“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I said to you that day in the condo.”
Okay, we have now come to the one “Wait— what?” of the Raimi filmography. His MUSIC OF THE HEART. We saw him completely switch up his style for his last movie, A SIMPLE PLAN, and it was obviously very different and more “normal” than anything he’d done previously. But it wasn’t totally out of the blue for him to make the leap from horror to dark suspense thriller. It had some overlap with the crime films by his friends the Coen Brothers, and it had a great role for Bridget Fonda, who had previously done a cameo in ARMY OF DARKNESS.
But for the love of God, where did FOR LOVE OF THE GAME come from? The answer he always gives is about the only answer possible: he likes baseball, he liked the script, he wanted to try something different. I knew that was what it was but I always figured it would be worth watching some day. “Some day” came 22 years after it was released (now), and I’m actually surprised that the only Raimi I noticed in it at all was Ted Raimi in a cameo as the doorman at a party. I figured there would at least be some cool shots of baseballs flying. The premise is that maybe-about-to-retire Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner, SIZZLE BEACH, U.S.A.) reflects on his failed relationship while trying to pitch a perfect game. You’d think there would be some attempt to experiment with different ways to show a pitch on film, as THE QUICK AND THE DEAD did with gun duels. But it’s not that kind of party. (read the rest of this shit…)
“You work for the American dream. You don’t steal it.”
“This is even better.”
A SIMPLE PLAN is the first Sam Raimi movie not to be easily recognizable as a Sam Raimi movie. It even has a Danny Elfman score that’s not recognizable as a Danny Elfman score. It’s a grim, uncomfortable neo-noir, stylistically subdued, what little humor it has dry enough that it likely doesn’t register with everybody. If anything, it seems most akin to BLOOD SIMPLE by Raimi’s former roommates/CRIMEWAVE co-writers/DARKMAN cameo-ers the Coen Brothers, transplanted to a snowy Minnesota environment more like FARGO.
Like THE QUICK AND THE DEAD it was a for-hire project, but this time he didn’t want it to feel like any of his other movies. He and cinematographer Alar Kivilo (THE LOOKOUT) agreed that the camerawork should be simple, “invisible,” basically the opposite of what everyone loves about his earlier films. I don’t advocate doing that all the time, or even often, or honestly ever again, but here it definitely works for him. (read the rest of this shit…)
THE QUICK AND THE DEAD has a very traditional western story, other than featuring a woman – Sharon Stone (ABOVE THE LAW) as Ellen – in the role of vengeance-seeking gunslinger. You’ve got your western town desperate to get out from under the yoke of a cruel ruler (Gene Hackman [THE SPLIT, PRIME CUT] as John Herod), and your mysterious drifter in town trying to get up the guts to shoot him for killing her father in front of her. All the shootists with the fastest guns and biggest mouths are coming in for a quick draw tournament, and she enters in hopes of getting a shot at her enemy.
But I think it’s truly distinct among ‘90s westerns, with two major things that make it stand out. One is the incredible cast. It includes great western icons: Woody Strode, Roberts Blossom, Pat Hingle, and of course Hackman in a performance arguably on par with UNFORGIVEN. It has colorful roles for genre favorites: Lance Henriksen, Keith David, Mark Boone Jr., Tobin Bell, Sven-Ole Thorsen. It has Gary Sinise immediately after his star-making, Oscar-nominated performance in FORREST GUMP. And it has two right-before-they-exploded co-stars: pre-L.A. CONFIDENTIAL Russell Crowe as former outlaw turned pacifist preacher Cort, and known-for-WHAT’S-EATING-GILBERT-GRAPE Leonardo DiCaprio as The Kid, the cocky, baby-faced son of Herod entering the contest just to get the attention of his asshole dad. We actually see The Kid mobbed by young women at one of the shooting matches, something that would become more familiar to DiCaprio a year later when ROMEO + JULIET came out. (read the rest of this shit…)
Man, here we are on Sam Raimi’s fifth movie, and I feel like it’s his fourth major breakthrough. THE EVIL DEAD was the smashing debut that put him on the map, CRIMEWAVE didn’t do much for him but EVIL DEAD 2 was the cult masterpiece that moved him from the map to the pantheon, then DARKMAN was his first studio movie and first actual big moneymaker.
But during the couple years he spent trying to get DARKMAN going he’d also agreed to make an EVIL DEAD III with Dino De Laurentiis, this time with a bigger budget to accommodate the Medieval Dead concept he’d wanted for 2 but had to abandon because it was too expensive. Produced by De Laurentiis and released by Universal, ARMY OF DARKNESS not as expensive as DARKMAN, but is arguably larger in scope – it’s a period piece with a castle, lots of knights in armor, horses, catapults, an army of skeletons, plus various possessed ladies, a flying beastie, an Ash that grows a second head and then splits off into a monstrous Evil Ash, etc. (read the rest of this shit…)
After his horror breakthrough, his failed comedy, and his knockout horror sequel, Sam Raimi finally made it to the semi-big-time. He’d really wanted to do a movie of Batman or The Shadow, but could never get the rights. Then he came up with the idea for his own dark avenger, one with the ability to change his face. His 40-page treatment The Darkman was greenlit by Universal Studios in 1987.
