Sam Raimi: A Retrospective

With Oz The Great and Powerful and the remake of Evil Dead arriving in theaters, we take a look at all things Sam Raimi.

When you meet Sam Raimi, you are likely to think he is the most charmingly sweet man in the world. He is bound by an old school professionalism that dictates he wear a suit and probably a fedora. His mild-mannered smile gives off the vibe of an unassuming everyman with those storied Midwest values. Even his hair, which is usually swept to the side, is just unkempt enough to suggest a bit of a quirky personality, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Yet this all may be a façade, disguising the most dementedly brilliant gore hound filmmaker whoever somehow fooled Hollywood into thinking they should give him the keys to the city. Chances are if you’re reading Den Of Geek, you’ve seen all his work countless times: The Evil Dead; Darkman; Army Of Darkness; Drag Me To Hell; The Spider-Man trilogy. This cinematic madman who wields his camera like a Deadite out of Hell is the perfect combination of the absurd and the horrifying, with films that celebrate both earnest sentimentality and an Old Testament-styled sense of sadistic punishment. The kind of guy who has the boomstick to claim his first feature is the scariest movie ever made and WAY better than anything Wes Craven could ever dream up.

Behind that ever reassuring smile is a perversely wicked mind that has improved movie going for us all. With two Raimi projects being released over this month, his directorial Disney effort, Oz: The Great and Powerful and his carefully produced, MPAA-outraging Evil Dead remake, there is no better time to find out what makes this bloody mind tick.

A Born Showman

Sam Raimi did not begin as a master of horror and depravity. Born as the youngest of five children, Raimi was raised in a Conservative Jewish family. Growing up in Birmingham, Michigan, Sam had the idyllic suburban childhood in the outskirts of Detroit. However, the kid always viewed the world with a peculiar screwball sense of humor and a tongue firmly planted in his cheek. When his father and brother Ivan brought home a Super 8 film camera one day, Sam became fascinated with how he could manipulate with the new toy. Already a kid magician, filmmaking seemed like the natural next step to Raimi in his mastery of illusion.

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At Groves High School, Raimi began making full Super 8 films with his younger brother Ted and school chum, Bruce Campbell. “Bruce starred in all of them,” Sam later explained. “Because he was the only good looking one and still is. ‘Girls like you? You go in front of the camera. Girls don’t like us? We’ll stand behind it.’”

At even a young age, this illustrated Raimi’s consistent desire to give audiences what they want. In many ways, Sam has spent his entire career as a vaudeville showman. He’s always been fascinated with what he can achieve by moving the camera and, eventually, how he can invest in his characters. For him, it will time and again be about show business as opposed to baring his soul in an artistically tortured work. “Filmmaking is first and foremost an entertainment,” says the director. “The worst thing a filmmaker can do is make a boring picture. If you make a boring picture, you’ve not only failed, you’ve committed a crime.”

That early showmanship was expressed in a series of Three Stooges-inspired Super 8 films. For Sam, the hyper-reality of Three Stooges violence was the funniest thing in the world. Perhaps, he really just loved seeing his brother and best buddy beating each other up. Either way, physical violence elevated to comical levels is probably the most consistent trademark of Raimi, even more than special effects, gore and Bruce Campbell’s effervescent chin.

After high school, Raimi attended Michigan State University for three semesters. There he continued to make comedies with Campbell and brother Ivan’s fellow Sparty roommate, Robert Tapert. However, after nearly two years, they came to the realization that they could make their own feature length film without college degrees. So, in the late 1970s, all three men bought matching snazzy suits, dropped out of college and started walking around Detroit pretending they were professionals.

In the minds of Sam, Bruce and Rob, they were better off as big fish in a little pond. If they went to Hollywood, they’d have to compete with every other dropout filmmaker, but in Michigan they could single-handedly raise the money for a feature length film and reap all the benefits. Ergo, the three went on to form the elegantly named production company, Renaissance Pictures. Of course, this also meant they all immediately became waiters and Sam learned how to sell an air conditioner with all the skill and precision of the Ashley Williams of Housewares.

There’s Something In The Fruit Cellar

Around 1978, Sam and Robert were looking at all the cheap drive-ins across Michigan and noticed they all had one thing in common: badly made horror movies. The two came to the same conclusion; these movies suck because they don’t deliver the goods. There is nothing remotely scary or horrifying about cheapie slashers with a few seconds of bloodletting.

