Review: John Winterson Richards
One day someone will make a film about the making of the original 1981 film of 'The Evil Dead.' The pitch is pure Hollywood - a bunch of kids from the Mid West decide to make a film and it turns out to be a global success - except it happens to be true. A decade before Tarantino and Rodriguez, almost two decades before 'The Blair Witch Project,' it was held up as an example to young film-makers of what you can do with talent, energy, initiative, a shoestring budget, and an irrational determination not to be put off by insurmountable obstacles.
The production has already established its own mythology. While some of the stories that have been circulated are untrue - there is no evidence that the boys borrowed money from the Detroit Mob - others have a basis in fact and are taught in film production courses to this day.
The characters are straight out of central casting. Sam Raimi, the nerdy kid who made elaborate home movies with a Super 8 camera, was director. His brother's entrepreneurial roommate Rob Tapert was the producer. Raimi's childhood friend Bruce Campbell, an aspiring actor with an impressive chin but little experience beyond summer rep, was the star. They roped in a lot of family and friends to help. An obscure young man called Joel Coen assisted with the editing.
The eccentric horror film was a "cult" sensation, especially among students in the UK. Two sequels followed, in 1987 and 1992. While they did not make our three young heroes rich, they were enough to establish them in substantial careers. Raimi has since directed a number of critically acclaimed and financially successful features, most notably the original - and best - 'Spiderman' trilogy. Tapert has concentrated more on television, as executive producer of the lucrative Hercules the Legendary Journeys, Xena Warrior Princess, and Spartacus Blood and Sand franchises. Meanwhile, Campbell...
Ah, yes... Well, Campbell has worked very hard and built up a famously loyal fanbase, but he has never quite become the huge star many expected him to be after 'The Evil Dead.' Everyone likes him, and all agree he did well as the leading man in a couple of well regarded television shows, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr and Jack of All Trades. The problem is that few actually watched them and they did not last long. It became something of a joke how any attempt to make him a big success was doomed to fail, in spite of his looks and undoubted talents. Campbell has joined in the joke, subtitling his memoirs "Confessions of a B-Movie Actor."
This is not to denigrate him. He remains a beloved figure, the epitome of a "cult" favourite, and will probably be remembered fondly when many of today's box office giants are forgotten by all but professional cinephiles. It is perhaps his "cult" status that has worked against mainstream respectability. Ash, his character in the three 'Evil Dead' films, casts a long shadow.
It was therefore no surprise that Campbell decided to return to the character, perhaps in the hope that Ash would again deliver the recognition he had found nowhere else, or, failing that, he could bury him once and for all. Making every effort to summon up the old magic, he reunited with his old pals Raimi and Tapert to make a series of half hour horror comedies, Ash vs Evil Dead.
Now, despite what some have said since, the original 'Evil Dead' film was not made as a comedy. It was only after fans and critics praised what they thought was its irony that the trio played it more for laughs in the sequel. By the time they made the third one, their tongues were firmly in their cheeks, even if it remained structurally a horror film. The television series went a stage further in adopting a comic tone throughout - and a particularly broad comic tone at that.
This was probably a mistake. Humour is subjective. Despite the buckets of gore, there is an innocence about the films. Their humour is farcical and physical - Raimi and Campbell are apparently big fans of 'The Three Stooges' - with a dry wit creeping in to the scripts more and more in the last two. The television series abandons this in favour of foul mouthed vulgarity. This was probably intended to attract teenage viewers but may have alienated part of the show's core audience of long-time fans of the films.
The same people may also have been disappointed by the decline in the character of Ash. His personality had already evolved, or rather de-evolved, over the course of the films. In the first he is a fairly noble tragic hero to whom bad things happen. In the second he is more of a comic fall guy. By the third, he is less of a victim - at least he tries to be more in control of events - but he is also selfish, lazy, cocky, and not as bright as he thinks.
