Things That Don't Suck.)
Sam Raimi's most recent outing as a director, Drag Me to Hell, offered a welcome return to the jokey style of horror picture with which he started his career. Yes, it was unfortunate for him that he had lost a reliable paycheck franchise in the Spider-Man movies, but for me—never interested enough to see any of them beyond the first, once—it was just nice seeing Raimi around and kicking again. The billy-goat bits at the séance in Drag Me to Hell alone seemed to show that the old knack for wickedly funny brilliance was still there, beating away.
The transition also affords something of a vantage from which to look back on Raimi's career and begin to chart a road map of how he got from Point Then to Point Now, setting the context for wherever he may go next (which appears to be a treatment of L. Frank Baum's Oz series from the point of view of the Wizard). Among his most significant turning points must be counted the first two Evil Dead movies, The Quick and the Dead, and A Simple Plan. One I think is the best thing he ever did, another one anything but, but they all mark decision points that shaped the director Sam Raimi as we know and appreciate him today.
I should be clear that the first time I saw The Evil Dead—in the early '80s, when VCRs tended to get rented right along with handfuls of VHS tapes for weekend-long debauches, and horror movies seemed to occupy overgenerous portions of shelf space in the early start-up mom 'n' pop video places I frequented—it actually scared me quite badly. As riddled as it is with audacious clichés and inventive on-the-fly production values, it draws effectively enough on strains of both the kind of fear of Satan that The Exorcist exploited so thoroughly as well as on a Lovecraft-style vision of the tortured cthulhian worlds that lay beyond (or, in this case, lay just below that trapdoor in the floor of the cabin, and in the woods outside). I didn't sleep well after seeing it, not even after second and third times.
For that reason I approached Raimi's work with gnawing trepidations for quite some time. Certainly that was the mindset I took with me into the screening of the long-awaited sequel, 1987's Evil Dead II. But I was in for a big surprise.
A voiceover, quick cuts, and animation efficiently reprise the story of what it calls the "Necronomicon ex Mortis" (evil book of the dead), inked in blood, cast into a sea of blood, so on and so forth. Then we join the teens en route to the cabin. Though the production values had improved some, the story stuck to the familiar farce: the lonely cabin in the woods ... the frisky teens, Ash (played by Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (this time played by Denise Bixler) ... the rickety old wooden bridge that ludicrously spans a chasm atop iron trestlework ... the tape recorder, just sitting there in the cabin with a tape ready to play. Which, of course, they play, even though it didn't work out very well in the first movie either.
By seven minutes in, including titles and reprise, Linda has been beheaded with a shovel. Things are moving quickly. And slowly it becomes evident, against all expectations and with no small amount of cognitive dissonance, that the play here is for laughs. The first sign is subtle enough: Ash, fighting the spirits for possession of his own body, begins to cross his eyes with the effort. Simple enough, but the first signal of where we are headed. Soon Linda's decapitated head materializes in his lap, and bites his hand. Trying to get its grip on him loose, he reels around furiously, bashing the head into walls and furniture. He goes for a chainsaw, outlined in place on a tool bench but missing. Just as he realizes it's not there, Linda's headless corpse prances into the room with it and attacks. Ash wrestles it away from her and manages to fend her off.
After the fight, trying to find composure, Ash looks at himself in a mirror and reassures himself, "We're fine." Suddenly his reflection lunges out of the mirror, takes him by the throat, and says, "I don't think so. We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound fine?" It's the first overt laugh line, 24 minutes in, and from that point forward the entire production tends toward a bizarre ultimate-sports episode of the Three Stooges, notably in a protracted battle that Ash conducts with his own forearm, itself possessed by the evil spirits.
It's as if, even in the first sequel to his career-launching first movie, Raimi has already just become bored with the trappings of the genre and decided to push it as far as he could make it go—a project he is well abetted on with the googly-eyed Bruce Campbell. The franchise even sees a third installment—1992's Army of Darkness, which probably should have stuck with Raimi's original title, Medieval Dead. But even by then Raimi was attempting to work out the terms and accept the compromises he had to for a Hollywood career.
I see 1995's The Quick and the Dead as the next significant point in Raimi's oeuvre, though not so much in and of itself—it's something of a tired post-Tarantino by-the-numbers shoot-'em-up drawing heavily and obviously on the mannerisms of Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. What I think is significant is that Raimi has now, by this point, established his reputation with enough cachet to attract a bunch of real Hollywood stars: it's essentially a Sharon Stone/Gene Hackman picture, with Stone even signing on as a co-producer.
What's more, by bringing on board a young Russell Crowe and a skinny Leonardo DiCaprio (who I still think did his best work before Titanic, although I wouldn't rank this one particularly high for him), Raimi is starting to show real skill at recognizing and casting promising comers, helping to round out his pictures and nudge them more toward the mainstream.
The disparate elements of craft established to this point by Raimi all come together in his next project, which I think remains even still his best, the 1998 neo-noir A Simple Plan. For this one, Raimi assembled a fine cast in Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bridget Fonda and got great performances out of them as well. He plunges into the kind of mocking take on the frigid lives of northern Midwesterners perfected by the Coen brothers (with whom he consulted on the technicalities of shooting in snow), bringing a razor-sharp sense for how to ratchet up and release and ratchet up again the tensions of a narrative predicated on human greed and frailties. There aren't a lot of laughs here, which is exactly what makes it as good as it is.
Because the screenplay is so well above average, obviously a good deal of credit for the success of this one needs to go to Scott Smith, who wrote both the screenplay and the young adult novel on which it is based. I have not read the novel but, if only because it is slotted into the young adult (teen) market and I don't see how anyone could remotely consider this movie particularly appropriate for even teens, I have to think that Raimi is at least equally responsible for the accomplishment of this and the stressful and grim roller-coaster ride that it provides.
From there it was on to Kevin Costner's third baseball picture (and arguably the most interesting, if only for the strange mix of visual textures in such a context), and eventually to the Spider-Man movies. Now that Raimi has made his fortune as a comic-book filmmaker, and maybe even got that out of his system, I'm hoping we can look forward to a few more pictures operating at the levels he brought to bear in A Simple Plan.