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Sam, aware of the school of thought that the best horror is the kind left to the audience’s imagination, disregarded conventional wisdom because he knew he could create something so grotesquely excessive that it would stand tall on its hill of mutilated body parts. Perhaps influenced by his love for The Three Stooges, he didn’t so much want to unnerve the audience as assault them with an overload of exaggerated mayhem. Thus, viewing horror as an entry point into the movie industry, Raimi, Tapert and Campbell set upon the path to make what their eventual poster would call, “The Ultimate Experience In Grueling Terror.” Just how were they going to pay for it?

Convinced that his screenplay, The Book of the Dead, would be a major hit, Raimi and friends began scouring Detroit for investors. According to Raimi, this process required going to every upper middle class home in the area and saying that they were making the world’s best horror movie. After raising only $16,000 of the $100,000 they thought was necessary, Raimi shot what he called a “pilot” for his movie.

Within the Woods (1978) is a 30-minute version of what would become Sam’s first feature. He broke the screenplay down to its bare essentials and shot in the woods of Michigan a tale of macabre violence. Starring Campbell and fellow Groves High Alum Ellen Sandweiss, it told the tale of the Necronomicon (a name “borrowed” from H.P. Lovecraft), a Book of the Dead with ancient incantations for summoning demonic spirits.

The film’s biggest technical achievement was its pioneering of “The Force” camera movement. Essentially a shaky and steady cam hybrid, Sam mounted the camera on a 2×4 wooden board in his hands and quickly ran through the woods, creating an unnaturally smooth, free roaming image unburdened by unsteady hands or dollied tracks. Add a demonic sound effect and you have a force from the darkest depths of Hell coming to swallow Bruce Campbell’s soul. Good luck with that.

 

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Comedy Of Errors

After completing Within the Woods, the three would-be filmmakers harassed every affluent small business in Detroit. According to Campbell, a lot of dentists signed up after they were initially repulsed by watching the short in their living rooms on a projector Sam carried around. Raimi even got a local theater manager to screen the movie before a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show where it could display a positive audience reaction for investors. Eventually, the trio raised $375,000 and they were ready to make a masterpiece. Raimi was 21. 

Production on what eventually became 1981’s The Evil Dead was a horror story in its own right. Of course to Sam, all the suffering merely created  “a comedy of errors.”  Choosing to shoot in Morristown, Tennessee because of the state government’s enthusiasm for the project, a 12-week shoot ended up being closer to 14 during the winter months of 1979 and 1980. They found a perfectly remote cabin from the late 19th century with its own horror story of strange deaths (it burned down several weeks after filming was completed after being struck by a bolt of lightning) and with no heat.

Because the film was so low-budget, the 13-member crew took to sleeping and living in the cabin. Actors, including Campbell and Sandweiss, quit showering because it was too cold to get wet. Sam and his cameraman were even chased by a bull during one day of shooting in a field. Yet, most of the pain fell upon the actors from a director who wanted to make it look real. “If everyone was in extreme pain and misery, that would translate into horror.”

Real Fear

One has to wonder if it was inexperience or that wicked sense of humor that caused him to do such wicked things. One scene, in which Detroit actress Sara York is combing her hair, “The Force” attacks by having the camera come flying through the window…and it does. The camera literally shattered real glass all over the actress as it came crashing through the pane.

In another scene, Bruce Campbell looks terrified as he tries to avoid being stabbed to death by one of his possessed friends. The little movie magic trick here? He really WAS fearing for his life because the actress’s demon contact lenses affectively blinded her, so she was swinging a real dagger at The Chin as he struggled for dear life.

Probably the most telling episode is when Campbell sprained his ankle during shooting. Instead of sending their star and co-producer off to heal, Raimi and Tapert gleefully poked his injury every day for two weeks between shots with a stick Sam found in the woods. They were compelled to ensure that Campbell kept his limp genuine for the whole shoot. It eventually got so bad that he did have to take some scenes off and Sam’s little brother, Ted, stepped in as a “fake shemp” for Bruce’s suffering. “I like it when an actor bleeds,” Producer Tapert allegedly said after Sandweiss cut her bare feet bloody in the woods.  “It makes me feel like I got my money’s worth.”

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Sam would argue it is all for the good of the film and, indeed, it did make things “real.” But like the movie’s story, there is no denying he takes a strange enjoyment from the pained. The movie is a very simple yarn about five Michigan State kids who go to a Cabin via a dusty, old yellow 1973 Oldsmobile (Sam’s old jalopy, nicknamed “The Classic”). There, they discover a recording in the basement that when played summons demons from the Book of the Dead. Sure enough, demons come a calling. However, they do more than just possess and mutilate.

