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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Raimi’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 6th 2003:

I was coming out of the local multiplex’s regular Tuesday night Director’s Chair screening when I overheard one of the lads in front of me complaining. ‘That woman in front of me was really winding me up,’ he said. ‘She was laughing at it, but because she thought it was shit, not because she was getting that it’s supposed to be like that.’ Clearly a perceptive chap, being able to distinguish between the sound of someone-laughing-because-they-realise-something’s-deliberately-OTT and that of someone-laughing-because-they-just-think-something’s-bad. And a rather fine distinction come to that, especially when the film in question is Sam Raimi’s legendary (not to mention notorious) 1982 debut, The Evil Dead.

(Sitting in a theatre watching The Evil Dead almost exactly a week after seeing Donnie Darko was a vaguely unnerving experience, as fans of the latter film will appreciate. Looking on the bright side, I wasn’t suddenly joined by a time-travelling revenant in a bunny costume inciting me to arson, but then again neither was I on a date with Jena Malone. A score draw, I think.)

The ancient print the multiplex had laid their hands on did an uncannily good job of evoking the underground, outlaw vibe a film like this gives off. It crackled, it jumped, scratches riddled the screen… but thankfully not enough to obscure the story, which goes a little something like this: in true low-budget horror movie style, five young people drive out to a house in the mountains for a short break. Three of them are girls, two of them aren’t. One of the ones who isn’t a girl is Ash, played – and not underplayed, I assure you – by Bruce Campbell. Ash’s best friend is pleased because the rental on the house is so cheap. But is this due to the fact that the previous tenant carelessly left the house, its cellar, and the woods around it crawling with vicious, bad tempered entities who object to holidaymakers? Could be…

Okay, cards on the table: The Evil Dead is one of the most primitive films I’ve ever seen. The scantness of the budget is obvious in every frame, whether it be in the graininess of the film stock, the amateurish performances of most of the cast, or the not-very-special effects. Its shortcomings aren’t simply financial either: it has virtually no plot beyond a succession of set pieces which nearly all revolve around people being stalked by demons or the occurence of extremely violent carnage. It has almost no characterisation. It has no subtext, no hidden meaning. What horror it manages to evoke either comes from basically either shouting ‘boo!’ at the audience unexpectedly or trying to induce nausea by the sheer extremity of the subject matter.

But I have to say, it’s terribly entertaining.

What makes it work above all else is Sam Raimi’s supremely energised direction, which constantly involves and surprises the viewer: whether it be with a relentless demon’s-eye-view tracking shot or an eccentric choice of camera angle (from under the dashboard of a car, inside a clock, through a half-open trapdoor – even at one point treating us to a close-up of the interior of the heroine’s nostrils – Raimi keeps delivering the goods). And to be fair to him the film swerves back and forth across the border between genuine horror, and blatant self-parody, with some deftness. The early sections, with a slow build-up to the first demonic possession, are genuinely creepy and disturbing – most obviously the infamous moment when one character is sexually assaulted by a tree – as is a sequence near the climax where reality seems to be coming unravelled around lone survivor Ash.

But it’s the rest of the film that earned The Evil Dead its reputation as a video nasty and it’s a reputation it sort of deserves. It is violent. It is very violent. But it’s so violent, the quantities of fake gore so massive, the dismemberment and carnage so ludicrously over the top, the special effects so rudimentary, that rather than soul-crunching horror the final effect is of a high-camp bloodbath. It’s impossible to take seriously, and certainly at the screening I went to the theatre was filled with the sound of laughter. Certainly Raimi’s choice of the theme from ‘Thoroughly Modern Milly’ as his closing music suggests he has his tongue firmly in cheek (or more likely bursting gorily through it).

Of course, as well as establishing Raimi as a director to watch, The Evil Dead made a cult figure of star and co-producer Bruce Campbell. (The subsequent disparity between the career trajectories of the two can be simply summed up – Raimi’s last directorial gig was the mega-blockbuster Spider-Man, while Campbell’s most recent starring role was in the slightly lower-profile Bubba Ho-Tep.) As someone used to Campbell’s rather energetic style of performance I was surprised at how restrained he was for the first two-thirds of this film. But as the gore starts to flow in earnest the familiar Campbellisms – the eye-rolling, the twitching, the frantic mugging to camera – all appear. Bruce Campbell is a one-of-a-kind performer but his style suits this film perfectly.

Is The Evil Dead one of the greatest horror movies ever made? Erm, I would venture that it isn’t. It’s too strange and funny and uneven for that. But it is a sickly entertaining film, a terrifically directed one, and one I suspect I’ll remember for a long time. Cult? Definitely. Classic? Hmmm…

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 13th 2002:

A conversation, c.1980 :

Me:Dad, dad! Can we go to the pictures?’

My Father:Why, what’s on?

Me:The new Spider-Man film!

[This was actually Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, a Spidey-versus-evil-kung fu American TV movie starring Nicholas Hammond that somehow got itself a theatrical release in the UK.]

My Father:What does Spider-Man do in it?

Me:He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people, slides down a lift shaft! It looks great!

My Father:Oh, I suppose so…

A conversation, c.2002 :

My Father:Hey, hey! Let’s go to the pictures!

Me:Why, what’s on?

My Father:The new Spider-Man film!

Me:What does Spider-Man do in it?

My Father:He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people –

Me:Does he slide down a lift-shaft?

My Father:Not in the trailer I saw. Can we go? Can we can we can we?

