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Genius takes many forms. It can be in the Majesty of a skyscraper, the subtlety of a painting, the delicacy of a turn of phrase. Or sometimes, just sometimes, it can be a 7 minute sequence in a movie where a guy is attacked by his possessed hand. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn is one of the most singular movies in all of cinema, in that so many movies have tried to do what it does and failed. Horror comedy has more often than not been a merger not made in heaven, usually sacrificing one genre in favor of the other or botching the tone, either by being too lily-livered or too spiteful. Of the few that adapt to the unenviable balancing act, I’d argue that Evil Dead 2 is the only one that approaches being a masterpiece, largely because that in spite of the buckets of blood and ample dark humor, Sam Raimi’s piss-take remake of the movie that made his career is one of the purest expressions of Enthusiasm, of ingenuity and of complete non-cynicism that movies have to offer. A gorefest with the soul of Looney Tunes Cartoon and no need to point it out.
The ‘Ash battles with his own hand’ sequence is on a higher level not only to anything else in this movie, but anything in Sam Raimi’s career. And I’m a Raimi fan for the most part. It’s when pesky things like story, dialogue, plausibility and character get in the way of what he does best, which is bravura set-piece film-making. That is to say when Raimi is freed from doing his homework and his chores and is just allowed to play in his sandbox no strings attached, then magic can happen. For example, The brand New and shiny Amazing Spider-Man may be a cleaner work with a maturer emotional palette, but does have anything close to the scene where Doc Ock kills all those doctors, are the superlative metrolink fight from Raimi’s versions, anything like that level of set-piece mastery?
In Raimi’s most maverick work, have to wait about a half hour for the actual narrative of Evil Dead 2 to begin, in order to accommodate a visual thesis on the phrase ‘Why are you hitting yourself?’ The thing being it works so well its sort of regrettable we had to have a supporting cast and a semblance of a story and it couldn’t have just been Bruce Campbell vs Slapstick demons for 90 minutes. Alas. The prelude to the sequence goes something like this, Ash and his girlfriend (does it matter) have traveled to this cabin in the middle of extremely dark and creepy woods, Ash’s girlfriend gets possessed, so he cuts her head off with a chainsaw. He is then re-attacked by her disembodied head, which bites his hand. Thankfully, he cuts the head in half with a chainsaw, less thankfully his hand gets possessed and begins to attack Ash in all the ways a hand can attack its host body. It tries to suffocate him, gauge his eyes out, smash plates over his head and hack him to pieces with a cleaver.
The first stroke of inspiration is to give Ash’s possessed hand a high-pitched, Alvin and The Chipmunks-esque modulated voice. The moment when the hand is dragging the unconscious Ash along the floor to reach a cleaver on the other side of the room, and you can quietly hear the possessed hand’s Maria Sharapova grunts of exertion. Well I just fucking LOL. In many ways the scene plays like old fashioned, silent movie slapstick. Granted, it sure does wringing loves out of a good sound effect, but this largely dialogue free sequence thrives of Raimi’s various moments of invention in design and in camera-work, and the rubber faced Campbell, gloriously mugging his way through a series of face shots and double takes. This reaches a pinnacle in the moment when Campbell finds himself in the kitchen and his demon hand is smashing plate after plate in his face, Campbell never once taking the look of exaggerated clueless panic off his face.
And while Campbell’s various despaired soliloquy’s in the original Evil Dead were comedic gold unlikely to be matched by anything deliberately trying to be funny, the movie knows it’s onto something, and the moments where he shouts ‘GIVE ME BACK MY HAND’ and of course the iconic ‘ WHO’S LAUGHING NOW’ as he eventually claims victory over the demonic appendage by Chainsawing it off and pinning under a copy of A farewell to Arms (and bow). I actually think Campbell became a much more interesting actor with age, he gave a legitimately great performance in Bubba-Ho-Tep and does reliable work on Burn Notice week in week out, but I love how Ash is never in on the joke in this movie, Campbell is never breaking character, never winking at the camera. It helps make Ash into this huge, adorable doofus, as dumb as he is persistent, and it becomes impossible not to root for him even as you laugh your ass off at his humiliation and pain. Iconic slasher franchises tend to be built around villains not heroes, but for Ash we made an exception.
Ultimately though, Evil Dead 2’s strength comes from an utter disregard for anything you’re supposed to do with a franchise sequel. It abruptly changes tone from the first. it dispenses with any and all continuity, it doesn’t really care about the new characters it introduces, or making you fear for them. Raimi basically traded on the name of his hit film to indulge his looney tunes fantasies, hoping no-one would notice if they were covered in a coat of blood. As it turned out, he created one of the most unique, charming and enjoyable movie watching experiences I can remember having. You dig Saw franchise? Can you imagine if this movie sucked and pissed all over the name of one of the most beloved horror movies to come out of the 80’s? It’s a risk almost unthinkable in today’s movie world. The way it worked out, no-one much talks about the original Evil Dead any more, whereas Evil Dead 2 is about 10 years away from breaking into top 20 of all time lists.
Why are you hitting yourself?
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