Friday, June 8, 2012

Film Friday: Army of Darkness (1992)

Army of Darkness fascinates me. This film shouldn’t work. It can’t decide if it’s serious or a comedy, which means it’s neither funny nor scary nor action-packed, and its hero is intensely unlikeable. Yet, this film works. Indeed, it’s become a cult classic because it works so well. Why does it work? Bruce Campbell.

** spoiler alert **

Army of Darkness is the third in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, though it’s nothing at all like the first two. This is the story of Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) a clerk at S-Mart, a low-end chain store, who gets pulled through a time portal to the 14th Century. Once there, he’s immediately captured by Lord Arthur, who believes Ash is a spy for a rival. Arthur throws Ash into a pit to fight a Deadite, an undead creature. Ash (sort of) kills the Deadite with his rifle and is soon celebrated as a hero.
As the hero, Ash is sent on a quest to obtain a magic book, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis. This book will rid the kingdom of evil and will allow Arthur’s wise men to send Ash back to the future, but he must use magic words before picking up the book. On his journey, Ash encounters a haunted forest and fights various copies of himself. When he finally finds the book, he fails to say the magic words (“Klaatu barada nikto”) properly so that he can take the book away safely. As a result an army of the undead arises and comes after him, and things go wrong(er) from there.

Army of Darkness shouldn’t work. Indeed, nothing about this film suggests it would be enjoyable. The plot, what there is of it, is pathetically simple, and indeed it ends up more a collection of gags than a plot. The characters are shallow and uninteresting -- you won’t even remember their names. The film itself can’t decide if it’s horror, action or comedy, and it meanders into all three areas without ever really being good at any of those genres. And the real kicker is Ash. He’s a truly unlikeable blowhard. He’s arrogant, stupid and a real jerk. He doesn’t care about anyone except himself, he constantly gets into trouble because he’s unwilling to admit he’s overmatched and he won’t accept help, he’s unreliable, and he never once learns from his mistakes. . . in fact, that’s a running gag. In real life, you would absolutely hate this man. And even on film, it should be impossible to like him.

Yet, this film really works, and the reason it works is because Ash is such a compelling character. He’s compelling because he’s a train wreck waiting to happen. Ash does everything wrong every time. But not only does he do everything wrong, he knows he’s doing it wrong! This is where Campbell’s acting comes into play.

Under normal circumstance, a character who is arrogant and refuses to admit he’s wrong will annoy an audience. To make such a character palatable to the audience, most actors make the character into a bit of a farce, by making the character oblivious -- as Peter Sellers did with Inspector Clouseau or Mike Meyers did with Dr. Evil. Campbell makes a different choice. He tells the audience directly that Ash knows he’s making a mistake, but he lacks the strength of personality to change his ways.
Consider, for example, the scene where Ash is supposed to say the magic words “Klaatu barada nikto.” He knows he’s forgotten the final word, as evidenced by his nervous look before he says the words. But he’s too lazy to go back and ask. So instead, he proudly says the first two words and then tries to cover the third word with a cough, as if he could fool the universe itself. Then he looks around nervously to see if anything bad has happened. When he sees nothing bad, he becomes intensely proud of himself and acts like he got away with it, but he finishes with a quick, nervous glance to tell the audience he knows he’s kidding himself. Then he grabs the book and sets events into motion.

Now consider what he’s done here. First, he alerts us there is a problem. This gets the audience to hold their breath in anticipation of how this crisis will be solved. Then he tries to fake the words, which gets the audience laughing at his stupidity. Then he very arrogantly acts like he got away with it. That’s the set up moment because now you know there will be a train wreck coming. Indeed, every time Ash acts arrogantly, you know he’s about to take a beating. But then he flashes you that brief look to tell you he knows he’s about to take a beating. . . but he does it anyway. This last moment is what makes him likeable. The fact he forgot the word is annoying. His solution is laughable. His arrogance should be off-putting. But the fact he admits that he knows he’s in trouble and then goes ahead and acts anyway is genius. It puts us entirely on his side because it exposes “the real character” underneath, who is willing to plow ahead despite being fully well aware that he’s out of his league and who knows that his own flaws make his problems worse.

