A week or so ago, I got an instant message from Jay at The Horror Section, who I had been waiting to hear from. While I had him, I asked if he would be interested in doing a tribute post. Jay's blog is another one of those blogs I love to read, so I'm glad that he agreed to do this post for me. Jay did it a little different though, giving me a post that talks about why he likes Sam Raimi so much. I figured this would be the person he would pick you see. If you have ever read his blog, it would be pretty obvious choice from him. If you haven't, you should!! Here is Jay's tribute to Sam Raimi.
While talking with mermaid heather a few weeks ago, she asked me if I’d like to do a guest post on her blog. Delighted, I asked her if she had anything specific in mind. "A tribute post", she said. It took me a while to figure out which horror icon I wanted to cover, but with Drag Me To Hell imminent, the right choice was obvious. Here is my tribute to Samuel Marshall Raimi.
Sam Raimi was born into a middle class family in Royal Oak, Michigan on October 23rd, 1959. His childhood was largely occupied by television reruns of Abbott & Costello, The Little Rascals and most significantly The Three Stooges. Due to his parents being fairly well off, his father brought home a 8mm camera one day. Raimi had an instant epiphany, realizing that with this device, he could actually control reality, instead of just watching it on TV. By age thirteen, he had his own camera, afforded by doing odd jobs around his neighbourhood. Acquiring the necessary equipment was the first step. What he needed now were willing subjects. In eighth grade, he found kindred spirits in Bruce Campbell and Scott Spiegel. The three of them, along with long-time collaborators Josh Becker and Sam's own siblings Ted and Ivan, formed the Metropolitan Film Group and filmed many shorts together. When Raimi went off to university, he met another likeminded individual named Robert Tapert and quickly brought him into their clique. After the success of low-budget independent horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and Halloween in the mid-to-late-seventies, the young men saw an opportunity. Their first horror effort was a short called Clockwork, which starred local actress and friend Cheryl Guttridge besieged in her home by a maniac played by Spiegel. It was only seven minutes, but already you could see the innate talent of its director.
Once Clockwork was in the bag, they decided to make another short that could be used to illicit funds from investors. They began work on the script for Within The Woods – the precursor to The Evil Dead – and had it shot and ready to go by the summer of 1979. It was raw and grainy, but somehow partners Sam, Bruce and Rob (now known as Renaissance Pictures) managed to drum up $85,000 from local dentists, lawyers and relatives. With that, they packed up everything they had and headed to a rural area just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. The rest as they say, is history.
I've talked enough about The Evil Dead at The Horror Section, for you to know that this film is very dear to me. I find it inspiring how all these young kids (Raimi was barely twenty!) were able to make something so seminal. It should be shown in film school to showcase ingenuity and perseverance on a shoestring budget.
Once The Evil Dead had established him as an honest-to-goodness director, Raimi helmed a project that he co-wrote with the Coen Brothers – who had just also just come off their own debut feature Blood Simple – called Crimewave. Unfortunately, this was Raimi's first time working on a studio picture and he quickly learned that he was no longer the one calling the shots. His lead actor Bruce Campbell was replaced by studio suggestion Reed Birney – whom I'd never heard of then or since – and the suits seemed to be at odds with Raimi’s vision at every stage. The finished product is uneven at best, but you can certainly see Raimi’s Three Stooges infused leanings throughout it. It remains largely unseen because it still has yet to be released on DVD.
After his experience with Crimewave, is it any surprise that Raimi went back to well and made Evil Dead 2? Raimi had much of the same crew from his first movie, a bigger budget and was now working with top notch special effects guys Bob Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, who would later form now legendary KNB EFX. Raimi decided to, again due to his love of physical comedy, combine the gore with over-the-top slapstick, birthing a style now known as ‘splatstick’.
Due to his sizable love of comic books, Raimi next wanted to do a superhero movie. After trying fruitlessly to secure the rights to The Shadow and Batman, he decided to create his own property, Darkman. Universal seemed interested in his idea and let him make it, which is somehow fitting considering the character of Darkman was inspired by classic Universal monsters like The Wolfman. The movie had Raimi's kinetic style all over it and was well received by genre fans. The character of Darkman proved himself lucrative enough to warrant two sequels, albeit without its creator at the helm.
