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September 12, 2007 |

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | September 12, 2007 |

Given Hollywood’s debilitating case of sequilitis, you’d imagine that there was a wealth of quality trilogies in existence, but — in considering the best cinematic threesome of all time — it turned out there wasn’t a lot of competition for the coveted top spot. In fact, I’d originally planned to compose a list of the top 10 trilogies, but I came to the unsettling realization that there aren’t actually ten filmic triads that warrant making a list of “best” anything, except perhaps a list of top ten ways to sell out your soul for a few hundred million dollars and the opportunity to ruin any and all positive associations your audience had with the original installment (yeah, I’m talking to you, Gore Verbinski). Either one of two things tends to happen: 1) Trilogies deteriorate in quality as the filmmakers stretch a premise or character past its breaking point, or 2) so buoyed by the success (and cash) of a successful trilogy, the powers that be continue to run a franchise into fourth and fifth installments, or until moviegoers get their fill and retch out the foul excesses of a tired series.

So, before I’d even began compiling a list of possibilities, I first established the criteria, which helped me to narrow down the field: First, it must be a true trilogy — in other words, only three movies in the franchise can exist, a criteria that eliminated Lethal Weapon, Aliens, Rocky and the Die Hard franchises and, even if you break the Star Wars trilogies in half, Episode I-III so tainted the original triplet that it couldn’t fairly be considered the best of all time. Second, while all three films do not have to be of equal quality, each of the three must be considered a solid, entertaining stand-alone movie, which basically eliminated the Matrix, Spiderman, Naked Gun, Back to the Future, Scream, Terminator and X-Men trilogies because each had at least one unwatchable film in the series (Spiderman 3, X-Men 3, Back to the Future 2, Terminator 3, Scream 3, Matrix 2 and 3, and Naked Gun 2 1/3 and 33 1/3). Likewise, Godfather II may be the best sequel of all time, but most of us would simply like to go on believing that Godfather III never existed, thus disqualifying the Godfather trilogy from competition.

So, where does that leave us? The Mariachi trilogy was great, but it doesn’t really count because Desperado was a remake, and not a continuation of El Mariachi (and sort of makes the original unwatchable except from an artistic standpoint). I love the Final Destination trilogy, but that only merits the best so-bad-it’s-good triad of all time. You have to consider Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, but it’s not a true threesome either because, while Leone directed and Clint Eastwood starred in all three, the stories are not related. Art house devotees might consider KieĊ›lowski Trois Couleurs trilogy, but there’s not a lot of joy in that selection (and we’ve previously written about it, anyway). I dig the Ocean’s trilogy, too, but I don’t think anyone would give serious consideration to it as the best. Austin Powers? Give me a break. Shrek. Ditto. Mad Max? Meh. Pirates of the Caribbean? Sit and spin.

So, when you really get down to it, there’s only four trilogies that merit honest-to-goodness consideration, and I’m going to go ahead and eliminate Indiana Jones because a fourth is in the works, which would render this Guide moot in a year’s time (and besides, while I have no problem with anyone who considers Indiana Jones the best trilogy of all time, if you want critical validation, you’re better off with AFI or Martin Mull, whose idea of subversive is Gremlins 2).

I suspect quite a few people would consider the Lord of the Rings trilogy the best of all time, but those people are wrong. Way wrong. Really, it’s just ten hours of dazzling special effects, a mostly brilliant cast, and a bloated, lethargic story that essentially boils down to run, fight, run, fight, run, fight, run, fight, ring! It’s the same movie three times in a row and none of the three have a goddamn ounce of soul in them. However, the LOTR trilogy is, far and away, the most overrated trilogy of all time. So, congratulations Peter Jackson.

And then there is Jason Bourne. The Bourne Trilogy was the only real competition, in my mind, for title of the best trilogy of all time. All three Bourne films are excellent, adrenaline-fueled, ass-kickingly intense action flicks that hold up extremely well to repeat viewings and, in transitioning from Doug Liman to Paul Greengrass, the trilogy didn’t lose an ounce of steam. In fact, some argue (and I’m among them) that the third film in the trilogy was better than the first (and Bourne does sport the best third movie of any trilogy). I’d have a hard time arguing against anyone who chose the Bourne trilogy as the best of all time. But here’s my one minor quibble with it and what, ultimately, kept it from the top spot: There’s nothing relatable about Jason Bourne. He’s a guy you love to watch put the elbow-hurt on folks, but there’s not a lot of heart in the trilogy. Even Bourne’s relationship Marie felt cold. Granted, the emotional detachment of Bourne is part of what makes the trilogy so appealing, but while he’s certainly an action hero you like rooting for, he’s not a character you can really get emotionally invested in. He’s fun to watch, but there’s nothing in the Bourne trilogy that doesn’t evaporate the second you walk out of the multiplex.

