in a horrific skinsuit, dripping with sweat and groaning in a high-pitched squeal, toying with Ash as she makes her way towards him. It’s a moment of pure terror and unimaginable tension, and is probably the only time in the entire series where the deadite’s mockery has been legitimately blood-curdling, as Henrietta plays with her prey. Ted’s apparent discomfort within the bodysuit whilst filming probably fueled his performance, as he flies around the cabin getting too close for comfort with everyone he comes across. The combination of the appearance and the voice never fails to make me shiver even now.
Ed joins the legion of deadites, as more and more multi-coloured blood splatters the entire cast. Ash too wrestles with his own possession, having been bitten and taken over at the start of the film. It adds an extra layer to Ash’s character, he not only has the rest of these people to deal with, but also himself. It’s these kind of actions that made him a pop-culture phenomenon and gave him longevity for decades. He never complains (much) but he always just gets on with it. Kassie Wesley’s Bobbie Joe runs off into the forest and meets a similar fate to Cheryl from the first film, though this time the sexual abuse isn’t as graphic and instead it’s the violence that’s turned up in another example of Raimi torturing his actors (he drags her at a ridiculous speed across the ground of a forest). Still, with all the violence there’s an undeniable charm to proceedings and the film never feels downbeat and genuinely mortifying like the first one. Limbs and eyeballs frequently fly through the air in slow motion on strings, arguably making the sequel feel more home-made than the shoestring-budget of the original. But I think that’s why it works.
It would have been foolish to try and recreate the magic of the original, deemed at the time to be one of the scariest films ever released (so much so that it was banned in the UK). It’s why the different approach is refreshing, and why the first sequel is the perfect in-between for the next installment (depending on which ending you find). In my mind, I don’t feel as if the reaction to Evil Dead II had any effect on Sam Raimi whatsoever. He had a clear idea of exactly where he wanted the franchise to go (he even wanted the first sequel itself to be ‘The Medieval Dead’) and, whilst it’s a shame he’s refused to step towards the horror genre since (the wonderful Drag Me to Hell notwithstanding), the creativity of the genre allowed him to prepare himself for the rest of his career. Across just two films he perfected his own presentation style, one that’s been mimicked and adopted by numerous contemporary critically-acclaimed directors ever since.
Evil Dead II is the perfect splatterfest, and one that can be summed up in a single, tone-defying word as you run off pretending you’ve got a chainsaw attached to your arm…