The way some critics are reacting this weekend, you’d think Sam Raimi had just been rescued after a few decades on a desert island. Considering the phenomenal success he’s had with the “Spider-Man” films over the last few years, his career’s been in what can only be described as overdrive. But in many ways, it’s felt like Raimi has been working in a less personal mode, so more than anything, the celebratory nature of the “Drag Me To Hell” reviews suggest to me that there are a whole lot of critics who have been waiting on signs of the old Raimi.
What is it that distinguishes the work of this filmmaker? I wouldn’t argue that Raimi is the greatest pure horror filmmaker. Looking at his resume as a producer, it’s obvious that he loves the genre, but he’s always been willing to subvert it for his own purposes. Raimi loves to make you react, and he’s just as happy to get screams or laughs or even tears. But one thing’s sure… this is a filmmaker who loves to engage an audience, and that’s the tendancy that stands front and center in his new film.
It all begins with “The Evil Dead,” which is still the scariest thing he’s ever made. This is the film that people like Joe Bob Briggs and Stephen King went crazy for, and it was one of the first of the video age cult phenoms. It was one of those movies that became a rite of passage, a dare that was passed around at slumber parties when it was time to seriously freak someone out. It’s the perfect “spam in a cabin” movie, and it’s super-low budget only makes it freakier.
The ’80s were rough on Raimi, though. You’d think starting the decade with a cult sensation would get things started right, but he didn’t make another movie until 1985, when he released the little-seen “Crimewave.” Raimi disowns that film today, and I would imagine that the movie’s birth was so difficult that he hates remembering it. That’s a shame, though. “Crimewave” marks the one significant creative collaboration between Raimi and his long-time friends and former housemates Joel and Ethan Coen. Even if it’s flawed, there are things to like about it, and I love the way it blends weird surreal humor and film noir conventions.
It wasn’t until 1987’s “Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn” that Raimi really found his voice, and it’s easily the most significant film in his career. The mix of humor and horror is not radically different than what he tried to accomplish with “Crimewave,” where he tried to pull off a screwball noir. It’s just that he found the right blend with “Evil Dead 2,” somehow mixing real scares with a psycho hillbilly aesthetic and laughs straight out of the Three Stooges. It’s a concoction that shouldn’t work… but does.
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That film helped land him his first movie of the ’90s, and it’s another important film in terms of understanding him as a director. “Darkman” was ahead of its time, a modern-day comic book movie at a moment when almost no one else was making them. The idea of creating both a classic-style Universal monster and an original superhero at the same time is ambitious, and “Darkman” mostly pulls it off. It also got him into the studio game.
He ended up making “Army Of Darkness” for Universal as well, and it’s my least favorite of the “Evil Dead” movies. I know it has a lot of rabid fans, and I get it. I just felt like it tilted too far to the silly for my tastes. “The Quick And The Dead,” his next film, is probably the film geekiest of his movies, a mash-up of all the spaghetti westerns and studio-era oaters that he grew up watching.
For my money, the best film he’s made was 1998’s “A Simple Plan,” based on the wrenching suspense novel by Scott Smith. Raimi doesn’t often get credit as an actor’s filmmaker, but he got career-best work out of Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda, actors who really rely on a strong directorial hand if they’re going to be effective. It’s a sad, human story about the way greed can destroy even good people with good intentions. “For Love Of The Game,” his follow-up, was aimed at an adult audience, and although I’m not crazy about it, I admire the attempt at making a Proustian baseball story. “The Gift” is underrated, a Southern Gothic about a small-town psychic and a murdered girl, and he even managed to talk Katie Holmes out of her shirt, so bonus points for that.
And then since 2002, he’s been in the “Spider-Man” business exclusively as a director, and that’s been a bit of a double-edged sword for fans. Those movies have firmly entrenched him on the A-list, the same way Batman bought Tim Burton the rest of his career, but seven years of working on one series feels like a huge chunk of time to take out of a filmography, especially for someone as resolutely weird as Raimi. I know he’s attached to make a fourth one, but seeing “Drag Me To Hell” and seeing how strong reactions have been to it, I feel confident that the Sam Raimi behind the camera now is the same Sam Raimi who so gleefully abused the holy hell out of Bruce Campbell in that remote cabin in the woods all those years ago.
And that is very good news, indeed.
Catch up with Raimi’s films on DVD and BluRay now, and then check out “Drag Me To Hell” in theaters now if you haven’t already. It’s a spook-a-blast!
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