Sam Raimi has a new film coming out this week called The Great and Powerful Oz. Being a Raimi fan who, just like you, is waiting to see it this weekend, I've compiled this week's column with enough of his work to keep me from fully freaking out until then.
Evil Dead (1981, Netflix Streaming) After directing numerous short films throughout the '70s, Raimi, along with his producing partner Robert Tapert, decided the next logical step for them would be to direct a feature film. So they dropped out of college, enlisted the acting abilities of long-time pal Bruce Campbell (along with a small army of friends who would make up the crew) and set off to the hills of Tennessee to make what Stephen King would later call "the most ferociously original film of the year." A group of chums take a trip to an isolated cabin in the woods to have a little party. While there, they come across a tape recording describing a hideous force that roams the woods that can only be unleashed by reciting passages from a book that, conveniently enough, is also stashed in the house. Well, words get spoken and evil forces come a' knockin at the cabins front door. Before long, all hell breaks loose and our gang is forced to defend themselves against some very nasty spirits. Thirty-plus years after its initial release, Evil Dead still packs a terrifying punch. Sure, time (and a slew of knockoff-type films that are more gory than scary) has taken a bit of an edge off -- the amateurishness of the acting and direction shows a bit, and the special effects aren't quite up to Hollywood standards -- but these quibbles are quickly pushed aside as the movie kicks into high gear in the second act and never lets go.
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987, Amazon Prime VOD) After the success of Evil Dead, Raimi, Tapert and Campbell took a crack at making a big budget studio film. It was a comedy (I think) heist film called Crimewave. Raimi claims that studio interference resulted in a film that never quite managed to solidify into a truly cohesive movie. (Judge for yourself when Scream Factory releases a nice Blu ray of Crimewav in a few months). The experience soured Raimi on making films within the studio system, but he was desperate to make another movie, so he turned to legendary Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis, who was starting his own studio. Uninterested in making a direct sequel to Evil Dead, Raimi and screenwriter Scott Spiegel (who directed a very fun horror film set in a grocery store called Intruder) instead made a reboot. Bruce Campbell again plays the lead character Ash, but this time it's just him and his girlfriend that end up in a remote cabin in the woods, and his special lady is turned into a horrific demon within the first fifteen minutes. Evil Dead 2 hits many of the same beats as its predecessor, but this time around, there are huge doses of gallows humor added to the script, which turns the film into a true roller coaster. Gags and gore flood the screen at a break-neck pace. It's a true horror juggernaut that updates the original Evil Dead formula without diluting its impact.
A Simple Plan (1998, Check your local library) After making his first superhero movie (Darkman), a western (The Quick and the Dead) and a third installment to the Evil Dead series (Army of Darkness), Raimi turned to a novel by Scott Smith called A Simple Plan to adapt for his next feature. A Simple Plan is a great twist on the "what would you do if you found millions of dollars that no one wanted" question. Bill Paxton plays Hank Mitchell, a guy who has a job that he likes in an idyllic small town, a beautiful wife and a baby on the way. While on a hunting trip with his loser brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and their mutual acquaintance Lou (Brent Briscoe), the three come across a crashed plane in the middle of the woods. The pilot looks long dead, but what really catches their eyes is a duffel bag with about four million dollars inside it. Hank initially feels that they should report the find to the local authorities, but Jacob and Lou convince him that no one is going to miss it and the three should split it up. They all agree that Hank should hold onto the money for a while just in case anyone comes looking for it. It seems like a great plan at first, but the three begin to distrust each other before long. Once the paranoia sets in, it kicks off a series of events Hank is helpless to stop. This might be Raimi's best movie. It improves on the source material by having more restraint than Smith's original story (the novel gets downright crazy at the end) and it ended up earning Billy Bob Thornton an Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The Gift 2000, Netflix Streaming) Directed by Sam Raimi from a script by Billy Bob Thornton, The Gift marks a return to the supernatural for a director who, by 2000, had tackled nearly every genre of filmmaking. The Gift concerns Annabelle "Annie" Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a single mother whose powers of clairvoyance run much deeper than the tarot card readings she does for the locals to provide for her family. When local hottie Jessica King (Katie Holmes) goes missing, King's father asks for Annie's help in looking into the case. Annie doesn't feel she can do much to help out, but the visions she is having surrounding Jessica's disappearance keep bringing her back in. Of all of Raimi's dips into the supernatural genre, I think The Gift is his most restrained. No crazy camera angles, just a quiet, creepy film that picks perfect moments to jolt the audience with scares. Add to the cast Keanu Reeves as a redneck that doesn't take kindly to Annie's visions implicating him for murder and Greg Kinnear as Jessica's grieving fiancée, and you have a very moody southern gothic that is, sadly, on its way to becoming Sam Raimi's most overlooked film.
Drag Me to Hell (2009, Check your local library) After making three big budget Spider-Man movies, Raimi stepped back into the low budget horror world with Drag Me to Hell and showed his fans that he hadn't softened one bit in the twenty-five plus years since he broke on the scene. Drag Me to Hell is a savagely fun movie that delivers on both scares and laughs. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) plays a bank loan officer hoping to get promoted at her local bank, and in order to facilitate that promotion, gets tough on an old gypsy woman and denies her an extension on her mortgage. Well, it turns out denying old gypsy women mortgage extensions is a really bad idea and before long poor Christine is being terrorized by the old hag. Christine visits a supernatural expert and tries to make amends per his advice (hide your kittens!), but this nasty old lady only wants her. What ensues is another off-the-rails thrill ride that terrifies at every turn. When it isn't being scary, Drag Me to Hell is more than happy to deliver globs and globs of blood and slime and laughs along the way. It's a stunner of a return to the horror genre that made Raimi so popular in the first place and was certainly one of the most entertaining films of 2009.