Raimi and company returned for one more demonic hurrah with Army Of Darkness in 1993. With its lighter-toned fantasy slant and main character Ash now fully evolved into the wisecracking buffoon we know and love today, this was the most consumable of the three and the only one to receive a wide release. It was hilarious to me at the time; just how many people didn’t know Army Of Darkness was the third movie of a trilogy. The Evil Dead certainly wasn’t the institution then that it is now, largely due to its unavailability for so many years. That’s probably why there is a new DVD edition released every once and a while... They feel the need to catch up!
In late 1994, Sam announced he would directing a western called The Quick & The Dead, written by someone else (British scribe Simon Moore) no less. Not only that, but now Raimi would be swimming with the big fishes, dealing with Hollywood heavyweights Gene Hackman and Sharon Stone, as well as then up and comers Leo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. He handled it with ease. His concept of shooting each gunfight a different way is continuously engaging and this love letter to the spaghetti western perfectly meshes with Raimi’s skill set. This movie came out at the tail end of my decade-long obsession with Sharon Stone (it began with King Solomon's Mines in 1985) and I ate it up. I still love this movie and watch it every few years. I always forget just how many great actors are crammed into this movie.
After a few years off from film to produce several television series, including American Gothic, Hercules and Xena, Raimi took the reins of the film adaptation of Scott B. Smith's crime novel A Simple Plan. Raimi had no trouble dialling it down and served up a masterfully crafted thriller. The tightly knit cast of Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton played off each other well, especially the latter who deservedly earned an Oscar nod for his performance.
Raimi's next move was even more unexpected. He was going to take on a baseball picture entitled For Love Of The Game. I remember thinking 'wtf?' I was starting to think that he had left the horror genre forever. However, he did manage to find the best person to partner up with for this project. Kevin Costner had already had major success in this area with Bull Durham and Field Of Dreams. This was one I didn’t watch for a while, mainly because baseball bores the shite out of me, but it annoyed me that there was only one film in Raimi's catalogue that I hadn't seen – kind of like Lynch's The Straight Story and Kubrick's Fear and Desire – so I finally broke down and watched it. For Love Of The Game is good. There are no cameras attached to baseballs in flight, but it made me interested in the sport for two hours, so that’s saying something.
Then came The Gift in 2000. It was a solid thriller, elevated by an excellent ensemble, which consisted of Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank, Greg Kinnear and Keanu Reeves. With a script co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, who again regaled us with an uglier side of the South, Raimi painted quite a portrait. I was a little disappointed that he toned down his signature style for his return to darker themes, but I am ETERNALLY grateful that he convinced Katie Holmes to show off her goodies before she was captured by Xenu and replaced by a pod person.
In 2002, Raimi entered an area of his career, which would consume him for the next five years. Sam Raimi would be directing the new big-budget incarnation of Spiderman. This seemed like a match made in heaven. By now, Raimi had proven that he could handle any genre and was a big enough name to warrant the superhero movie he had originally wanted to make over a decade ago. He was more than ready. Spiderman destroyed expectations, showing that he was just as interested in telling the story of Peter Parker as he was the famed wall crawler. Some consider the sequel to be an even greater achievement, as visual effects technology was finally able to keep up with the demands of the larger-than-life characters, especially the multi-mechanical armed Doctor Octopus, played with absolute verve by Alfred Molina. When the third movie came around, many shunned it like the plague. Even though I can admit that it may have got away from him by the end, Spiderman 3 is still clearly a Sam Raimi film. He’s a goof at heart. Regardless of how it was received, it STILL went onto make truckloads of money for Sony and basically allowed him carte blanche for anything he wanted to do next.
Which brings us to the present and Drag Me To Hell. This is Raimi’s triumphant return to the genre that began his career and I’ll be first in line to witness it this weekend.