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Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, Young Frankenstein, Little Shop of Horrors, and Beetlejuice (review)

Gag Reflex

Why do slasher movies make us laugh in the instant after we jump and scream? When comedy works, it’s for the same reason that horror does: It surprises us, and laughter and screams emanate from that same primitive lizard part of our brains, one that reacts before we can think. The downside is that familiarity eliminates the surprise we need to enjoy both comedy and horror… unless a movie is particularly clever and doesn’t rely on stuff leaping out suddenly to scare us or people taking pratfalls to make us laugh. When the thinking parts of our brains are invited in on the fun, when wit is the primary ingredient, horror and comedy — and most delicious of all, the combination of the two — remains a delight long after the first viewing.

Sam Raimi, for instance, is for me the king of funny-scary movies, turning his no-budget limitations around and making them work in making us both laugh and recoil in disgust. Money is no object for him these days, I’m sure, after the success of Spider-Man but in 1987, when he made Evil Dead II (essentially a wackier remake of his earlier Evil Dead), you can practically see him counting the pennies. And that’s fine, because it’s still a pretty darn terrifying movie even on the 15th viewing: instead of showing us monsters he can’t afford to put onscreen, he just chases Bruce Campbell around with his hyperkinetic camera, menacing Campbell’s hapless (at first) Ash, chasing him into the innards of the creepy haunted cabin or dashing through the creepy haunted woods around it to suggest unstoppable something awfuls. Plenty of filmmakers use shadows and suggestions and quick glimpses of would-be scary things, photographed with a motionless camera, to spook us out. But Raimi turns the camera itself into the menacing monster, in a more effective way than I think I’ve ever seen on film.

And then there’s Campbell, of course. I’d so totally marry Bruce Campbell in an instant if his wife could be quietly gotten out of the way, like how Ash’s girlfriend is in the first five minutes of EDII. In another era, Campbell — movie-star handsome, though he pretends he isn’t, and robustly athletic — would have been a Douglas Fairbanks or a Tyrone Power, daring and dashing and full of verve, as that lost classic Sand Pirates of the Sahara (glimpsed in The Majestic) starring someone who looks suspiciously like Campbell, demonstrates. If verve in the late 20th century and into today takes a different form, it’s the same spirit — more wiseacre, less honor, but just the same amount of heroics. Though Douglas Fairbanks probably wouldn’t have amputated his own hand with a chainsaw, were it to become inhabited by an undead demon, like Ash does. The Battle of the Hand is pure Three Stooges, the possessed cabin laughing at him — stuffed heads and lamps and books chortling in evil ecstasy — is pure Looney Toons, and the bit with the mirror is like if the Marx Brothers made a horror movie, and Campbell is all the Stooges and all the Toons and all the Brothers wrapped into one. The man is a genius of physical comedy, unappreciated except by the very geeks he delights in torturing at his personal appearances (I’ve witnessed this; it’s Shatner’s get-a-life bit ratcheted up a few notches, and it’s freakin’ hilarious, especially when the poor clueless fans don’t realize they’re playing straight man to him).

A few years later, with the third ED movie, Army of Darkness, Raimi had a bit more money to play with, and if the hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-movie energy isn’t quite as high as it was with ED and EDII, the fun is only enhanced by a little extra moolah, and Campbell is, though it seems hard to believe, is even more willing to play the fool, if a heroic one. Ash tumbles back in time to the Southern California part of medieval Europe, where he fights armies of walking skeletons, swarms of miniature Ashes, and one big honking evil-twin Ash. There’s less violent camerawork, more wickedly witty Ash-isms (“Klaatu Barrada Nnnnnic*cough*!”), and in addition to more Stooges and more demented Warner Bros. cartoons, there’s much loving homage to Ray Harryhausen’s classic stop-motion action horror flicks in the army of the dead.

Raimi and Campbell (who also produced the films) are among my indies heroes, mortgaging houses and maxing out credit cards to finance their wonderfully silly flicks. This may be bad for marriages and bank accounts (you’ve all read Campbell’s book, If Chins Could Kill, haven’t you?), but it’s good for movies, and it’s nice to know these guys have got their priorities straight. Or they did, once. It’s high time for Evil Dead IV: Bruce Campbell in the 25th Century.