The television series presents us with an Ash thirty years older in whom those negative traits have been taken to an extreme. The slacker has become a loser, "enjoying" a pointless, self-indulgent, and extremely seedy lifestyle that revolves around drunkenness, the abuse of illegal narcotics, and promiscuous sex.
What might be amusing in a foolish twentysomething who still has time to grow up is frankly rather sad in a much older man. One cannot help thinking of Henry V's brutal put down of Falstaff.
Campbell still manages to find some charm in the character. Ash is selfish, but he is not uncaring. Neither particularly brave nor particularly cowardly, he is capable of both bravery and cowardice on occasion, which makes him relateably human.
His humanity comes out best in his reluctant love of the odd surrogate family he finds he has gathered around him almost by accident. Pablo (Ray Santiago), a fellow minimum wage drone at the chain store where Ash has remained for those thirty years, hero worships him and calls him "El Jefe." By contrast, the sassy Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo) has the measure of Ash from the start, but she appreciates his good qualities and becomes rather fond of him. In the third season, he discovers he has a teenaged daughter as a result of a drunken hook up in the Hillbilly Vegas of Branson, Missouri: Arielle Carver-O'Neill brings maturity to what otherwise might have been a bratty part. Ash's lizard, Eli, is a star and it is a shame we do not see more of him.
Lee Majors is convincing as Ash's father: almost as seedy as his son, but still hyper-critical of him, it is clear that the apple did not fall far from the tree. It is Majors' best work in years.
Tapert brought in his 'Xena' star Lucy Lawless, aka Mrs Tapert, as a mysterious woman called Ruby, who becomes an occasional ally but also a major adversary. As always, she does good work. However, while she is, like Lolita Davidovich, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Milla Jovovich, in the happy position of knowing she can always find work in her husband's projects, Lawless is also, like those other talented actresses, perhaps in danger of being associated too much with them. This is a pity because those who know her only by the name of Xena without having actually seen that show probably do not appreciate how versatile she is. She deserves more.
Continuing that good old 'Evil Dead' tradition of involving family and friends (Ivan Raimi, Sam's older brother and Tapert's university roommate, also co-wote), Ted Raimi, Sam's younger brother who played multiple parts in the films, turns up as Ash's hometown drinking buddy. It is a particularly nice touch for fans of the films that Ellen Sandweiss, who played Ash's sister in the first film, returns to the role after thirty five years.
Indeed, the constant and detailed references to the films are best thing about Ash vs Evil Dead. To be honest, a working knowledge of the trilogy is essential if you are to get the many clever in-jokes that are the main reason to watch, and your enjoyment of the television series is likely to be directly proportional to the number of times you have rewatched the feature films.
This reviewer was therefore thoroughly entertained, but the thought occurs that there are quite a lot of other people, most of the population of the planet in fact, who were not students in Britain in the 1980s and who did not buy the trilogy on VHS to play obsessively until the tapes wore out. What is in it for them?
Well, the show is fast paced and full of action. For those who like this sort of thing, and who understand that it is meant to be satire, the gore quotient breaks all previous records - necessarily so, because, comparing them, one is shocked to realise how what was considered a "video nasty" back in the 1980s is now very tame by comparison. The set pieces, especially one set in an asylum and another set at a high school dance, both full of clever references to other films, are particularly well staged.
Yet sometimes one could wish that the pace could slow a little so that we could spend a bit more time getting to know the characters. There is a lot of confusion. The rules which govern the supernatural in this universe are never clear or consistent. Much of the humour - such as a gross scene in a fertility clinic - is badly misjudged. So while professional critics - among whom appreciation of the original trilogy is as mandatory as appreciation of Shakespeare among literature graduates - raved about Ash vs Evil Dead, it failed to win over new fans. Ash was finally buried. Bruce is still waiting.
John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
John is also the author of How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon.
John's Website can be found at John Winterson Richards
Published on May 29th, 2020. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.