Monday, April 2, 2012

Army of Darkness - Dino De Laurentis Tribute

There was not a bigger, more flamboyant movie producer in the last fifty years than Dino De Laurentis. He was an international Academy award winning producer from the 1950s up until he died at the age of 91 in 2010. His list of American produced films is lengthy, and includes such quality productions as The Shootist, Ragtime, Serpico, Blue Velvet. He owned and lost more movie studios than you can shake a stick at and I remember fondly seeing the title card for DEG (De Laurentis Entertainment Group) at the start of many treasures from the 1980s. I will personally be forever grateful for his willingness to back the David Lynch version of Dune, which was produced by his daughter, it is one of my favorite films despite it's flaws. The USC Cinema school hosted a tribute last week that included a number of films. It is not listed in the program because it was not part of the official weekend, but Dune screened on Thursday night and I kicked myself for having to teach at night and missing this on the big screen. However, Saturday night I did have a chance to take in one of the many odd films his studios produced over the years, and I had the added pleasure of being accompanied by my oldest daughter. Allison ditched her husband last Saturday so she could spend a couple of hours with her old man taking in the genius that is "Army of Darkness".

Army of Darkness is the third film in the Evil Dead series of horror films. These movies became more competent and humorous with each new edition. There may not be a more blissful 81 minutes of  comedy and horror ever committed to film. This movie came out in 1993 and was very anticipated by myself and the Yenny family. John and Anne are friends of ours that share a taste for Bruce Campbell and Zombies. I was reminded by Anne on my Facebook update on Saturday, that she and John went with us and that they brought their newborn Nate with them. They are still trying to see every Zombie movie ever made. Technically this may not be a Zombie movie since most of the reanimated dead in the story are skeletons which have no craving for human flesh but do desire the souls of the living.   This movie is choc-a-block with great throw away movie lines, many of which are responses to the attacks by the dead or those possessed by the dead. It is so quotible, that it should have it's own AFI special to commemorated it. I don't know that in Hollywood would be proud to list it on their filmography, but De Laurentis understood the cult nature of the Evil Dead films, and although he was not going to give them a budget to make a Heaven's Gate version of a horror film, he did pony up for extras when the movie needed it. I remember reading about the delays in release and how they were connected to the need for some more effects work that the studio finally gave some money for.
I read a story in the Rolling Stone Magazine decades ago, about an actor who came in to talk to Dino De Laurentis about a movie that he might be cast for. The story was that the meeting took place in De Laurentis large corner office, in which there was a pool sized desk with only a telephone on it. The actor, taking note of the producer's diminutive size (he was just over five feet tall), asked why such a little man needed such a big desk? You would think that would be the end of that actor's career, instead it was just the beginning and De Laurentis consented to his casting in a Sword and Sorcery flick he was producing. For better or worse the wise guy actor went on to a huge movie career and later became governor of the sate of California.

"Army of Darkness" is a perfect example of a movie that today would be ruined by special effects done in the computer. It has so much charm because you can see how the creators put every trick in the book to use in making the visuals work. There is rear projection, time lapse make-up effects, stop-go animation a-la Ray Harryhausen, and puppet work. These days, you would get motion capture and CGI, and while it might look better, it would lose the cheesy charm of this throwback to the old days of science fiction, horror. It is almost like those geeks from Michigan went out in the back yard one more time to make one of their super eight movies. The acting is not great, the effects, not perfect, the lighting is a little inconsistent, but the effect is exactly right. It is over the top funny, with a hero who has significant flaws but we love him anyway. The creativity in story and script are the things that make young kids want to be film makers. "I've got a cool idea of something I want to see. How do we do it?"

Bruce Campbell is the epitome of geek hero worship. There is a classic hero image that he puts forth but it is subverted by his sardonic voice and blustery bravado. I try to see all the things he does, and I continue to be a fan of the TV series Burn Notice because he is a part of it, but he will go to his grave as "Ash" the character he plays in this series of films. The sequence where he is attacked by miniature versions of himself and then has one grow out of his body, is hysterically creepy and ridiculous  at the same time. All the quotable lines from the movie are so quotable because of his delivery, and when you try to throw one out be sure to add his tone to it or it will fall flat. He transforms from shlub to hero in a instant on multiple occasions in the movie, and each time it is a delight.

The screening had a goodly portion of geeks who knew the movie by heart. They anticipated laughs and responded with enthusiasm. I would have to count Allison and myself in that group. We have seen this movie dozens if not a hundred times but it was her first time to see it on the big screen. The print was not perfect and that made it all the more appropriate since the film making was done on the cheap. She noticed the signals and cuts when they changed reels, not something you get these days with digital delivery of movies. She was also quick to point out that there were only three reels, so clearly the movie does not run long. My only answer to that is that it runs the perfect amount of time to completely satisfy me in my quest for the ultimate experience in Medieval Horror.  Sam Rami has certainly gone on to bigger things, but to me he is forever the king of the horror/comedy genre. "Hail to the King Baby."


Eric F. said...

I think of Dino De Laurentis and I think of the films of the late '70s and early '80s with high expectations that ultimately didn't deliver, but went on to become popular fan and cult favorites. Films like KING KONG (1976), ORCA-THE KILLER WHALE (1977), FLASH GORDON (1980), CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) and DUNE (1984).

Spikor said...

Still such a great movie. I've managed to catch it on the big screen twice. Once when it premiered, and once in a Midnight showing for charity in University.

It's definitely a classic.

Great write-up.

Richard Kirkham said...

Thanks. I'd drive a hundred miles to see it on the big screen even though I've seen it there a dozen times and at home a hundred.