Tag Archives: Sam Raimi

CAPSULE: CRIMEWAVE (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reed Birney, Sheree Wilson, , Brion James,

PLOT: Minutes from his execution, an innocent security-systems installer attempts to dissuade his guards from prematurely ending his life, telling a tale of mistaken identity, love, psychotic exterminators, and bad pick-up lines.

Still from Crimewave (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the prospect of an early cooperative effort between Sam Raimi and the made me hopeful, and while the creative does outweigh the crummy, Crimewave falls awkwardly on the “just a little too good” side of the weird movie equation. As it happens, it would have taken just a smidgen more amateurism (or a whole lot more inspiration) to have this be a Certified The-Man-Who-Wasn’t-There-meets-“Looney-Tunes” kind of a thing.

COMMENTSCrimewave was originally titled Relentless. On the DVD release it bears the title The X, Y, Z Murders. The distributors obviously weren’t sure how to handle it and, to an extent, neither am I. Made at the beginning of both Sam Raimi’s and the Coen brothers’ careers, you can see that they aren’t yet sure of themselves. All their trademarks are there—fast and novel pacing (Raimi), cleverly obtuse dialogue (Coens)—but they are still finding their feet artistically. Both the director and the screenwriters would, thankfully, move on to bigger and better, but with Crimewave we are left with an intermittently charming mess of a movie.

The action begins in Hudsucker Penitentiary, where a frantic Victor Ajax (Reed Birney) urgently rambles to his guards shortly before his scheduled execution at midnight. The tale he tells would sound familiar to anyone who has seen any of the Coen brothers’ more playful films. Victor claims he did not kill his two bosses (along with some bystanders), but that they were instead offed by the unhinged exterminators Faron Crush (Paul Smith) and Arthur Coddish (Brion James): two sleazebags I referred to as “Rat-Rat” and “Fat-Rat” in my notes. Mayhem ensues inside an apartment building that conveniently houses all the protagonists, with a couple of key scenes taking place in a nearby upscale restaurant where Victor awkwardly attempts to woo femme fatale Nancy (Sheree Wilson), a woman of the world who is in the clutches of the ultimate heel, Renaldo (Bruce Campbell). Hopefully, the car full of nuns will arrive in time to save our hero.

While the first half consists of oddball dialogue and strange zingers, the second half goes a bit off the rails with Warner Brothers-style violence. Crimewave‘s greatest fault is that it seems it knows what to do; it just doesn’t do it terribly well. Perhaps Sam Raimi felt too tethered being under the watchful eye of corporate Hollywood for the first time, and the combined effects of a constrained Raimi and novice Coens makes for something much more “odd” than “weird.” While the overall effect of the collaboration makes for a breathlessly tedious experience, Raimi’s frenetic pacing does occasionally complement the Coen brothers’ rudimentarily clever dialogue. While laboring through the second half (with the psychos, the car chase, and all that), it was as if I were with a boring guest at a party whom I just wanted to abandon, only to have him suddenly turn charming as I was about to leave.

All told, and despite the preceding paragraphs, I feel somewhat at a loss for words. It’s always great to see Bruce Campbell as a scumbag, and a lot of the other characters populating the small city block would evolve into the lovable idiots that would be the backbone of the Coen brothers’ classic comedies to come. However, the shining moments served more immediately as a reminder that the surrounding movie was a rushed, troubled, slapdash affair. Now that  both Raimi and the Coens have become great filmmakers, I would be interested in seeing them remake this (fairly justifiably) forgotten romp. As it stands now, though, while I cannot recommend it to anyone, I would recommend having had seen it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange but not funny spoof of hitmen that disappoints because the comedy is too simplistic and there’s no dramatic impact.”–Dennis Schwartz, Orzus’ World Movie Reviews

CAPSULE: ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYSam Raimi

FEATURING:  Bruce Campbell

PLOT:  Following the events of Evil Dead II, Ash finds himself flung backwards in time into a medieval land, where his failure to retrieve the Book of the Dead enables evil forces to muster a massive army of stop-motion animated skeletons.

Army of Darkness

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTEvil Dead II struggled mightily to obtain its weird credentials, and just barely qualified for its weird badge thanks to the “cabin fever” sequence in the middle portion of the film.  In the third entry of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, director Sam Raimi distills what he thinks is the popular essence of Evil Dead II, emerging with a concentrated dose mixing ghoulish comedy with a stiff shot of badass working class hero Ash.  Weirdness was discarded as a waste product, although traces remain.

