Thursday, May 28, 2009

'Evil' Director Sam Raimi: Craftsmanship on a Lower Budget

In 1982 THE EVIL DEAD was let loose upon an unsuspecting world; it was an instant cult success and some genre fans considered it the best horror film ever made. EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, the sequel film, has now been unleashed and is an excellent example of craftsmanship on a lower budget; the camerawork, breakneck pace and humor (a refreshing change for the genre) are all extremely impressive.

The director responsible for both films is young Sam Raimi, who also co-wrote the new movie with Scott Spiegel. His inspiration for this intense pair of blood-and-bile-baths came to him 10 years ago while Raimi was still in school. “My ancient history professor was giving a dissertation on Sumerian culture,” he explains, “and I was phasing out, as I was likely to do in those days. And she mentioned the ancient Sumerian Book of the Dead which is actually a series of scrolls and not one bound book, as in the pictures. They were about burial rights, funerary incantations and passage explaining the trip into the netherworlds beyond death, and that suddenly pricked up my ears. So I thought, ‘What if someone found the Book by accident and released the spirits from the spirit world?’" Which is, of course, exactly what happens in both films. The action in EVIL DEAD 2 is non-stop, from the very beginning to its ironic end (different from other horror features of late), and ferocious.

The first EVIL DEAD was also influenced by George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (a cult film of its own) which scared the even younger Raimi when it first came out in 1968. The budget of the first EVIL DEAD was $385,000; it was shot in 16mm over “11 weeks in Tennessee, two weeks in Michigan and an unknown amount of time on special effects in my garage, basement and backyard in Detroit because we kept running out of money.”

Since it was an independent picture Raimi and crew would shoot until they’d have to raise some more money, then they’d shoot some more. THE EVIL DEAD went on to develop some very healthy legs as it sold about 70,000 videocassettes in the U.S., was the number one selling video in the U.K. in 1983 before the police board confiscated it when it hit the top, and was No. 20 for the year when it was released theatrically in Japan.

The original movie’s publicity campaigns started with no less an authority than Stephen King. “He saw the picture at the Cannes Film Festival,” the director relates. “I met him briefly – he’s my favorite horror author and some people told me he jumped during the screening of the film – and asked him, ‘Mr. King, you think you could give me a line I could use in the advertising to help promote the picture?’ And he said, ‘I’ll write a review of it for Twilight Zone magazine and you can pull a quote from there.’ I was thrilled about that; it brought the picture to the attention of the public.”

The cinematic ball of horror King had started rolling would, over the years, allow Raimi to be able to helm the sequel in 35mm. There are a walloping 250 special makeup effects in EVIL DEAD 2. It also expands more on the Book of the Dead and contains some imaginative animation work by Tom Sullivan, who also worked on the first picture. While there should be enough viscera to satisfy the hardcore gore fan the new film is also more intense and features more monsters (such as the disgusting, possessed Henrietta, played in full body makeup by the director’s brother, Ted).

Born in Detroit, Raimi’s first fascinations with film began with his father’s home movies. “They were very interesting,” he recalls, “the fact he could record our birthday parties and show them the next year. It was very magical that he could record reality and play with the speeds – alter reality – and then recreate it for us on the wall.”

Sam Raimi’s first film was called OUT WEST, a Three Stooges-inspired comic western he shot in 8mm, which was “about 22 seconds long,” he chuckles. As a teen he cranked out around 50 Super 8 movies with friends, all of them comedies, and in college he and his buddies formed a film society in which they charged admission for their films to the college audiences. “With good or bad responses it’s good feedback, especially when they’re paying a buck-fifty. I highly recommend [such a film society] for young filmmakers.” Some of these titles included IT’S MURDER, SIX MONTHS TO LIVE and CLOCKWORK.

Interestingly, Raimi has always been more of a fan of comedy than horror and/or gore. “I was always a fan of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers,” he says. “We wanted to make a first feature in college and realized that, no matter how badly it might’ve turned out in case we failed, the investors could still make some of their money back if we learned how to make a horror movie. So we sat in a drive-in for a summer and studied double feature after double feature of Italian horror pictures, trying to figure out what made them work. And then we tried to make our own.”

