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Sunday, Oct 8, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, George A. Romero’s redefinition of the zombie movie.


He didn’t invent the zombie movie, but his entries in the genre have clearly defined and mythologized it. Some would even say that he is the only undead auteur that understands the cinematic category. As important to horror as any filmmaker before or since, advertising executive turned director George Romero single-handled lifted the living dead film from its voodoo roots and reconfigured it as a stunning social comment on the shifting state of America. From 1968 until now, the Pittsburgh icon has forged a unique career, mixing styles and subject matter to touch on almost every aspect of the macabre. He’s taken on vampirism (Martin), madness (The Crazies)  - even a tribute to one of the founding facets of post-modern horror, EC Comics (Creepshow).


Yet it’s his regular return to the flesh eater film that remains a constant in the mind of his followers. Such substantive acclaim – all four Dead films have met with varying degrees of adoration – makes Romero that rarity in the realm of the reanimated human. Naturally, this begs the question, what is it about his approach to the cannibal corpse that makes it so powerful, and why can’t others match his legitimate legacy as a formidable fright filmmaker? It’s a quandary that has sparked hundreds of overheated debates.


It was clear from his first installment of what is now a quartet of quintessential efforts that Romero wasn’t using the classic concept of horror to formulate the fear in Night of the Living Dead. Classic terror, usually defined around the Universal ideal of Gothic monster movies made during the ‘30s and ‘40s, argued against a clear reality as the backdrop to fear. Instead, everything was hyperstylized, from the setting and situations to the players taking part in the terror. From Romero’s point of view, the growing aesthetic advances made during the ‘50s and ‘60s, from the medium mutating French New Wave to the cinema vérité documentaries sweeping the circuit, allowed the introduction of truth and authenticity into motion picture macabre.


Night‘s story was deceptively simple. A brother and sister, visiting a relatives grave, are attacked by what appears to be a madman. It soon turns out that the dead have come back to life, and are killing and consuming the living. Finding a seemingly abandoned farmhouse to hide in, Barbara soon meets up with Ben, a fellow refugee that just so happens to be black. As they try to secure their position, they discover a family in the basement, along with a teenage couple. All are hiding and less than excited about helping. Soon, everyone is working together to battle the growing menace outside. News reports witnessed over the television indicate a situation slowly winding out of control. Even though the reports seem positive, there’s a growing sense that all is lost. All these people can do is hope for the best, and fight to survive.


With this one monochrome masterwork, Romero reconfigured the elements of fright, using recognizable individual types and understandable circumstances to elevate his shocking supernatural splatter. Night invested the scary movie with a new sense of immediacy, its narrative almost unrelenting in the way it paces its zombie attacks. Just enough time passes for the television to deliver another set of sinister warnings before the next deluge of the dead occurs. This then gave the terror that much more relevancy to an audience used to the hustle and bustle of life. The situation therefore didn’t require such a massive suspension of disbelief.


All pointed political grousing aside (each one of his films have a sound social stance at their center), the real advance Romero championed was indeed to connect horror to the everyday life of the audience. Few were familiar with haunted castles, grave robbing, and blood drinking Counts. But show them a mob of viscous, mindless killers pounding at the door, looking for flesh to consume, and suddenly the security of existence seems a little shaky. Toss in a touch of racism, matricide, and a lot of unanswered questions about human foibles and frailties, and you have a major shift in the fright film language.


It continued on a decade later with Romero’s return to the series, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Now capable of tapping into elements unavailable to him at the time of Night‘s creation (color film, advanced F/X and make-up work) and using a far more recognizable space as his frame of everyday reference – the shopping mall – this filmmaker fashioned his new slaughter spectacle as an apocalyptic look at the disintegration of infrastructure and the completely plausible ‘us vs. them’ mentality that arrives whenever an unfathomable act of evil confronts our sensibilities. In this case, a group of professionals (two TV reporters, two government soldiers) hole up in a local shopping center, clearing out the zombies and protecting themselves from the monstrous mob outside to try and recreate their once semi-privileged lives.


