Ash Vs Evil Dead (2015)
Directed by: Rick Jacobson, Sam Raimi, Tony Tilse
Written by: Craig DiGregorio, Michael J. Bassett, Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Dana DeLorenzo, Jill Marie Jones, Lucy Lawless, Ray Santiago
In a strange turn of events Evil Dead – that’s the remake and not Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead – didn’t get a sequel. Or at least it hasn’t at the time of writing. Which is kind of strange in the world of low budget horror movies that get churned out all the time. Not that I’m complaining. While bloodthirsty fans of splatter were sure to have been sated, for me it lacked personality and was filled with characters who were so thinly written for the sake of plot convenience that it was laughable at times. That’s not to say this is a series about deep and interesting people of course, don’t get me wrong. But they were more like puzzle pieces that fit into their designated roles instead of just a fun ensemble. Even the original with its nastiest moments had some level of charm. Remember kids: toothless, dumbed down action and horror is bad. But X ratings do not make a movie.
However the real twist was yet to come. The odd teaser ending of the 2013 film featured a certain actor with a certain chin without any sort of context, and two years later there was no sign of any cross over with the old and new. Or in fact any kind of follow up at all. However in 2015 something unexpected happened and a totally new TV series was announced. It would involve all the old film makers as well as Bruce Campbell. It would be released by Starz so they didn’t have to water it down. I’d have to temper my expectations, not being a fan of Oz the Great and Powerful and finding Drag Me to Hell to be fun but lacklustre. But it was one hell of a headline, and the convention panels with the whole gang were a lot of fun. Things were looking up. It would soon be time to read up on those old ritual incantations – what’s the worst that could happen?
INITIAL THOUGHTS: GROOVY?
This particular Deadite had been in hibernation since that initial buzz, which meant that the series had passed from the exclusive TV airing onto a far more digestible – and binge easy digital format. I’ve never been one to follow shows one episode at a time without knowing how things have worked out in advance, so it helps to have the entire thing ready and waiting. What was the word on all of this when it had finished? Well it seemed as though things had turned out nice despite a mid season slump with mentions of the dreaded F-word… filler.
There are a lot of questions that immediately come to mind when realising that a follow up to Army of Darkness is a real thing that is actually happening. Will there be horror hags and shotguns? What about the chainsaw? The chainsaw arm? Well all this and more are included in the opening chapter alone. The first taste includes plenty of dripping blood, severed limbs and goofy slapstick. It’s directed by Sam Raimi himself to set the stage, so as you might expect he adds more jokes and pratfall gags than those who follow him. But it’s been a while since poor Bruce smashed household objects against his own face so they needed to get it out of their systems. It’s a real shame that obvious TV level CGI has made it into this modern continuation of events, but at least there are heavy doses of practical effects making things a little smoother.
LETTING IT RIP: EPISODES 1-3
In terms of actual continuity this isn’t exactly a franchise which has ever stuck to the backstory. They even changed the name of the evil book between the first instalment and Evil Dead II. Here though Ash still has one hand missing and the scars are subtle but visible; unlike the silver streaks in his hair (which are accounted for in a great visual gag right at the end of the season). But wasn’t the book burned in the old timeline? What happened after the studio mandated ‘Hail to the King’ ending if the evil has only just returned now? Besides Linda, Ash’s other friends were always missing in the sequels – but he mentions them here. That whole Henry the Red episode is skipped entirely. It’s not really that important and there are legal issues to consider after so much time and changes in distributors – part three is omitted to avoid royalty costs. You might even nitpick that his shirt is too blue (though of course even I would never stoop to that level…) Some exposition for newcomers is dealt with a couple of times just to be safe, and they even include a few scenes from the first two movies briefly as flashbacks.
But the onto the show itself. Right away it delivers what you’d expect, even if not everything works smoothly from the outset. Ash is older… but not wiser. Bruce Campbell retains that wry charisma, and though his delivery is dryer there are plenty of fun lines. At times he’s far more crass than ever before, but this isn’t a portrait of maturity. A selection of 1970s rock tracks are used throughout which highlight his mentality as someone who never grew up (while also maintaining the sense of levity). He’s apparently been hiding away from the world in a trailer park but he still works for a convenience store (though again no part three allowed so S-Mart is absent). Maybe the old days have taken their toll. He drinks, he womanises, he gets high… and sometimes he tries to impress the ladies with his high brow poetry. The archaic sort from that classic volume; the one bound in human flesh. It’s not a great way to reel him back into this world but it’s all done with a light touch at least.
The opening sets up new characters and new developments, and soon Ash and his young store colleagues Pablo and Kelly are on the road, trailer home in tow. The kind of obvious set ups are simplistic but they allow for things to get moving as they try to find a way to seal away the underworld once more. The two kid side kicks are not the best actors but lend it enough likeability overall. Less effective is the subplot about a cop called Amanda who is searching for answers after her partner met a grisly fate during a fight with the evil. Brief glimpses of Lucy Lawless as Ruby, a mystery woman on Ash’s trail also feel disconnected here. Some scenes feel as though both characters could have been merged into one. This all gets tied up later on, but more focus would have been nice. Extraneous narratives are never great in what is essentially a schlock filled haunted house adventure, but early on they’re kept to a minimum at least.
The set pieces are nice and the sense of humour generally fits as it jumps from comedy to gross out moments. Some things are a little contrived particularly when Kelly’s family is introduced out of nowhere and is immediately connected with the whole Deadite problem. Do they live near the trailer park or did the evil know Ash was going to team up with her ahead of time? It’s clear each stop on the journey is being sign posted early when Pablo’s witch doctor uncle is mentioned and Ash also discusses an occult bookshop that could help. Subtle this is not, but what were you expecting. They revisit old staples fairly often which means while the old style demon fights are present and correct you also have repeats of loved ones being used to torture the living and other familiar moments. Some if it feels a little tired by now but it’s mostly entertaining anyway. There are also some nice make-up effects, particularly during the third episode where a monster is summoned by our overly optimistic hero. But for the most part it’s what you’d expect, right down to a few classic music cues from Evil Dead stalwart Joseph LoDuca.
