I have always been a fan of that most improbable of all subgenres, the horror comedy. It has been around for a very long time, dating back to the silent era with The Cat and the Canary and the early talkies with James Whale’s genre twisting films like The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein. In the late 40’s, comedy team Abbott and Costello met most of the classic monsters before Roger Corman twisted the nose of the subgenre with A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors in the late 50’s and early 60’s. The classic monsters would get brand new comedic treatments in the 1970’s from Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein and in the form of George Hamilton as Dracula in Love at First Bite. In the 80’s Re-Animator, The Return of the Living Dead, and Night of the Creeps Among others all successfully parodied horror conventions while also delivering legitimate gore and scares.
As a kid I practically wore out our Ghostbusters videotape and Gremlins was a regular staple in our house. As I got older, The Howling and Friday the 13th Part VI were most often in the rotation. But for me, there was one movie that exemplified the apex of the horror-comedy, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. For me it was like the arrival of the Chosen One, splitting the genre into two distinct eras with one fell swoop of an arm-mounted chainsaw. Now there is Before Evil Dead II and After Evil Dead II. It is the flashpoint where the conventions of horror-comedy were redefined and crystallized. It is a crude comparison to be sure, but Evil Dead II is the Citizen Kane of splatstick. As the Welles classic brought the techniques of a certain kind of filmmaking together in one monumental film, Sam Raimi‘s sequel did the same for another kind of filmmaking and horror-comedy has never been quite the same since.
It is arguable whether the film invented splatstick, but it certainly perfected it.
Evil Dead II is such a unique and singular vision that, though the style is often imitated, it has never been equaled. It is energetic to the point of frantic, comical to the brink of farce, gory to the verge of parody, and all the while, genuinely frightening to such a degree that at first audiences didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. That same kind of confusion met other classic horror comedies like An American Werewolf in London and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The latter film is in several ways the perfect analog for Evil Dead II. In both cases the second installment serves as parody, partial remake by restating several memorable scenes, and partial sequel to the original film. In both films, the tone the second time around is wildly different from the original while clearly remaining the work of the same filmmaker. The originals in both series are scrappy, handmade, guerilla filmmaking ventures by gifted amateurs, while the second installments are made with more budget and experience by more battle-weary professional filmmakers.
Despite its reputation, The Evil Dead is not completely devoid of humor, though I’m not sure all of it is intentional, and it is clearly the work of the same filmmaker of the later film. Evil Dead II, however, leans into the humor inherent to the story rather than trying to avoid it. Raimi then heightens it by infusing the film with his love for the Three Stooges and Looney Tunes cartoons and making full use of Bruce Campbell‘s considerable talents as a physical actor with impeccable comic chops. Comparisons to the first film also illustrate how poised upon a razor’s edge horror and comedy are. Slight adjustments in one direction or the other make massive differences in tone and mood. A blending of the two is an even more precarious balance, verging on impossible to attain. Several deadly serious scenes from the original are restaged in the second for laughs and they serve their purpose effectively in both cases. It all comes down to nuances in performance, camera, and editing and leaning ever so slightly toward horror or humor.
According to star and producer Bruce Campbell and several others, The Evil Dead and its follow-up Crimewave were absolutely miserable shoots in which no one really knew what they were doing. They were young and reckless enough not to mind too much at the time. It’s something if a miracle that the original Evil Dead has any coherence at all considering the conditions and their lack of basic production knowledge. It is a testament to Sam Raimi as a visionary filmmaker that it works as well as it does.