In the film’s most infamous scene, possessed trees attack hero Ash’s sister, Cheryl (Raimi’s CHILDHOOD FRIEND Sandweiss), when she is walking alone in the woods in a robe. Rather than only killing her, the limbs begin molesting her body before finally penetrating with a thrust that must make even Todd Aiken wince. It’s a scene Sam later regretted putting in the movie (but is still appearing in the remake).

Not that the violence isn’t equally cruel to the movie’s star who took it all in stride. “Ash is an idiot,” Bruce insists of his hero. “You have to be in a horror movie or you wouldn’t go to the cabin” or keep making dumb decisions. He viewed his character as the least-stupid victim instead of a hero and understood that the sprained ankle, chin injuries and even a violent cold were worth it. The movie itself is darkly amusing. The way Raimi would place his camera in the most awkward or bizarre of Dutch angles created an atmosphere so surreal that it becomes comical. One memorable shot involved Sam hanging from the ceiling upside-down, so the camera could slowly spin around Bruce’s glorious chin and turn upright in the process.

The amount of gore, violence, cruelty and suffering became so extreme that upon viewing it, several investors angrily accused Raimi of making a comedy instead of a horror film. And despite a local premiere with plenty of fanfare, the movie still didn’t have a distributor.

In 1980, Raimi, Campbell and Tapert went to New York, sure they could sell the movie (they crashed unannounced in the apartment of one of Bruce’s unsuspecting girlfriends). Nobody was interested. It was too gross, too funny or just too much for all the stiffs.

Sam did luckily meet Irvin Shapiro, a producing and distribution legend who similarly discovered George Romero and Night of the Living Dead (1968). He famously said, upon watching then-named The Book of the Dead, that it wasn’t Gone with the Wind, but it could make some money. He warned that the title was boring, convinced Sam to change it to The Evil Dead and finally agreed to show it at Cannes Film Festival (which he co-founded).

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Playing out of competition in 1982, The Evil Dead caught the eye of Stephen King, who absolutely adored its bloody brilliance. He penned a glowing write-up of the film, calling it “the most ferociously original film of the year” and one that registered with him in ways no horror movie ever had. These words became a promotional selling point that attracted not only once dismissive critics, but also distributors. 

Palace Pictures was one of the studios that took notice of King’s words and bought the rights for UK distribution. Receiving the harshest rating of “X” from the British Board of Film Censors, The Evil Dead still pulled in over one hundred thousand pounds and became one of Britain’s highest selling “video nasties” (the ones too filthy for polite society). Its European success eventually attracted New Line Cinema, who finally released it domestically in the States, though unrated because the MPAA was also none too amused.

The Evil Dead’s cult success led to Hollywood beckoning Raimi and company to the West Coast. Shapiro suggested that Renaissance Pictures immediately start work on an Evil Dead II, but Raimi scoffed at the idea. Now was the time for respectability. No, no, he was going to make the greatest entertainment of all time…Crimewave!

Crimewave

During post-production of The Evil Dead, Raimi befriended one of his Midwest editors, Joel Coen. Sam discovered that he and Joel had similar tastes in humor and wanted to collaborate with him. Also, it just so happens that Joel Coen had a brother named Ethan (you may have heard of them). Once Sam went Hollywood, he brought the Coen Brothers with him to stay in a now-infamous Silver Lake Los Angeles home. There, Raimi drank his morning coffee with fellow roommates who included the Coens, Frances McDormand, Kathy Bates and Holly Hunter. It seems like the entire talent pull of Middle America relocated to a single address.

During this time, Raimi and the Coens began co-writing what Sam later described as “an adventure, crime, love story, entertainment comedy!” Crimewave (1985) is a picture that fully embraced the slapstick of Sam’s youth with the storytelling quirkiness he and the Coens would become known for. Oh, in a perfect world, what would a Sam Raimi and Coen Brothers collaboration truly look like? Probably a masterpiece. Unfortunately, this production already seemed too overstuffed from its inception. When the movie went over budget, the studio’s “cut throat moneymen” (Tapert’s words) came in and cut out entire pages and scenes. They also rejected the idea of Bruce Campbell as the lead and reshot and recut the movie to turn The Chin into a supporting part (big mistake). Sam wryly said years later, “[The studio] made it the picture it is today.”