PADDING IT OUT: EPISODES 4-7
Of course there are some unavoidable caveats on this journey, most of which come during the middle section. Episode four is a lot of fun and sees Ash on a drug addled trip inside his own mind courtesy of Pablo’s uncle the Brujo. However soon after the weak links start to appear. The thing that immediately comes to mind is that this section should have been cut in half, since an exorcism plot comes along right afterwards which could have been a one scene climax. Kelly and Pablo’s awkward best friends sort-of-romance just isn’t compelling material at this stage and it’s certainly not why anyone is watching this kind of show. What should be a quick seduction scene that goes awry is used to lengthen things out when they should really jump straight to the finale where the monster is cast out. Some of the character moments are okay but it all feels like filler once too often and it could all do with tighter editing and a faster pace.
The same problem crops up later when they spend a whole episode sat in a diner without any actual journey progression. A few superfluous arguments over whether Ash should go alone aren’t very engaging. Things are still fun to watch a lot of the time, mainly thanks to the terrible pick up lines and silly dialogue coming from our clueless protagonist. But while the big fight set piece here is neat it feels sort of redundant with the whole thing feeling like a break stop just so rogue cop Amanda can catch up with them. The worst thing in the entire season has got to be the computer effects used here to create a burning skeleton which Amanda and Ruby come across in the aftermath of the Shaman storyline. Who are they kidding with this? For a franchise that used so many great puppets and props (including oldschool Harryhausen style skeletons) this just isn’t good enough. For such a brief sequence it could have been a real highlight too. Ruby tackling a rickety model being held by an off screen performer ala The Terminator would have been amazing. Real stop motion is probably too much to ask for but hey I can dream right? There’s no excuse for this when they made so many rubber heads and weird creatures in jars.
But story-wise the lowest point is certainly the seventh episode. Here the gang head to a camp full of anti-government survivalists, a member of which was an old friend Ash just happened to meet at the diner. Again you could cut these down into one streamlined episode when the only reason they go is to borrow some fire power. They don’t even use that many guns. They’re mistaken for G-men when someone recognises Amanda, and she and Ash get trapped in a bunker while his two young sidekicks spend the whole thing running about the woods avoiding the militia. The brief moments of development for the ensemble during this mid season trough are pretty small and the kind of bonding between each couple is barely worth including. The parts that work still work with Deadite battles, gross out physical comedy and jokey banter, but the whole thing feels like it grinds to a halt once too often after a fairly solid kick start to the adventure. Luckily they soon find themselves heading to a familiar cabin in the woods.
FINISHING WITH A BANG: EPISODES 8-10
Returning to the original setting was always a good idea both in terms of our hero dealing with unfinished business and also as a way to get the audience pumped for the conclusion. While the third movie is never directly referenced they at least have a quick peak inside the book showing the old Hero from the Sky illustration and they include another great doppelgänger sequence to make things interesting. They also add plenty of moments hearkening back to the other two movies, especially Dead By Dawn. It makes for some good fan service while adding continuity and some good horror scenes in general. Some of my favourite moments in the whole series include the use of Ash’s malevolent right hand and generally this all feels like a bonus sequel movie. I’m sure fans out there are already thinking of editing their own version together if it’s not been attempted already.
During the last lap things get surprisingly dark which adds a sense of drama and horror that the earlier episodes were lacking. Pure evil is pretty mean spirited after all. You know right away that expendable hikers lost in the woods are going to meet a grisly fate, and there are plenty of scenes that bring it all back round to the 1980s. There are numerous events that split up the team to deal with things waiting in the shadows though some work more than others. Kelly has a few moments to get revenge against the unseen forces, Pablo is trapped and left to suffer at the hands of the evil, and Ash is left to make decisions about how to stop all of this; which of course is never his strong suit as things turn from bad to worse. Lore is not something that has been at the forefront of events during any of this, but I liked that they take time to add a little moment here and there about what the Necronomicon is and how it came into being.
The ending finally gets around to revealing what’s up with Ruby, which at least fixes those loose ends from earlier on even if they still felt disjointed in the grand scheme of things. There are a few extra monsters added in, a whole lot of spewing blood and guts, plus a fun Temptation of Ash style moment once he gets around to facing the darkness in that old basement. I was hoping for a riff on the climax of the second film or at least signs that things are about to get really weird during the next season, but the last moments are actually pretty low key after all the mayhem. It’s still a TV series after all. Of course there’s a cliff hanger in which Ash ends up being his true dumb self, and like the best cliffhangers you’ll be desperate to have more when the show returns.
It’s still impressive that this got off the ground at all, and that so much of it works. I’ve always been sceptical of late coming sequels to old franchises whether they’re remakes or unnecessary forth in the trilogy type efforts that have lost all the magic. In 2015 it’s impressive that both this and Mad Max were given a shot in the arm which didn’t kill the patient. It’s consistently amusing, it’s very bloody and it’s very silly. It also manages to revive a character who has been long dormant without tarnishing the original. The classics can still be watched any time of course, but it’s nice to know this is out there. There might not be enough cinematic style to the whole thing, and the old series had a raw edge to it. That kind of low budget grit is missing in this brighter, cleaner looking revival. But it’s been made with the small screen in mind, and there are still enough flourishes and little touches that keep it feeling like a real follow up. Here’s hoping they ditch the CGI, get some medieval moments in the pipe line, and bring back Ted Raimi for at least two or three different roles in season two.