The first one was CLOCKWORK, “a short experiment in terror which didn’t exactly work properly. [In it] a man stalks a woman and she kills him – the old knife-in-the-mouth routine.” Then came WITHIN THE WOODS, a 30-minute horror film Raimi used to raise money for what would be THE EVIL DEAD. “We showed the short film to doctors, dentists, attorneys, anyone who had any money who would listen to us. I think, in Detroit, it was enticing to be involved in a movie because it was sort of exotic and exciting. [Showing them the short film] we’d make people sick and then ask them to invest.” A sort of synopsized version of Raimi’s first feature, WITHIN THE WOODS dealt with an American Indian graveyard which is despoiled; it starred Bruce Campbell as a monster and Ellen Sandweiss as the survivor, opposite roles to the ones they would play in the original DEAD film. The effects were good enough to raise financing for THE EVIL DEAD.

“I know the first DEAD movie did offend some people so in EVIL DEAD 2 we tried to make it less offensive by cutting down on the viciousness of the gore and trying to make it more entertaining,” says the soft-spoken, even gentle director. “Because our goal was never really to offend people but just scare them and give them a rollercoaster ride of romping good fun.”

Comedy came back to Raimi between the EVIL DEAD films in the form of CRIMEWAVE, a farce which received very little theatrical distribution before eventually winding up on videocassette. What happened to the writer-director’s CRIMEWAVE? Embassy Pictures took it away [from us], forced Bruce Campbell out of the lead, recut the picture a number times, dumped our score and put ‘funny’ music behind it and now it’s some weird picture I don’t think anyone is particularly interested in, really. God later dismantled Embassy Pictures for their cruelty to filmmakers,” he laughs.

“CRIMEWAVE appeared in one or two forlorn markets and then disappeared off the face of the earth. It’s being used as fill now for pornos,” he jokes. Obviously, Raimi now “can’t recommend the film; I don’t like it. I’m sorry to the audience it didn’t work but I won’t falsely advise them to spend any bucks in renting it. It just didn’t come out properly.”

Before the sequel to his infamous EVIL DEAD was produced Raimi kept busy writing other scripts such as W.O.W. (WOMEN ON WHEELS) (written with another brother, Ivan) and THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, co-written by RAISIN’ ARIZONA’s own sibling team of Joel and Ethan Coen. Raimi is also writing a thriller for Universal Pictures entitled THE DARK MAN, which he is set to produce. He will soon be seen as an actor in the upcoming STRYKER’S WAR (produced by Scott Spiegel), in which the young filmmaker plays “the leader of the bad guys; a bad man who’s terrorizing people and the Marines are called in to put me to rest.” Raimi cast himself in a cameo at the end of EVIL DEAD 2, giving himself the last line of dialogue in the film.

Because of miles of legal red tape resulting from too many cooks in the cinematic kitchen, the director still doesn’t know exactly how much profit his first horror feature has made to date, which is why he decided it was time to produce its sequel. “We realized our investors hadn’t broken even yet,” he says. “Because we had been shortchanged, we still hadn’t paid back enough money for them to break even. So we decided to go for it.”

Raimi summarizes his latest EVIL DEAD outing (he has written the treatment for a third DEAD movie in case this one takes off) as “the story of one man and his battle with the supernatural. He’s at war with all the demons of hell, and with the darker side of himself as well.” The new film has special effects of all types, and this time Tom Sullivan supervised a grand total of 1,200 effect shots. “When we took out the really gross sequences; we replaced them partially with more thrills and chills, and more humor.”

The director, however, still hadn’t taken out enough gore to earn the R rating he was going for this time out so, as with his first DEAD feature, EVIL DEAD 2 has been released without an MPAA rating. “They looked at it and said, ‘Sam, it’s still not R-rated.’ But I really tried to make it R-rated,” he grins. “The gore the merrier, we always say.” He believes the grossest effect in the film is what he calls “the flyball-eyeball. They slam a creature’s head in a trapdoor and one of its eyes pops out of its head like a cork from a champagne bottle; it flies through the air and down a screaming woman’s throat,” he says with a laugh.

As in the first film, Raimi and company also jerrybuilt a number of ingenious homemade camera tricks, including their “Ram-o-cam,” a long, steel ramrod which was used to simulate an evil spirit’s point-of-view as it races through a car’s back windshield, on through the interior and straight out the front window. Also employed was their effective version of the Steadicam, which the crew dubbed their “Shakicam.”

With three feature films, several screenplays and treatments under his belt, Sam Raimi wants to make “different, interesting movies which will generate excitement, like throwing sticks of dynamite into the audience. Give them things they want but don’t expect. And it doesn’t matter to me what the genre would be as long as it’s something unusual and powerful.”

Written by Kris Gilpin
[Originally published in Drama-Logue, 4/9/1987, p. 4]

No comments: