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‘Army of Darkness’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 19, 1993


Sam Raimi
Bruce Campbell;
Embeth Davidtz;
Marcus Gilbert;
Ian Abercrombie;
Richard Grove
Under 17 restricted

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It's not every day you meet a hero with a whirring chainsaw for a right hand -- or one who says "Gimme some sugar, baby" before smooching with a damsel. And just say you have met such a guy -- does he work in housewares at a department store? In "Army of Darkness," there is such a hero -- and salesclerk. His name is Ash and he has two lives.

In the here and now, Ash (Bruce Campbell) wears a blue uniform and talks merchandise. But a time-jump later he's a multitalented and quippy lethal weapon, who dukes it out with hostile knights, monsters from the deep and spectral demons -- circa 1300 A.D.

The temporal transition comes about when Ash and girlfriend Linda (Bridget Fonda) discover the scary-looking Book of the Dead. When they open it, a satanic force is unleashed. It kills Linda (definitely a cameo for Fonda), then enters Ash's right hand. He chainsaws his hand off, but it doesn't help. Now the force propels Ash into the Dark Ages. Good thing he had the chainsaw with him -- plus his Oldsmobile -- plus that 12-gauge shotgun from the sporting goods department.

Encountering hostile British knights, led by one Arthur, Ash is manacled and dragged to the Pit of Death -- along with Arthur's more contemporary enemy, Henry the Red. This is what you call a running start.

"My name is Ash and I'm a slave," our hero informs us as he heads to the pit. "It wasn't always like this . . . ."

The man behind all this is Sam Raimi, maker of "Darkman." (In fact, longtime fans will recognize Ash as the erstwhile star of Raimi's cult classics "The Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead II.") In "Darkness," Raimi offers all the fantasy, camp and hardcore horror you devoured in the comics. You can feel the pen-and-ink drawings coming to life. Dipping wittily into myth, the macabre and the modern, it's an effervescent adventure that's as amusing as it is genuinely gripping.

There's a little Monty Python black humor at work here. There are moments of cyberpunkish mutation. You'll also find remnants of Arthurian legend, "Gulliver's Travels" and, uh, the Three Stooges. But the movie has an original life of its own.

Bill Pope's cinematography is gymnastic and appropriately frenetic. The visual and make-up effects (from artist-technicians William Mesa, Tony Gardner and others) are incredibly imaginative. Ash contends with even more Books of the Dead that suck him into nightmarish hells. He has run-ins with teeth-clattering, scary skeletons that recall the great old Ray Harryhausen movies.

These effects give "Army" unusually forceful dimension; and it makes the comedy even funnier. When the aforementioned Henry the Red proudly introduces himself as chieftain of a large, dreaded clan, Ash retorts, "Well, hello Mr. Fancy Pants." Later, an evil, hideous hag-spirit, who gives rotten-toothed old age a bad name, faces Ash in a battle to the death. She's fierce and diabolical. But Ash, whose chainsaw has now miraculously become one with his handless arm, feels heroic and confident. "Yo, she-bitch," he utters, "let's go!"

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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