There are two ways of looking at the three-decade career of director Sam Raimi on the occasion of Oz the Great and Powerful, the $325 million movie about a horny carnival wizard played by James Franco and his talking monkey friend, voiced by Zach Braff, that Disney will release, with some apparent trepidation, into movie theaters on Friday.
The first is that Oz is in a way a powerfully autobiographical film from a guy who was himself once a horny carnival wizard1 and who has devoted his life to surprising and entertaining audiences using whatever tools happen to be at hand, even when said tools are a talking, flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff, or Sharon Stone in a cowboy hat.
The second is that Oz represents the sell-out pinnacle of a once-beloved B-movie director whose sell-out filmography already includes three Spider-Man movies, a parodically earnest sports movie in which an aging Kevin Costner whispers lovingly to each hitter in the Yankee lineup from the mound during the course of a will-he-or-won't-he perfect game, and The Quick and the Dead, featuring Sharon Stone in a cowboy hat.
I'm going to suggest, at the risk of frying whatever little narrative tension I've got going here, that both of the above paragraphs are true, and are in fact maybe just the same paragraph — that Raimi, ever since his Evil Dead days, has been pretty much defined by an almost pathological eagerness to please, an eagerness that early on skewed bloody and preposterous and these days tends to look like Oz the Great and Powerful, which is to say bright and expensive and really sincere.
Far From the Groves of Academe
Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell, in his autobiography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, says the first time he met Raimi he thought, The guy is one weird wolf. (It was a high school drama class in Beverly Hills, Michigan, and Raimi was pantomiming riding a unicycle.) There's that Lynchian thing to Raimi — that mix of wholesome Midwestern manners combined with a fascination with demonic possession and disembodied hands. His earliest films feature fetish-level amounts of bodily fluids. Everyone from Russell Crowe to the New York Times has compared him to one of the Three Stooges. When he was young he looked like one of the characters in his films — like a dopey college student about to get murdered in a cabin in the woods, or the porn star James Deen.
Raimi's debut, Evil Dead, which came out when he was just 22, is unsettling in part because you can't totally figure out what he was thinking when he made it. It's a movie in which a woman gets gang raped by trees and fountains of white pus pour out of zombie orifices, but it's also a comedy — think of Ellen Sandweiss transformed into a monster, yelling "IT'S YOUR SISTER, CHERYL" at Campbell's sorta-hero Ash Williams. (Sandweiss didn't make another movie for more than 20 years after Evil Dead, which is true of most of the cast; co-star Betsy Baker got into the motor home rental business, while Hal Delrich, according to Campbell, was last seen "driving a truck in rural Michigan." If someone were to report this out, what has since happened to these people, I would definitely read it.) In an early shot, you see a torn-up poster of The Hills Have Eyes in the basement of the cabin everyone gets murdered in, which is in turn a reference to a torn-up Jaws poster in The Hills Have Eyes — a Stooges-esque thumb in the eye to a genre of which he would soon become a patron saint, a new Roger Corman for a decade when the real, still very much alive Roger Corman was beginning to lose creative steam.
Reading this yesterday made me think that Evil Dead was sort of like Raimi's "Loser" — the arbitrary, career-defining thing that happens before you even know you're going to have a career. Though in Raimi's case the career-defining decision might actually have been to make two Evil Dead sequels, a decision that ensured he would be known as a B-movie director forever, even after three Spider-Mans and the accompanying billions of dollars at the box office.
You can tell that reputation is starting to chafe a bit. Here's him talking to Vulture this week about the coming Evil Dead remake he's producing.
Is it flattering to realize that this small film you made in 1981 still commands such a loyal following?
I don't look at it that way. Rather, I look at it as, "What a sorry state the world is in that it has come to this!" [Laughs.] The lowest-budget, B-movie, drive-in picture is elevated to this status?
Drive-in picture or not, one of the really fun things in the subsequent Evil Dead movies is watching the franchise become fully self-aware. After the first one, Campbell's Ash develops a catchphrase: "Groovy."
