The Poppies of Terra #2 - Sound Familiar?
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
A few minutes before stepping into my screening of Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise, I exchanged words with a fellow series enthusiast, who excitedly wondered whether Bruce Campbell would cameo in this latest blood-sodden nightmare.
“I really hope he doesn’t,” I said vaguely but categorically.
“I’d prefer that this new movie be its own thing,” I sorta explained.
After all, we’ve spent three feature films and thirty hours of television in the company of Ash Williams. That’s almost as much Ash as Mount Vesuvius spewed in A. D. 79 (which, incidentally, the demon Ruby Knowby might have actually been around for, as in the episode “Family” she references her time in Ancient Rome).
Of course, Ash is always fun. Hail to the King, baby, and all that. But the moment he appears on screen, he imports with him a certain tonal history that I was hoping this latest filmic incarnation of demonic foulness would steer clear of, as so successfully did Fede Alvarez’s gratifyingly blunt Evil Dead (2013).
And I have to say–
Actually, let’s first take a step back to 1978, a year in which two classic horror films both entered a tiny sub-sub-genre I like to call Voice of God. I’m talking about John Carpenter’s Halloween and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both movies feature scenes wherein their respective directors provide very brief audio-only performances. In Halloween, Carpenter is the phone voice of Annie’s boyfriend, Paul, and in Body Snatchers, Kaufman is the phone voice of a city official. When a movie’s director enters the fictive universe he or she has fashioned, we experience the Voice of God. James Cameron, the modern blockbuster deity, has done this before, and did so again recently in Avatar: The Way Of Water (2022), delivering the following immortal lines: “Stand by. Two minutes to Pandora insertion. Secure for delta-v.” Slight? Listen, it’s all in the performance–or subtext...
The sub-sub-genre Voice of God, of which I’ve just given some examples, belongs to the slightly larger sub-genre Sound Familiar, namely live-action films and television shows that feature famous or memorable voice cameos. Mel Brooks has one in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1977). Coming back to Halloween: Jamie Lee Curtis provides the voice of an overhead announcer in Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). The non-MCU The Avengers (1998) contains an enjoyable voice cameo by Patrick Macnee, the star of the original series (1961-1969). In the television domain, Frasier (1993-2004) remains a beast of Sound Familiar, featuring over forty voice cameos throughout the years (including Gillian Anderson, Kevin Bacon, Halle Berry, Billy Crystal, Jodie Foster, Linda Hamilton, Daryl Hannah, Stephen King, Yo-Yo Ma, Helen Mirren, Christopher Reeve, Carly Simon, and many many others). Yeah maybe, but we got them pegged! In Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race (2008) David Carradine voice cameos as his original character in Death Race 2000 (1975). George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2008), no matter what else you might say about it, horded voice cameos: Guillermo Del Toro, Stephen King, Simon Pegg, and Quentin Tarantino.
In fact, vocal cameos seem to be becoming more popular. In The Mandalorian (2019-) Season 1 episode “The Gunslinger,” for instance, Mark Hamill speaks for the bartender droid EV-9D9. Talk about the Force moving in mysterious ways. Ultra Lite Spoiler: Beau Is Afraid contains a voice cameo by Bill Hader. And without giving anything specific away, I’ll also note that the Season 3–and series–finale of Star Trek: Picard contains a surprising and affecting voice cameo. The good news is you won’t miss it. There’s no bad news, because season 3 of Picard is pretty close to old-fashioned Star Trek.
Phew. I started by talking about the latest Evil Dead film, and we’ve just detoured all the way to last week’s episode of Star Trek. Incidentally, is there any linkage between these two completely unlike franchises? Why, yes there is! Actor Bruce Horak, who played Lieutenant Hemmer in the first season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (2022-), won an award for his performance in, of all things, Evil Dead: The Musical (2009). Furthermore, the Star Trek: Lower Decks (2020-) episode “Crisis Point” features the holographic character Shempo, a reference to Fake Shemp, which was a Sam Raimi term (inspired by The Three Stooges) from the Evil Dead movies. I’m sure we could find more connections, but I need to keep this brief because I think someone’s in my fruit cellar.
If you feel an overwhelming urge to include a cameo in your project, and you’re not going down the Voice of God route, Sound Familiar is a nice, understated alternative to an actual cameo. It’s less distracting. You can nod to whatever you want, without visual baggage.
Getting back, at last, to Evil Dead Rise.
Did I get my wish? Does the film carve out its own tonal identity, one not beholden to the Ash material? Absolutely. It’s a grim and nasty piece of work, saturated with the decrepitude of a condemned building that becomes choked with marauding evil. It taps into perennial fears involving family and motherhood. Aesthetically, this picture is a tin drum of squelching black toxic ooze tumbled through the twin meticulous crafts of bodily disfiguration and sensory distortion. It also provides beats of visual continuity with what’s come before, but doesn’t let those beats dictate the song.
The title sequence will swallow your soul.
So, does that mean Bruce Campbell isn’t in it in any shape or fashion?
All I’ll say is, listen closely.
And in the meantime, if you want to warm up your ears, proceed at your peril to this “Incantation”, brilliantly embedded in Stephen McKeon’s wonderfully creepy score–and watch out for them Deadites.