Scene Analysis | Hail to the Keaton: Traces of “Old Stone Face” in “Army of Darkness”

At the end of Army of Darkness, the final film the Evil Dead trilogy, we see our hero, Ash (Bruce Campbell) back at his workaday job as a clerk at S-Mart department store. Having just survived a barrage of challenges after being transported back to the Middle Ages (everything from dangerously skeptical knights to monstrous Deadites), Ash looks comfortable and assured in his familiar, modern-day surroundings. Ever the show-off, Ash brags that the people he encountered in the 1300’s – from commoners to royalty – offered him the chance “to lead them, to teach them, to…be king.” Ash’s cockiness is soon disrupted by the shocking appearance of a female customer-turned-Deadite. Despite her promises to swallow Ash’s soul, the Deadite is quickly defeated by our hero’s wily sarcasm and rapid-fire shotgun blasts.

While on the surface a victory for Ash (he not only blows away the evil force, but in true hyper-masculine fashion, he gets the girl at the end), we can’t see this finale as a total triumph. The ending of the film acts as a confirmation of the fact that Ash is doomed to a fate beyond his understanding or control. No matter his bravado, smarts, or firepower, the Deadites will inevitably return.

In this final scene, Ash seems to share cinematic DNA with silent film legend Buster Keaton. An obvious connection to Keaton might initially come in the form of physical comedy; to be sure, Campbell’s performance here is akin to Keaton’s in films like The General (1926) – somehow aloof and assured, meek and mighty, subtle and over-the-top. Compare Campbell smoothly riding his S-Mart “blue light special” cart while discharging rounds at the Deadite to Keaton coasting on a literal loose cannon firing at Union forces. Both moments are exemplary instances of offbeat comedy, wonderfully excessive in how they present bodies, surreal and absurd in how they express danger and violence.

This end scene also reveals a connection to Keaton beyond corporeal gags and dreamlike fantasy. It is in Army of Darkness’ emphasis on fate and the cyclical, melancholic nature of the world that I see a stronger linkage between Keaton and Campbell. Keaton’s cannon assault in The General is funny not because of his cunning marksmanship, but because he succeeds despite having no idea how to properly operate the weapon. Moments of exigency structured and resolved by fate are prominent in Keaton’s world, though such resolutions always seem to teeter on the precipice of failure – the hero doomed to fate rather than aided by it. Such contingency and good luck (or is it bad luck) also seems to structure Ash’s life, an existence where apparent victories are easily subverted by random demonic interventions – moments given to equally random and surreal displays of Ash’s slapstick defensive maneuvers, repeated across time and space.

Alex Svensson Alex Svensson is a PhD Candidate in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and his research primarily focuses on horror media and promotional gimmicks of shock and disgust. He currently lives in Boston, where he teaches film and media courses at Emerson College and MIT. Previously, he studied film production and theory as both an undergrad and MFA student at Boston University. Some of his thoughts on horror marketing can be found in Transformative Works and Cultures and Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies.
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