Back To Evil

After Crimewave’s financial and critical failure, Raimi decided to return to the cabin in the woods and prove he was not some fluke. Due to the multiple distribution deals on The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II essentially became a remake of the first film. The first 10 minutes would recap with a streamlined story how Ash got to the cabin and why demonic forces are so hellbent on consuming his tasty soul. “Rob, myself and Bruce thought that’s all there was to Evil Dead. This horrible creature came at Bruce and the movie ended,” Raimi says with a smirk and pause of the original’s ending. “But Bruce was saved…by positive box office response!”

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Sam went to 12 different studios to sell his idea of an Evil Dead sequel/semi-remake that would eventually become a medieval adventure. They all declined. One of the reluctant producers was Dino De Laurentiis who expressed interest in Raimi directing an adaptation of Stephen King’s Thinner, but had no interest in time travel or demonic incantations.

When King, who was directing another of his stories for De Laurentiis, heard of this, he called up the producer and owner of DEG and urged him to make Evil Dead II. Only after finally seeing the massive grosses of The Evil Dead in his native Italy did De Laurentiis relent. But he would only allot $3.6 million for the production, thereby cutting time travel out. Also, they needed to shoot in North Carolina. Like that moment.

 

Evil Dead II was likely a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved. Shot with an actual budget and Hollywood talent, Raimi could do things like include stop motion animation and truly twisted monsters rising from that damned fruit cellar. It also marked a softer side for Raimi. Perhaps, truly horrified by the reaction towards the violence in the first one and seemingly apologetic for that whole tree rape thing, Evil Dead II is much more comedy than horror despite the increase in blood.

There are much more ambitious set pieces this time, but they feel like gags instead of scares. One example is when The Force again comes for Ash, it rushes all the way from the woods, through the dilapidated Oldsmobile and finally into the cabin where the chase becomes something of a Looney Tunes sequence. When a demonic force possesses Ash’s hand, it makes audible squeaks which sound more cutesy than terrifying. He finally stabs it with a butcher’s knife and manically laughs as he cuts into his own flesh with a chainsaw crying, “Who’s laughing now!” He later chases the free hand around the cabin with a shotgun, not unlike Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny.

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There is plenty of blood (including a wall gushing all over Bruce Campbell’s face) and even a wink and a nudge at Wes Craven. In the 1981 Deadite vintage, Ash finds in the cabin’s cellar a ripped poster of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which is a mocking reference to Craven putting a torn Jaws (1975) poster in his movie’s cannibal lair. Not to be outdone, Craven fired back in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) with one of his victims watching The Evil Dead on TV as a joke.

Evil Dead II tries to get the last laugh when Ash, whose soon-to-be possessed hand is being gnawed on by the mean-spirited and cackling head of his dismembered girlfriend, goes into the tool shed for a weapon. He ends up choosing a chainsaw to cut Linda’s head into even more pieces, but discarded in the corner is the ignored, razored glove of choice for Freddy. But is Evil Dead II really a horror movie at this point like Craven’s work? I don’t think so, because I am never disturbed once in its running time, but it’s a laugh all the way up to Ash and the Oldsmobile being dropped off in 1300 Europe for its cliffhanger ending.

Moving On Is Smart, S-Mart

Raimi once said of horror films, “You must taste blood to become a man.” This was meant to explain his desire for buckets of gore. However, it seems for him to be a drink best enjoyed in his 20s. Following the success of Evil Dead II, Raimi and Tapert yearned for respectability. For the 1980s British program, The Incredibly Strange Film Show, Rob Tapert said he sees in Sam “the qualities of Spielberg and Capra.” They thought there was more to Raimi’s talent than demonic spells from the Necronomicon.

In 1990, Raimi released Darkman, a violent superhero pulp based on his own short story. Starring Liam Neeson before he became Oskar Schindler, Darkman is both an action film and strangely, a horror flick. Scarier than Evil Dead II, Darkman owes much of its vision to the James Whale classic The Invisible Man (1933).

Whale, a fellow alchemist of comedy and horror, perfected the Gothic horror boilerplate for Universal in that decade and Sam returned to it by mixing it into a tale of revenge and heroism. Dr. Peyton Westlake (Neeson) is attempting to develop synthetic skin for burn victims, when his girlfriend’s (ol’ roomie Frances McDormand) evil business enemies try to burn him. Left badly scarred, not unlike Claude Rains’s 1943 Phantom of the Opera, Peyton undergoes an operation that takes away his burning sense of pain (as well as all tactile feeling). The loss of touch is driving him a little bit nuts, but he starts wearing synthetic skin and Invisible Man-inspired bandages to win back his girlfriend and bring justice to the streets. Darkman was created because Raimi couldn’t secure the rights to Batman or The Shadow and made for a compelling R-rated mixture of 1930s pulp with Gothic horror. Like Evil Dead II, it is somewhat genre defying, but it was also his first baby step away from the cabin.

 

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Army Of Darkness

Two years later, Raimi personally revisited Ash one last time. Army of Darkness (1992) fulfilled the promise of Evil Dead II’s final shot and delivered on Sam’s original vision for a sequel. However, given the picture’s full in-movie title of “Bruce Campbell vs. The Army of Darkness,” we can safely say all pretense of horror is gone.

In his third outing, Ash Williams, dropped off in 1300 with his Oldsmobile, shotgun and a chainsaw for a hand, is totally reimagined as a smartass action hero who delivers lines that only Bruce Campbell’s magnificence could get away with: “Well Hello, Mr. Fancy Pants. I got news for you pal, you ain’t leading but two things right now: Jack and shit. And Jack left town;” “Yo She-Bitch…Let’s go;” “Good, bad, I’m the one with the gun;” “Hail to the King, Baby.”

In one scene, Ash is forced to fight a dozen evil mini-Ashes who beat him up like Larry, Mo and Curly Joe. When he must read an ancient incantation before the Necronomicon, his spell is the famous “Klaatu verata nikto” from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Honestly, Army of Darkness owes more to Ray Harryhausen stop-motion classics and Mark Twain comedies than it does to any scary movie. Yet, the MPAA still hated on the film, giving it an R rating. Clearly irritated that the last two Evil Deads were released unrated, they would not give its comedic big budget sequel a PG-13 under any circumstance. Also, the studio forced Raimi to change the ending from a darkly comic resolution to Ash returning to the ‘90s to sweep an S-Mart shopper off her feet while battling demon crones. It’s all groovy, baby.

The Simple Things Of Happiness

While Army of Darkness was only mildly successful, it and Darkman proved Raimi could handle real Hollywood budgets and even make something without copious amounts of gore. That was enough to catch Sharon Stone’s eye. The actress, who had just bought a spec script about an Eastwood-like woman gunslinger, was looking for her own quick draw lenser for her star vehicle. Believing that the Evil Dead films did not let Raimi showcase his true potential, she argued that this project would “stretch the limits of his technical and creative ability.” She even threatened TriStar that she’d only do the project if Raimi was attached.

The Quick And The Dead (1995) is a classic vanity project for a rising movie star. Stone chose her director, her two love interests (Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, before their fame) and even paid some of the cast out of her own pocket.

For Raimi’s part, he brought the visceral thrills of his swooping cameras and larger-than-life Dutch angles to the Old West. Stone and screenwriter Simon Moore wanted Sergio Leone and the studio wanted John Ford, but Raimi’s visual extravagance was a different beast altogether. The film holds the record for the most showdowns in a western to date and possibly the most self-satirical tone. Crowe described the director as “sort of like the fourth Stooge.”

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However, all that visual dynamism could not replace a threadbare plot or a film that felt big on ideas, but light on substance. The movie bombed at the box office with a domestic run of $18 million (it was slaughtered by competitor Billy Madison). Raimi blamed himself for the project’s failings. “I was very confused after I made that movie. For a number of years I thought, I’m like a dinosaur. I couldn’t change with the material.”

As Raimi entered the wilderness of where to go in a career that had moved beyond B horror yet fell short of Hollywood respectability, he entered the realm of television producer. Sam perhaps wanted to become more serious, but Renaissance Pictures’ TV shows were far from that. Hercules: The Legendary Journey (1995-1999) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) were projects that dominated the syndicated market and allowed friends and family to take part. Ted Raimi acted in both series and producer Robert Tapert married Xena star Lucy Lawless. Their PG cornball legacy paved the way for future NC-17 cornball programming like Renaissance and Starz’s Spartacus opus currently in its final season. Still, Raimi himself wanted more.

A Simple Plan, Baseball & The Gift

Sam returned to theaters with a violent bang in 1998’s A Simple Plan. Written by Scott Smith from a book he also authored, A Simple Plan revisits the cold waste of Raimi’s youth. Set in Wisconsin during a dark winter, Hank (Bill Paxton) is a college educated family man in a small town. He moved home with his pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) to tend his father’s business and farm, both of which include his mentally simple brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton). Hank, the only man who left and came back, acts both the superior and the pariah of his ignorant neighbors. One day, the two brothers and local drunk Lou (Brent Briscoe) discover a crashed plane with $3 million in a duffle bag.

