Sam Raimi on his favourite horror movies

The Evil Dead director and Crawl producer talks about what makes a good horror film and lists his genre favourites

Sam Raimi might not have directed a movie since 2013’s Oz: The Great And Powerful, but he remains one of the industry’s most beloved and respected genre filmmakers. As the creator of the Evil Dead series and the man who rescued Spider-Man from development hell and introduced him to the big screen, Raimi has more than earned his geek stripes. And while he hasn’t stepped behind the camera for a while, he has been supporting other horror filmmakers as a producer, on films such as Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe and, most recently, Alexandre Aja’s gator thriller, Crawl.

A snappy (pardon the pun) creature feature that clocks in at under 90 minutes, Crawl is a lean and tense example of effective genre filmmaking. And that’s just one of the reasons why Raimi was tempted on board to produce the project. “I’ve never been a brainiac or a guy who works with very deep horror themes,” he admits when Den Of Geek catches up with him to talk about Crawl and horror movies in general. “It’s really a primal experience, and for me the simpler the better, the more direct the more effective, the shorter the better.”

“I think what Alex understands so well – and certainly demonstrated on Crawl – is that the audience wants a rollercoaster ride that kicks them in the butt, flips them on their head and then dumps them out before they’re ready. I don’t think two-hour stories – or longer nowadays – suits the subject matter. A campfire ghost story is the right length for me. If you could make horror movies that were eight minutes long, that would be perfect. Unfortunately, movies don’t let you do that – no one wants to go into a theatre and be kicked out before they’ve even finished their popcorn.”

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Funny, affable and an all-around good egg, Raimi is happy to chat at length about the genre in which he made his name. Having been a flag-waving supporter of horror since his breakout movie, 1981’s The Evil Dead, Raimi is clearly a man who knows a thing or two about what makes a decent chiller. He might not have directed Crawl, but it’s clear to see how it fits with his sensibilities as a genre lover. He’s also, as it turns out, a big fan of a monster movie.

The premise of Crawl is, as Raimi says, simple and direct. Uni student and aspiring swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her dad (Barry Pepper) are trapped inside their Florida family home during a hurricane, faced with rising flood waters and a congregation of invading alligators. “What I liked about the movie was that it’s a plausible scenario: alligators seek high ground in the floods and more and more in the US, the southern area of our country is being flooded,” Raimi explains. “It’s like instant horror. 

“I love the fact that it doesn’t take a science fiction premise to bring this to life,” he adds. “I don’t need a giant monster – I’ll take my radiation at the beach and I’m happy to cook a hot dog with it, but I don’t want my monsters to be radioactive. I love the fact that these monsters just live in Florida and the circumstance of this screenplay brings them into a person’s home.” Or, as Raimi’s co-producer Craig Flores puts it (while still chuckling to himself at Raimi’s take on mutated monsters): “The invasion of this natural element into an unnatural environment like our homes, where we have TVs and computers and couches, is a terrifying thought. It’s a very disturbing image.”

Not only does Raimi love a good old movie monster, but he’s also a fan of the less-is-more philosophy, too – the “great craftsmanship” of Spielberg’s Jaws being a prime example (although, Raimi says, he counts that as “more of a brilliant adventure film with very effective elements of horror” than a horror film per se). 

“It’s true, the audience can craft more frightening things than we can show them, but it’s also the filmmaker’s responsibility to plant the fertile seeds in the minds of the audience so they can grow their own monster,” Raimi explains. “On Crawl, I think Alex was aware of not showing the creatures too much. You have to let the audience use their imagination and just give them the right amount to build their nightmare.”

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Producing films is one thing, but there’s one big question on our lips: will we see Raimi returning to the director’s chair in the near future? “I’m trying to find a good script,” he says. “I don’t want to give the audience something they expect. You know, it’s hard to find a great original script and it’s even harder to recognise it as that because it is so different. So that’s the nutty search I’m on right now.”

In the meantime, given all this talk of horror, monsters and “primal experiences”, we decided to ask Raimi about his favourite genre movies – and here’s what he had to say…

The first horror movie I saw

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Raimi says that he was just a boy when he first encountered George A Romero’s seminal zombie movie, and it left a huge mark on the future filmmaker. “I was about nine years old, and my sister snuck me in because I wasn’t old enough,” he recalls. “In Michigan [Raimi’s home state], we have tremendous winters and so she had this long coat, and I was tiny enough that I could do this little shuffle walk underneath it and believe it or not sneak into the theatre. 

