The number of truly great threequels can be counted on one hand. For every Last Crusade or Return of the Jedi, there's a dozen Superman III's, Mad Max 3's, or even The Never-Ending Story III's. But perhaps there is no more disappointing threequel than Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness, Sam Raimi's overly goofy conclusion to his cult horror-comedy trilogy. Most of the good work of the first two instalments is swiftly undone, resulting in a mess of half-arsed jokes and missed opportunities.
Whether by sheer bad luck or something in his nature, Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy mirrors his subsequent Spider-Man trilogy in terms of the quality of each instalment. Both The Evil Dead and Spider-Man were delivered with relatively low expectations, with Raimi not being a big name in Hollywood. The success of these films prompted a sequel with more money attached and a new-found fan following, leading Raimi to improve on and refine all the aspects of the first instalment, and thus deliver a sequel that really stood up.
When it came to the third instalment in both series, Raimi was faced with a problem. With even more money and even higher expectations, he could not simply produce more of the same: he couldn't send Ash back to the cabin, any more than he could break up Peter Parker and Mary-Jane. With both Evil Dead 3 and Spider-Man 3 he uncharacteristically panicked, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the screen in the hope that some of it would work. And as is the way with such an approach, most of what he attempted didn't work, resulting in each case with an overlong, disappointing mess.
With both productions, one could point to studio interference as the reason for the films never really taking flight. Raimi's career has been dogged by studio executives meddling with his preferred cut or interfering in the creative process. They butchered his cut of Crimewave so that it made no sense, and refused to cast Bruce Campbell in the title role in Darkman. With Evil Dead 3, Raimi went into the project with the backing of Dino De Laurentiis, who intended to make the film independently and sell it to Universal as a negative pick-up. But eventually the budget increased to $12m, with Universal putting in half and handling all post-production, resulting in several scenes being reshot and the ending being completely changed.
But despite the pressures on Raimi, from Universal and elsewhere, there is also a lot of evidence to suggest that Evil Dead 3 is exactly the film he that wanted to make. When interviewed for The Evil Dead Companion back in 2000, Campbell said that the main reason Raimi made Evil Dead 2 as a quasi-remake was because he hadn't quite worked out the storyline for the planned mediaeval instalment. Even withstanding the efforts of Universal to cut the film to a PG-13 rather than an R, there is a conscious effort on the part of Raimi to tone down the horror elements from the first two films to appeal to a younger audience.
The first two films worked so well because Raimi's love of goofy slapstick comedy, and specifically The Three Stooges, was balanced perfectly by the shocking, demented horror being shown on screen. There was never any doubt that the films were not meant to be taken seriously, but there was a feeling that the horror elements served as an important counterweight to prevent the goofiness from being overemphasised. In Evil Dead 3, Raimi's comedy influences are far more unrestrained and ill-disciplined, with the jokes failing to coalesce around any kind of concrete narrative.
The story of Evil Dead 3 is all over the place, in whichever version you see. There is the basic plot of Ash being stranded in the year 1300 and desperately trying to get home, but the story keeps getting distracted or slowed up by the set-pieces, some of which work and some of which really drag out. The whole sequence in the windmill, culminating in Ash literally splitting into Bad Ash and Good Ash, feels like passingly humorous padding to prevent him getting to the Necronomicon sooner and to get the film to around 90 minutes. Even when Bad Ash re-emerges in the third act to command the Army of Darkness, the windmill scene feels unnecessary because Raimi could have introduced the character later in the film without losing any impact or momentum.
You can understand Raimi wanting to bring in other influences to prevent the film from re-treading old ground from the first two instalments. But none of the ideas or story arcs he introduces are developed adequately enough or taken to their natural conclusions. The majority of jokes or references to classic literature feel like they have been dropped in to make the film feel like a narrative departure, resulting in less of a narrative departure than a departure from narrative.
The basic plot of Evil Dead 3 is a very good example of this. The story is rooted in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, with its familiar aspects of a main character coming into a different time, struggling to fit in and eventually becoming something of a hero. But with the exception of some of the dialogue between Ash and his mediaeval girlfriend, there is little effort made to work the fish-out-of-water story, let alone do something original with it. The plot squanders several points of great potential, reducing the concept of introducing 20th-chemistry to wizards to a couple of brief gags in the last 10 minutes. The unveiling of a steam-powered car (which looks like a Mad Max knock-off) is just waved on through and allowed to run its course like it was any other joke.
With the battle sequences, Raimi wanted to pay homage to the great Ray Harryhausen, who designed the stop-motion monsters for the likes of Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts, which also features a skeleton army. We get a fair amount of cartoon slapstick, involving Campbell's face being stretched using latex rubber, but unlike Harryhausen's monsters there is no real sense of threat being generated from any of the jokes. When the books attack Ash, by sucking him through a tunnel or biting his fingers, it feels like a harmless practical joke that has wandered into what should be a really spooky scene.
Then there is the question of Raimi's direction. There are less handheld or steadicam shots in the film, with the majority of the final battle being done in a combination of wide-angle crane shots and close-ups for the gags. Because Evil Dead 3 has more locations and characters, this is to some extent necessary, and it does feel like a more professional production than the other two. But what we gain in a smooth operator, we lose in the ability of the film to concentrate its energy, and it ends up flannelling in several directions at once.
The biggest problem with Evil Dead 3 is that it doesn't feel entirely self-confident, either in its story or its shift towards a more goofy tone. Rather than behaving like its predecessor, settling on a given scenario and allowing the humour to escalate, it keeps jumping between different locations and set-pieces as if it doesn't know where the next laugh is coming from. If The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 are like laser-guided missiles, Evil Dead 3 is like a cluster bomb: it may hit some of the target, but a lot of unwanted damage is caused along the way.
On top of all that, there are little inconsistencies and contrivances within the plot which take some of the energy out of the film. There are basic continuity errors, as Ash's shotgun keeps disappearing and reappearing without explanation. Having the science books in the back of Ash's Oldsmobile is a huge deus ex machina which will try one's patience even if you attempt to laugh it off. The film comes unstuck even when it treads close to the previous instalments, such as the creation of Ash's new hand. We didn't bat an eyelid when he just shoved a chainsaw on the end, but when you introduce technology that wouldn't look out of place in Star Wars, it merits a little explanation.
Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness is a massive let-down, with very few of the jokes hitting their mark and neither of the endings making much sense. It's not an outright failure, containing moments of promise and another reliably good performance by Bruce Campbell. But it falls far short of the standards set by its predecessors and fails in its own right as a piece of fantasy slapstick. It's the cinematic equivalent of wheel-spin: lots of energy, smoke and noise, but no real movement or direction.