Dead by Dawn! Dead by Dawn!
Evil Dead II
When last we checked in with the original The Evil Dead, we marveled at the mix of horror with just a hint of comedy to heighten the horror elements. When the series is talked about, its for its heady mix of horror and comedy making, as the director Sam Raimi coined, as "splatstick" horror film. That reputation certainly comes from the later movies in the series, with Army of Darkness veering right into fantasy comedy with just a tinge of horror. But for the true splatstick experience, Evil Dead II played it perfectly.
Of course, calling Evil Dead II a sequel is a bit of a lie as the film is more of a reimagining and expansion of the original film. Due to license rights for the footage of the first movie, the producers had to re-film sections of that movie to reference them (instead of just doing a recut montage of that footage). While some films would struggle with this, recasting characters to create unconvincing performances in comparison to the original, Evil Dead II just rolls with it, taking the opportunity to reboot elements and change things simply for the sake of streamlining. Continuity isn't as important in this film as having a horrifically good time, and it shows.
In the movie, we rejoin Ash (Bruce Campbell again) and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler), as they go up to a cabin in the woods to have a relaxing weekend together (their three friends from the previous film excised and never to be referenced again). While there, Ash finds the tape recording of a professor reading from the book of the dead, playing it without realizing what's on it, and of course summoning the demons once more. From there they inhabit Linda, forcing Ash to kill her. Then the demons take over his hand, forcing him to cut it off. He battles the beasts haunting him for a while, all before a second group of travelers arrive at the cabin.
This group, consisting of the professor's daughter Annie (Sarah Berry), the professor's coworker Ed Getley (Richard Domeier), and local hicks Jake (Dan Hicks) and Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley), have just come in from the airport, with the hicks leading the professors in after the bridge to the cabin has washed out (or, really, been torn up by demons). When they arrive at the cabin they get shot at by Ash, tackle him to the ground, and shove him in the cellar. But in the cellar is the demon-possessed mother of Annie's mother, and soon the demons are coming for all of them. The only way they're going to survive the night is working with Ash and letting him, the only person so far to survive the demon's repeated attacks, take the lead on this demon hunting excursion.
Based on the short film they made as a demo reel, Within the Woods, the original Evil Dead played it fairly straight as a horror movie. Of course, the original creators -- Raimi, Campbell, and friend Rob Tapert -- had a deep love of slapstick comedy from the likes of The Three Stooges. Mixed with Campbell's capacity for slapstick pratfalls and physical comedy, the original Evil Dead ended up with a neat comedic streak underneath its horror elements. Realizing the winning formula they had, though, the creator leaned into it harder this time around, playing up the comedy even more.
That said, I wouldn't rule Evil Dead II as a straight up comedy. In comparison to the original film it's funnier, yes, but at the same time the comedy is perfectly tuned to play up the horror of it all. As I've commented plenty of times when discussing all kinds of horror movies on this site, comedy is a natural companion to horror as a little bit of humor can deflate tension just enough that the next big scare can land even harder. A film can tread too far and be so funny (or, really, tries to be so funny) that it loses the thread of its horror. Evil Dead II, though, knows how to play it just right, always treading back and forth over that line so the comedy lands strong, followed by a hard hit of really creepy horror. It works so well.
Think about the early scene with the dead Linda, head lopped off and buried in a pit, rising from the dead and doing an undead dance. It's a creepy moment that then becomes a tad funny when her head starts rolling down her arm and back up, like a basketball player controlling his ball. But then it goes right back to creepy again, when she does her pirouettes and her head stayed fixed, dead eyes staring at Ash. Or where Ash gets spooked by a mounted deer head laughing at him, a truly silly moment. But then he starts laughing along, and everything else in the house starting laughing, and the madness takes over, and soon enough the humor drains away and you're left creeped out by this horrible moment of insanity. The film is a fine-tuned horror machine.
At the same time, Campbell gives what can only be called a tour-de-force performance of slapstick comedy. Whether getting whipped through branches at high speed across the countryside, or beat up by Linda through a door, or fighting his own hand (before and after he lops it off), Bruce is able to sell every moment of silly physicality. He has a way of handling himself that sells the pratfalls and abuse, even when he's fighting himself, making the material feel real even though its over-the-top silly. It's another way the film inserts strangeness into the proceedings, making the horror more interesting and horrible.
As a remake, there's plenty that the film borrows from the original movie, from the couple heading up to the woods, the demonic-mother locked in the basement, and all the demonic camera movements and attacking trees you'd expect. At the same time, bringing in a new cast of characters halfway in helps to keep the proceedings fresh and interesting, keeping you guessing about what will come next and who is likely to die. All you can be sure of is that Ash will get abused, a lot, before somehow he defeats the demons... sort of.
Really, Ash is a terrible hero. He's more heroic here than in the next film (and the TV series to follow much later on), but even here he's less heroic than forced to take up the mantle. He grows into the role over the course of the film, and in comparison to other characters in the movie he's an absolute bad-ass, but short of delivering a pretty glorious "groovy", Ash is a dimwit moron that just manages to skate by on luck and attitude. But then, that ends up being his primary traits from this point forward.
We can view Evil Dead II as an evolutionary step for the series. More humorous than the first, but also tighter in construction and more interesting because of it. More scary than the sequels (all except the reboot, 2013's Evil Dead), with just that right mix of humor to horror, comedy and action. It hits all the right spots and never lets up, a constant ride of demons and laughs, with plenty of scares and gore on top. While the first film might have achieved cult classic, this is a proper, full-fledged horror gem. The absolute high point for the series.