Of course they take it only for their lives to rapidly unravel to a world of chaos, greed and murder. In many ways, Raimi improved upon the book by taking out its most ridiculous plot twists while amping up the ones he kept with kinetic camera movement that adds his trademark smirk about violence. However, it is also his most restrained work to date (and some would argue his best). For the first time in his career, Raimi placed subtlety above style and invested the audience more in the darkening souls of his protagonists.

This is a grim film about the ugly side of American capitalism, class differences and how greed supersedes all morality, religious or intellectual. Obviously influenced by the Coen Brothers’ own Fargo (Raimi even asked for tips about shooting in the snow from Joel and Ethan), A Simple Plan is a tour de force from Raimi that fulfilled the promise Tapert always believed in. Hank asks throughout the film what simplicity it costs for a man to be truly happy, but Sam never felt more comfortable than behind the camera here. The movie even scored a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Billy Bob and caught the eyes of very influential producers.

Raimi finished out the 1990s working on two more character studies. One was the most forgettable of Kevin Costner’s baseball trilogy, For Love of the Game (1999). Raimi approached the project as a bromance between baseball players Costner and John C. Reilly. Two men who have had each other’s backs their whole careers? Might as well have just made a movie about himself, Tapert and Campbell.

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Unfortunately, the movie gets bogged down in far too earnest sentimentality between Costner and love interest Kelly Preston. It also came out post-Waterworld, so the whole world hated Costner and doomed For Love of the Game to box office oblivion (the actor even unfairly received a Razzie for the project just because he’s Costner).

Raimi followed it up with The Gift (2000). Written by Billy Bob Thornton (and supposedly based on the true stories of his psychic mother), the project served as Cate Blanchett’s first major star vehicle post-Elizabeth. A basic whodunit mixed with a little bit of supernatural Southern gumbo, the spicy flick mostly went down smoothly thanks to Raimi’s ability to create dread and suspense. Hell, he even proved he’s transformed into an actor’s director when he got passable turns out of Keanu Reeves and Katie Holmes (though nobody could save their “Southern” accents). The mystery broke even at the box office, but that didn’t matter for Sam anymore. He was about to swing to new, dizzying heights.

Spins A Web Any Size

Sam Raimi finally got his chance to direct a superhero in 2001. How fitting that it would be Spider-Man, the hero whose visage was painted on Sam’s bedroom wall as a child.

Spidey, like all superheroes, took a really, really long time to make it to the big screen. Stuck in development hell for nearly a quarter century, the closest the web-head previously came to making it to multiplexes was James Cameron’s odd attempt in 1994 which featured non-canon villains and masked sex scenes. When Sony finally secured the rights to Spidey in a 1999 option with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (who finally got the rights to Casino Royale for EON in return), Spidey was put on the fast track.

The studio spoke with Roland Emmerich, Tim Burton, Chris Columbus and even David Fincher. Indeed, it came down ultimately between quirky small scale Raimi and Fincher. The latter wanted to do a dark retelling of the most famous Spider-Man story of comicdom, The Death of Gwen Stacy, and Raimi pitched a retro love letter to the character’s pulpy 1960s roots. Unbelievably, the man who created chainsaw-handed Ash Williams and wrote a tree rape scene got the job to direct one of the biggest movies of all time. 

During the pre-production process of Spider-Man, Bryan Singer’s X-Men revitalized the superhero genre in 2000 and brought back a sense of seriousness long absent. However, that film also hid from its comic book roots by avoiding the characters’ costumes and downplaying the spectacular physics-defying set pieces.

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Raimi opted to go big or go home. He vetoed the idea of Spider-Man having a black costume like the X-Men and everything else in the wake of The Matrix (1999). It was going to be red and blue! He also jettisoned the idea of having two villains (the other was Doc Ock). Green Goblin would be more than enough of a dramatic foil to the webslinger. And yes, he would be green. If Singer’s X-Men paved the way for the modern superhero craze, Raimi’s Spider-Man is the one that convinced Hollywood the best way to do it is by embracing the material in a sincere way.

 

Spider-Man (2002) is a big, bold studio film. The plot is a faithful retelling of the origin with all the Capmbellian beats that implies. However, unlike so many that have come since, Raimi did a rare thing and infused the formula with his own personality.