All throughout the course of the film’s opening act, we see the foursome battle to reach their consumer sanctuary, fending off all manner of undead obstacles. Once safely inside, they begin to plot. Zombies are destroyed, doors blocked off. A perfect asylum from the atrocities around them allows the group to gorge on the many materialistic pleasures available. We see our heroes hording food, glutting themselves on fancy meals and overindulging in items of extravagance. By the time some like-minded outsiders arrive – in the guise of marauding bikers – our clique has become covetous of their self-made retreat. By contrasting the death of one social structure with the attempted birth of another, Romero made all his points about class and equality. But buried in the heart of the political science was really just an examination of the human desire for comfort and security.


In many ways, Dawn represented the end of the reality-based Romero horror film. His next two efforts in the Dead series would remove most of the recognizable pragmatic aspects of the situation (real world places, interpersonal human interaction) with outrageous scenarios and even odder zombie circumstances. As a result, the director continued to polish his approach, picking and choosing the aspects he really wanted to explore. His follow up, 1986’s Day of the Dead - considered by many to be the lesser of all four films (it’s a highly debatable delineation) - argues from the beginning that the real world is long dead. In a stellar opening setpiece, a lone band of governmental scientists and soldiers try to drum up anything “living” in what appears to be an abandoned town. The minute their presence is known, however, hordes of ravenous zombies begin literally crawling out of the woodwork. As the streets fill with thousands of flesh craving fiends, we see the end of human civilization, reconfigured in the stammering, shuffling walk of a reanimated corpse.


This doesn’t mean that Romero totally avoids reality in this glorious cinematic gross out. Instead of focusing on the social, or the political, the director focuses his attention on personality. We see the simmering divides between people, the hatred the military has for the scientists and visa versa. Both are forced to live and interact with each other, but with their individual purposes being crossed and contradictory, they can literally never see eye to eye on anything. This means the real horror is personal, not apocalyptic. As the world decays outside, humanity’s lost hope are arguing in a bunker over sexual favors, the rounding up of additional zombies for experimentation, and what they will do should the need arise to escape from their underground bunker.


This makes Day a very dark film indeed, the kind of exploration of the fragile human soul that many don’t imagine they’ll ever want to witness. Unrelenting in its horror, featuring the perfect contextual juxtaposition of Tom Savini’s ultra realistic autopsy like effects, it remains a movie arguing that the only way to recapture the purity of existence is a kind of total rejection of the past. Toward the end, when things are going decidedly deranged, the Jamaican helicopter pilot argues for everyone to simply drop their duty and fly off to a deserted island somewhere. There, some manner of life can be restarted, one without the constant threat of the living dead causing chaos and the amplification of human faults. The idea is not so much rejected as reconfigured by many of the things we see later. When a “trained” zombie named Bub proves that he can respond with thought, no matter how simplistic, ‘it’ dooms everything around it. The notion that these “things” can actually reason refutes the feeling that they’re just obstacles to overcome. Instead, they become opponents in a battle for the rest of the planet. 


With such a solid third installment, it’s odd then that it took 20 years for Romero to revisit his zombie mythos. He has been quoted as saying that the failure to fully realize his ideas for Day of the Dead (his original script featured zombie armies, trained by the government, waging all out war against their fellow flesheaters in massive battle scenes) plus the rather uninteresting political landscape left him lost for a way back into his series. Oddly enough, when Land of the Dead finally arrived, it was amazingly well received. Considered a return to form and a furthering of his agenda-based fright facets, the truth is far more complex. In essence, Land is a distillation of all three previous Dead films. It offers Night‘s home as hospice, Dawn‘s man-made oasis, and Day‘s military inspired sense of security. It also illustrates the corruptibility of all three, how each one is a fool’s paradise built on bricks and the backs of those dumb enough to try and fend for themselves.


In Land, years have passed, and zombies now live in quasi-communal packs, easily preyed upon by scavengers looking for goods to barter with in the new quarantined city of Fiddler’s Green. This sectioned off society has a typical structure – fat cats at the top, middle class barely making ends meet, underclass doing all the grunt work – and it reflects the way in which the living dead also organize themselves. When they finally decide to attack the humans, they place the lesser corpses up front, fodder for protecting the so-called “smarter” ones following up behind. The purpose is simple – confront the living on their own terms. The concept is clear – as a repressed majority, they will no longer sit by and let the Establishment minority ignore their existence.