Raimi brought in NAVY SEALS writer Chuck Pfarrer to flesh out the treatment as a screenplay, which was then rewritten by Raimi and his brother Ivan (under the theory that Ivan, a doctor, could help make the medical sci-fi aspects plausible). The studio brought in the team of Daniel and Joshua Goldin (up-and-comers they also had working on PROBLEM CHILD) to bring the various drafts together before the Raimis went at it again. By the time the movie was made and released at the end of August, 1990, Tim Burton had made his BATMAN movie and all the studios were trying to mimic that success. Surely that was an influence on Raimi’s choice of composer Danny Elfman, and on the minimalist marketing campaign based around a silhouette and the question “Who is Darkman?”
I’m sure at the time I would’ve been interested in this movie anyway, but I was specifically excited when I read that it was the genius behind beloved video favorite EVIL DEAD II taking his first shot at a large scale mainstream movie. Seeing the posters, reading about it in magazines, seeing it on the big screen, I accepted it as a big time summer blockbuster alongside DICK TRACY, BACK TO THE FUTURE III and DIE HARD 2. But Raimi having four times his budget on EVIL DEAD II still meant about a third or a fourth of the budgets of those films. Even Cannon’s DELTA FORCE 2, released the same day as DARKMAN, had a slightly higher budget. I think it’s a testament to Raimi’s exciting directorial style that his many green screen and miniature techniques, which have dated technically more than any of those other movies, still seemed flashy enough to stand toe-to-toe with them. (read the rest of this shit…)
“Then let’s head down into that cellar and carve ourselves a witch.”
After the financial and (perceived) artistic failure of CRIMEWAVE, Raimi and company were itching for a win, and knew their best bet was to return to the one that had worked, THE EVIL DEAD. When they couldn’t find financing, their savior was the same guy who arguably made their careers by raving about THE EVIL DEAD: Stephen King. One of the crew members Raimi and friends had interviewed for the potential sequel was working on King’s directorial debut MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, and happened to mention to King that Raimi was having trouble getting a greenlight. King was like Are you kidding me? There could be an EVIL DEAD part 2 but nobody will let them do it!?, called up his producer Dino De Laurentiis and convinced him to meet with Raimi. So give that man a medal.
De Laurentiis was skeptical of the project, especially after Raimi and friends rejected filming at his Wilmington, North Carolina studio. But he agreed, allowing a $3.6 million budget, small enough to rule out their plans to set it in medieval times, but giving them more to work with than either of their previous films. And the studio gambit worked exactly as intended – the three hour drive to the locations made it harder for higher ups to pull any CRIMEWAVE shit..
THE EVIL DEAD was a hit. It took them a while, but they found a distributor, Irvin Shapiro. He’d been a founder of the Cannes Film Festival, and arranged for it to screen out of competition, where Stephen King saw it and loved it. Him raving about it in USA Today brought it outsized attention for such a small movie. It was well reviewed and became a sleeper hit, making 8 times its budget at the domestic box office (and then we all saw it on video).
And you know how these days you can make a low budget horror debut and a studio will hire you to direct SHAZAM! or some shit? That’s a little bit like what Raimi tried to do after THE EVIL DEAD. Not a for-hire thing, but a bigger movie more in the comedic vein of his amateur Super-8 films. According to Bruce Campbell’s book If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, THE EVIL DEAD editor Edna Ruth Paul had told Raimi that her assistant Joel Coen and his brother Ethan wrote great scripts. “Ethan was just a statistical accountant at Macy’s at the time,” Raimi is quoted as saying in the book, “and I thought it’s probably going to be awful, but I’ll read it because I like Joel. And I read it and I thought, ‘This is really a great script. These guys know how to write scripts.’ I needed help, because ours was no good and they came in and helped me with it.”
Later there was an uncredited pass by Sheldon Lettich, who in a few years would become forever associated with Jean-Claude Van Damme by writing BLOODSPORT and then directing LIONHEART. (Lettich would also co-write a too-ambitious EVIL DEAD 2 draft similar to what became ARMY OF DARKNESS.)
Set in Raimi and Campbell’s home town of Detroit, CRIMEWAVE (1985) is a weird and funny movie, teeming with Raimi and Coen personality, from the precisely worded dialogue full of humorously archaic phrasing, to the over-the-top set pieces, to the straight up Three Stooges cartooniness. A favorite example of the latter: during a struggle, a shelf gets knocked down and a series of bowling balls (or cannonballs?) roll onto a villain’s head one after the other – don’t keep those on a shelf, people! That’s dangerous!