In this regard, Ash is very similar to Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) from Big Trouble In Little China. Burton is another character who is big on self-aggrandizement and short on worthwhile skills. But as with Ash, you enjoy watching blowhard Burton because Russell gives you little suggestions throughout that “the real Burton” knows he’s out of his league, yet he continues nevertheless.
In a strange sort of way, this makes these characters endearing. Both Burton and Ash have tragic flaws, just like every other tragic hero written. But whereas other tragic heroes are unaware of their flaws and are undone by them, and thus are tragic, Burton and Ash are both well aware of their flaws yet they are unwilling to fix them. Yet, despite being fully aware of this, both Burton and Ash are ultimately truly heroic because they charge forward even when they know they are about to take a beating. And this puts the audience in an odd spot of simultaneously cheering for the characters, because they are ultimately brave and noble, but also wanting to see them take a beating because they’re jerks who deserve it. This makes them compelling. But it’s the great acting skills of Russell and Campbell which sell this dichotomy to the audience. A little to either side, either the more serious side or the more comedic side, and these characters wouldn’t have worked at all.

I guess the takeaway from this film is that you can wrap your hero in some rather unappealing personality traits so long as they project the right values through their actions and so long as you have an actor people are inclined to like no matter how much they misbehave.

Thoughts?

41 comments:

shawn said...

I think the key difference between Jack Burton and Ash is that Sam Raimi likes to torture Bruce Campbell and hence the reason Ash is constantly getting beat up, while the gag about Burton was, he's all talk and no action. Most of the heavy lifting in Big Trouble is done by Egg Chen and his six-demon bag and Wang and his sword play. But credit where it is due, Burton does kill Lo-Pan using his one remarkable skill set- his reflexes.

As to tone, I feel that "Army of Darkness" is a comedy with horror overtones, while "Evil Dead 2" was a horror movie with comic overtones. I haven't seen the first one.

"Big Trouble in Little China" is just a whole lot of fun.

Tennessee Jed said...

I think I once tried to watch this one on t.v. some years back. It definitely looked like it was going for high camp comedy. Yes, the "star" seemed to be born for the role of this kind of spoof. I lasted about 20 minutes before I had to flip channels. I will say, I have always been a fan of Embeth Davidtz--ever since a seductive scene she played in Gingerbread Man, and more recently, as the wife who Anthony Hopkins shoots in the face in Fracture, and the wife of Lloyd Price on "Mad Men."

Just because it wasn't my thing doesn't make your points any less valid, of course, and if I were more into this kind of genre, I could see it's potential. I mean I did last 20 minutes which is actually a lifetime if one truly believes what they are watching sucks.

ScottDS said...

My dad actually rented this when I was 10 and my brother was 7 and he let us watch it with him. Given our mom's strict attitude towards movie ratings, the fact that this happened was a miracle!

Unfortunately, I don't remember one damn thing about it. One day, I'm gonna actually have to sit down and watch the Evil Dead films and this one (again). Unfortunately, I don't do well with gore and this has prevented me from watching a lot of cult classic horror films over the years - the kind of films a geek like me would usually embrace.

Outlaw13 said...

The first time I saw this movie, I was in Kuwait. I knew nothing about it, I just walked in and a couple of guys were watching it. I sat down and started watching it with them. I enjoyed it then and have ever since.

In fact I got a going away plaque from one of my jobs in the Army that had a quote from the flim; "The only thing you are in charge of is Jack and S#!t and Jack's left town."

"Hail to the King baby!"

If you like Bruce Campbell, watch "Bubba HoTep"...now there's one seriously messed up movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, That's true. Raimi just tortures the heck out of Ash, whereas Burton seems to get through the film with almost nothing happening to him (or doing anything). And in both instances, it makes them really hilarious characters to watch because their rhetoric in no way approaches their deeds -- and they both seem to know that.

I agree with you about the trilogy. Evil Dead 2 is horror with comedic (slapstick) overtones. Army of Darkness is a comedy with horror overtones. Just look at how Campbell plays the bad guy for example -- all comedy. Evil Dead disappointed me because I saw Evil Dead 2 first, and they ended up being almost the identical movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, This really is a cult classic and as such only seems to work for certain tastes. The fans of this film are truly fanatics about it, but the public at large hasn't responded it to all that well -- the story of cult films!

I think the problem for the public is that the film isn't clearly a comedy and isn't clearly a horror film either. So the public finds the horror not to be scary and the comedic elements to be downright stupid since they don't help the horror... but they don't find the film funny either because it's not packed with jokes. So that probably turned the public off. Interestingly, however, that is probably what made this a cult classic.

FYI, Big Trouble In Little China has the same problem and also was a box office flop which has since come on to be a huge cult hit.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This one is a lot of fun and it's not really gory. There is some gore, but it's almost cartoonish in how bad the effects are.

