Cult Classic: Army Of Darkness

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A strangely exciting epic and a fitting end to the ‘Evil Dead’ series.

Review:  The ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy’s progression is certainly peculiar.  1981’s ‘Evil Dead’ was a low-budget horror film set in a cabin-in-the-woods; ‘Evil Dead II’ in 1987 was an outrageous action-horror-comedy in the same scenario.  And then came ‘Army of Darkness’ AKA ‘Evil Dead III: The Medieval Dead’ in 1993, a horror action comedy epic with slapstick elements set in medieval England.  How we got from point A to point B is still a mystery to me.

Well, not really I guess.  After all, at the end of ‘Evil Dead II’, Ash (Bruce Campbell) does get transported back to the middle ages, so I guess it makes sense.  I guess… Anyways, he sets out to return to his own time, along the way defending a castle and its people.  They’re terrorized by the same evil he has combated in the first two films, the dark forces of the Book of the Dead.

The highlight is an epic battle at the end against the Army of Darkness (a vicious horde of the living dead) that, believe it or not, is somewhat reminiscent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  It makes good use of stop-motion effects in the vein of Ray Harryhausen, the man behind the effects in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and the original ‘Mighty Joe Young’.  Though these effects feel dated, they none-the-less have a certain charm.  This movie is overall much more action oriented than its predecessors, and yes, Ash’s chainsaw and shotgun are back for more fun as well, though this time around it’s not nearly as gory.

I really love the way that Ash handles himself in this film.  He cracks so many one-liners, whether it’s to the “primitive screwheads” he’s protecting or the armies of the dead, he just can’t seem to resist a dry witticism.  It’s made the film wonderfully quotable.  The comedy in general is upped from ‘Evil Dead II’, and it’s certainly entertaining, with nods to the Three Stooges and funny illusions to other films.  Unfortunately it’s had its effect on the films ‘horror’ aspect, and so it really doesn’t feel scary at all.  Like ‘Evil Dead II’, though, it’s so fun that you really don’t worry too much.
‘Army of Darkness’ is one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies. Its blend of genres may seem unorthodox, but it certainly feels fresh.  To use a time-worn cliché, it’s a rollercoaster ride of a film that goes up and down and in crazy directions that leaves you strangely satisfied at the end.  Like its prequel, there’s only one word that can sum this film up: Groovy.

Classic Review: Halloween (1978)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: The film that jumpstarted the “slasher” pictures also happens to be the best.

Review:  There’s some argument about what the first “slasher” movie was. Some point all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ in 1960, others believe it was 1974’s ‘Black Christmas’, and some, like myself, say it was John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ in 1978. The surprising success of this low-budget film was certainly what propelled the genre into mainstream popularity. And in all the years since, it remains the best and most frightening of the “slasher” genre.

There’s something wonderfully terrifying about being hunted. It’s a primal fear, deeply rooted in our ancient, primitive past that stays with us to this day. ‘Halloween’ works because of how it plays on this fear. At first our killer, the deranged masked murderer Michael Myers, is but a shadow out in the distance, and his prey, teenager Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), can’t figure out if he’s real or just her imagination. But then, like some predator, Myers weaves his way back and forth, hiding in the shadows, getting ever so closer to his victims. And finally, in the last act of the film is when he at last gives chase in a murderous killing spree.

It’s this pacing that makes this film work. Unlike later “slasher” pictures, which fill to the brim with gruesome murders from start to finish, ‘Halloween’ takes its time, builds tension, and then delivers satisfyingly. The faceless, soulless, and seemingly unstoppable Michael Myers and his eerie presence in the film also instill much fear. A revolutionary character in his day, he is one of the great modern movie villains.

In the years since ‘Halloween’, many a “slasher” has been released. Some have been decent, others bad, and some downright awful. Certainly none have come close to the effectiveness of ‘Halloween’ though. I suggest future filmmakers in this genre look back to it to learn how to make their movies good.

Cult Classic: Evil Dead

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary: Cheap scares and gore, but it did set a necessary and important bedrock for later, better films to come.

Review:  One of the things I feel slightly obligated to do when I review older films is at least try to look at them through a historical lens. I try to think about what they might have seemed like “back then…” in addition to how they’re seen now. In terms of 1981’s ‘Evil Dead’, I think I have to do this because it is a “cabin in the woods” movie. Granted, today that scenario is such a time-warn cliché that modern movies using it are almost always unintentionally comical for it. But back then, when the ‘Friday the 13th’ franchise was still new and people weren’t yet making this kind of film all the time, I suppose it seemed fresher. And for what it’s worth, they do try to shake it up in this film by adding more supernatural elements and a strange “Book of the Dead” to the story. Anyways, my point is that, for everything that’s sub-par about this picture, I won’t accuse its premise for being unoriginal.

