Imagine if, right after A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven took a directorial detour and started making animated sci-fi video game adaptations. Or what if Dario Argento, sick of stylized giallos and fever dream frightmares, decided to give up on macabre and instead make slick sex comedies. That’s what it was like back in 1992, when after helming the third Evil Dead film (Army of Darkness), a certain fright film icon named Sam Raimi decided to branch out beyond the scary movie arena. With a western (The Quick and the Dead), a thriller (A Simple Plan), and an ode to baseball (For the Love of the Game) under his belt, it looked like Raimi would never come back to terror. Even 2000’s quasi-chiller The Gift seemed to signify the end of his direct association with dread.
Of course, he’s never really left, even if he has spent the last nine years moving a certain webslinger around his vast comic book superhero canvas. As a producer, Raimi was responsible for cementing J-horror’s fandom West with his Grudge remake. He also used his Ghost House production and distribution label to bring more independent and b-movie style fear to the big screen. But with Spider-man taking up most of his time, it looked like Raimi would never return to the balls-out in your face freak show repulsion of his earlier, scarier films. Now he’s back - at least temporarily - to the artform that made his legend, and all indications are that his May release - Drag Me to Hell - is a rock ‘em, sock ‘em return to form.
The recently released trailer couldn’t be more timely. Alison Lohman plays an account executive at a small bank, making loans and other money oriented decisions. When a lack of cut throat careering threatens her chances at a key promotion, she doubles up and denies an extension on an old gypsy’s refinanced mortgage. As they say in the action ads, B…I…G…M…I…S…T…A…K…E. Lohman is cursed by the crazy old coot, forever to be haunted by a Terminator-like demon with only one goal - to drag the young woman right down to the very bowels of Satan himself. With bubbly boyfriend Justin Long providing the necessary skeptics perspective, and a whole lot of creepy, atmospheric set-ups, this could be something really special. Early word from a recent Midnight screening at SXSW seems to indicate as much.
And that’s great news for us certified Raimaniacs. Ever since Bruce Campbell woke up in the post-apocalyptic future, the victim of his own inability to remember the Necronomicon‘s vital magic words (AoD fans know what I’m talking about, right?), we’ve been praying for something, anything that would remind us of the visceral thrill and sidewinder chill of the original Evil Dead. We’d even accept some of the masterful, shivers meets slapstick lunacy of the re-sequel-boot Evil Dead 2. But with Plan and Gift offering little in the way of true terror, it seemed like the fright facet of the Raimi career arc was dead and buried. Even the man himself poo-poo’ed the notion of returning to the genre, consistently arguing against ideas like Evil Dead 4 (though he’s apparently producing a remake).
Still, this begs the question about expectations and box office returns. As with any niche audience, Raimaniacs can only bring so much dosh to the cinematic coffers, and when you look at the director’s career in totality, more fans probably know him from his work on Spidey than anything else. Remember, he’s been out of traditional horror since 1992. That means, a 17 year old lover of all things Marvel might not know that Raimi even made fright flicks. Even worse, the true demo for something like Drag Me to Hell - 15 to 25, weren’t even BORN when Evil Dead (1981) came out. On the plus side, cable channels like Sci-Fi and AMC have made a mint off of endless repeats of the Dead‘s third Medieval monster mash-up. Additionally, Anchor Bay has revamped and re-released the first two films so many times on DVD that most admirers have had a chance to catch up.
Yet it’s not clear whether any or all of this will lead to twisting turnstiles and butts in seats. It’s one thing to proclaim your love of all things Raimi on a messageboard (or film blog). It’s another to have that affection translate into a more mainstream acceptance. And considering that horror is consistently described as the bastard stepchild of celluloid circles, the critical community won’t be helping much. Even those of us who appreciate a well-made experiment in terror can’t compete against a biased backlash that never gives macabre a decent break. One assumes there will be the typical geek love letters to Raimi and Drag Me to Hell‘s hyper-happenings. But even with universal praise, a Summer season scary movie is still a tough sell.
Of course, the perfect postscript for all this celebrating is Raimi’s recent announcement that Spider-man 4 is indeed a go. Just when you thought all big budget blockbuster aspirations had been cast aside, just when you thought that The Dark Knight and Watchmen redefined the superhero spectacle forever, just when you thought the wonky third installment in the series had circumvented the franchise, it’s time for more radioactive bug to boy goodness. It’s kind of a shame that Raimi is reverting back to the comic book movie form. True, he helped generate the massive interest in the genre. It would be nice if he could go off and be a true maverick again. After all, this is the man who made Crimewave, co-wrote The Hudsucker Proxy, and acted as mastermind for the TV titans Hercules and Xena, Warrior Princess. There is much more to him than Peter Parker.
The same could be said for horror. Indeed, there are probably some in the readership wondering why Raimi would go back to his roots after being away from the fear fray for so long (and being hugely successful in the process). In fact, one could argue that it indicates a real limitation on the man’s part that, instead of going off on another cinematic tangent, he’s back doing the gory grindhouse stuff. Naturally, Raimi himself would argue that you should stick with what you love, and with Drag Me to Hell, he’s doing just that. Perhaps one day he’ll drop the pretense and do nothing but nasty, dark things. Maybe he’ll make a musical. No matter what, Raimaniacs will be there in full force. Let’s hope the rest of the moviegoing masses can find it in their frame of reference to agree.