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Depth of Field: Sam Raimi - Horror's Stylistic Savior

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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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