When I first saw ARMY OF DARKNESS in theaters, I had no idea who Sam Raimi and Bill Campbell were. I didn’t know ARMY OF DARKNESS was the third installment of a series called EVIL DEAD. Although I was a huge film buff in high school, I didn’t care too much for horror films so there was no reason for me to have heard of EVIL DEAD. My friends and I were at the theater, saw the poster for ARMY OF DARKNESS, and thought a cool poster like that must also be a pretty awesome movie. We went into the movie expecting a serious action-adventure film. What we didn’t expect was a fantasy/horror/comedy that was unlike anything any of us had ever seen up to that point. It was our first introduction to the cult film star, Bruce Campbell and the character that put him on the map, Ash. We all ended up loving the movie for its low-budget quality and comedy and I joined the EVIL DEAD cult like so many other horror fans. That was 1992. I recently watched ARMY OF DARKNESS more out of nostalgia, but also to see whether it still holds up as an entertaining movie after all these years. It doesn’t. In fact, in re-watching it, I was a bit surprised how I ever liked this film in the first place. ARMY OF DARKNESS is one of the most overrated cult films out there and I think if it still has fans, they remain fans more out of loyalty to Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi and the franchise rather than from any genuine belief that the movie is actually good.

Our hero’s name is Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his story actually begins in EVIL DEAD 2. In that film, Ash and his girlfriend take a weekend vacation to a cabin in the woods. They find a book called the Necrinomicon, which basically unleashes an evil spirit that ends up killing Ash’s girlfriend and possessing Ash. Breaking free of the evil spirit’s influence, Ash is able to open a portal that sends the book back to its time period. However, the portal also sucks in Ash and he lands in the year 1300 AD. ARMY OF DARKNESS begins here, with Ash stuck back in time. He discovers that in order to get back to his time period, he must find the Necrinomicon and recite the correct chant, which will transport him back. Easier said than done. The evil spirit that tried to kill Ash in EVIL DEAD 2 is back and it tries to stop him from getting the book by unleashing its army of the dead.

ARMY OF DARKNESS has a ridiculously straightforward story and during its 1 hour and 20 minute running time, it spends about 25 to 30 minutes of it with Ash and his army battling the army of darkness in a nighttime battle sequence. Given the simplicity of this movie, it really surprises me that it took two people (Sam Raimi and his brother Ivan) to write it. I’m not harping on the film’s concept because its not bad considering what its aiming for. However, the film pretty much foregoes plot and relies almost completely on situations to place Ash in. However, what really disappoints me about ARMY OF DARKNESS is Sam Raimi’s decision to allow the fantasy/comedy element of the film to dictate the tone of the film. There are still horror aspects of the movie, which work far better than anything else in the movie (the windmill scene immediately comes to mind). But those are few and far between and we instead get a lot of medieval comedy that tries  (and fails) to be like Monty Python.

Unlike the previous two EVIL DEAD films, ARMY OF DARKNESS depends too much on Bruce Campbell to carry the movie. I know I’m going to get skewered for saying this because Bruce Campbell fanatics are as legion as the many geeks who show up at comic book conventions wearing Stormtrooper costumes. In the previous installments, Campbell was a major character, but the film didn’t revolve around him the way this film does. Its almost as if the Raimis recognized they had a weak story on their hands and figured that given Campbell’s popularity with the fans, it would be best to give him the sole spotlight and revolve the entire movie around him. That doesn’t work for me despite the many wonderful one-liners the character says throughout the film. What’s more, Bruce Campbell’s comedic persona works better in a horror, more serious setting than in a comedy. In a horror film, the comedy is enhanced and the comedic moments are funnier because they are unexpected.

Another annoyance with ARMY OF DARKNESS is Raimi’s decision to make the film look low-budget when it really wasn’t. One of the appeals of the previous EVIL DEAD movies was the fact that we were watching a cool film that was made for nothing and knowing that it was made for nothing made us appreciate the director’s inventiveness with the little he had. As a result, you embrace those film’s low-budget aesthetics all the more. With ARMY OF DARKNESS, Raimi decided to maintain the same low-budget aesthetic using a much bigger budget. The result is that the film looks like a confused hodgepodge of effects. What’s more, you actually dislike the cheap-looking effects because you know that Raimi had the money to make it look better and didn’t. If Raimi wanted ARMY OF DARKNESS to look cheap, he should have stayed with a smaller budget.

One of the nice things to result from the use of a bigger budget is that the film’s score is by Tim Burton’s frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman. The score has a nice epic fantasy feel to it that makes me miss the early days of Elfman’s career when his music sounded inspired and you could actually remember it.

I’m sure I’ll be receiving emails and comments telling me I have no idea what I’m talking about and how dare I sully the alter of Ash. However, let’s face it people. Time has not been kind to ARMY OF DARKNESS and might have been far more memorable and worthy of its cult status if Raimi had stuck with a lower budget in making it.

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