Homage is what Mel Brooks’s bit of 1974 insanity is all about. Young Frankenstein — excuse me, Fronk-un-steen — riffs not just on every filmed version of Mary Shelley’s novel but on old Hollywood itself, from Madeline Kahn and Gene Wilder saying their romantic goodbyes on the train platform in the rain to the glorious black-and-white presentation. The film, spoof and worship all in the same breath, wouldn’t be nearly so effective if the mocking weren’t so loving (which is why the Scary Movies don’t work; they’re bitter and jealous of the clever frightfulness of what they deride), if Wilder’s fearlessly mad performance wouldn’t also be exactly right at home in a straight horror flick. Wilder’s modern-day Dr. Frankenstein walks a high wire, swinging from rabid denunciations of the foolishness of his famous grandfather to suicidal depression when he cannot measure up to his heritage, and he’s as poignant, through the snickers, as he is funny.

But for sheer poignancy, the funny-sad-scary award goes to Peter Boyle, for his most distressing Frankenstein’s monster. Boyle little speech, once he’s granted the gift of clear enunciation, about the torment and loneliness of a creature so reviled is downright touching. Oh sweet mystery of life…

The flick that is overall the saddest funny scary movie ever has got to be 1986′s Little Shop of Horrors, based on Roger Corman’s 60s movie and spiced up with the brilliantly droll songs of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. The tale of schlemiel Seymour Krelborn and his strange and exotic (and flesh-eating) plant is hilariously pathetic for the extremely minor aspirations of its down-on-their-luck characters: Audrey (Ellen Greene), who longs for a tract house with Pine-Sol-scented air far far from urban Skid Row; Seymour, who longs for Audrey

It’s all terribly sad, in the small-sightedness of the dreams of even its hero, but it’s also deliciously mean-spirited, though only toward those who deserve it (the Hollywoodized ending saw to that; the stage play, which preceded the film, is far more bittersweet). Howard Ashman’s tart lyrics supply some of the most valuable movie references in my personal vocabulary — oh, often have I grumbled to myself that somebody or other “sure looks like plant food to me” — and Alan Menken’s tunes make it impossible to stop singing the entire soundtrack for days after a viewing. And for sheer maniacal glee, not much can match Steve Martin’s Orin Scrivello, D.D.S., Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend, singing of his mother’s encouragement of his interest in pain (“Son, be a dennnntist!”), unless it’s Bill Murray as the masochistic patient who enjoys root canal way too much.

Leave it to Tim Burton, with his affinity for the misunderstood monster, to be as sweet as he is funny, and not terribly scary, though that’s part of his point in 1988′s Beetlejuice: the dead are people, too, with feelings to be hurt and aspirations for the hereafter. The nice young dead couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) that haunts a huge, gorgeous New England house — their former home — just wants to be left alone to continue their renovations, though they might be able to tolerate another couple like them. The city slickers (Jeffrey Jones and the marvelous duo of Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder as sniping stepmother and -daughter) who move in and turn the house into something that looks like an underground nightclub were not what they had in mind.

Burton’s is a wildly inventive vision of the afterlife as a bureaucratic hell populated by all manner of creatures (not to mention the creatures of the pre-afterlife, horrors in their own ways), and it’s an ideal movie made for multiple viewings — there’s too much going on in every frame to ever catch every little joke except by setting out to memorize it. It’s a film I never tire of — it was one of the first DVDs I snatched up years ago when I got my player — but down to not just the darkly scrumptious production design but to the delightful characters, too. Betelgeuse, the “afterlife’s leading bioexorcist,” whom the dead call in to scare off the living, is prankish, crude, and rude, an outrageous triumph for Michael Keaton, who makes him surprisingly lovable for all his ill manners. But Davis and Baldwin make two of the most pleasant ghosts imaginable, spooks you wouldn’t mind setting up house with.

Evil Dead II
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R
IMDB

Army of Darkness
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R
IMDB

Young Frankenstein
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG
IMDB

Little Shop of Horrors
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG-13
IMDB

Beetlejuice
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG
IMDB


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