The Daily Stream: Army Of Darkness Excels In The Art Of Slapstick Horror

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Army of Darkness"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Watching "Army of Darkness," you can tell director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell are old buddies (even if you didn't already know). Why? Because only a good friend could get away with subjecting Campbell to relentless comedic violence with gleeful abandon the way Raimi does here.

The third entry in Raimi's "Evil Dead" trilogy, 1992's "Army of Darkness" is a full-throttle slapstick comedy in the style of The Three Stooges, merged with a medieval fantasy pastiche and a supernatural horror film. Picking up where "Evil Dead II" left off, the movie finds Campbell's groovy, chainsaw-armed antihero Ash stranded in the Middle Ages, only to be captured by Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and tossed into a watery pit with a witchy Deadite. The ensuing scuffle fully embraces cartoon logic, with Ash getting pummeled mercilessly by his opponent. All the while, the camera spins about like the Tasmanian Devil in-between closeups of Campbell contorting his face into comical expressions of pain and exasperation.

"Army of Darkness" goes on to put poor Ash through the wringer, more or less turning him into a live-action version of Wile E. Coyote. In his quest to retrieve the Necronomicon and return to the present, Campbell's smooth-talking himbo is taken captive by a pack of tiny copies of himself — a scene that explicitly homages "Gulliver's Travels" — before sprouting an evil doppelgänger out of his shoulder in a shout-out to the 1959 horror film "The Manster." For as much as "Army of Darkness" lacks the nasty violence and surreal gore that make "The Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead II" memorable, it makes up the difference with these sorts of bizarre images. That and a commitment to sheer, undiluted mayhem.

Why it's essential viewing

Roger Ebert described "Army of Darkness" in his review as "less like a movie than like a cardiovascular workout for its stars," shifting from one action scene to another with "only the briefest of pauses for elementary plot details." I can't argue with him there, but I also can't complain when the end result is so endlessly exhilarating and inspiredly chaotic. The film, which Raimi co-wrote with his brother Ivan Raimi, borrows from "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" for its time-travel premise, but mostly drops the social satire of Mark Twain's novel. On the other hand, it burns through its hero's journey plot in a mere 81 minutes, which is nearly 50 minutes less than Raimi's "Oz the Great and Powerful" took to cover the same basic story with less emotional impact.

Similarly, for as flimsily as Ash's love interest Sheila (Embeth Davidtz) is written, her arc in "Army of Darkness" is somehow less regressive than that of her counterpart in "Oz" (at least when she becomes evil, it's not because she's mad at Ash). Above all else, though, the film is a reminder of just how much Raimi excels at using old-school trickery and visual effects to realize his eccentric vision. It's not that he doesn't know his way around CGI (see also: his "Spider-Man" movies) but Raimi just seems so comfortable operating in the grubby realm of stop-motion creatures and monsters brought to life with practical makeup. This aesthetic also fits "Army of Darkness" as snug as a bug, allowing it to honor its inspirations (like "Jason and the Argonauts") while putting a distinctly Raimi-style spin on them with its tone and camerawork.

"Army of Darkness" was also the movie that fleshed out Ash's personality, molding him into the absurd yet good-natured Deadite slayer he's known for being. It's just a shame Raimi was forced to reshoot the film's original ending, only for the theatrical cut to bomb at the box office. "Army of Darkness" is admirable in the way it takes a hard-left turn away from the cabin-in-the-woods horror of the first two "Evil Dead" entries, and I would've liked to have seen the trend continue with the sci-fi premise Raimi had in mind for a fourth movie. But in the end, Ash still got to make his grand return in the "Ash vs. Evil Dead" TV series, and the franchise at large lives on to this day. Hail to the king, baby.