Horror films defy a fundamental convention in mainstream film by basing their franchises on antagonists instead of villains. No one remembers Alice Hardy, but EVERYONE remembers Jason Voorhees (both from Friday the 13th (1980). What makes the Evil Dead franchise interesting is that it’s a horror franchise represented by a protagonist instead: Ashley J. Williams. The character is mostly known for his memorable one liners and bravado, but I would say his greatest strength was his character development throughout the series. He goes from lucky survivor to badass action hero, a transition that never happened in any other horror franchise beforehand.
A little background in case you’ve never seen Evil Dead: the first film debuted in 1981 and was directed by Sam Raimi (director of the first Spider-Man film series.) The premise is straightforward: a group of teens (including Ash) go to a cabin in the woods…
No,not that one
…only to discover that it’s previous occupant found a mystical book called the Necronomicon (or ” Book Of The Dead ” for those of you too poor to have taken Latin). The occupant’s final recording of an incantation unleashes a demonic / undead / whatever force upon the teens that won’t relent until sunrise.
In the first film, Ash acts as the ” final girl “. This is a horror fan term for the last person alive. Who is a girl. The most well-known final girl in horror is probably Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) from Halloween (1978). The final girl is usually vulnerable, very white, and most of all: chaste (if not an outright virgin). Despite not being a girl, Ash fulfills the role well. Instead of being chaste or virginal, he’s romantic.
His relationship with Linda is one of the few plot elements to be carried over to the sequels, making it the one of few concrete elements of his backstory. Ash definitely seems to be the “heart” of his friends. Given the genre he’s in, this also makes him impotent. This is demonstrated in comparison to the only other man in the film, Scott.
Whereas Ash is reluctant to do pretty much anything, Scott is consistently portrayed as proactive. He’s the one who attempts to figure out an escape plan. Once that ceases to be an option, he deals with the situation at hand. When the first teen is possessed, Scotty kicks her ass into the cellar.
Meanwhile, Ash got his ass kicked by a shelf.
Scotty also kills his OWN GIRLFRIEND the minute she gets possessed.
Holy shit. Ash, of course avoids killing his possessed girlfriend for most of the film, only accomplishing it after THREE attempts. Ash’s reactions to the events of the film are human: he doesn’t just switch into violence mode when the situation calls for it. For a film as schlocky as Evil Dead, his character keeps the story grounded, unlike many similar B-movie horror films of the 80’s which lacked sympathetic protagonists. As with most final girls, Ash is a vulnerable audience stand-in who survives…until the end which implies he gets possessed anyway.
The success of the first film led to Raimi being greenlit for two sequels. As with most new directors, Raimi had not planned on Evil Dead being a franchise. But, due to money and all, he made the sequels as requested. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987) begins by revealing that while Ash was possessed by the end of the film, the daylight quickly cured him. Of course, he still can’t leave the woods due to a broken bridge. And the woods are still haunted. And, of course, his girlfriend is not quite dead.
Or is she?
The scene seamlessly transitions from Ash being attacked to Ash sitting down, implying that he might have just hallucinated. Is Ash crazy? While Evil Dead’s demons are shown to have a wide range of abilities, it’s ambiguous if they can cast illusions, which leads the viewer to question whether or not Ash is losing his mind. A later scene raises this question again when his reflection attacks him…
…which turns out to be his own doing.
Now while there are some horror franchises that bring back protagonists who have gone insane due to previous films, most of them come back either as antagonists themselves (Amanda Young aka Jigsaw 2 in the Saw series, Kirsty Cotton in the Hellraiser series) or aren’t protagonists any more (Jamie Lloyd in the Halloween series). Ash is different because he’s still our sympathetic point-of-view. As such, we have to view things through a combination of his probable madness and the demonic influence.
This conflict is similar to Jack Torrance’s in The Shining (1980). The viewer knows that the Overlook Hotel is haunted, but we also know Torrance is a recovering alcoholic. How much of his hallucinations are him and how much are the hotel’s manipulations? It’s established that he once drunkenly assaulted his son, so would it be ridiculous to think he’s always been violent and the hotel merely “nudged” him? This is the question that makes Jack Torrance such a tragic villain : you don’t know how much control he has over his own actions. For Ash, the question is how much of the events of the Evil Dead 2 actually occur and how much of it might be him going insane due to past trauma? Has his girlfriend really been resurrected, or is it just guilt for killing her in the first place? The sensitive Ash from the first film can’t live with knowing what he did (unlike that douchebag Scotty) , so her memory torments him. This is evidenced by the sad leitmotif that accompanies her locket, which becomes Ash’s tragic keepsake.
The leitmotif plays just before his possible hallucination, thus connecting the moment with his grief.
While this plot element is subverted by the reveal that his girlfriend HAS been resurrected (this is a zombie movie, after all), it still manages to play into how his interactions with the “Evil Dead” have changed. Since Ash is the only consistent protagonist throughout the series, one could argue that his view of the Evil Dead shifts based on his mental state. The first film has the most objective view, since he’s not really the protagonist until the end. By the second film, he’s become so disturbed by previous events that the spirits of the Necronomicon have become as manic as he is. The shared mania of Ash and the spirits is summed up best in a scene where several inanimate objects begin laughing at Ash , which causes him to join in with insane laughter himself.
The Dead have broken Ash; their manipulation and his madness have intersected.
The “madness” plot is dropped halfway-through the film when the original occupant’s daughter and her acquaintances appear at the cabin looking for her father. They see Ash covered in blood and a chainsaw. Hilarity ensues. They of course learn about the book and that he didn’t kill her father and blah blah blah.
What IS interesting is that Ash, once he gets his wits together, manages to be a lot more proactive than before, guiding the visitors on how to deal with the Dead. He also becomes more violent. This is best evidenced in a callback to the original film; when one of the visitors becomes possessed, Ash hacks him to death in a scene that literally mirrors Scotty killing his girlfriend.
Evil Dead 2
One could view the blood pouring over the camera as a ” baptism of violence “. In the first film, after killing his girlfriend, Scotty suggests to Ash that they run away, abandoning Linda. Ash parallels this when he decides it isn’t worth trying to save one of the visitors’ girlfriend, who ran out into the woods. Like Scotty, Ash has not only become more comfortable with violence, he’s become colder. Rather than caring about his fellow survivors, Ash cares only about his own survival.
Ash’s newfound grit is put to good use by the end of the film when he learns about the spell that can vanquish the Evil Dead. This forces him to face the wife of the previous occupant, who had been possessed before the series’ events. He deals with the threat by creating his two most iconic weapons-the chainsaw gauntlet and the sawed off shotgun. The scene is even more triumphant if you recognize it as a callback to the much grimmer scene from the first film when Ash tries to dismember Linda’s corpse.
Slowly he prepares each implement, every action given its own transition as if it’s a scene within itself. Each sound increasingly jarring until we hear the awful roar of a chainsaw. Despite not seeing Ash that much, we feel the unbearable weight of what he has to do. Upon seeing her body, Ash was unable to go through with it. His inability to finish the task showed us his limits as a hero: his decision could have resulted in his death. The second film’s callback to this shows us how far Ash’s come, he’s now willing to do whatever it takes to survive.
Rather than gather his implements hesitantly, he acts with assuredness. Rather than transitioning between each cut with a fade, the scene is cut traditionally, turning the macabre tone of the original scene into a triumphant montage. Rather than being afraid of what he has to do, Ash has embraced it.
Any of you that have seen Evil Dead 2 already know the rest of the plot so I won’t bother going through it in detail. Ash is sent back the the Middle Ages in order to destroy the source of the Deadites’ (yes, that was apparently their name this whole time) power. And then opens the most famous of the series: Army of Darkness (1992).
Army of Darkness is the greatest testament to Evil Dead as a series, Sam Raimi as a director, Ashley J. Williams as a character, and Bruce Campbell as a movie star. If the plot were to be taken by itself without the aforementioned elements, Army of Darkness is the dumbest film in a series that was already pretty dumb at points. The humor is mostly ridiculous. The ” Deadites ” (I hate saying that) aren’t even remotely scary anymore. Most of all, Ash adopts every single macho stereotype imaginable- spouting cheesy one-liners, being a jerk to pretty much everybody, and becoming a horrendous chauvinist.
Once again, I come back to my theory about the setting reflecting the character: the second film had a manic tone with equal parts horror and absurd humor-reflecting it’s protagonist’s mental state. Ash begins this film post “baptism”, and is now so comfortable mowing down Deadites that the horror aspect is lost in favor in straightforward action. The toolshed scene is given yet another callback, taking the “badass” element up to eleven as Ash creates a mechanical hand out of an armored gauntlet.
In any other film series I would call this ” jumping the shark “, but it’s earned in this instance. The once impotent Ash lost the love of his life, went mad, got mad, then became a pastiche of manhood in order to compensate. Is he the most likable guy? Not really, and that’s touched upon in the film. Whereas original Ash was romantic to a fault, here he’s aloof towards his love interest. He’s aloof towards everyone in the medieval world, calling most of them “primates”. He’s so arrogant that when he’s given the incantation to free the land from Deadites, he doesn’t practice it, which leads him to misquote it. When he fails his task, leading to an impending Deadite invasion, he STILL thinks they should send him back to the future using the Necronomicon. Ash’s ” every man for himself ” mentality isn’t necessarily the best thing, and he thankfully grows out of once he decides to help the villagers fight off the Deadites. Of course they win and he goes home and blah blah blah. To me, Army of Darkness is more of an epilogue for the character than a climactic finale. Most of his character development occurs in the second film. Army of Darkness merely showcases who Ash has grown into in the previous film. Ash manages to come full circle somewhat: he went from a nice but weak-willed man to a brash jerk with a heart of gold worthy of Lord Byron himself.
The progression of Ash indicates what’s so unique about the series as a whole. Evil Dead could be thought of as a rational commentary on the degradation of a horror franchise. Why is it that most audiences feel The Ring (2002) is scarier than The Ring 2 (2005) ? Does Ring 2 vary from the first film’s winning formula? No, it doesn’t. And THAT’S the problem. Whereas most genre films up the ante with each sequel, horror film sequels attempt to recreate something which was already lost. Samara coming out of television once is scary. The second time: not so much. These franchises are based on static characters who, unless they become protagonists, have little potential. At best, series that manage to go into 3+ sequels often end up becoming self-aware (Halloween : Resurrection (2002), for example) , but it often takes repeated failures for producers to attempt this. Rather than trying to revisit old haunts (see what I did there?), the Evil Dead series actually progresses it’s tone organically (horror to horror-comedy to comedy-action) without being forced to. This progression is exemplified by its enduring protagonist: Ashley J. Williams.
Hail to the King
For more thoughts on classic horror:
The Decay of the American West in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Death Has Come To Haddonfield: Fatalism in Halloween
Three Things I Like About The Thing