Me: (remembering the rubbish Hammond film and feeling rather guilty about forcing him to see it) ‘Oh, I suppose so…

Well, there’s the cycle of the generations writ large for you. Actually I needed no persuasion whatsoever to go and see this movie: one of the most exciting and overdue developments in mainstream cinema over the last few years has been that Marvel Comics and their characters have finally begun to punch their weight on the big screen: recently we’ve had Men in Black, Blade, and X-Men, and within the next year we’ll see Ben Affleck in Daredevil and Ang Lee’s take on the Hulk. And obviously, a Spider-Man movie, done right, has the potential to be a fantastic movie.

Sam Raimi’s film falls roughly into two acts. The first of these is the story of overlooked nerd Peter Parker (a tremendously likeable Tobey Maguire) whose life is transformed after he’s bitten by a genetically engineered spider. His delight and excitement as he discovers, one by one, the different powers this gives him is utterly irresistible, and the story is told with the same self-mocking humour that characterised the original comic-books. But along with the powers come responsibilities and drawbacks (not least Peter’s new inability to climb out of the bathtub unassisted) and Peter is in for a harsh lesson…

The Spider-Man origin story is the finest in all superherodom, essentially a fable concerning guilt and loss and redemption, and Raimi tells it near perfectly: so much so that you barely notice the radical re-conception of one of Spider-Man’s signature powers. The actual effects set-pieces are a long time coming but well worth the wait, and you really don’t mind such are the warmth of the performances and wit of the script.

Of course, every hero needs a villain to contend with and Spider-Man spends the second act of the film doing battle with the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, displaying a hitherto-unseen talent for manic hamming), a millionaire weapons designer driven insane by exposure to experimental performance-enhancing drugs. To be honest this part of the movie is slightly less impressive, being more formulaic superhero stuff. But the characterisation and energy continue unimpaired and the various bouts between hero and villain are visually startling. Most impressive of all is the ending, which isn’t your standard blockbuster fare, but is entirely in keeping with the source material.

Spider-Man is a treat: not only the most faithful and impressive comic-book adaptation yet, but a genuinely terrific film in its own right (much better than The Dragon’s Challenge, anyway), with great performances (apart from Maguire and Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst is great as the love interest, James Franco does a slow burn as Peter’s best friend and Cliff Robertson is just right as Spidey’s Uncle Ben), fantastic visuals, and a wonderful script from David Koepp. Hugely entertaining and pretty much not to be missed – go see! Go see!

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 22nd 2004:

[Following a review of Thunderbirds.]

Oh well, onto a movie I can confidently describe as a success in all departments: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, currently mounting a serious challenge for the title of all-time box office champion. Readers with long memories and short attention spans may recall I was rather impressed with the original when it came out just over two years ago – something not diminished in the slightest by this second instalment.

Two years on from the events of the first movie – which are helpfully recapped in another stylish title sequence – things have changed a bit for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his amazing friends. The lad himself is juggling responsibilities as Spider-Man and Pizza-Delivery Boy and not making a very good job of it, his love interest Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is mixing occasional interludes of dangling-in-jeopardy with a successful acting career, and his best friend Harry (James Franco) is now a suit at his dad’s old corporation, and obsessing over Spider-Man (who he believes killed his father). Basically, being a super-hero is making Peter incredibly miserable as his work and relationships are constantly suffering. Does he really still want the gig?

Things don’t get any better when a freak accident with an experimental fusion generator – er – fuses brilliant scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina on fine form) with four malevolent cybernetic tentacles. Restyling himself Doctor Octopus, he sets out to recreate the experiment, no matter what the risks to the city. But he needs Harry’s co-operation to do this, and Harry’s price is the head of Spider-Man…

After a couple of Affleck- and Bana-shaped wobbles last year, Spider-Man 2 should put Marvel Comics’ film division back on course for world domination. This is thanks to a production in which performances, script, and direction all come together to produce a film which is thrilling, moving, and funny in all the right places. The style of the original film is continued seamlessly, with several gags and motifs re-used (Bruce Campbell pops up again in another wittily-performed cameo).

Where it surpasses its predecessor is in its freedom to just pick one story and follow it through, rather than combining the Spidey origin with various Goblin-related clashes. And it’s a very human and personal story, very much focussed on the troubled personal life and guilty conscience of Peter Parker. While people are probably going to go to the cinema to see Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus duking it out on the sides of buildings – and the battles themselves are terrific, the villain impressively realised – this isn’t really at the heart of the story. Given this it’s a shame the climax boils down to a rather generic special effects set-piece that only loosely ties in to the themes of the script. (And if anyone knows how Spider-Man finds out where Doctor Octopus’ lair is, I’d love to hear from them.)

But never mind. The performances of the cast are every bit as memorable as the special effects. Normally in a superhero movie you’re glancing at your watch when the lead character’s in secret-identity mode, but Maguire manages to be utterly engaging as Peter Parker (and seems to be quite a good sport about the achey breaky back problems which nearly cost him the role). Dunst is fairly touching, even if Franco seems ever so slightly over-wrought in a slightly one-note part.

All this just adds into the overwhelming impression of supreme confidence this movie gives off: it’s not afraid to go from quite sombre personal moments to offbeat visual humour, to include wild directorial flourishes, or even to run the risk of seeming camp and goofy. It’s also not afraid to shake things up and plan for the future: the relationships and situations of the main characters at the end are very different from how they stand at the beginning, and while it’s fairly obvious who one of the villains of Spider-Man 3 will be, the script also plants seeds for at least two others somewhere down the line.

It shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise if I tell you that Spider-Man 2 is going to be the biggest film of the summer. But it may if I add that the success is thoroughly warranted by a film which mixes thrills, jokes, maturity and heartache to absolutely winning effect. Highly recommended.

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