Army of Darkness (US - BD)
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At the end of his last battle with the unnameable evil of the demon spawn Deadites, Ash William (Bruce Campbell) was accidentally thrown back in time to Arthurian Medieval England. Ash’s timing is expectedly bad, as a battle between King Arthur and Henry the Red is stewing among the awakening of the Deadites’ evil. Mistaken for one of Henry’s men, Ash is taken back to Camelot to be executed. After fighting his way out of the execution, Ash makes clear his innocence, and an effort is put forth to help him return to his own time. Now labelled ‘The Chosen One’ Ash must retrieve the Necronomicon, which possesses the power to save the kingdom, and send him home. Now if only he could remember those secret words…
I’m far too close to Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness to be at all trustworthy when it comes to a critical analysis of pros and cons. Instead of a review I’m penning a brief love letter, and won’t blame you if you want to skip to the end. Upon the film’s initial release I was too young to see R-rated movies in theatres, but discovered the Dark Horse comic book adaptation, and was transfixed by the mix of horror, adventure, action and comedy. Raimi and his brother Ivan managed to distil everything a thirteen year old boy loves into three perfect issues. Eventually the film became a cable television mainstay, and I was able to actually see the film version. I was initially taken aback by the much more prominent physical comedy, and how humble the special effects were, especially compared to the intricate illustrations of comic artist John Bolton. But by this time I was in High School, and could appreciate irony, and had recently discovered punk rock. Army of Darkness is mass of DIY punk rock energy, and like all Raimi’s best films it’s an extremely personal piece of work. Raimi’s far too big a sweetheart to give us the finger, but one assumes that he doesn’t really care if you don’t like Army of Darkness (or any of the other Evil Dead movies), because he likes it, and that’s all that really matters.
At the time I saw Army of Darkness I was almost entirely unaware of the other two Evil Dead movies (I remember the Evil Dead 2 poster art creeping me out at the local video store, but that’s about it), even though it was clear that the film was a sequel based on the opening scenes. Fans even younger than myself may be unaware that at the time of release Army of Darkness was considered a failure by most fans, who were expecting something darker, more along the lines of the original Evil Dead. Ironically enough, or rather, entirely un-ironically enough, the same thing happened with Spider-Man 3, which was also co-written by the Brothers Raimi. Anyway, the less horrific and generally PG-13ish (the original cut was given an NC-17, and even with studio cuts was awarded an undeserved R) appealed to a younger version of myself, and proved to be a gateway drug to harder horror, which I proceeded to fervently hunt down for the following decade and a half of my life. Since horror movies are themselves a gateway drug to a more general movie obsession I personally owe a lot of wasted time to Army of Darkness specifically.
The long and winding road of Army of Darkness on digital home video is an exhausting story. I’m not sure if any copyright protected film has ever seen so many official home video releases. Anchor Bay alone released the film six times between the US and the UK, and Universal released a non-anamorphic disc before that. This is the third HD release, following the HD DVD and the UK Blu-ray. I have no idea if this transfer differs at all from the other two, but am going to assume it doesn’t. This is about as glorious a transfer as I was expecting for the film, which is to say the quality is totally inconsistent. The shortcomings are pretty much all in keeping with those that have sullied the film upon every release.
When things are dark, or where the B-level optical effects are concerned, the transfer is grainy with a capital Grr, and the image sharpness is problematic. However, in bright lights the transfer quite literally shines, really, really brightly, and details are sharpened to blinding degrees. The only problem with these bright scenes is that the sharpening is extreme enough to cause some noticeable edge-enhancement, which increases in frequency as the camera pulls back. Colour consistency is also an issue, especially in the heavily processed optical effects and matte shots. The scene where Ash is tortured by tiny versions of himself is awash with a warm tint that overtakes the black levels. This problem is repeated a few more times in other effects heavy shots, but overall colours are relatively pure, and blacks are much darker than the DVD releases. A perfect example of the transfer’s inconsistent detail is found in the early daylight castle scenes. Watch in terror as the detail is sucked out of the up shot of Ash and Henry the Red looking into ‘The Pit’. Then it happens again as Ash starts up his newly acquired chainsaw. But like I said, these have been issues since the film first hit home video, as have the occasional artefact, such as hair on the gate, or small smudges on the lens. This is the best I’ve seen the film look, and I’m not sure if there’s much room for improvement based on the source material’s condition. The framing is a constant source of argument as well. Apparently 1.66:1 is the original transfer, but many releases have been 1.85:1. This one is 1.85:1, for what that’s worth.
Did you hear that? That was the sound of Ash’s boom stick. It seems that Universal was unable to get a hold of all the Anchor Bay extras, or MGM’s remastered director’s cut version (if they even tried), but my ears tell me they got their hands on the formally THX certified 5.1 remix. The strengths and weaknesses seem to match the whole way through. The original mix was a rather aggressive and super-stylized Dolby Surround medley, so the remix is a lot more organic than the Evil Dead remixes. There isn’t an excess of surround effects, but the stereo channels are quite lively, and are filled with directional movement. The mixes greatest strengths are in the clarity of duelling elements. Even at the height of noise the throwaway jokes are still plenty clear. The most obvious shortcoming is the occasional centre channel bleeding, usually during otherwise quiet talking scenes. The prime example comes when evil Ash is barking orders at his troops. Again, this has been an issue for the audio mix since the first 5.1 version was released. This DTS-HD version offers obvious lossless advantages, including heavier bass, more pronounced directional effects, and general clarity. Joe LoDuca’s score (which is augmented by one Danny Elfman cue) is the tracks prime example of enhancement.
If I could express my screaming disappointment at this, the first official US Blu-ray release of Army of Darkness, in written words I would. It’s just not possible. When the disc was first announced Universal was all ‘Woo, extra features!’, but apparently something went wrong along the road, because damn, is this sad. Apparently the UK disc didn’t go too much better, but even a SD transfer of the director’s cut is better than just the alternate ending.
This disc features four extras, two of which can be considered ‘new’ in the most technical sense of the word. The most substantial new extra is a featurette entitled ‘Creating the Deadites’ (21:30, HD). Though similar to the ‘Men Behind the Army’ featurette that accompanied Anchor Bay’s release (including much of the same behind-the-scenes footage), this look at the special effects production with KNB Effects members Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger features at least a handful of new stories from the front. Entertaining enough. In the place of the excellent extended edition commentary is a U-Control option that displays production photos. It’s not the same. To their credit, however, Universal has supplied the original ending that test audiences found too depressing in non-anamorphic, standard def video. I suppose the ending is the most important of the differences between the theatrical and director’s cut versions, so new viewers should be thankful for small favours. Extras end with the original US theatrical trailer (SD), the one with the faux-Metallica soundtrack.
Please find the time to release a Blu-ray version of your excellent, entirely uncut version of Army of Darkness. I’m sure Universal means well, as their Blu-ray version of the theatrical cut looks and sounds sizably better than any version of the film I’ve ever seen, and God bless them, they included the original ending, but we really want that director’s cut, that Raimi, Raimi, Campbell commentary, and those deleted scenes. I promise fans will find the money to buy this release.
* Note: The above images are taken from the UK Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 15th September 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Surround 2.0 English, DTS 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Creating the Deadites, Alternate Ending, Production Photos, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert, Ted Raimi
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy and Horror
Length: 81 minutes
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