Forced to lead a makeshift Dark Ages army against the demonic Deadites, who possess all the deadly magic of hell, the shotgun-toting, chainsaw-armed, reluctant 20th century time traveler Ash (Campbell) must save the living from the dead, rescue his medieval girlfriend and get back to his own time.
It's not often you discuss slapstick and horror in the same sentence when describing a movie. Rarer still is it to find a plot that incorporates medieval knights, ancient warfare, an army of demons, and a horde of zombies. Oh, and what about a hero who works in the housewares section of a Kmart knockoff? 'Army of Darkness' has all of these elements, and manages to turn them into a into gloriously loony and hilarious travesty. This final installment in the 'Evil Dead' series (which also produced a comic book franchise) relies more on humor than the previous two and succeeds thanks to Bruce Campbell's comic timing and some imaginative visual special effects.
The movie starts with a brief recap of the events from 'Evil Dead II,' only now the girlfriend is played by Bridget Fonda in the best performance of her career. All two minutes of it. Using the wild, frenetic camera movements director Sam Raimi is known for, Ash's (Campbell) first encounter with the Book of the Dead ends with him being sucked through a portal. Later, we find our one-handed hero landing in the Middle Ages --- his Oldsmobile in tow. Captured by Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), he is sentenced to death as one of Duke Henry's men. Amidst this chaos, Ash makes good use of his dimwitted, fast-talking, machismo-dripping signature style while attempting to win the sort of this alternate world's primitive people.
It's not until after he defeats two pit monsters with his modified-chainsaw appendage and "S-mart's top of the line" Remington shotgun (or "boomstick"), which conveniently never runs out of ammo, that he gains the people's trust. Afterwards, a Wiseman (Ian Abercrombie), looking like a Gandalf the Grey reject, explains that Ash must retrieve the Necronomicon if he wishes to return home. But being the dimwitted hero he's made out to be, lines are forgotten and words mispronounced, awakening the Army of Darkness instead. What ensues is fairly routine material, but still works entertainingly well, as long as Ash keeps his flippant remarks coming.
As if given full rein to create the most ridiculous and outlandish comic book ever, Sam Raimi devises a boisterous story that blends clownish incompetency with amplified manly heroics. (Editor's Note: Sadly, he used this same technique when writing the script for Spider-Man 3. It's a smorgasbord of the popular director's wildest childhood inventions, full of medieval magic and fantasy, horror and tasteless violence, as well as a celebration of The Three Stooges. Even Bruce Campbell, quite possibly the most underrated physical comedian of our time, in all his swagger and chin-action looks chiseled straight out of the comics, while emplying just enough magnetism to win us over, along with the film's damsels in distress.
The oddball, campy masterpiece that combines Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a hyperactive and fun-as-hell addition to the horror genre. The special effects team led by Gregory Nicotero, Bob Kurtzman, and Howard Berger spice things up with props and visual optics that look like Ray Harryhausen hand-me-downs. As cheesy and over-the-top as they may be, they only add to the film's humor. Rapid editing and effects are poorly done, but both deficiencies seem blatant enough to suggest that this is meant to be a self-mocking schlock-fest of the strangely macabre.
Clocking in at a speedy 81 min., the story moves from on silly gag or one-liner to next ("Well, hello, Mr. Fancy Pants.") without losing the audience or its own genuine spirit of sheer outrageousness. There's never been a better mixture of fantasy, slapstick comedy, and horror.
"Hail to the king, baby."
With side-to-side comparisons of the HD DVD release, this Blu-ray edition of 'Army of Darkness' appears to be identical, but using both the "Boomstick" and "Official Bootleg" editions as points of reference, this 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.85:1) boasts a night-and-day difference, showing a vast improvement in resolution and clarity. Though I may be a bit more forgiving of the video's many faults and drawbacks, the picture quality simply doesn't measure up to the hundreds of releases much older than this one.
Sunny outdoor sequences are where the transfer shines best, with details looking markedly sharper and revealing fine texture in costumes. Unfortunately, these same scenes suffer from obvious use of edge enhancement, as visibly loud halos surround objects in distant shots. Although film grain is unobtrusive and somewhat consistent, night scenes and special-effects sequences make it much more apparent, when the picture softens noticeably. There are no other known artifacts to report or print damage, but specks of dirt are distractingly rampant. Colors are much brighter and better resolved than previous versions, and flesh tones appear more natural, but still border on the warmer side. The image possesses fairly good contrast levels, and blacks are deep and accurate, with surprisingly decent shadow delineation.
Overall, the source material doesn't seem to have aged well in the last two decades. Then again, the movie's low budget origins and extensive use of optical effects (pre-CGI) probably don't allow for the best quality possible. Still, this hi-def release of the Sam Raimi classic is a serious upgrade from other standard definition equivalents, but a disappointment when compared to other Blu-rays of the same age or older. Nonetheless, fans are sure to enjoy it.
For this Blu-ray edition of 'Army of Darkness', Universal grants the horror-comedy the full lossless DTS-HD Master Audio treatment. As with the video, the audio is an upgrade from other legacy codecs, but it's only a slight improvement from its lossy counterpart found on the HD DVD.
The majority of the mix remains fixed in the front soundstage with a clean dynamic range, decent imaging, and nice separation between the channels. Screams, wails, and Ash's wisecracks are clearly heard in the center of the screen, and bass is a bit more responsive and full-bodied than in previous editions. Still, it's nothing that will have your neighbors banging at the door to complain. Rear speakers are mostly reserved for musical bleeds to extend the soundfield, but activity finally picks up during the climactic battle sequences, with discrete effects filling the room and surrounding the listener. The movie's always had entertaining and enjoyable sound design, and this lossless presentation does a nice job at delivering exactly that.
Unlike the two previous HD DVD releases, 'Army of Darkness' on Blu-ray receives better treatment in the special features area. On the other hand, it's nothing to be excited about, as it proves that retooling the disc as the "Screwhead Edition" proves zilch beyond getting it a fancy-pants label. The supplements are very few, and most are available on numerous DVD reincarnations of the movie, while others are sadly missing. Are we ever going to see a Director's Cut in HD?
The intentionally schlocky, campy 'Army of Darkness' remains a cult classic in the Sam Raimi canon and finally makes its way to Blu-ray. Thanks to Bruce Campbell's perfectly-timed performance and the wacky visual effects referencing Ray Harryhausen, the horror-comedy continues to scare the laughs out of you while offering a fun ride. This Screwhead Edition arrives with the same Audio/Video presentation as its predecessor, but makes up the difference with the bonus material. Fans might be tempted to make this upgrade. For everyone else, this is recommended as the Halloween season approaches.
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