Which, finally, brings us to the Greatest Trilogy of All Time, ultimately a pretty easy choice: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead triumvirate masterpiece, which is not only the greatest movie threesome to ever hit the silver screen, but qualifies as one of the best horror films (Evil Dead), horror-comedies (Evil Dead II) and action-adventures (Army of Darkness) of all time, a trilogy that crosses more genres than Elvis Costello: horror, comedy, action, zombie, slasher, and — if you look really hard — romantic-comedy.

Of course, growing up, I’d seen the trilogy somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,897 times, but it wasn’t until 2002 — when I finally got to see Evil Dead II on the big-screen at a midnight screening in Boston’s Coolidge Corner theater — that I finally grasped not only the significance, but the pure, unadulterated boozy thrill of the series. To this day, I don’t think the capillary-bursting high I had witnessing 300 people leaping from their seats and — as Evil Dead’s hero straps a chainsaw onto his stumpy arm and throws a sawed-off shotgun over his shoulder — unleashing a deafening unisonic chorus of “Groovy.” All the Snakes on the Plane, Final Destinations and Black Sheeps in the world couldn’t reproduce that feeling, the gleeful symphony of roars, or the collective sense of awe that enveloped a bunch of half-drunk, stoned, or completely sober strangers as we bonded over a man who was about to go down into the cellar “to carve ourselves up a witch.” If you haven’t seen Evil Dead II in a theater, and you ever get the opportunity, don’t miss it. It’s why Al Gore invented movies.

Indeed, like a lot of teenagers who grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s (the Fangoria era) I’d had an unnatural obsession with horror films of all stripes. But so very many of those films felt like empty pleasures — movies like Scanners that were only good for a few cheap head explosions that briefly set my heart aflutter — that I more often than not fast-forwarded through on repeat viewings, just to get to the blood and gore. And while most of those horror films focused largely on the villains, slashers, serial killers, monsters, ghouls, and zombies, the Evil Dead series did something unusual for a horror film: It introduced a hero. An actual goddamn hero, people. A Champion of the Chainsaw. His name was Ash. And he is the motherfucking King of horror films, Elvis with a Boomstick, and not just because he has a likeness to Mr. Presley (who Bruce Campbell depicted later the cult classic, Bubba Ho-Tep), but because — to this day — he’s still the greatest horror-flick hero of all time.

I mean lookit: Even after the Evil Dead trilogy, filmmakers still insist on revolving their storylines around the Bogeyman — the latest wave of torture porn being no exception. Why is it, despite the largely underground success of Evil Dead, that directors and screenwriters haven’t bothered to invest in heroes or heroines that are as dynamic and fun to watch as the killers? Even the Alien films, all of which feature Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as heroine, are more about the aliens and who they ultimately pick off than they are about Ripley. Why must we root for Freddy, Jason, or the Jigsaw Killer, while everyone else in these films are simple prey — pretty blonde meat or chiseled abs that we’re more than happy to see suffer a gory demise?

This is why Hollywood is so goddamn dumb.

See: Because Ash Williams was the first true action hero of horror. He’s John McClaine, Indiana Jones, Rambo, and Dirty Harry, all wrapped up nicely beneath the best chin in the business. And before Rose McGowan strapped a machine gun onto her leg, Ashley J. Williams secured a chainsaw to his amputated arm. And aha: What’s so incredibly genius about Sam Raimi’s premise is that Ash not only gets to be the hero, but also several forms of the villain, be it Bad Ash, Possessed Satanic Ash, Lilliputian Ash, or even Ash’s own possessed and deranged hand.

The original 1979 film (filmed over two years on a meager $385,000 budget) in the series is the weakest, but perhaps most influential, of the three, a pre-Scream deadpan satire of slasher conventions that follows a group of college kids who go to an abandoned cabin for the weekend and discover the Book of the Dead, an evil book bound in real human flesh that dated back to medieval times. It unleashes a series of spells that awakens the zombified previous occupant of the house, though in the first half of the film, the real evil is Raimi’s wide-angle camera (or the unseen “force”) that follows around its victims with a whooshing terror. The first victim: A woman who is raped by a very amorous set of trees, one of the many graphically violent scenes that kept American distributors away from the film (it was eventually bought and distributed by a European company).

