Sometimes it’s the simple things that pay off most readily, you know? A few non-actors. A cabin Woods. Two dozen buckets of cinematic fury and might. A story that can be summed up as “those non-actors in that cabin face off against those two dozen buckets of cinematic fury and might and have their asses handed to them”. Thus is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, such a simple and elegant horror film it doesn’t need to explicate a damn thing. There’s a book. It unlocks some demons. And it’s in a cabin. Why does the book do this, and what are its limits? Who cares. All that matters is that it is the most direct and unworried clothesline upon which Sam Raimi can absolutely tear not one but two genres a new one, and tear down the whole idea of genre as a construct in doing so.
It isn’t really saying much, considering its competition and the positively dreary state of American film during that particular decade, but Evil Dead II might be the battiest, most zestily-directed American film of its decade. Now I recognize this as hyperbole, but Raimi invites hyperbole, and the film earns it. Goodness gracious, the camerawork alone does whirlwinds around anything else being released around the same time, damn near earning the title all its own. Raimi’s whiplash maelstrom never knew a finer shelter than comedy-horror, and it never did the genre prouder than here. The things this camera does need to be experienced, so I’ll refrain from discussing specifics. Let’s just say the man chooses the most inventive position possible for almost every shot and pinwheels his tormented meat-bag humans around his camera like Damian with his first rodent, and he partakes in the mischief every chance he gets. The camera lurches about from space to space, doing almost literally everything it possibly can to simultaneously involve us in the action and elevate us above the action, separating off Raimi’s characters for mockery.
The design work meanwhile is just pure delight, creating a text framed around horror cinema at its most wide-reaching and holistic. Perhaps no film ever made serves to study horror cinema as well as Evil Dead II. Raimi invests his color and set work in silent expressionist horror, gloriously unhinged, stocky ’30s Universal monster films, the atomic ’50s schlock Raimi so clearly loves, and the quintessentially European works of balletic death known as Italian giallo that danced in and around exuberant color and hedonistic excess and saw horror as an excuse to do something as noble as just straight up throwing as much cartoon-red blood at the screen as a human possibly could. Technique goes a long way in horror, and Evil Dead II is unfathomably good at technique.
But Raimi’s genius with this film, a quasi-remake of his 1981 low-budget monstrosity The Evil Dead, isn’t really that it is a great, crackerjack horror film. Nor is the success, as it is often claimed, that it is a great comedy (although it is both of these). Raimi’s genius is what he says about horror and comedy together throughout the film. The Evil Dead is a great movie in its own right, trading on the negative space between comedy and horror by creating a film that threatened either genre at any moment. Evil Dead II knows no negative space, instead exposing the dialectical tension between the genres, exploring the generic encasements as immanent to each other. It finds comedy and horror in the same events, having fun with the similarities of both genres, studying the two and exploring how shots and set-ups produce multifaceted results that scare, induce laughter, and cause audiences to question the exclusivity of the two reactions or the moral injunction to match visual sensations to the “correct” reactions. Essentially, Raimi carves out his own niche where there is no real difference between the two feverishly entropic, primal genres. He doesn’t mock horror, as has too often been stated the case; he merely re-reads it as one dialect of the same cinematic language that birthed anarchic comedy as well. Both genres, for him, suggest both a liberating refusal of civilized decorum and, concurrently, a frightening (or absurdly hilarious) reminder of the automatic, beyond-our-control nature of the human body that disrupts our illusion of self-mastery and liberal personal agency.
Raimi’s gamesmanship with genre is also the work of a true mad celluloid scientist. He doesn’t work simply to have fun but to analyze his chosen genres at a primordial level, boiling them down to their roots and saying as much about them as any film ever has. Look at the slapstick gore, for the most obvious example, or the stunningly exuberant stop-motion for another, but there are dozens of others too. The end result is subtly and non-insistently radical, hypothesizing and serving up a dynamite textbook case for why many genres are wholly arbitrary classifications given to film subject-matters and not to the techniques that gleefully cross presumed boundaries. For Raimi, horror is funny and comedy is scary, and funny and scary are merely two lies we use to define and box-off the manner in which we react to stimuli that befuddle us and wrack our nerves, often for the same reasons and using the same techniques. For Raimi, all of the Bela Lugosi’s and Boris Karloff’s in the world might as well just be the Three Stooges or Graucho Marx, for all exist for one gloriously unhinged and primal reason: to screw with the audience, to disrupt our sense of stability and our most fundamental assumptions about our resting states. They’re all showman to the core, and so is Raimi.
All of this, and it’s difficult to actually talk about Evil Dead II in specifics. The film doesn’t so much give us moments as a never-ending cascade, and the effectiveness of each bit within is directly related to its placement in the film and around the other sequences, making de-contextualization and describing “specific scenes” on their own a fool’s errand. Raimi just never stops, piling creativity on invention and invention on creativity in one of the most jaw-dropping displays of pure cinematic power I’ve ever seen: belligerent, ornery, and quarrelsome to the core. It’s a genre exegesis in the form of a Cinema of Attractions piece, a haunted house roller coaster. It’s just a particularly mad haunted house, and this roller coaster works like gangbusters.
Oh yeah, Bruce Campbell is in this film too, and his performance is a pretty great bit of perfectly used non-acting at its most deranged and abused too.