COMMENTS:  The beginning of Army of Darkness rewrites the tale of how Ash came to be recognized as the “Chosen One” at the end of Evil Dead II, but consistent storytelling (along with respect for the laws of physics) has never been a high priority in this series.   Since the  midpoint of the second film, Raimi’s Evil Dead emphasis for the trilogy has been comedy, and Army of Darkness is tongue-in-cheek from start to finish.  As an action/comedy/fantasy/horror hybrid, Army of Darkness pulls in too many directions to hang together as a story, much less integrate itself with the rest of the series, but the manic energy is a lot of fun, and the film does work on a scene-by-scene basis.  The flick dips into the Three Stooges tribute well even more than Evil Dead II did; in one funny scene, every orifice on Ash’s face is invaded by skeletal fingers from still buried corpses, despite his best defensive maneuvers (our hero never learned from Curly’s mistakes—don’t introduce your tongue as a new target by sticking it out in triumph after successfully blocking the dual finger eye poke).  Gags aside, the comic momentum overwhelming comes from Bruce Campbell’s Ash, who has transformed from a much abused punching-bag for macabre forces into an arrogant, wisecracking hero.  Campbell adopts just the right campy, parodic tone when reprising hit action catchphrases like “Groovy” or fresh favorites like “Just me, baby.”   Ash’s overweening, usually unjustified bravado is the comic binding that keeps the scattershot script from blowing away in the wind.  For fans of weirdness, the best bits are the hallucinatory scenes after Ash takes refuge from a shakycam assault inside a windmill: for unexplained reasons, he ends up by menaced by a gang of tiny Ashes in a “Gulliver’s Travels” parody, then sprouts an Evil Ash from his shoulder.  These scenes take place at approximately the same stage in the movie as the “cabin fever” sequences did in Evil Dead II, and may have been intended as one of the many, many nods to the previous film.  Another high point is the army of stop motion animated skeletons (a tribute to Ray Harryhausen).  Each member of the bony horde is brilliantly individualized and detailed; particularly striking is the martial band, beating drums made from skulls and playing flutes fashioned from arm bones.   Overall, Army of Darkness is a worthy, if commodified and popularized, sequel, and a solid roller coaster for fans of fantastic film who aren’t hung up on logic.

Army of Darkness was the transitional film for Raimi between campy experimental films like Crimewave and Evil Dead II and purely commercial fare such as the Spider-Man series.  The large scale battle and professional action scenes in Army seem almost like audition reels for making a Major Motion Picture.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a goofy, hyperventilated send-up of horror films and medieval warfare, so action-packed it sometimes seems less like a movie than like a cardiovascular workout for its stars.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

33. EVIL DEAD II (1987)

AKA Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn “What distinguishes Evil Dead II is that it isn’t a horror film with comic moments or a comedy with frightening moments. It is instead a true horror-comedy that taps into the fact that both comedy and horror rely on weirdness, incongruity, and shock.”–Victoria Large, Brattle Theater Film Notes

Must See

DIRECTED BYSam Raimi

FEATURING: Bruce Campbell

PLOT:  Young Ash takes his girlfriend to a deserted cabin in the woods for a weekend of romance; unfortunately, the hideout was the former abode of a deceased archaeologist who had discovered a “Book of the Dead” the ancients believed could call forth an evil spirit and allow it to possess the bodies of the living and the dead.  Ash plays an old tape by the professor in which he reads the magical words of summoning, and the spirit does indeed come and possess Ash’s girlfriend (whom he is forced to dispatch gruesomely).  That’s only the beginning of Ash’s troubles, however, as, trapped in the cabin, now must fight off a horde of demonic presences, at first all alone and later with the help of the professor’s daughter and her companions.