But Embassy Pictures fucked with Raimi from the beginning, causing numerous obvious compromises, so he and the Coens have long since disowned it.
First and worst compromise: they wouldn’t let Bruce Campbell be the star. He’s funny as Renaldo, the “heel” and lady’s man who’s the hero’s romantic rival. But the lead was given to Reed Birney (House of Cards, THE HUNT), who comes off like a poor man’s Anthony Edwards circa REVENGE-OF-THE-NERDS. He plays hapless dork Vic Ajax, who openly reads the book How To Talk To Women and then, when he gets the chance to, only talks to them about himself. It’s easy to imagine this cluelessness working with Campbell’s arrogant buffoon shtick, but Birney’s portrayal seems a little too accurate to that type of person to be charming. I kind of want to see him suffer. But he pulls some of it off. (read the rest of this shit…)
Welcome friends, to a new review series. Each year on Halloween I like to post a piece on an all-time classic horror movie, usually one that I’ve been intimidated to tackle because so much has already been said about it that it’s hard to find a fresh angle. A couple Halloweens ago I decided to tackle Sam Raimi’s 1981 low budget classic THE EVIL DEAD. And I was really proud of the appreciation I put together, but writing it got me so excited about Raimi that I got a little ambitious. I decided I should do a separate one on the even better EVIL DEAD II. But watching that again got me thinking about other early Raimi movies, so I held off posting to grow it into a mini-series. And then I decided fuck it, I should do every movie he’s directed, even ones I’ve already reviewed.
Initially the goal was to remind people of the joy of Raimi since, having not directed a movie since 2013, I feel he’s largely fallen out of discussion. Since I started writing these, though, he filmed a DOCTOR STRANGE sequel, and his SPIDER-MAN characters returned in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. Hopefully we’ll be seeing other retrospectives that go beyond Marvel Comics, but I’m glad I took the time to get carried away revising, digging through old magazines and books, and making screengrabs to illustrate my points. I want this series to be closer to a college course than a “Sam Raimi Movies Ranked” slideshow. So please joooooiiiiinnnn usssssssss for the next few weeks in examining THE COMPLETE FILMS OF SAM RAIMI.
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When you say “EVIL DEAD” to people now, they tend to think of cocky Bruce Campbell, funny Ash, “Shop smart, shop S-Mart,” “Hail to the king baby,” etc. But back in the early ‘80s – and now, if you can watch it in the right state of mind – Sam Raimi’s original THE EVIL DEAD was and is a real fuckin corker, a cinematic slap to the face (in a good way), a thrilling ordeal in 16 millimeters.
You know how it is: you and a group of your fellow young people decide for some reason to go on a road trip from Michigan to a dilapidated, isolated cabin you’re renting in some dreary woods in Tennessee. Your buddy finds a reel-to-reel in the basement and hits play, a professor reading from an ancient text conjures up the ol’ Kandarian demons, and before the end of the night all your friends’ eyes are turning white, their skin turning crackly grey and they cackle and levitate and contort themselves, jerking around like marionettes, all their joints making sounds like cracking knuckles, until you decide your only options are to lock them in the basement or chop them up with an ax. You try to stay calm, but what the fuck is up with this invisible force charging through the woods at you, knocking down trees and battering through windows and doors? Whenever we shift to its perspective our ear drums rattle with eerie drones, gurgly didjeridu moans and echoey, whispered taunts. (read the rest of this shit…)
Twenty years ago when I was an enthusiastic but not that good internet movie reviewer I wrote a column called “I have seen the future of Badass pictures,” because I had seen THE DAY OF THE BEAST (1995) and PERDITA DURANGO (1997), the second and third films of Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia. Although the director hasn’t quite become a household name here in the intervening years, he has made many interesting films, of which I’ve reviewed 800 BULLETS (2002), FERPECT CRIME (2004) and THE LAST CIRCUS (2010). He’s still going strong, for example I’ve heard good things about his recent TV show 30 Coins.
For the holidays I rewatched the Christmas-Eve-set THE DAY OF THE BEAST (it held up – I wrote about it a little bit on Letterboxd) and I’d been meaning to revisit PERDITA DURANGO for quite some time. Reviewing Javier Bardem’s first English language movie, where he plays a human-sacrificing psycho who looks like this…
…as a followup to his more Oscar-baity turn in BEING THE RICARDOS is the sort of thing that amuses me, so I pulled the trigger.
PERDITA DURANGO is based on a 1992 book called 59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango by Barry Gifford (who co-wrote the script with de la Iglesia and two others). It’s part 3 in the Sailor and Lula series, part 1 being the basis of WILD AT HEART. (Isabella Rossellini played Perdita in David Lynch’s movie.) (read the rest of this shit…)