But when it comes right down to it, this film is still a cheesy low-budget horror film. There are women screaming, ghouls popping up out of nowhere, chase scenes, people dying in bloody ways, etc. Even then I don’t think this was particularly effective, and it certainly isn’t now. In fact the only thing horror-wise that this film has going for it is a villain (some evil spirit I guess) whom we never see. We only view first person shots of it running through the forest. That, I’ll admit, was surprising potent, if little else about this film was. I should also mention that this film starred a very young Bruce Campbell, an actor destined for later B-movie greatness.

This film’s director was Sam Raimi, the man who would go on to direct all three of the highly successful ‘Spiderman’ pictures. This was his first feature-length film, and I suppose he learned valuable lessons on it that helped to make his later movies better. I will say, however, that I’m glad that ‘Evil Dead’ was a modest success at the box office and has since become a cult hit. I’m glad because Raimi, along with Campbell, made two sequels to it; films which were much more entertaining and fun to see.

Classic Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Tim Burton’s magnum opus, with all of his shocks, laughs, and, most importantly, heart.

Review: Tim Burton may be the most stylistic filmmaker of our time. His films are dark, twisted, strangely humorous, and, when done well, carry tremendous dramatic and emotional weight. Burton peaked twice in the early 90’s with two films that captured his style’s essence. The first was the live-action ‘Edward Scissorhands’ in 1990. The second was the stop-motion animated ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in 1993. And while they both contend for his best work, I think Nightmare just manages to edge out.

Ironically, though this may be his best film, Burton didn’t actually direct on it. That honor went to Henry Selick, a director who specializes in these kind stop-motion films. His other credits include ‘James and the Giant Peace’ and the recent ‘Coraline’. Burton did serve as a co-writer and co-producer, however, as well as providing the original idea; and this film certainly screams of Burton aesthetic and influence.

This is a holiday film and, as Burton described it, is something of the reverse of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. Instead of someone trying to ‘steal’ Christmas, this movie tells the story of someone who finds it. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is the leader of Halloween Town, and, of all the ghouls who live there, he is the most frightening. Recently though, he has begun to tire of Halloween; it no longer feels exciting or fresh to him, and he’s secretly depressed. That is until one day when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town and discovers its titular celebration. He is overtaken by the wonder and joy of this new holiday and quickly embraces it as the perfect beautiful replacement for his old one. The only problem is that he gets carried away: he not only wants to celebrate it; he wants to run it. He wants to be in charge of it, as opposed to Santa Clause. Unfortunately for him, he finds Halloween-past and Christmas don’t mix easy.

It’s a story that has a lot of heart to it, and it’s told incredibly well. Jack’s tale is an introspective and meaningful account of someone’s quest to find happiness and meaning; and it also serves as a larger commentary on the Holiday culture in general. In the Western world, there’s a lot of build-up to holidays, but it’s common that the day itself and the time immediately afterword can be something of a let down. The theme of this movie seems to be that even though Holidays are important, it’s foolish to wait till the actual days or “Holiday Seasons” themselves to start celebrating the thoughts, ideas, and emotions they’re about, and it’s equally foolish to stop celebrating once the holiday is over. We need to always be mindful of what we’re thankful for, at some level always celebrating the things we have that give us joy. If we do that, then holidays will never be a let down. As my mother used to say, “It’s Christmas everyday in our hearts.”

As I said earlier, this film is entirely stop-motion animated, and it’s incredibly well done. All of the models and sets are very elaborate and have the trademark Burton/gothic feel to them. The choreography and movement that they pull off, especially during the musical numbers, is wonderfully graceful, no doubt thanks to Selick’s skilled direction. As a musical, it features very memorable work by Danny Elfman, with such impressive songs as “What’s This?” and “This is Halloween” buffering an outstanding score.

Burton’s made good and bad movies over his career, but when he hits something profound, he’s always dead on. ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is a beautifully crafted, excellently executed work and his true masterpiece. It’s both visually stunning and provocative, and it makes for wonderful story telling. There are few animated films, or holiday films for that matter, better than this. For Halloween or Christmas or anytime really, it’s more than worth a watch.