Again, the political ramifications are intense. The zombie leader is a big, beefy black man who was obviously once a gas station attendant. Similarly, the humans capable of defending the Green are all members of the mitigated lower class. Together, they form a conspiratorial element that is destined to topple any arrogant hierarchy. But the main theme of Land of the Dead is the shredding and selling of hope. In a world which seems sorely lacking in any kind of recognizable trust, Romero reiterates that belief in something beyond oneself is only fated to fail. By using the individual instinct to survive, and marrying that with the intelligence to find an escape, the results are either prophetic or predetermined. Land ends on a note of vigilante vindication as well as a possibility of survival. It has de-evolved the genre into a simple screed on Darwin’s ‘only the completely capable endure’ ideal.


Romero will always be remembered for reinstating terror back into the horror movie mix. Where once outrageousness and the fear of the unknown seemed like reason enough to keep the macabre minions at bay, he amplified the angst by directly linking his dread to the things in life that people can instantly identify with. They say that the number one and two fears that most individuals have are their own death, and the death of a loved one. Romero rewired this trepidation into a meditation on mortality, an argument against an afterlife and an easily recognizable relationship between living humans and undead corpses. Keeping the connection physical – via eating – was the final major masterstroke. It gave his Dead films a visceral edge that most fright films just couldn’t compete with. It’s why these four films remain classics of the creature feature genre. It’s why George Romero’s legacy as a fright icon is already secured.


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Saturday, Oct 7, 2006


As the video revolution of the ‘80s proved more profitable than any other facet of the fledging multimedia, distributors were desperate for anything that would make for a viable VHS presentation. Naturally, the simplest genre to jump on was horror. For as long as there was an outlet for motion pictures, macabre has been seen as the easiest way to make a mega-fast buck in the business. Since most home video fans were adolescents, unable to access these slice and dice spectacles theatrically because of the everpresent “R” rating, dumping as many onto the easily rentable VCR arena seemed like a solid idea. As part of Empire Pictures exploitation-oriented production ideals, which included such schlock classics as Ghoulies, Zone Troopers, From Beyond, Creepazoids and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama, a take on what is perhaps the most terrifying place for most people – prison – was commissioned. Written by company scribe C. Courtney Joyner, who himself would give birth to such future cinematic cheese as Puppet Master III, The Class of 1999 and Dr. Mordrid, this latest effort would be another in a long line of potentially profitable titles for the inventive entertainment entity.


Somehow, the filmic fates smiled on the simply named Prison, providing it with a stellar cast that included future stars Viggo Mortensen and Lane Smith, and an inventive novice Finnish director named Renny Harlin. Making his American moviemaking debut, Harlan wanted to impress Western audience with his style and cinematic sparkle. Taking the standard storyline, he added substantial visual panache to a film’s basic vengeful spirit plot. When an old abandoned prison is reopened to accommodate that bureaucratic certainty known as overcrowding, an ancient evil is reawakened. Becoming part of the structure itself, the malevolent force (the remnants of an inmate wrongfully executed years before) manipulates wires, walls and other intimate elements to wield its wicked payback. In the process, guards are garroted, inmates are maimed, and secrets long buried in the prison grounds return from the grave to kick ass and take names. While much of the movie seemed silly, and overloaded with jailhouse jocularity, Harlin hemmed in the more ridiculous aspects to deliver a fascinating piece of horror pop art.


By utilizing a real rundown penitentiary (the brooding Wyoming State Prison) and accenting the acting and effects, Harlin avoided many of the frustrating formulas that fluster your basic scary movie. Thanks to the atmosphere of dread inherent in the backdrop and the gory greatness of various set piece deaths, instead of a typical trip into direct to video drek, Empire ended up with a wonderfully effective fright film. Harlin’s handling of the project was so well-received that he was immediately hired to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Child, which in turn lead to his leap into the big time – helming the Die Hard sequel Die Harder. Sadly, most fright fans have forgotten, or even worse, have yet to see this excellent exercise in terror. Long unavailable in any format – and YET to be released on DVD – this is one lost fright flick that could really benefit from a digital resurrection. Prison may not be the best convict-based creature feature ever made, but it’s certainly worth an aluminum disc revisit. It stands decapitated head and shoulders about its ‘80s overkill brethren.


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Friday, Oct 6, 2006


After spending the better part of the ‘60s on The Andy Griffith Show – and winning five Emmys for his sensational supporting work as the bumbling deputy Barney Fife, Don Knotts was lured by Universal into an exclusive feature film contract. His first effort for the studio was this lightweight horror comedy centering on nervous typesetter named Luther Heggs and a local legend about the ghosts that haunt the sinister Simmon’s house. Tailored to his specific talents, it was a project perfectly suited for Knotts. After all, no one at the time did physical anxiety the way this mannerism master did. He could make an audience antsy just by saying ‘Hello’. Here, Heggs was even jumpier than Mayberry’s less than finest. With a script created specifically by Griffith scribes James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, and solid direction from small screen journeyman Alan Rafkin (responsible for episodes of everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Bewitched) what started out as a standard star vehicle quickly became a family film classic.


At first glance, this all does look like your typical Knotts material – fidgety town joke with a vivid imagination and a reputation for abusing same, gorgeous gal who won’t give our hero the time of day, overbearing bully who finds Luther offensive as a co-worker and a human being, and an ordinary cinematic mystery involving a haunting, an unsolved crime from the past, and the requisite red herrings strewn throughout the sensational supporting cast. While most fans focus on the sensational – and somewhat scary – haunted house set pieces (the blood-riddled pipe organ, the secret stairwell, the portrait with a pair of gardening sheers jammed in its throat) it’s actually the heart that confirms The Ghost and Mr. Chicken‘s consideration as a masterwork. Knotts is such a well meaning mensch, the kind of instantly likeable sad sack that we hope will eventually succeed, that we can’t help but empathize with his plight. The fetching Alma seems to care for our coward, but with the dishonorable Ollie around to interfere with their budding attraction, we wind up with a sensational subplot of love unrequited to go along with all the macabre-based merriment.


As witty as it is wise, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken boasts another element that many post-modern movies can’t even begin to find, and that’s a combination of slapstick and character-based comedy. Most current films try to milk laughs out of ludicrous situations, standard gross out gags and superficial sexual innuendo. But every member of the town is terrifically realized, from the spooky Mr. Kelsey to the Mayor’s paranormally obsessed wife Halcyon. With dialogue strewn with wonderfully memorable lines (“And they used Bon Ami”…“Let me clarify this”…“Attaboy Luther!”) and a wrap up that makes us appreciate just how much we care for these characters, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a landmark of lovingly crafted cleverness. One should ignore the dismissive tone of the ‘too cool for school’ generation and embrace this movie for the gentle gem it is. Luther may be a variation on the village idiot, but in the end, it’s his courage and conviction that matter. It’s an important message that bolsters what is a mini-masterpiece of a movie.


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Thursday, Oct 5, 2006

Call it an ‘Awards Wannabe’ weekend on the premium movie channels. Mixed in among all the mindless comedies, baffling ‘b’ genre efforts, uninspired action films and draggy dramas, three of the big four film networks are breaking open the Oscar addled entries from last year’s frustrating Fall season to hopefully provide some glamour to their otherwise gratuitous offerings. Frankly, such a switch up is more than welcome, especially when you consider the completely brainless crud that could be currently available - or sadly, is destined to be part of the future programming schedule for this frustrating quartet. At least three of the offerings are well worth a Saturday night sitting in front of the TV (or an attempted TiVo recording, depending on your social plans) and individually, all argue for a sense of artistry comparatively absent within your typical Tinsel Town fare. Even without a statuette in hand, all four of these films are worth your consideration. Available for sampling the weekend of 7 October are:


HBOWalk the Line

*
Boy oh boy does Tinsel Town love actors who can sing and dance. Granted, it’s part of the medium’s luminous past, and argues for a talent far beyond the standard Method acting elements of modern moviemaking. Still, critics went crazy for this Johnny Cash biopic, with most noting how honorable it was to see leads Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon singing the songs in their own voices. Similar to Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (but unlike Jessica Lange in the Patsy Cline drama Sweet Dreams) the result was an Oscar for Witherspoon, serious consideration for Phoenix, and a decent box office run. Frankly, there is much more to this movie than a couple of younger generation Hollywood superstars warbling a collection of country and rockabilly classics. Both leads do something that’s rare in a cinematic biography – they get to the true heart of their celebrated counterparts. (Premieres Saturday 7 October, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxJarhead

*
Sam Mendes must have done something in his past to deserve such a rollercoaster ride. When American Beauty hit theaters in 1999, it was immediately embraced as a sensational, satiric skewering of strangled suburban sexual politics. What a difference a few years, and dozens of messageboard debates, makes. Mendes is now condemned for helming one of the worst Best Picture winners in the history of the Academy and his own award is dismissed as a the result of standard Oscar overkill. All of this applies to his fine follow-up, the Gulf War epic Jarhead in the following, unfortunate manner. Instead of embracing this latest effort as its own visually stunning experiment in storytelling, it was cast aside as another example of Mendes meaninglessness as a cinematic entity. As a result, what should have been an acknowledged minor masterwork was poisoned by the Internet’s inane ability to turn everyone into a critic. How horribly unfair. (Premieres Saturday 7 October, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzMemoirs of a Geisha

Ever since the book became a bestseller, rumors were flying about the eventual big screen adaptation of this project. For the longest time, Stephen Spielberg was positioned as a possible director, and right up to the moment he pulled out, his imprint was all over the approach. With his leaving came a creative void that needed desperately to be filled. With his Best Director nomination in hand for helming Chicago, Rob Marshall was put in charge of the production, and the rest is mediocre moviemaking history. All arguments about the ethnicity of the cast aside (Chinese playing Japanese, for starters) and the misguided decision to make non-English speaking performers phonetically fudge their Western dialogue, Memoirs is still a visually sumptuous effort. Yet many feel this film is all style and absolutely no substance – at least none that was included as part of Arthur Golden’s book. Whether or not they’re right is up for argument, and thanks to Starz and its various premium channel showcases, they’ll be plenty of chances for viewers to decide for themselves. (Premieres Saturday 7 October, 9:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeDave Chappelle’s Block Party

*
While he was apparently too whacked out on sudden fame to continue his Comedy Central series, the brilliant, if baffling comedian Dave Chappelle was well enough to collaborate with French auteur Michel Gondry for this Wattstax-inspired concert film. With such a substantive cinematic heritage to contend with (the 1973 effort is one of live music’s forgotten masterpieces) and the baggage the star brought along, success seemed slight – or at the very least, destined to be determined demographically. Unbelievably, the movie was incredibly well received, with appeal that crossed over generations, races and other social classes. Thanks to Gondry’s inherent ability behind the lens, and Chappelle’s unbridled braveness in front of it, what could have been a standard concert experience becomes a celebration of humor and humanity that’s infectious in its effectiveness. While the small screen may diminish some of its impact, this is still an experience to seek out and enjoy. (Saturday 7 October, 7:05pm EST)


PopMatters Review


Seven Films, Seven Days

For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the second seven selections unearthed this week include:



7 October - Jay-Z: Fade to Black
The rap impresario used his “retirement” from performing to put on this star studded live concert. One of the best hip hop happenings every captured on film.
(The Movie Channel – 11:20PM EST)


8 October - In Cold Blood
With Infamous hitting theaters and Capote fresh in everyone’s mind, here’s a chance to see Richard Brooks’ masterful 1967 take on the celebrated “nonfiction novel”.
(Flix – 10:15PM EST)


9 October - Dances with Wolves
Some argue that Kevin Costner was unduly rewarded for this overlong horse opera. Presented in its almost four hour splendor, such sentiments may now be prescient. 
(Encore Western – 8PM EST)


10 October -Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
With the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Bette Davis was looking for another horror film to sustain her career. She got this camp classic instead.
(Turner Classic Movies – 8PM EST)


11 October - The Waterboy
Believe it or not, Sandler plays a real character here, a hopelessly hindered mama’s boy who discovers the joy of team sports – and the local Cajun gal who loves him.
(Encore – 8PM EST)


12 October - Deliverance
While it’s hard to imagine how the censorship-happy channel will handle the infamous “squeal like a pig” sequence, it should be fun finding out.
(American Movie Classics – 8PM EST)


13 October -Wild Wild West
Okay, it’s awful, but it’s filled with inventive visuals to go along with its incredibly lame logistics. Beside’s it’s the perfect bad movie for a day overloaded with silly superstitions.
(TNT – 11PM EST)


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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the genre-saving stylizing of Sam Raimi


Though he’s mostly known as a genre icon, his creative canon is limited to only four true examples of motion picture macabre. As a matter of fact, many may now consider him the founding father of the truly great comic book hero adaptation rather than the man who first introduced pizzazz to the previously static scary movie. But from the very first frames of his very first film, Sam Raimi brought horror up to date, signaling a stylistic renaissance that continues today. His impact was so immediate, and his influence so important that it’s no wonder he’s become the benchmark for postmodern horror.


Like Quentin Tarantino in the ‘90s, Raimi reinvented the fright film in the ‘80s, adding elements both esoteric and experimental to the tried and true facets of fear. Without his Evil Dead trilogy, or his first attempted epic Darkman, we wouldn’t have the current creative concept of mixing genres and substance shuffling that helped make dread a full fledged fan obsession. By utilizing approaches both serious and slapstick, satiric and spectacular, Raimi proved that a fright flick could be anything it wanted to be, as long as the director stayed true to his vision, and understood the ramifications of messing with the genre.


Like most influential filmmakers, Raimi was practically born making movies. Along with friend Bruce Campbell (who would later star as Ash in the Dead trilogy), he would create Super-8 ‘experiments’, usually centering around his two favorite cinematic categories – horror and slapstick comedy. Raimi and his friends were particularly taken with The Three Stooges, and modeled a great deal of their amateur actions on the trio’s well choreographed and over the top physical humor. Once bitten by the celluloid bug, Raimi was determined to have a career as a filmmaker. By 1978 he cobbled together a 32 minute short/resume reel entitled Within the Woods and shopped it around to various businesses and merchants. Raimi was hoping to finance a full blown version of this seemingly straightforward story. Sure enough, he and his partners raised just enough cash to start his first feature film - the soon to be classic The Evil Dead.


For many, this single setting exploration of demonic possession and human bloodletting was the most vicious, violent and unrelenting work of shock cinema created to date. Raimi, realizing that he probably only had one shot at sustaining a career from this initial foray into film, pulled out all the stops to deliver what is still considered to be the first really great post-modern macabre classic. The narrative is deceptively simple – a group of friends venture to a cabin in the woods. There, they unwittingly unleash some dark demonic forces, determined to possess their bodies and swallow their souls. As a premise, there was nothing really new or novel. But once Raimi got beyond the basics of his platform plot, his visual acumen argued for a new, novel sense of filmic style.


The key to any Raimi film is the view from the lens. As a filmmaker, he is very aware, almost compulsively focused on what the camera ‘sees’. Unlike other directors who determine the action, and then place their frame in the best position to capture it, Raimi makes the compositions a part of the process. Take the opening shot of Evil Dead. As the friends drive up to the cabin, something slowly moves across the forest floor. As we cut between the car and the “creature”, Raimi keeps the movement fluid (or as fluid as possible with his camera rigged to a 2x4) and hints at some eventual collision between the two. As the discussion in the car heats up, the movements in the woods become more swift and definitive. We just know something bad is about to happen. As the images hurtle forward, preparing us for something shocking, we are totally locked into Raimi’s reality. Thanks to how he uses his lens, we are lost within his own personal paradigm of horror.


But there was more to his genre-shattering style than just a collection of camera angles. Raimi realized that, like an artist, all artforms are made up of potential possibilities as well as tried and true technical procedures. By embracing them all, and juxtaposing or jerryrigging as many as he would or could, he’d create something unusual and unique. When the demons first possess Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), her eerie overdubbed dialogue and strange body movements are the result of age old optical and aural tricks. To achieve the jagged motion, footage of Sandweiss’ “backwards acting” was shot, then reversed. Similarly, vocal effects were used to tweak her voice into something truly terrifying.


This kitchen sink approach would become his trademark – and the initial criticism of Raimi’s cinematic style. Many wondered why he would employ so many visual cues (animation, rear projection, homemade steadicam) when most horror hacks could barely settle on one. The answer of course lies in what exactly a movie macabre is supposed to be. Fear is an emotion, just like happiness or sadness. It is easy for ‘straight’ films to achieve those said sentiments since words can be just as powerful as images, perhaps even more so. Unfortunately, unless you’re filming a series of campfire tales with expert spinners of ghost stories in the bunch, you can’t really achieve terror with talking. No, true fright is an involuntary response, a real time reaction to what you perceive as a threat, or can’t quite understand. Yes, the unknown is probably the biggest fright factor in the whole horror catalog. To achieve that on film requires skill, and more importantly, style.


Raimi proved this when he went back and revisited The Evil Dead for its sequel – Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. In truth, it was more of a remake than an actual follow-up, with the events of the first film playing out in a prologue before the new material kicked in. In addition, Raimi was also ready to include more of his own idiosyncratic ideas into the story this time around. After all, he had already established his creepy credentials. With Evil Dead 2, he was prepared to push the limits of the genre as far as they would go. For many, this distinction between pure terror and the kind of monster mash-up that he was after was not unlike the difference between original Hitchcock and John Carpenter’s Halloween. Many people couldn’t fathom the use of humor or homage in horror. Both concepts seem antithetical to the concept of “the unknown”.


The proof was in the popularity, however. Even critics who typically dismissed Raimi came out to praise Evil Dead 2. Some cited the obvious references to those beloved Stooges, the Grand Guignol level of gore, and the terrifically trippy camerawork. But what Evil Dead 2 was most responsible for was barely even mentioned. Like the fright films of the ‘50s that relied on tacky monsters and bad filmmaking as a means to achieve their drive-in movie end, Raimi reintroduced pure fun back into the genre. Instead of the super serious efforts of the ‘70s, or the toneless slasher films that started the decade, this director determined that anything could be clever. A detached hand would become a brilliant comic foil, a room full of furnishing could magically come to life. Heck, even an eyeball got its own action sequence. Between the slicing and dicing, demonic dancing, chainsaw fu and rampant visual invention, Evil Dead 2 became a total tour de force. Had he done nothing else ever in his entire creative career, this sensational sequel would stand as one of horror’s shiniest, silliest moments.


Unfortunately, such a standard would be hard to beat, and try as he might, Raimi just couldn’t recapture the freaked-out fun of Evil Dead 2 in its inevitable follow-up, Army of Darkness. Financed by the notoriously intrusive Dino De Laurentis, and formulated around another favored film type – the stop motion animation adventures of Ray Harryhausen – Army added its own special spice to the series, but by the time of its release (1992) funny and frightening had been long established motion picture playmates. What once seemed cutting edge was now commonplace, and many of the movie’s more amazing sequences (the windmill attack, the final battle) drew more heavily on other genres – sword and sorcery, full blown fantasy – than actual horror. Still, the industry praised Raimi for consistently elevating his level of originality and daring. Along with the underrated comic creation Darkman, Raimi was ready for the non-genre big time.


And he’s been there ever since. From smart, solid thrillers (The Gift, A Simple Plan) to a hyperstylized Western (The Quick and the Dead) and a straightforward sports drama (For the Love of the Game) Raimi wandered the filmic landscape, looking for a place to reestablish his personal creative acumen. While he continued to influence horror through his numerous production credits (including adapting the J-Horror classic Ju-On for the big screen), what Raimi really wanted was a broad creative canvas upon which to unleash his own insane cinematic Id. The opportunity came when he was handed Spider-Man. A longtime dream for this funny book fan, Raimi realized that, finally, here was a chance to truly reinvent the genre. With all the money he needed to back up his aesthetically overreaching ideas, there was no way he could fail.


He was right. Spider-Man and its even better sequel, Spider-Man 2 totally changed the look and feel of the barely breathing comic book movie. Everything he did three decades before, all the invention and innovation he brought to horror easily transferred over to the big budget action blockbuster. Suddenly, what once seemed like a last ditch effort by studios to shore up some easily available material became one of the most successful motion pictures of all time. Raimi’s talented twist was all about style with substance, the mixing and matching of cinematic categories to achieve the perfect combination of craftsmanship and chutzpah. Without his efforts, terror would still be a great big Gothic goof. Raimi realized its potential, and with it came the true birth of postmodern dread.


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