Still from Evil Dead II (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • Evil Dead II is much more a remake of, rather than a sequel to, Raimi’s low-budget drive-in hit The Evil Dead (1981) (although that point is technically debated among fans). Where The Evil Dead was a straightforward horror movie, Evil Dead II is a comedy in a horror setting.  Actor Bruce Campbell reprises his role as Ash from the first film; it was this performance that made him into a cult actor.
  • This was Raimi’s third feature film, after The Evil Dead and the weird, Coen brothers scripted comedy Crimewave! (1985).  He would go on to mainstream success when he was tapped to direct the Spider-Man series.
  • Powerful horror novelist Stephen King, a fan of the first Evil Dead, introduced Raimi to Dino de Laurentiis and convinced the producer to fund Evil Dead II after Raimi declined an offer to adapt King’s story Thinner.
  • Followed by a sequel, Army of Darkness (1992).  Rumors of a fourth film in the series have circulated since the mid nineties; currently, an Evil Dead IV is listed as “in development” on the Internet Movie Database, although this is far from an assurance that a fourth film will be made.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Ash fighting his own disembodied hand: a scene that starts out creepy, but becomes a slapstick routine, ending up in a groan-inducing pun.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Oddly, Evil Dead II‘s credentials as a weird film are called into


Original trailer for Evil Dead II

question by its almost unqualified embrace by critics and gorehounds alike: can anything that is so widely beloved, anything that fails to alienate either the high or the lowbrow, really be authentically weird?  In fact, Evil Dead II is only slightly weird, but the events of the cabin feverish middle portion of the film—where the battered Ash seems to be hallucinating the horrific events—are just bizarre enough to make Evil Dead II eligible for inclusion on list of the weirdest films of all time.  Add to those scenes the over-the-top gore, slapstick and constant surprises of the film’s last half, and you get a lovable mish-mash of a movie with a one-of-a-kind comic tone that is too exhilarating to be left off a list of the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  The quality and sheer fun of Evil Dead II don’t need a defense.  It’s hard to Continue reading 33. EVIL DEAD II (1987)

CAPSULE: DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Sam Raimi

FEATURING: , Lorna Raver

PLOT: Seeking a promotion, a cute and kind-hearted loan officer decides to get tough with the wrong customer, denying a mortgage extension to an elderly gypsy woman who curses her with a demon that will torment her for three days before dragging her to hell.

Drag Me to Hell (2009) still

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because too much weirdness would have jeopardized Sam’s chance to direct the next Spiderman installment.

COMMENTS: On the surface, Drag Me to Hell‘s blend of spurting body fluids, horror, and absurd slapstick bring to mind director Sam Raimi’s celebrated The Evil Dead 2. Drag Me, however, isn’t nearly as anarchic or over-the-top with its carnage; and more importantly, it lacks the cabin-fever dream feel of Raimi’s weird wonderwork, substituting a standard ticking-clock suspense trope. Rather than being comically unhinged, Drag Me to Hell instead feels tightly controlled, at times even micromanaged: a PG-13 Evil Dead for the cineplexes. Not that that’s entirely a bad thing: the movie is exactly what it’s intended to be, a spook-house carnival ride with abundant jump scares and grossout scenes to thrill the teenyboppers, along with plenty of black humor homages offered as a sop to fans of 1980s drive-in horror/comedy classics (such as the eyeball-related callback to Evil Dead II, and the gleefully excessive catfight between a hottie and grannie using office supplies as weapons).  The diabolic plot is reminiscent of ‘s 1957 classic Night of the Demon, retooled to focus on action and effects instead of oppressive ambiance. Simultaneously satisfying the longing for classic Gothic atmosphere, the high spectacle quota demanded of blockbusters, and the nostalgia of longtime Raimi fans for those abandoned hip horror trips, Drag Me to Hell is a well-constructed, well-placed and welcome addition to Hollywood’s summer lineup.

Although it’s an entertaining movie, the enormously positive critical and audience reaction probably relates more to the relative crapiness of Hollywood’s recent efforts in the horror genre than to the inherent quality of this film. After reviewing a seemingly endless parade of gory slaughterfest “reboots” of Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, ad nauseum, critics are eager to encourage an original supernatural script that doesn’t cynically depend on a massive bloody body count for effect. Audiences whose taste in old-fashioned spooky stories have been ignored in recent years are just thrilled to see anything arcane on the big screen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Raimi temporarily shrugs off the A-list status the Spider-Man movies earned him and returns to his disrespectable Evil Dead ways. The blood and guts may have been tamped way, way down, but the manic intensity and delirious mayhem of those earlier zombie romps remain intact.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald