Ash vs Evil Dead: Saluting a Gamble That Really Paid Off
Ash vs Evil Dead gave one of horror's great icons a victory lap.
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
On paper, Ash vs Evil Dead never should have worked. A belated continuation of a series of four cult horror films, three of which told roughly the same story and none of which followed any consistent continuity or clear rules, it didn’t exactly have the sturdiest foundation. How this franchise would operate as a weekly series was unclear. But from start to finish, Ash vs Evil Dead knew exactly what it was aiming for and hit that mark again and again. This wasn’t always a good thing (more on this in a moment), but if you were willing to go with the insanity, and I would struggle to imagine anybody who watched this show wasn’t, you’d doubtless find something to enjoy.
From the first Sam Raimi directed episode, the show felt like a natural continuation of the films that spawned it. It regularly harkened back to bits of mythology or classic moments from the movies, borrowed shots and iconography, and kept Ash Williams every bit the same swaggering idiot who captured hearts in the eighties.
In the treatment of Ash lay the key to the creative success of the show; he might have been the same person as before, but the writers weren’t afraid to depict other sides to him. There was vulnerability, warmth and doubt that the films’ Ash never really had time to show, and Campbell rose to the challenge admirably; you would never call Ash Williams complex, but there was far more nuance to this demon killing man-child than anybody expected. This was helped by the addition of sidekicks Kelly and Pablo, who managed to not only be likeable, well developed characters in their own right, but provided Ash with people to care about and bounce off. Their rhythm and dynamics gave the show a beating heart no matter how absurd it got.
And boy did it ever get absurd. Arguably the defining trait of Ash vs Evil Dead, and maybe the franchise at large, was a perpetual willingness to be as big, ridiculous and audacious as possible. In a time when horror, especially on TV, is predominantly dour and depressing (looking at you, Walking Dead), Ash vs Evil Dead was a breath of fresh air in how fun it was, piling on absurd set piece after absurd set piece, punctuated with inspired visual comedy or cackle-worthy one-liners from our characters. Like its leading man, it was a show dedicated to having a good time and bringing the audience along for the ride.
It wasn’t perfect. It’s telling that the Evil Dead films, while inventive, largely centre around the creepy old cabin in the woods, a location Ash vs Evil Dead returned to again and again with diminishing returns. Loopy dream logic, flexible rules and barely adhered to continuity work fine in the realm of basically standalone horror jaunts, but in a television show those things can be crippling, and the longer the show went on the more Ash Vs Evil Dead suffered from a growing sense of repetition. The ‘Deadite of the Week’ fights, with notable exceptions (Cheryl and Henrietta’s glorious returns), became tedious and you could pretty much set your watch by the major beats. Deadite attacks. Ash gets hurt in an embarrassing/wince inducing way. Ash screams. Pratfalls ensue. Deadite says something gross. Ash dispatches Deadite with either boomstick or chainsaw. Ash delivers a one liner. Rinse and repeat.
It’s not that the fight scenes were bad. Taken in isolation, most were fun and way beyond what we’re used to seeing on TV. But in a weekly show where you’re generally pretty sure nobody’s going to die (or if they do they’ll be back soon), eventually those fights started to lack punch and feel like the thing we had to get through to return to the characters we had grown to care about.
Repetition plagued the larger plot as well. Outside of the weekly set piece, certain wells were returned to again and again. Either Kelly or Pablo would get possessed. Plot reasons would necessitate a return to the cabin. Ash would have to redeem himself after the people of Elk Grove became convinced he was a murderer. Either Kelly or Pablo would die and get resurrected.
The truth is that there was never all that much mileage in the premise, and to really break the mould would mean to move away from the things about the show that were so quintessentially Evil Dead. The series basically delivered on the promise of a mini Evil Dead movie every week, but getting something every week both takes away the novelty and makes it easy to see the seams.
After a second season that really suffered from these problems along with an ending that made absolutely no sense, Ash Vs Evil Dead did get its groove back in season three, which found plenty of new notes to play by giving Ash a daughter and forcing him to grow up just slightly. But, while the general narrative has been that the show ended prematurely, watching season three it was hard to really see where the story could go from here. Ash embraced his destiny and something in the realm of maturity just as the world descended into the apocalypse. Cue a time jump to a Mad Max style future where we leave our hero ready to continue the fight.
Apart from mirroring the ending of Sam Raimi’s Army Of Darkness Director’s Cut, this arguably leaves the character exactly where he should be – forever fighting the forces of evil in our imaginations. Not learning what happened to Kelly, Pablo and Brandy was frustrating, but there was enough closure in their final moments together to mean that this wasn’t a terrible place to say goodbye. And besides, what would we really have wanted in a season four? Ten episodes in the far future? More time travel to reunite our heroes? Ash already fought a 600-foot Deadite. At a certain point, you can only escalate so much.
All this probably makes it sound like I disliked the show or am glad it’s over. Neither is true. Ash Vs Evil Dead was the unique horror reboot that managed to keep the spirit of its predecessors alive and provide new chapters that can proudly sit side by side with what went before while deepening the central character and mythology in ways that left them stronger than before. Unlike Hannibal, Damien, The Exorcist, or Bates Motel it didn’t eschew the original continuity in favour of a fresh start, but provided a long awaited (depending on what you think of the 2013 film) continuation to a much-loved saga. As Bruce Campbell recently pointed out, it provided fifteen more hours of Ash Williams and Evil Dead mayhem, the equivalent of ten movies. There’s no real argument that fans were cheated here.
Will this be the end of the character and the franchise? It’s hard to say. Evil Dead already had a fresh start in 2013 and while the film was well received, it didn’t exactly capture imaginations. By making this TV show, Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi have ensured that the franchise continues to feel intrinsically linked to their styles and sensibilities; you wouldn’t envy the person tasked with coming in and putting a new spin on the property without their involvement.
With Campbell saying he’s retiring the character, it’s difficult to see this as anything other than the end, at least for this particular era of Evil Dead’s history. And to be fair, it’s not like leaving us on a frustrating note of irresolution while hinting at adventures to come is in any way out of character for the franchise. Ash Vs Evil Dead wasn’t perfect, but it never once felt like the creators were phoning it in or anything less than passionate about the story and the character, which is a lot more important. As it stands, the series was a giddy, silly, weirdly touching and appropriately gruesome victory lap for one of horror’s great icons. It’s hard to ask much more than that.