With the successful return of director Sam Raimi with his recent release Oz the Great and Powerful, Casey Lehman charts his career, considering how his origins in independent horror have influenced his output today
Born in a small town in southeastern Michigan, Sam Raimi learned his craft making movies with his friends (including the inimitable Bruce Campbell) and brothers using a Super 8 camera in the family’s backyard. These early projects culminated in 1978’s Within the Woods, an extremely low-budget short film that served as a dry run to generate investment in Raimi’s first feature, the infamous The Evil Dead (1981). That film spawned two sequels and launched the careers of director Raimi, star Campbell, and producer Robert Tapert, a college roommate of Raimi’s older brother and screenwriting partner, Ivan. The Evil Dead also generated fierce controversy due to its graphic violence and demonic themes, which established Raimi’s reputation for over-the-top genre filmmaking and self-conscious excess.
Although by the end of the Evil Dead trilogy Raimi had moved away from the horror genre and begun making more comedic and fantasy-oriented pictures, his penchant for stylization and grandiosity never disappeared, culminating in another trilogy with a much bigger budget, Spider-Man. The first film in the series finally gave Raimi a real shot at a marketable mainstream picture, having been sabotaged by poor marketing for several of his previous major studio efforts, including The Quick and the Dead (1995), a western starring Sharon Stone, and For Love of the Game (1999), an incongruous and ill-advised foray into both sports movies and working with Kevin Costner. Spider-Man had been in what is known as “development hell” for over two decades, bouncing around from studio to studio with at least a dozen different scripts by over twenty writers until Sony Pictures settled on Raimi to direct a script by David Koepp, who had previously written such hits as Jurassic Park (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996), and Snake Eyes (1998).
After the massive success of Spider-Man (2002), Sony green-lit two sequels, each more profitable than the last; catapulting Raimi from a funny little B-grade director to an A-list moneymaking machine. Spider-Man 3 (2007), however, and the ensuing battle between Raimi and the studio, essentially torpedoed the series, despite the film’s massive financial success (until the recent reboot, without Raimi’s involvement). While he was criticised for treating the film and the character as a joke, especially in the inexplicable sequence in which Peter Parker, under the influence of the alien symbiote, dances through the streets of Manhattan, the real problem with Spider-Man 3 may have actually been that Raimi was given too much freedom and a massive budget. It wasn’t so much incompetence as it was self-indulgence.
In the early 1980s, Raimi’s films had been largely responsible for establishing the independent horror aesthetic, using absurd amounts of blood to cover the cheapness of the special effects they often had to improvise on-set (mainly severed limbs, an important plot point in the Evil Dead trilogy). This ingrained lack of subtlety seems to have never left Raimi, as his youthful exuberance for comic book fare was given free rein on Spider-Man 3, highlights being a ten-story tall sand monster and extraordinarily hammy performances from a respectable cast that included Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) and Topher Grace (In Good Company). It seems that the real failure of Spider-Man 3, then, was not Raimi’s. The film failed with fans simply because they expected another cookie-cutter superhero action flick and Raimi refused to give it to them; instead, he made the picture he always wanted to make but couldn’t for the previous 25 years of his career.
Written prior to the Spider-Man trilogy but produced after, Drag Me to Hell (2009) marked Raimi’s return to his roots in supernatural horror and more modest budgets. The film follows the generically-named and generically-blonde Christine Brown as she attempts to rid herself of a gypsy curse placed on her by an old woman to whom Christine denied a mortgage extension. Christine is actually the only bland character in a colorful cast that includes the token Asian from The Fast and the Furious, Crispin Glover’s boss from Bartleby, and Waiting/Accepted sad-sack Justin Long bizarrely playing some kind of professor (a professor of what? Who knows). Drag Me to Hell was a considerable financial and critical success, being praised as both fun and scary. One wonders how the campiness that came in for such criticism in Spider-Man 3 could come right back in the same director’s next movie less than two years later and garner such praise. But, so goes the viewing public.
More recently, Raimi has achieved another success with Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz (1939) that makes exquisite use of 3D technologies and, surprisingly, works just as well in 2D. Featuring an all-star cast that includes James Franco (who portrayed Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man movies) as Oz, and Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams as the trio of witch sisters, Oz the Great and Powerful seems to have created a more successful fusion of Raimi’s loosely comic leanings and the more stringent demands of big-budget filmmaking. Littered with close-ups of the wizard’s winking, grinning visage that foreshadow his “transformation” into the disembodied head familiar from the original, Raimi’s film triumphantly strikes a balance between nostalgia and novelty that a lesser filmmaker could not have achieved.
And it seems that statement will actually be put to the test because, although the studio (Disney) has approved a sequel and the stars have signed on, Raimi has not. A Raimi-helmed Oz trilogy, unlike Spider-Man and Evil Dead before it, does not, unfortunately, appear to be forthcoming.