The movie snaps at a zippy, economical pace. Every story beat is hit with the bizarre off-center cheekiness that Raimi brings to all his work. Even Raimi’s choice of lead, indie darling Tobey Maguire, represents a subversive approach that goes against big budget logic (some studio hands wanted Freddie Prinze Jr.). In the many years since its release, some fans have turned on Raimi’s approach, calling it too campy or light. There is no denying the touch of camp to all of Raimi’s films, even the severely dark A Simple Plan. However, unlike his earlier films, he never loses his center in the 2002 effort. He and Maguire create a truly sympathetic character who won over audiences en masse that year.

Spider-Man was the first movie to make $100 million in a single weekend for a reason beyond only brand recognition. It dominated the entire summer, which also included one of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, because audiences felt a genuine emotion when they watched Peter Parker walk away from the girl of his dreams in a cemetery while a lonely trumpet played. Raimi may have included organic web-shooters, a strangely stoic Spidey and a very different Mary Jane, but he captured the sentimentality and gee-wiz wink-nudge humor of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original 1960s comics.

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And in May 2002, just eight months after the 9/11 attacks, audiences were grateful for something so sincerely heartfelt, even if it had the corniness that lies under all of Raimi’s (and even Stan Lee’s) work. Plus, the visual style he brought to Spidey swinging through the Manhattan canyons is something no other director has since recaptured. In the same way his camera swooshed and flipped to catch every gory chainsaw dismemberment of the ‘80s, Raimi spent the 2000s creating aerial ballets in a way that has yet truly to be copied. When Spidey swings or kisses MJ upside-down in the rain, audiences feel a human touch to the frame that is missing in most other superhero films…Oh, and it’s got Bruce Campbell and the 1973 Oldsmobile. Groovy.

After Spider-Man won near unanimous critical approval and $800 million at the worldwide box office, Raimi became an overnight A-lister. He already had signed on for Spider-Man 2, but he certainly had more options. Brian De Palma even advised him to use the clout of Spider-Man to make more movies like A Simple Plan and leave the kids stuff behind. However, Raimi has always been a genre entertainer at heart. He started by making slapstick comedy on Super 8 before graduating to King of B splatterfests. He already was in his element.

Spider-Man 2 brought back Doctor Octopus and in most ways is a vast improvement over the first film. The plot, which in its early stages was again overstuffed with extra villains The Lizard and Black Cat, got streamlined by screenwriter Alvin Sargent into a simple love story. Doc Ock still had a Marvel staple plan that would accidentally blow up the city, but like the melodramatic stories of Lee and John Romita Sr., it was all window dressing for Peter Parker working out his love life.

Embracing the soapy origins of the character made for a movie that flowed more organically than its predecessor. Also, its doubled budget allowed for what was the greatest action sequence in a comic book film until The Avengers eight years later. Spidey battles Doc Ock atop a high-rise clock tower, aboard a runaway elevated train and finally, almost Christ-like, saves the passengers with his last ounce of strength. Heavy handed? Yes. Earned? Surely after Peter Parker ran away from his responsibilities for the entire middle section of the film. It also allowed Raimi to physically torture Tobey in the ways he once punished Bruce Campbell. It seems despite all that nobility Raimi so lovingly yearns for in his Spidey films, he still likes seeing his characters and actors bleed.

By the time Spider-Man 3 rolled around, Raimi may have been webbed out. Making good on his cliffhanger ending regarding Harry Osborn (James Franco), Raimi needed to wrap up the Peter/Harry/MJ triangle of friendship and sometimes-love for a proper trilogy closer. He also wanted to see childhood fave Sandman on the big screen.

Raimi and his brother Ivan wrote the first draft to accommodate all this and more when they threw in the Vulture for the last act. Chances are that no matter how hard they tried, the movie would feel bloated and overstuffed. Yet things were not helped when the studio insisted that Vulture be replaced with fan favorite baddie, Venom. Oh and throw Gwen Stacy in there while you’re at it.

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Venom’s labored and convoluted backstory, including a gooey alien substance called the symbiote clinging to Peter Parker, became the dominant aspect of the 2007 entry. Almost as a negative reaction to this dark material being thrown into Raimi’s light-hearted vision, the director also used the symbiote as a catalyst for not one, but TWO dance sequences inspired by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977).

Spider-Man 3 is a mess of a movie with way too many plot threads tenuously connected by the thinnest of coincidental webs (ahem—Harry’s butler—ahem). The hate that followed is unsurprising, yet I would argue it is still better than many of its genre. When so many movies are written by committee and have no personality, at least this one still has the earnestness of Raimi’s sappier side. All the scenes between Peter and Harry, helped largely by Maguire and Franco’s chemistry, work very well and still nobody throws the camera during comic book mayhem like Raimi.

The bloated circus ends on a downbeat note with Harry’s death and Peter and Mary Jane’s bittersweet reconciliation. It is somehow a fitting ending for the strange concoction of cheesy thrills and noble melancholy that Raimi imbued all the movies with. Still…couldn’t we redeem THIS? Raimi attempted to do so with a Spider-Man 4 slated for 2011. However, after it got bogged down in a terrible pre-production treatment (ahem-Vultress and Spider-baby-ahem), Raimi wisely chose to pull the plug and step away from his childhood hero. The man needed a break to clear all the cobwebs and pumpkin bombs out of his head. After eight years of Spider-Man, perhaps what he needed was to get the Hell out of CGI spectacle for a while.

 

Back To The Fruit Cellar And Straight On To Oz

After the gargantuan size of the $250+ million budgeted Spider-Man 3, Raimi felt it the best time to return to the genre where he made his bones. And intestines. And lacerated skin. With a price tag of only $30 million, Drag Me to Hell (2009) marked a back-to-basics approach for the filmmaker.

Co-written by Sam and brother Ivan in the late ‘90s, Drag Me to Hell got put off until Sam finished his near-decade Spidey odyssey. The film, Raimi’s first true horror movie since Evil Dead II, tells the story of a very sympathetic young woman (Alison Lohman) who wants to live a good life. She moves from a small town, ends her childhood weight problem and gets engaged to a young professor (Justin Long). But one day, she makes the sinful choice at her bank to foreclose on a gypsy (Lorna Raver) who cannot make payments. Whoops. She only wanted to impress her boss and prove she’s tough! That one little selfish moment in her life comes back to toughen her with a vengeance when the gypsy sentences her to eternal damnation by cursing her button. She has three days to stop the curse or get rid of the button before she’s dragged off to Hell. 

The movie is a shockingly entertaining return to form. Raimi hasn’t been this mean-spirited or sadistic since The Evil Dead. Even with the film’s PG-13 rating, Raimi packs in more gross-out scares than the two Evil Dead sequels combined. He just chooses to use black bile as opposed to blood for his fluid of choice. When watching Lohman suffer, one gets a sense of freedom from a filmmaker who hasn’t embraced his darker side in decades. The level of violence and depravity reaches Looney Tunes proportions when the zombie-ified Raver has an anvil dropped on her head.

Also, for all of Maguire’s promises that he got it as bad as Bruce Campbell did, Lohman receives it far worse. There is no gross object that doesn’t seem to go in her mouth at some point in that film. Black bile, red bile, fingers, eyeballs, mud…you get the idea.

At the end of the film, Lohman thinks she has beaten the curse and goes to meet her beau at a train station before a romantic weekend at a cabin in the woods (uh oh). Yet, when Long produces the button she thought she passed off to another, she knows it’s too late and her three days are up. Her skeptical, intellectual fiancé has to watch, engagement ring in hand, as the love of his life is dragged kicking and screaming by an army of demons into the bowels of fiery eternal torment as the flesh of her face is melted to the bone. Damn.

Raimi once said that when he studies an audience viewing his movies, he looks to see how they process the scares. “[A good scare] is like inflicting pain on them…Some scares are a punch in the face [and others in the stomach.]” Like his actors, his favorite reactions are when audiences are agonizing from a sucker punch. And this guy made Spider-Man?!

Somehow, this mild mannered looking gentleman in a suit can create both huge laughs and huge revulsions. Sometimes in the same scene. His need to entertain goes hand in hand with his need to punish everyone. Actors, characters, audiences, they all should pay for being in a horror movie. But he also places the same value on emotional sentiment in his big budget soap operas.

Still Got It

Somehow, I bet Oz: The Great and Powerful will both be more bizarrely strange and interesting than Disney predicted when they hired the filmmaker. I’m still not sure how Raimi convinced Hollywood to let him use his dizzying camera on their superheroes and fairy tales, but we should all be thankful he is. Hopefully, he can broaden the scope of this rekindled fairy tale genre like he did for superheroes in 2002. And I really hope the Evil Dead remake he is producing is far more sick than we can imagine considering the MPAA of 2013 slapped the franchise again with an NC-17.

A family movie about James Franco and Mila Kunis discovering Oz coming out within a month of a gorefest that features a demon forcing her mutilated tongue down another girl’s throat? Sounds like Sam’s still got it. Hail to the King, baby.

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