screened Monday July 30 2007 on Anchor Bay DVD in Astoria NY IMDb In preparation for watching The Evil Dead II (TSPDT #783) for my project, I watched Sam Raimi's first feature, the first installment of the Bruce Campbell /Ash Williams trilogy. Inadvertently I'd seen the last part of the trilogy first: Army of Darkness was a college favorite. Raimi was at his peak around that time; I prefer both Evil Dead films I've seen and the delirious Darkman (sort of a poor man's Batman) to his later, more mainstream efforts that I've seen: A Simple Plan (which doesn't seem to know whether to mock or outdo his buddy the Coens' Fargo) and of course the Spider-Man series (I haven't even seen the most recent one).
Seeing the first Dead movie helps me understand why the Spider-Man series doesn't do it for me - they lack the most compelling quality of Raimi's earlier filmmaking - the visceralness. All of Peter Parker's digitally rendered slinging and crashing and flailing about can't compare to the very tactile feel of Raimi's patented early camerawork flying at breakneck pace through creepy woods full of real trees and dirt, the pancake powder makeup glistening from the faces of demon-eyed young women, and of course Bruce Campbell's spaghetti-limbed physique. The feeling of reality in this film resonates beyond the mimetic intentions of cinematic affect, but also opens up the viewer to appreciate the film as an act of filmmaking.
Perhaps some may deride this as calling too much attention to itself, but if we can agree that this film invokes (intentionally) a fair degree of camp, and that part of camp appeal is the knowledge of a show being put on (in which the audience's spectatorship becomes disembodied from their set position, and they regard all the parts being played on-stage, behind the stage and of course themselves in the audience), this film rewards such a viewing amply, relishing the teen horror stereotypes while simultaneously trying to ape them within its limited means. Raimi compensates his limited means through sheer ferocity -- and, like a pubescent choir boy trying to overcome his croaks by singing even louder, the result incites a paradoxical combo of knee-jerk parodic laughter and genuine terror. This tonal imbalance has been the bane of his directing (in Spider-man you can never take his "serious" scenes seriously because it doesn't feel like he is; as a result those moments just drag on the entire enterprise) even as it gives his films an energy that few can match. It may be the aesthetic of an amateur, but it's far more compelling than the professional doggerel he's putting out these days.