He says it in Evil Dead II — after he attaches a chainsaw to the bleeding stump where his severed right hand used to be, and then uses that chainsaw to saw off a shotgun — and then again in the third one, Army of Darkness, after he replaces the chainsaw with a mechanical hand and uses that mechanical hand to crush a medieval goblet.
The arc that Raimi's career describes at this point is of someone trying to get away with something preposterous — Campbell's Evil Dead character goes from beleaguered college student in the first one to catchphrase-spouting zombie hunter in the second to 14th-century knight battling an army of undead skeletons in the third — and, improbably, succeeding.
Did Somebody Bring a Chicken in Here?
This successful and increasingly ridiculous run would dead-end with Raimi's spaghetti Western The Quick and the Dead, which featured the director's first true Hollywood cast — Stone, Russell Crowe, Gene Hackman, and a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio — and which took all of Raimi's burgeoning auteurist tricks (the shot from the perspective of a flying zombie eyeball, in Evil Dead II, becomes in The Quick and the Dead a shot from the perspective of the back of Keith David's head, which opens up to frame Hackman, via a bullet) and watched them founder and die in the Arizona mud. The film bombed at the box office, and more to the point, Raimi knew it was his fault. "I was very confused after I made that movie," he'd later say, before limping off to spend a few quiet years producing episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess.
In between 1987's Evil Dead II and 1995's The Quick and the Dead, Raimi also made Darkman, which basically invented the modern stage of Liam Neeson's career, and which does the thing that is probably Raimi's enduring signature to this day: juxtaposing a cheesy and painstakingly earnest romance (in this case, between Neeson and a young Frances McDormand, which, wow) with guts and gore and implacable evil. That movie has hissing cats, freak shows, cigar cases full of severed fingers, and a one-legged gangster who walks with a machine gun in lieu of a prosthetic. (He hops up and down in place while using it.)
It's hard to put a finger on why Raimi's weirdo imagery and sicko invention from this era ages so much better than what a lot of his peers were doing at the time; I think it has to do with his utter lack of cynicism, his utter disbelieving glee in what he expected the viewer to take disbelieving glee in, too.
E.g., the most indelibly Sam Raimi scene in Darkman: when Neeson's mangled superhero, wearing a mask of his face over his own badly burned one, takes McDormand on a date to a fair, only to be denied his prize when a hostile booth carnie decides to disqualify his winning toss. "I WON A PINK ELEPHANT FOR MY GIRLFRIEND," Neeson howls, then runs off with his face melting, clutching a fuzzy pink carnival elephant.
But you get the sense that The Quick and the Dead was humiliating and maybe instructive, teaching Raimi that in Hollywood, there is no such thing as a three-quarter sellout — you gotta go whole hog.
What a Weird Job
In 1985, after Evil Dead, Raimi made a movie he wrote with the Coen Brothers, Crimewave, which is presently out of print (though it's being reissued soon) and thus largely unseen, including by me. It was a black comedy involving a burglary-alarm company and a couple of dim-witted hit men; producer interference and a coked-up lead actress — who allegedly insisted on "showing up on set with poorly applied 'clown make-up' and messed up hair, oblivious to how she appeared," according to this illuminating blog post from Ben McBride — apparently undid the film before it ever arrived in theaters.
"It's of principal interest as an example of the kind of film likely to be made by young people who, though they have talent and enthusiasm, haven't yet any distinctively personal point of view," Vincent Canby wrote when he reviewed it, so perhaps we have Vincent Canby to thank for the Coen Brothers becoming middle-aged people with one of the most distinctly personal points of view in all of cinema.
They had parallel careers for a while, Raimi and the Coen Brothers — they even lived together at one point, in a Los Angeles house they shared with McDormand and Holly Hunter. They worked together, too, made cameos in each other's films. Here's Raimi as a jazzy shadow in The Hudsucker Proxy, which he co-wrote:
Later Raimi would more or less make his own Coen Brothers movie, 1998's A Simple Plan, which works the same "Midwestern working folks" angle as 1996's Fargo, right down to the farcical, cascading killings and cursed pile of money. It's probably the most obviously accomplished of Raimi's films, and also nothing like anything he'd made before, which is another Raimi hallmark — few directors have committed themselves so fully to so many different kinds of movies.
A Simple Plan is uncharacteristically beautiful — all these tiny figures struggling across snow-covered rural Minnesota fields — and beautifully restrained; Raimi dials down the evil until it's human-scale, a fun house mirror reflection of the small-town sweetness embodied by Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, who play brothers undone when they discover a downed plane full of ransom money. Thornton was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the film; his character is maybe the purest distillation of Raimi's talent, to paraphrase David Foster Wallace on David Lynch, for combining the macabre and the mundane in such a way that they start to seem like the same thing.
The Coen Brothers followed up Fargo with The Big Lebowski; Raimi followed up A Simple Plan with For Love of the Game, which if memory serves was released directly onto cross-country airline flights in the fall of 1999, and The Gift, which came out a year later and features Cate Blanchett as a swamp psychic and Hilary Swank as a battered wife and Keanu Reeves as a legitimately terrifying redneck who rants about witches and Jews. Katie Holmes plays a Laura Palmer–esque town slut who is, improbably, engaged to Greg Kinnear; Giovanni Ribisi plays a mentally unstable car mechanic who is brought, via Blanchett's tarot cards, to the realization that his father molested him when he was a child. ("Your daddy … did he take something from you?") It's bad in a pretty unremarkable way, though GQ saw fit to memorialize it (NSFW) back in January as the one and only instance of Holmes appearing topless on film. Make of that what you will, though it's worth noting, given how gross and bodily Raimi's films have often gotten, how sexually innocent they tend to be — that Michigan decency that underpins everything he does, even the really out-there stuff.
Miss Brant: "Boss, your wife's on the line, she said she lost her checkbook."
J. Jonah Jameson: "Thanks for the good news!"
It's probably that lingering decency that got him the Spider-Man franchise, which he was entrusted with despite the commercial failure of both The Gift, which made a marginal amount of money, and For Love of the Game, which lost a ton of it. He walked into his meeting with Columbia TriStar armed with the fact that he'd loved Spider-Man so much as a kid he'd had his parents paint the character on his bedroom wall, plus he'd already made Darkman, which was basically a sweded version of Batman or The Shadow, and which was an improbable hit. Also, though it's extremely hard to remember at this point, superhero films were not then the commercial juggernaut they've become. For that, Hollywood can pretty much thank Raimi and Christopher Nolan — it's strange to realize that the guy who made Evil Dead would surface 20 years later as one of the most influential mainstream filmmakers of the 21st century.
Raimi's Spider-Man films were sunny and cheesy and incredibly heartfelt, the Beatles to Nolan's Rolling Stones, and you get the feeling we'll be living with that dichotomy for just as long. Oz the Great and Powerful certainly fits in the former camp, even if reports say Braff's talking monkey was expanded at the last minute to make Franco's stoned wizard more of a sympathetic character. He's a franchise man now, Raimi, his detour back into horror, 2009's Drag Me to Hell, notwithstanding. That movie had gypsy curses and a talking goat and women vomiting centipedes onto other women's faces; it's so eager to shock it's almost funny, which was the idea. That year, in a Vanity Fair interview, Raimi compared Drag Me to Hell to the cheap carnival rides and haunted houses he used to visit as a kid in Michigan:
I realize I'm describing a world of entertainment that doesn't have a whole lot of finesse, but that's what appealed to me. It didn't have any pretense about it. The spook houses were just determined to scare you and give you a good time. It didn't matter if the sound matched the visuals. It was packed with spooks and fears and fun, but they weren't at all concerned about the quality or creating effects with a big budget.
That could be Raimi's mission statement, minus the big-budget part. You can sort of see his non-judgmental love of cartoon schlock come full circle with Oz: There's a surreal creativity to it, with its hordes of flying baboons and river fairies, that makes you wonder what Evil Dead would've looked like if Raimi had had millions of dollars to spend instead of $350,000. I guess when they remake it with Shiloh Fernandez — and a Diablo Cody script polish! — we'll find out.