Thursday April 11, 2013

HARRISVILLE, N.H.

Sam Raimi’s Empire -- Director Sam Raimi’s influence in Hollywood has certainly become indisputable. When you have the choice of going to see not one, but two different Sam Raimi movies at the cinema at the same time, it must mean he’s certainly arrived in Hollywood as a filmmaker.

Raimi’s most recent film, "Oz: The Great and Powerful," is currently playing in theaters and has succeeded in becoming the highest grossing film of 2013 so far. At the same time, a remake of his 1981 movie "The Evil Dead,", on which Raimi serves as producer, just recently opened in theaters as well. It’s as if the local movie house has been temporarily transformed into a Sam Raimi retrospective.

Not that he hasn’t earned it. After all, his "Spider-Man" trilogy of films stands as one of the highest-grossing movie franchises in film history. With Raimi at the helm, the filmmaker succeeded in creating movies that were as impressive as they were popular, with the trilogy setting the standard for all future superhero movies.

Of course, every director, no matter how enormous his production budgets get, has to start somewhere. "The Evil Dead" from 1981, on which the current "Evil Dead" remake is based, was in fact Raimi’s very first feature film as a director. While this current "Evil Dead" movie boasts a budget of $17 million, Raimi’s original film was made for less than half a million. In fact, the director was only able to secure the funding for that movie after he had produced a short film in 1978 called "Within the Woods" in order to entice investors. The budget for that film? $1,600. Oh how times change.

What propelled Raimi to that level of success was certainly his immense talent as a filmmaker, and it was apparent from the very beginning. The original "The Evil Dead" from 1981 is a perfect example of imagination triumphing over budget limitations, as Raimi managed to pack enough inventiveness into that first feature to fill three movies. (Which, in fact, he later made.)

The filmmaker combined a whiplash narrative pacing with gross-out violence and a dark sense of humor so that every frame of film was jam-packed with excitement and suspense. Raimi had clearly seized the opportunity for his boundless imagination to be unleashed onto the big screen for the first time, and he took advantage of the situation as if his life depended on it.

Now everyone knows that sequels are the perfect opportunity for an original movie’s appeal to be watered down with increasingly diminishing returns for maximum profit. However, in another Raimi coup, the filmmaker managed to not only improve upon "The Evil Dead" in his second film "Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn" (1987), but he did so while basically remaking the first movie with a much bigger budget.

Anyone familiar with the first "The Evil Dead" film has to be amused watching the beginning of "Evil Dead II" as Ash (Bruce Campbell) appears to arrive at the same desolate cabin in the woods completely ignorant to the evil lurking within that traumatized his character in the first movie. Although the beginning of this film turns out to be a recap of the previous one, Ash’s apparent obliviousness is still smirk-inducing, and probably perfectly matches the smirk Raimi wore when he filmed the movie, as he is obviously not taking any of this too seriously.

After all, while the first "The Evil Dead" movie worked as both a straightforward low budget horror film and an outright parody of one, "Evil Dead II" saw Raimi ratcheting up the black humor to outrageous levels. In fact, Raimi managed to increase the level of everything in the sequel -- the dark humor, the ridiculous levels of gore, the relentless pacing and the mind-blowing, pre-CGI special effects -- until the movie eventually pummels you into submission with uncontrollable laughter.

The only reason the first "The Evil Dead" film wouldn’t be considered the ultimate cult horror movie is because "Evil Dead II" manages to top it in every department. The film even initiated the term "splat-stick" to describe its unique combination of splatter films and slapstick comedy, elements that Raimi raised to cartoonish levels.

Which is exactly where Raimi took the third movie. Playing like a live-action animated movie, "Army of Darkness" (1992) -- essentially "Evil Dead III" -- picks up exactly where "Evil Dead II" left off, as Ash finds himself thrust into medieval times battling evil forces with his "boom stick." This time around, Raimi’s transition from horror to humor seems complete, as "Army of Darkness" plays more like a comic book in action movie form, which may explain why the "Evil Dead" tag was dropped from the title. With this new installment, it was clear Raimi was well on his way to moving beyond mere genre filmmaking towards becoming a unique genre all his own.

Today, with the series coming full circle with the current "Evil Dead" remake it appears Raimi’s influence in the film world has only increasing along with the sizes of his production budgets. After all, how many directors would be entrusted with the reins of a sequel to "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), one of Hollywood’s most cherished and revered objects of affection?

Fortunately, the director hasn’t let this success go to his head either. As anyone who saw "Drag Me To Hell," his excellent return to the horror genre in 2009 can attest, Raimi hasn’t lost sight of his humble beginnings for a moment, as his trademark combination of horror and humor forever refuses to die.

Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.