“God I wish I had stayed in that coat,” he laughs. “I really had never been so terrified in my life. I was screaming and shrieking, begging my sister to take me home, and she was trying to shut me up. I’d never experienced horror like that before. It felt so real, like a docu-horror. I had never seen a black-and-white movie in a movie theatre before; it looked like a documentary. There was nothing Hollywood about it – it was just unrelenting and complete madness and very upsetting for me. It left a tremendous impression on me as a filmmaker and I think that’s why The Evil Dead was so influenced by Night Of The Living Dead, because that’s really what a horror film was for me.”

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My favourite Hitchcock horror

Psycho (1960)

When Flores and Raimi showed early cuts of Crawl to two of their peers, they both independently referenced the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, saying that it felt like “The Birds with alligators”. But The Birds isn’t Raimi’s favourite Hitch flick… “I love Psycho,” he says. “Bernard Herrmann’s music is so thrilling, so rich. I love that Hitchcock recognised the greatness of making the audience identify with the hero and then ending her life and introducing the real horror of the story, completely blowing our minds. 

“It’s shocking even to this day that he had the audacity to do that. When that happens, you realise you’re in the hands of a filmmaker who’s capable of doing anything. The whole grasp of the experience is quite terrifying: anything can happen, nothing is sacred, the hero can and does die. So nothing is off-limits. But his choice of shots, his composition, and the brilliant performances that he gets from all the actors are stunning.”

My most influential horror movie

Night Of The Demon (1957)

While Night Of The Living Dead ignited Raimi’s love of the genre, there was one film that cemented it – Jacques Tourneur’s occult classic, Night Of The Demon. “That was such a great film,” says Raimi. “I’m very much influenced by that film even today. My brother Ivan [a scriptwriter] and I were affected by it so much that its influence can be seen directly in a movie we made called Drag Me To Hell, which really is based on Jacques Tourneur’s film. The whole idea of a curse that can be handed down to another, of an unstoppable thing from hell that’s coming to get you, is really terrifying. That was really the basis for our movie.”

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The modern horror that impressed me

Switchblade Romance (2003)

One of the reasons that Raimi wanted to produce Crawl was the opportunity to work with Alexandre Aja, a director who’d been on Raimi’s radar since his audacious breakout, Haute Tension – better known as Switchblade Romance in the UK. “Around 2004, I asked Alex to direct a movie I was producing called The Messengers, starring Kristen Stewart, but he was busy on The Hills Have Eyes at the time so he couldn’t,” Raimi reveals (the gig eventually went to The Eye’s the Pang brothers). 

“I love Haute Tension,” he continues. “I think it was as simple as the way I felt in the theatre – terrified and on the edge of my seat. I didn’t know what was going to come next – my expectations kept being thwarted and I really felt that he as a filmmaker knew what I was going through. He was like a puppeteer, pulling one string and then another, and then knowing that I would react one way and then and waiting for me down that alley, where he’d planned yet another surprise. I really felt he had the mind of a maze-maker. He seemed to have a complex awareness of the audience and what their thought process must be, and understanding the timing of things. It’s really a kind of frightening ability if you think about it: how could he know what I would be thinking; how would he be prepared for my reaction? And yet he was. I felt like I was in the hands of a master.”

The last horror I saw and loved

Get Out (2017)

Jordan Peele’s much-lauded social horror Get Out was the last film to really get under Raimi’s skin. “I think that was the last one that really knocked me for a loop,” he says. “It’s just brilliant and original. I love the social commentary, I love the brilliant performance from the lead actress, Allison Williams – she was great. Great directing and funny, too – I just thought that was beautifully done.” 

But, as a filmmaker with experience on both indie horrors and big-budget studio pics, Raimi says that Get Out’s awards-season success, while deserved, could come at a price for the genre. “That respectability – it’s something gained and something lost, honestly,” he reckons. “I love that makers of the genre are finally being recognised as artists, and yet personally I like working as a filmmaker in disrespected genres – they are better places to hide out and practice my craft. Somehow it’s healthier making horror movies there in the darkness away from the sunlight, where things can fester and mould, decay…”

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