From the Evil Dead to the Emerald City

It’s a sad day for horror fans everywhere. Sam Raimi, the man who made Deadites, Ashley “Ash” Williams, and his take of the Necronomicon scary movie icons, seems to have finally switched over to the darkside of mainstream cinema forever. After coming back to the genre for the genuinely great PG-13 terror trip Drag Me to Hell, the 50 year old director has decided to helm Disney’s latest classic kid lit reboot – and this time around, Frank L. Baum gets the edgy reimagining. The House of Mouse, plump with the success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, believes that a “prequel” to The Wizard of Oz, centering on how the title character initially came to the famed far away land, will be another international hit, and they’ve tagged the man who combined gore with guffaws as their new visionary.

Now, Raimi is no stranger to such popcorn success. You do recall that he helmed all three Spider-man films, proving that the comic book genre could be more than just special effects and specious character motivation. There was also a time when the first-class fear filmmaker was mentioned as one of the possible director choices for the Peter Jackson produced Hobbit properties (sadly, his short stint on the aborted Spider-man 4 probably cost him that gig). Even though we lovers of all things macabre don’t like it, Raimi more or less graduated to the big leagues a decade ago, and with this decision, appears to be turning his back on his ample arterial spray roots once and for all. He can argue said fact all he wants, and point to his production label Ghost House as a way of staying close to the creepy, but we don’t want indirect Raimi. We want Sam the Man!

So Ramaniacs around the world do have a reason to be perturbed. The new Oz effort (one of four – that’s right, four – currently in development) offers the tale of one Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmanuel Ambrose Diggs, circus trainer and turn of the century vagabond. Naturally, a rural Kansas tornado spins the huckster to the land of cowardly lions, kind-hearted tin woodsmen, and head scratching scarecrows, where one assume more manipulated hi-jinx ensue. Supposedly, this new version will be a lot like the Alice redux – iconic characters retrofitted into a more post-modern plotline, complete with ample areas for the application of 3D (yep – the gimmick is still alive and well in Tinseltown). Rediscovered star of the moment, Robert Downey Jr. is said to be in talks to play the lead, hoping to give the update the same feel as the recent Sherlock Holmes reconfiguration (makes sense).

But there’s a problem here, and it stems back to why Burton’s Alice was so successful – the man behind the lens. For all intents and purposes, Raimi is an inventive, original filmmaker, but almost wholly on a technical level. From flying object POV shots to hoary old tricks like twisting the frame, he plays with the ways in which movies are made. Take a look at Drag Me to Hell, his most recent effort. Do you remember the set and character design, or the energetic editing style and creative composition? With Burton, the Edward Gorey gone gonzo Goth Victorianism of his typical style synced up perfectly with the Wonder/Underland being explored. While a relatively weak vehicle for the mind (do we really need another female empowerment narrative nowadays?), it was a true feast for the eyes.

So what, exactly, does Raimi bring to this kind of project? His only true attempt at otherworldly wonder – the third and so far final installment of the Evil Dead films, Army of Darkness – was such calculated kitsch, such a significant slam of the sword and sandal movies from his youth that it’s hard to see where the parody ends and the picturesque begins. Sure, the skeleton army was cool, and the Gulliver’s Travels meets Frankenstein freakishness of the windmill sequence stand out, but for the most part, Raimi was on a tight budget. As a result, the amount of eye candy on display was impressive, if less than impactful. The one thing that will make new millennium audiences line up for a return trip to Oz is some manner of new, improved outsized visual aesthetic. Does Raimi really bring that?

Do the Spider-man films work because of the brilliant visual interpretation Raimi brought to the material, or because of the reverence he had for the source? Weren’t the main selling points how successful the director was at balancing the needs of today vs. the grandiose dilemmas poised by any comic book superhero, or the “wow” factor? It’s like the difference between Burton’s ’80s take on Batman and the eventual remastering by Christopher Nolan, camp vs. a concrete attempt to keep things centered in the real world. Of course, the same questions could be poised had Raimi been handed the reins of Tolkien treasure. True, with Jackson and WETA behind the scenes, it was clearly going to be a spectacle, but there is a big difference between being handed a epic canvas to manage and making one up by yourself. So far, Raimi is the only artist name attached to this version of Oz. Maybe he will have someone as substantial as Jackson behind the curtain, pulling the signature strings.

What’s clear is that, at least from the standpoint of present day Hollywood, Raimi is one of the entertainment elites, a man who went from making homemade horror masterworks to orchestrating billion dollar franchises. In the mind of the suits doing the hiring, he’s about as close to a sure thing as any project can hope for – which makes the whole Spider-man 4 debacle seem all the more suspicious. That Fox has decided to go “younger, hipper”, and of course, 3D argues for a change of heart in the boardroom, not in the director’s chair. But again, is Sam Raimi really the right choice for something like Oz? Disney already had one “disastrous” return to the property three decades ago. Of course, that effort was helmed by editor turned first time filmmaker Walter Murch. In this case, Raimi is a marked improvement, but one can’t shake the feeling that this movie is being made for commercial, not creative, reasons.

All of which begs the question regarding Raimi’s apparent abandonment of the genre he helped redefine. Drag Me to Hell was not a huge financial hit, but it was touted by many in the critical community as one of his very best. Even better, the movie has found a second life on home video, proving that, sometimes, a property needs to play to the appropriate demographic in order to find its footing. Disney isn’t really risking much here. They have their script, their director, and their proposed star. They have leapt to the front of the line when it comes to getting their version of the Emerald City out before the movie-going public, and with the recent Alice experience behind them, they know how to market this material. Yet it remains to be seen if Raimi is up to the challenge. His hiring could be inspired. It could also be insipid.