The other two Evil Dead films really are nothing like this. They have a good deal more gore and some of the violence is more real. In the first, there's actually a bizarre scene where a woman gets raped by a tree -- something Raimi has since said that he wishes he hadn't included.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, That's hilarious about the plaque!

This movie really is full of great quotes that fans use all the time. The big one is probably: "gimme some sugar, baby!" And Campbell has excellent delivery for these lines.

Bubba Hotep is indeed a strange film. I liked it, but I'm not 100% sure why. If you want a really funny Bruce Campbell film, check out My Name Is Bruce. That's kind of a parody of his entire life and his film career.

Doc Whoa said...

I love this film and Ash is one of my favorite heroes. He's a fool, he's incompetent, and he's all totally arrogant about it, and I find that absolutely hilarious.

Doc Whoa said...

Also, I quote this film all the time. I love how he calls his rifle his "boomstick."

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I don't know if this is a guilty pleasure or one of my favorite, but either way I've seen this film a lot and I never miss it when it comes on television. It's just a fun film all around.

Yeah, his "boomstick." He is so condescending to the locals. LOL!

Outlaw13 said...

The Texas Rangers sell an extra large hot dog at the ballpark called, "The Boomstick!".

Shop smart, Shop S Mart!

Andrew, I have seen "My Name Is Bruce" and it was pretty funny. He's also good on the TV show "Burn Notice".

T-Rav said...

Never seen it. I did, however, see a little bit of My Name Is Bruce the other night, where Campbell gets hired by a village to fight local demons, because the villagers were impressed by the heroics in his movies. Sounds like it was set up along the same lines.

tryanmax said...

Bruce Campbell is definitely the most accomplished of the Triumvirate of Ridiculously Handsome Men (an order of my own invention). I remember him best from Brisco County Jr.

I think you gave the best attempt possible at putting a pin in what makes this movie work, which is admittedly hard to say. For me, this movie falls into comedy because of Campbell's "wink and nod" approach to the role of Ash. It's that wink and nod that reveals the boorish persona is a front, likely cultivated over years of working customer service at S-Mart, but now impossible to drop.

Also, there is something very appealing about a hero who wins the day on determination alone, with no other useful skills or, indeed, redeeming qualities. That sort of hero only plays well in a comedy, as a more serious film demands a more logical reason for victory.

tryanmax said...

Also, as a point of contrast where the same "comically determined ass wins the day" approach went horribly wrong, consider Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, Shop Smart, S-Mart indeed!

They call a hotdog a boomstick? LOL! That's great!

I've only caught "Burn Notice" a couple times, but I enjoyed it.

I enjoyed "My Name is Bruce" a lot because it really poked fun at so much of his career and what has been written on the internet about him being a jerk.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, My Name Is Bruce is kind of a parody of his entire life. They poke fun at his not-all-that-successful career, at internet rumors about him being a jerk to fans, and about him being in lousy films. And they use the similar personality he's used since this film in most of his films.

I definitely recommend this one if you like Bruce. But don't just this by the other two Evil Dead films because they are very different.

AndrewPrice said...

I'll be back in a few...

K said...

Nice analysis Andrew. Some small observations:

I think the Jack Burton character has a leg up on Ash Williams in likeability. Jack is putting his life on the line for a friend - even if he is ineffectual and a blowhard.

If you really want to compare characters - try Ash Williams and Ford Fairlane from The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. Fairlane is more or less competent - but such a jerk that the movie is nearly unwatchable.

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry about that, had to step out.

tryanmax, Thanks! I agree entirely, it's his wink and nod approach which allows you to like his otherwise obnoxious character. If he played this straight, the only way you could like him would be as a bad guy.

Brisco County Jr. was a great show and I wish they hadn't cancelled it so soon.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree. And I think the problem with Green Hornet compared to this is that while Ash is a jerk, (1) he lets us know it's an act and that he knows it's an act, (2) he keeps taking a beating every time he acts like a jerk, and (3) he never attacks anyone who can't stand up to him.

Rogen attacks his own employees, people who are helpless to resist, he really is a jerk and thinks he's this great guy, and he rarely takes a beating because the movie has decided to make him a winner even though he acts like a loser.

I think that makes a huge difference in our ability to accept Ash's flaws compared to Rogen's.

AndrewPrice said...

K, Excellent points! Fairlane is probably the most obnoxious movie hero I can remember and I recall really wanting him to fail. I know that was his thing, but it didn't make the film easy to watch.

I agree about Burton. Burton is essentially a do-gooder, whereas Ash is very selfish. So Burton is more likeable and certainly would be a fun guy to meet in real life -- Ash wouldn't be. But in the end, I like them both in their films.

