I've long suspected that my love of Halloween 4 over any other Myers sequel is at least partly due to the fact that it was the first entry of the series I saw, and thus holds some nostalgic value to elevate it over Halloween II or H20 (most fans' favorite followup). I also saw Dream Warriors before any of the other Nightmare on Elm Street films, which is probably why I secretly like it more than the original (sssh). Most of the other series I saw in order, so I can't provide any other examples, but there is one curious exception: the Evil Dead trilogy. I saw Army of Darkness first, then Evil Dead 2, and finally watched the original some time later, and while tradition would suggest this means I liked Army the most, it wasn't then and certainly isn't now the case. "First impressions" be damned - the first one I saw is by far my least favorite.
Like many young people (I was twelve when it came out), I was unaware that this odd-looking movie was actually the third part of a series, and like just about ALL people I didn't see it in theaters. When it came on video a friend clued me in, saying that it was a part 3 but that I didn't need to see the others, since it began with a recap. So I watched it, and thought it was okay - there was stuff I liked, but it didn't really grab me like most "horror" movies did then. But I was curious enough to check out the others, and I think I rented Evil Dead 2 a few months later, as my video store at the time didn't have the original. I was immediately far more into that film, appreciating the horror/comedy blend that seemed far too balanced in favor of the latter in Army of Darkness, and the storyline was more engaging as well. And finally, a new video store that opened up in 1994 (by my memory) DID have the original, and I was finally able to see how it all started.
Of course, as anyone who has seen the first Evil Dead can tell you, there isn't a lot of humor in it. Sure, there's a few sight gags and one-liners, but no more than the average horror flick - the 1981 film was designed to scare, first and foremost. So from my backwards perspective, the series got scarier as it went - and far more satisfying to me. By the time I was 14 I was also paying more attention to filmmaking and the idea of what an "independent" movie was, so I was also more appreciative of the first film's lo-fi, DIY roots than I was of the studio-financed big budget FX of the third film. It's funny that NOW I can say part of why I don't love Army is because it lacks the horror element, but I didn't even know that it was originally such a scary series when I saw it - I disliked it on its own merits! I know that for a lot of fans Evil Dead 2 is the pinnacle of the series, as it has the best blend of everything they love about the first and third films, and while that's definitely true (and while I have no problem with horror-comedies in general), for me the first is the best, the one I grab off the shelf if I'm in the mood to see Sam Raimi abuse Bruce Campbell, and the one I have the least problem with rebuying over and over.
That's the other things fans know well: these movies have redefined the idea of "double dipping." Over the past 15 years I think I've owned each film three times on some sort of disc format (not even counting VHS!). Anchor Bay is of course to blame for this, as they were fond of re-releasing their big titles over and over throughout the 00s, pulling the same shit with Halloween and the sequels they had acquired. Eventually they did an "Ultimate Edition" of the first film on Blu-Ray that SHOULD have had all of the bonus features ever created for the film, but it was still missing some things (older commentaries, mostly), and I'm not sure if Evil Dead 2 ever got the same treatment. But Scream Factory has definitely gone that route for Army of Darkness, releasing a three disc set that includes four (FOUR!) versions of the film, plus the commentary, several making of pieces (old and new), deleted scenes, etc, etc. As I'm not a huge fan of the film I haven't kept up with every release, but after poking around for a while online I was unable to find anything missing from this new set that might have you wanting to hold on to an older one - this is the definitive release, hands down.
And its the inclusion of the multiple versions of the film that had me attempt to reevaluate it. It's been quite a long time since I sat down and watched the whole thing; when the New Beverly had a marathon of the series a few years back I left not long into the film, having no desire to sit through it after watching the superior first two (plus I knew I'd just fall asleep anyway). The last time I watched it in its entirety was probably in college (so, at least 14 years ago), and obviously my tastes have been refined since then - maybe now I'd like it more? Maybe this time I could more easily see why people feel compelled to shout every one of Campbell's lines in the film at him whenever he appears at a convention? Or why they happily buy the damn thing across each of its (by my count) 8 disc releases in Region 1 alone?
Well, no, I don't. But I can say this much - this is the rare occasion where the studio insisted on changes that made for a better film. Raimi's director's cut is ENDLESS, dragging all of the film's big sequences (the battle at the end, Ash vs his mini-selves, etc) long past their expiration date, and inexplicably not even solving any of the film's narrative problems. For example, in the retrospective piece they talk at length about how Henry the Red's triumphant return during the climax is out of nowhere, because a scene where Ash goes to ask for his help was excised... and yet it's still not included in Raimi's preferred cut (it's available as a deleted scene on the disc, of course). One of my major problems with the movie is that it's plotless even compared to the first two - it's basically a fetch quest stretched into 82-96 minutes depending on what version you're watching, with no other characters to really care about besides Ash. Reinstating things like this probably could have helped make its story a little more compelling.
But it's Raimi's lack of filter that does the film in, particularly in his director's cut. The scene with the mini-Ash demon things just goes on and on (and on), to the point where it almost seems like this could be the movie's actual plot going forward, with our hero facing off against a squad of imp dopplegangers. But eventually it finally ends; a 15-minute detour to get us to the point - a full grown "Evil Ash" that will be the film's primary villain during its equally endless climactic battle. It's bad enough that the movie criminally wastes Bill Moseley as a "Deadite Captain" when he could/should have been a primary antagonist, but it's worse when the whole "Evil Ash" thing barely comes across - if you just walked in during the last half hour you'd probably never even realize it was supposed to be Ash under all that (impressive!) makeup. So while I'm usually against studio meddling (as anyone should be) and consider myself a fan of Raimi's, I think his judgment was skewed here - the pacing, while still not perfect, is much better in the theatrical cut, racing us through the threadbare narrative instead of giving us too much time to think about how flimsy it is.
His longer cut also has the original ending, which conceptually is great but doesn't quite work on-screen (something the film's editor agrees with, according to the film's massive and excellent feature length retrospective that's on the first disc). I love the idea of Ash being so stupid that he takes too much medicine and ends up in the future because he overslept, but seeing Campbell stumble around with a fake beard and look at a bad FX shot of a confusing "future" just doesn't really cut it. I mean, this is an Evil Dead movie - whatever is seemingly promised will be retconned in the next one anyway (at the end of Evil Dead 2 he is being championed as a savior - Army starts with him as a prisoner of the same people), so why anyone puts much stock in this is beyond me. Plus it's not even clear that it's actually the future - he went back in time and (we can assume) didn't completely wipe out the Deadite problem, so perhaps this is just along the same lines as the "Bad 1985" in Back to the Future II. Again, on paper I like the idea, but there's nothing about its execution that is really worth defending. At least the theatrical ending pays off the S-Mart element of Ash telling his story in the present day (which is still in the director's cut at the beginning), and adds a bit more horror into this one-time horror series.
Don't get me wrong, there's stuff in there I really enjoy - it's far from an outright bad movie. The pit sequence near the beginning is fantastic, with a great capper (and Ash letting Henry go is very cool). The "Building the Deathcoaster" music cue is the best score in the series, and pretty much doubles that scene's value (it's a fun scene anyway - great use of the Classic). And the makeup work is phenomenal, with KNB delivering at that time their best work and one that remains among their top showcases, and ditto for Tony Gardner who handled Evil Ash and Evil Sheila, and the variety of Deadites keeps the film somewhat engaging even as the story itself falters. It's also fun (in spurts) to see Campbell as the lead in something with a lot of money behind it (this was his first and last lead role in a studio movie), particularly when the script borrows a page from Big Trouble in Little China and has no problem with letting its hero come off as an incompetent schmuck. But even that hurts my enjoyment in a way, as Raimi is far too fond of The Three Stooges for my tastes - watching Ash get abused once or twice is fine, but by the fifth time he hits his head on a pipe or gets poked in the eye, I find myself losing interest again.
It kind of saddens me that I can't really enjoy the movie like so many people obviously do. There are few Raimi movies I dislike (Crimewave, which he disowns anyway, and Oz are the only ones that I truly have no desire to watch; I even like the Costner one), but the bad pacing and uninvolving narrative put this one dangerously close to that territory. I don't have Starz so I can't watch the new series until it hits DVD or Netflix (beyond the pilot anyway, available online for now), but from what I understand it's closer to Evil Dead 2 in tone (legit scares but also comedy), so that's promising. Even though it was technically a dud, Army is actually the series' highest grossing entry at the box office, and given the huge fanbase it earned on video it wouldn't have surprised me if the show was basically "Army of Darkness: The Series", but it seems they've gone back to putting "Evil Dead" in the title for a good reason. I'm glad Raimi was involved so we can't dismiss it as a knockoff, but at the same time I am glad he will be turning directorial duties to other filmmakers after the pilot - I worry the same sensibilities that sunk Army of Darkness would creep into the show if he was steering the ship the whole time. Hopefully his successors will keep that balance in check; I suspect some folks will be satisfied just to see Ash again, but if they can win back folks like me who felt a bit burned by the last feature, they'll do what the remake could not - return Evil Dead to its rightful place near the top of ongoing horror franchises.