Hell and Back Again: Sam Raimi drags himself back to horror with his new film

A look at the long and winding road from THE EVIL DEAD to DRAG ME TO HELL

DRAG ME TO HELL represents a return to the horror genre for Sam Raimi as a director - a fact that may surprise younger fans who know him only as the man behind the SPIDER-MAN films. Raimi burst onto the exploitation horror scene in 1982 with THE EVIL DEAD, a graphically gory horror film that earned a small but faithful cult audience. After directing EVIL DEAD II (a slick, tongue-in-cheek sequel) in 1987, Raimi has gradually worked his way up to major Hollywood motion pictures, only occasionally dabbling in horror, most recently as a producer Ghost House productions, whose biggest hit was THE GRUDGE, a 2004 remake of the Japanese horror film, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2003).

The Grudge, with its spooky amospherics and Japanese flavor (courtesy of director Takashi Shimizu) was light years apart from outrageous excesses of the Evil Dead trilogy (which include 1992’s Army of Darkness). Sam Raimi’s early horror films displayed a love of vertiginous camera work and over-the-top antics that created an “anything goes” atmosphere, often pushing the tone into outright comedy in the sequels. Later cinefantastique like Darkman (1990) showed Raimi struggling to tether his wilder impulses in favor of focusing on characterization, but he couldn’t quite resist the urge to show off. The Quick and the Dead (1995) is a weak Western, enlived only by the occasional flash of the old outrage (e.g., a camera angle that shows us a few through a hole in a gunfighter’s head). A Simple Plan (1998) and For the Love of the Game (1999) showed Raimi moving in a more mainstream direction, until by the time of  The Gift (a 2001 supernatural thriller starring Cat Blanchett) the restrained style had completely disguised the identity of the man behind the camera.

The effort to go mainstream finally paid off with Spider-Man in 2002, which was followed by two sequels in 2004 and 2007. Those films saw a return of the visual exuberance that is the hallmark of Sam Raimi’s best work. Drag Me to Hell finally displays an all-out return to the over-the-top horror antics on which he built his original reputation.

The question, then, is: Why was Raimi away from the genre so long? The answer is partly one of temperament and partly one of career considerations. Until Spider-Man, Raimi was a cult figure, loved by his fans but overlooked by critics and mainstream audiences. In fact, he seemed in danger of falling into the pit of oblivion that has claimed so many talented low-budget horror auteurs, who often have trouble making the transition to studio film-making. (Just think of John Carpenter, Brian DePalma, George Romero, and Tobc Hooper. All of them made distinctive independent films, but when they came to Hollywood their batting average was hit-or-miss-mostly miss.)

Raimi’s transition to blockbuster movie director was a slow one, his sparse directorial filmography (only thirteen feature films) augmented by producing duties and occasional acting appearances (he was the only funny thing in Indian Summer). In 1987 Raimi followed up Evil Dead with Evil Dead II. The film was intended to reach a wider audience, but like the original it found only limited success theatrically, relying mostly on video sales to turn a profit. ”

Very few people have seen the first two,” admits Raimi. “They never do good box office domestically. They’re not really movies about making money. They’re about… l don’t know what they*re about - I really don’t! They’re just weird pictures to make the audience have a good time.”

With the second Evil Dead film, Raimi took a step away from horror by adding comedy to the mix – a trend lie continued by turning the second sequel, Army of Darkness (1992) iinto a Ray Harryhausen-type fantasy adventure instead of a Mood-and-guts horror film. The reason for the change, quite simply, is that Raimi is not a genre enthusiast. “When I grew up, I wasn’t really a fan of horror pictures – it was only after I made The Evil Dead that I began to look at them and appreciate their art and craftsmanship,” he reveals. “What I really want to do is make the audience laugh – which is probably the hardest thing in the world. All my early Super-8 pictures were comedies. Only when I got in college and realised I had to make money did my partner Robert Tapert and I realised that we should make a horror picture. We knew no matter how badly we failed, it would still play somewhere.”

The humour that found its way into the two follow-ups often took the form of directorial sadism levelled at actor Bruce Campbell, who played the trilogy’s hapless hero, Ash. As the films went on, Raimi treated the character like the live-action equivalent of a cartoon, who could be endlessly beaten and bruised but always get up and come back for more.