T-Rav said...

All I know about Evil Dead is...um...that scene. Didn't see it, just heard about it, and that got me disturbed enough I elected not to watch the movies.

Kelly said...

This is a fun film! Excellent review.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Raimi himself has said that he wished he hadn't included it and it is an unpleasant scene to watch.

But in any event, 1&2 have a very different tone from this one. This one is a definitely lighter and comedic, 1&2 are darker and more like horror with comedy in it.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Kelly! I like it a lot. But I'm also drawn to cult films.

DUQ said...

This is one of those strange films that I think is truly excellent but is so obviously not "high quality" that I can't rate it as excellent. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but it's finding the best little league team of all time. They're great, but they aren't playing in the big leagues.

DUQ said...

And for the record, I'm not a baseball fan.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, That's an interesting analogy and it gets to the heart of something I've been wondering about. It's clear to me that we grade on a curve... I just wonder why?

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I saw the movie when it first came out, and several times on TV since. I was OK with the other Evil Dead movies, but this was the only one I chose to watch and re-watch, and still found entertaining and funny. Bruce Campbell does indeed make the movie. He's a scene-stealer. I'm a big fan of Burn Notice, but I'm not sure I'd be as big a fan if it weren't for Campbell.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Same here. I like the other Evil Dead films, but this is the one I watch over and over. And it is Campbell who makes this film. In fact, I have enjoyed him in most of his films, even when the rest of the film is utter garbage. He just got a great screen personality.

I'm not at all surprised he adds a lot to Burn Notice.

Individualist said...

Andrew

This movie is one of my all time favorite. It is what I call a "gamer" movie. One that is loved by all the nerds in the comic book stores, game shops and online on WOW (World of Warcraft). The only movie that I have heard quoted more is Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the Life of Briam making a close second.

The thing about Ash that endears him to most gamers is HE IS the guy they BRAG about being. He acts as stupid as they do but actually finds himself in the positions they lie about to make themselves look cool or state they would like to be in...

"Yeah man if I was in old times I'd kick everybody's butt with my shot gum" ...

To which we answer "Whatever, Bite me, Fanboy and have another bag of Doritos."

I think one of the things that makes the movie great for these "fanatics" as you call them is at the end after he has totally screwed everything up he finally steps up and leads the peasants agaisnt the Deadite army. This is something these guys would like to see in themselves.

Best line form the movie...

"Goody Goody Two Shoes"

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, That's true. I know many of those people and they all love this movie. And you are right, Ash is exactly who these people claim they would be if they got to do what he does. Of course, that's nowhere near true, but it's a fun fantasy. And then he does make it all work, at least until he blows the spell the second time -- the original ending actually has him waking up in a cave after the world has been destroyed.

As for best lines in the film, there are a dozen or so I really like. But here's one that makes me laugh every time:

Arthur: "Are all men from the future loud-mouthed braggarts?"
Ash: "Nope. Just me baby... Just me."

AndrewPrice said...

Oh, and of course this one:

Sheila: "You found me beautiful once..."
Ash: "Honey, you got reeeal ugly!"

DUQ said...

And this one: "Maybe. Just maybe my boys can protect the book. Yeah, and maybe I'm a Chinese jet pilot."

AndrewPrice said...

That's a classic as well DUQ!

NightcrawlerER said...

This is in my top 10 favorite films.

shawn said...

If we are going to pimp things Campbell, then I recommend "Jack of All Trades". It ran for one season in syndication. He plays an American spy for Colonial era America sent to thwart French incursions on the tiny island of Pilau-Pilau. It has some good sword fights, some groan inducing one-liners and quite of bit of sexual innuendo. All together, a pretty good time.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I honestly have never heard of that film? I'll have to check it out. Cool! Thanks! :)

Witchfinder68 said...

I love this movie! My friends and I still quote it to this day and we saw it back in the theater as a new release. Ash is such a buffoon that it's glorious to watch him take a beating. You are correct that he is very likable though. My Name is Bruce was also great.

One minor quibble, Ash doesn't use a rifle to kill the Deadite, he uses a double-barrel 12 gauge shotgun. At the end of the film he's using a lever action rifle. (The gun nut in me had to correct that :))

AndrewPrice said...

Witchfinder, I agree. I love watching him take beating after beating and still keep coming back for more, it's truly hilarious!

Thanks for the correction, I thought it was a shotgun early on, but then remembered the rifle and never went back to check. Whoops.

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