Boys play soldiers and director in Raimi's juvenile 'Army of Darkness'

February 19, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Sam Raimi is the best 11-year-old filmmaker in America. Unfortunately, he's 34.

His "Army of Darkness" is a monument to arrested development, filled, as it is, with prepubescent fantasy. It seems to come straight from the id, unfettered by any refined sensibility, and boasting nothing but craziness, zany violence, comic book effects and some monumentally bad acting. But you can at least say this about him: When he makes a movie, he really makes a movie.

It's a loose sequel to the two Raimi crackpot masterpieces that preceded his hit "Darkman," -- "Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead 2." Budgeted at about $15.95 apiece, they mainly turned on the adventures of a party of Detroit teen-agers who were set upon by a homicidally insane point-of-view cameraman.

The first was intense and literal; the second, far more interesting, was the parody. Evidently, at one point this last member of the triptych was to be called "Medieval Dead," a wittier moniker than the somewhat generic label it now wears.

As did the first two, it stars a somewhat drearily handsome, lantern-jawed Bruce Campbell who, though he will never win an Oscar, seems willing to undergo any degradation to give the director what he wants. Raimi obviously likes that in a man. Campbell will camp and vamp, bump and grind and cavort like a road-show stripper or the old Elasticman of comic-book fame to please his master. If only he'd learned to act!

The movie opens with Campbell being dumped into some bleak medieval wasteland that looks surprisingly like the scruffy Hollywood hills. A brief flashback links this film to the last one by pointing out that all the evil in the Raimi world originates in a flesh-encased book, the "Necronomicon," dating from ancient Sumer by way of the American horror master H. P. Lovecraft.

In fact, "Army of Darkness" is almost a trivia test in horror arcana, merrily looting the genre with themes and images swiped from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and so on.

If you get them all right, maybe Raimi will send you a free issue of the horror magazine Fangoria.

But back in the movie, it seems that Campbell somehow misused the book in the Michigan woods and he's fallen through one of those damned vortexes in time that are so irritating. I hate it when that happens.

He finds himself in a civil war between warring factions of extras costumed by Hollywood-Joe's-Armor-for-Rent mall outlet on lower Melrose. By using superior technology -- a sawed-off shotgun, a chain saw and a right uppercut that Riddick Bowe would die for -- he takes over quickly enough.

He enjoys a dalliance with a noblewoman played by Embeth Davidtz, and my comment on her performance is: What kind of a name is Embeth anyway?

All this is prologue to the movie's final blast of budget and imagination. The moronic Campbell -- his stupidity is theoretically a component of his anti-charm -- mumbles the wrong incantation at a strategic point, and instead of getting himself back to 1993, he unleashes the Army of the Dead, except that, given budget restrictions, it's more like the reinforced platoon of the dead.

Somehow the sequence -- long and convoluted as it is -- lacks the real punch of the men vs. skeleton battle in Ray Harryhausen's classic "Jason and the Argonauts," the pinnacle of stop-motion animation. Most of these bony boys aren't skeletons at all, but extras in skeleton suits, like kids in drugstore Halloween costumes.

Still, the best thing about "Army of Darkness" is its young director's incredible enthusiasm. He's like all Three Stooges fighting for the control of one movie camera, and he'll do anything for a giggle.

The camera zooms and swoops, it's planted in the strangest of locations, it's over-cranked and under-cranked. Is this a movie or some kid's 19th nervous breakdown?

"Army of Darkness"

Starring Bruce Campbell.

Directed by Sam Raimi.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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