“That’s how I look at Bruce – Bruce sometimes doesn’t feel that way when he’s under the wheel of the steamroller!” Raimi laughs. “My theory is that what the audience wants more than anything – more than a good story, more than an interesting visual or a good joke – is to see Bruce Campbell in pain. If Bruce Campbell is in pain, then the audience is having a great time. I’ve read a few books of film criticism and theory, and it all really boils down to that; the more pain, the more laughs.”

Of course, not everyone gets the joke. “Yeah, the Evil Deadmovies have a very small audience, so a lot of people don’t relate to the rule that, as they teach in school, ‘Violence is golden,” Raimi Chuckles. “A lot of people don’t find the Evil Dead films funny, such as the British Censor Board and the MPAA. But there is a small crowd that seems to like them, and to both of those people I say, ‘Thanks,Mom and Dad!’”

Since Raimi made the transition to studio film-making, a fourth Evil Deadfilm has been discussed, but it remains a matter of coordinating Raimi’s schedule with that of series star Bruce Campbell. “If there ever was a sequel, I’d have Ash battle an evil robot,” says the director. “I’d build him a new arm, a robotic one. I wanted to pluck out Bruce’s eye and give him a robotic eye in the [last] one, but I was throwing so much torture at him that he didn’t want to wear a patch – he wanted to see what I was throwing at him. I can’t blame him.”

After a moment’s thought, Raimi adds, “I think it will just be an endless loop of a big rock hitting Bruce on the head for ninety minutes – that’s what it’s boiling down to! That’s the only thing that makes me, Bruce, and the audience happy!” (The Internet Movie Database lists Raimi as schedule to direct a remake/reboot of THE EVIL DEAD for 2010 – which means he would have to squeeze it in before his contractual obligation kicks in to direct SPIDER-MAN 4 for 2011.)

Darkman (1990)In between the two Evil Dead sequels, Raimi got his first shot at helming a studio production in 1990. Darkman was an eccentric but entertaining conflation of comic book and horror movie elements, the sick joke of the scenario being that origin story we see could stand in equally well for a superhero or a monster.

What was it like for the hands-on director to find himself on a Hollywood studio lot?

“My partners and I no longer do as much,” Raimi explains. “We delegate more authority. Out here we have the best technicians in the business at our disposal. What you get is a picture that is very competently produced by high-quality professionals. But it’s less individual than what I would have done – even if I wouldn’t have done it as well. And it’s not always the way I would have done it. So you getsomething a little more generic. As opposed to looking through the camera and then running around to move a chair three feet, I look through the camera and then tell my assistant director, ‘Ask props to move that chair three feet back.’ That’s the difference between small bud-et and big budget. And you get a director’s chair on a bigger budget – but I’m never sitting down anyway. When you sum it up, there’s lot more people who decide what the finished picture will be: the technicians, the crew, and the cast. You can no longer kid yourself that you know everything, better than everybody else: you have to deal with a lot more input, which is good.”

Darkman was a first for Sam Raimi in many ways: first nation-wide theatrical release, first R-rating, and the first time attempt at telling a story with some kind of dramatic arc. This required an longer running time than that of his earlier films.

“I personally like movies that are 85 minutes – I think that’s a great length for a picture,” he says. “The Evil Deadpictures are just roller-coaster-slyle thrill pictures that have no story that demands they be longer than that, whereas Darkman has a story with real characters. It has its own dramatic arc, and you follow it to its conclusions, as opposed to just filling up time with scares and special effects. It’s a very conventional way to do things, I know, but my favourite movies are like that. I don’t know why I ever made the other type.”

The final result was recognisably Raimi, but some of the more outrageous excesses were notably attenuated, partially due to editing by Universal Pictures. Still, Raimi insists that the compromises were “not enough to merit a lengthy conversation When you work with a studio – and every filmmaker should know this – you’re saying. ‘I will trade creative autonomy for a studio release, studio marketing, and studio money.’ The trade-off is you have to listen to them, creatively. So I could talk about things I was sorry to lose, but I knew what I was doing going in. It would be wrong of me to talk of the downside of the deal.”