Anyway, as zombies are apt to do, one infects the others, until only Ash remains, an unwilling hero in the first Evil Dead. It was a ridiculously low-budget film, and it shows, especially in the weird stop-motion animation effects that Raimi used (and that Peter Jackson would later steal in Brain Dead). Though at the time, The Evil Dead was a genuinely scary movie, viewing it today, it’s mostly a gaseous scream, with a few legitimately frightening moments.

The first sequel, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn is the strongest of the trilogy. It’s not quite a remake, though the first ten minutes are a streamlined version of the original. But, Evil Dead II is largely a continuation of the original’s plot with a bigger budget (secured, in part, thanks to Stephen King), better special effects, a stronger script, and a cast that didn’t abandon the film halfway through production (as all but Campbell had in the original). The tone in Evil Dead 2 also shifts decidedly toward the comedic, sort of owning up to the schlockish B-movie limitations of the original and running with it — a relentless self-parody of The Evil Dead. Nevertheless, Raimi still manages to successfully blend in the horror elements. The blood is plentiful (there’s even an unholy blood geyser), but so is the maniacal, off-the-wall slapstick, which is oftentimes reminiscent of the “Three Stooges” meets Buster Keaton in hell.

But as brilliant as Raimi’s direction is, as fun and inventive as the special effects are, and as mesmerizing as the camera work is, it’s Bruce Campbell that really sells the show with that hunky square jaw, the dumb-guy hero shtick, and the deadpan delivery. Campbell makes Evil Dead II not only the centerpiece of the Greatest Trilogy of All Time, but the best late-night drink-and-watch-with-friends movie ever put to celluloid.

The second film ends after an incantation is read and The Book of Dead (now called the Necronomicon) sends Ash through a time vortex and back into the Middle Ages, literally, which is where the third film, Army of Darkness picks up. And yes, while The Evil Dead is a bit too self-serious, Army of Darkness indulges a little too much in the comedic aspects of the franchise, traveling past “Three Stooges” and landing somewhere closer to Looney Tunes, though it does provide Ash with a huge arsenal of one-liners, including one of the best pick-up lines you’ll ever see on film, “Gimme Some Sugar, Baby,” and the macho-sublime, “This is my Boomstick!”

In Army of Darkness, which was originally conceived as the first sequel to Evil Dead, Ash fudges the incantation and unleashes a whole goddamn Army of Deadites, led by what looks to be members of Gwar! and their stormtroopers, a battalion of possessed skeletons. Initially, Ash intends to abandon the locals, but when his love interest is taken by the Deadites, he stays and engages in the sort of epic battle with the Deadites that 300 wishes it were (who needs Gerard Butler when you have Bruce Campbell, bitches!). There is substantially less blood in Army of Darkness, in part because the studio wanted a PG-13 rating (the first cut was NC-17 and no amount of edits could get is less than an R-Rating), but it’s got a considerable amount of action-comedy, including an epic sword fight with one of those members of Gwar!

There was also some controversy about the ending. The original, preferred by Raimi and Campbell, had him taking a potion and waking up in post-apocalyptic England, but I actually prefer the “Hail to the King” ending in the S-Mart the studio forced on them. It better captures Ash’s bravura and, of course, allows him one more opportunity to take on a she-bitch (who looks remarkably similar to Carol Kane in The Princess Bride). Come get some:

And that, folks, is why The Evil Dead trilogy is the greatest of all time. Built around a simple premise, Raimi and company built upon it with each successive film. And though the budget got higher with each movie (tapping out at a paltry $11 million), the movies are never overcooked, bloated, or egotistical power-trips for either the director or the star. The trilogy is a stunning achievement, remarkably influential, iconic even, and still the absolute best example of how to make an audience laugh and upchuck at the same time. And while sci-fi geeks have their Hans Solo and Captain Kirk, fantasy geeks have their Frodo, and comic-book geeks have their Batman and Spiderman, those of us film geeks who love blood and comedy in equal degrees will always have our Ash Williams. Hail to the King, baby.

Guides | September 12, 2007 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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