Although Darkman was successful enough to launch two direct-to-video sequels, it was no blockbuster. After Army of Darkness, Raimi spent the rest of the `90s dividing his time between executive producing television series (Hercules, Xena) and directing more mainstream-type films: The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, For the Love of the Game, The Gift. Of the four, Simple Plan earned the most respect and praise (including Oscar nominations for supporting actor Billy Bob Thornton and screenwriter Scott B. Smith).

Spider-Man wrestles with Venom in SPIDER-MAN 3

But Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and Spider-Man 3 were the film that has finally put Raimi on the mainstream map. The trilogy continued the transition from Rainii’s earlier work, emphasizing characterisation and comedy amidst the fantasy. If looking for continuing threads from his previous work, one could say that the comic book-typc resiliency of Ash has been married to the pathos of’ Darkman in a film that contains even more special effects and eye-popping visuals than Evil Dead II. All this in a film that earned a family-friendly PG-13 rating in the United States.

“The movie’s really made for the whole family,” he explains. “[In] Stan Lee’s original conception, the great strength of Spider-Man was the fact that he’s a real person, unlike Superman from the planet Krypton or other fantastic heroes. He’s a kid from Brooklyn. And this kid is vested with these powers, or perhaps cursed with this powers. But the important thing is, he’s one of us. So it really broadened that base of people who could appreciate comic books; it completely changed the demographic. So the picture (had to] appeal to an intelligent audience, so that adults can really enjoy it, but at it’s heart it [has] a lot of fun and excitement and adventure that the kids will also enjoy.”

In retrospect, Darkman looks like a sort of missing link between the Evil Dead and Spider-Man, with one foot in the horror genre and one foot in the superhero-action genre. It shows Sam Raimi striving toward a more character-oriented form of cinefantastique, which would come to fruition with the Spider-Man trilogy – films that combined characterization with fancy camera work.

“I got into motion pictures because I liked what cameras were and how they captured reality,” Raimi explains. “And then the fact that you could shuffle that reality in editing was outrageous to me. That’s why I got into it: to study the effects of camera movement lighting and sound. And those horror movies that I made when I got started – Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 – they were about the exploration of what film was, and presenting the world of the supernatural was a great medium for that because you had to present something that doesn’t exist in our world. It really was great ground for experimentation. But at some point in my life I thought I should start making the types of pictures that I’d like to see, because the films that I saw were not horror films. I thought, `Well, this is dishonest in some way.’ So I started to look for better material….”

Having worked with “better material,” did Sam Raimi still have the guts to make an all-out, no-holds-barred horror film, a crude and simple genre effort that – like The Evil Dead - gloried in its own excess and refused to play by Hollywood rules for mass-market entertainment?

The answer turns out to be yes, with some caveats. Within the confines of a slick studio movie – with a PG-13 rating, no less – Raimi found ways to go back over the top, substituting bile for blood while still throwing everything he could think of at the audience. The result is not completely satisfying – the script is too contrived and confused – but Drag Me to Hell is at least a pleasant piece of nostalgia for fans of the Evil Dead films. In fact, there is even a mildly tongue-in-cheek reference when the leading lady and her fiance discuss going to an isolated cabin for the weekend; to those who recall the setting of Evil Dead I and II, it seems for one brief, glorious moment that DRAG ME TO HELL might morph into EVIL DEAD IV (a promise that, alas, never materializes).

In any case, the formula for Drag Me to Hell was a winning one, at least with fans who were so grateful to see Sam Raimi directing a horror movie again that they completely overlooked its flaws. In terms of box office, the film’s success is less certain: the opening weekend yielded $15.8-million, putting it in fourth place behind Up, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, and Terminator Salvation. Unfortunately, horror films are notorious for their quick box office decline, and this seems to be a case when boosterism will not substitute for good word-0f-mouth. Most likely, the film will turn a profit when it reaches home video, but it’s a shame Raimi couldn’t quite fuse his recent mainstream success with his old horror formula in order to craft a horror film that would go box office ballistic as The Grudge did (over $187-million worldwide).

Oh well, at the very least, Drag Me to Hell shows the old Sam Raimi horror sensibility is still in place, giving us good reason to hope for the best if the planned Evil Dead reboot comes to pass next year.

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About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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