Sam Raimi

For movie buffs, the month of October means one thing: 31 days of horror movies. With tons of horror flicks to choose from, The Daily Texan is going to be providing a daily horror recommendation. Whether you prefer ghosts, zombies or stark explorations of the human condition, we’ll be featuring horror films of all flavors. Check back every evening for the movie of the day. Today, we revisit Sam Raimi’s horror classic “The Evil Dead.” 

When I was 17, I accidentally watched “The Ring.” I was terrible with scary movies, and sure enough, I couldn’t sleep for weeks. I even moved the TV out of my room, and this was when a TV weighed approximately 5,000 pounds. Since then, I have watched exactly one horror movie, and that is only because my evil overlords at The Daily Texan have ordered — or, more truthfully, politely asked — me to do so, and that movie was “The Evil Dead.”

 “The Evil Dead” is the 1981 film that became a cult hit, made for next-to-nothing and making director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell into household names. It then spawned two sequels and a reboot. It’s the type of horror movie that even I can get into, not plausible enough to be frightening, gory enough to satisfy and delightfully overacted in an earnest sort of way. It’s also old enough that I’m going to put in spoilers, because it’s been out for 32 years and if you get mad, then you need a new hobby.

The story is the usual horror plotlin: Five friends in a remote area accidentally summon the dead using a Sumerian version of the Book of the Dead, and Ash (Campbell) must dismember everyone, even his girlfriend, if he hopes to get out alive.  It’s a slow start, but once the blood starts flowing, it never lets up. 

After a slightly odd scene where Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) gets possessed by a demon and sexually assaulted by a tree, all hell breaks loose — demons are possessing everyone except Ash and it’s time for some good, old fashioned blood and gore. Torn between killing or becoming a crazy demon himself, Ash uses a shovel, hatchet, conveniently found Sumerian skull dagger and shotgun against the resilient hell spawn. After chucking the book in the fire, Cheryl and bestie Scotty (Hal Delrich) die in a spectacular claymation sequence and dawn breaks. Ash walks out of the cabin to presumably begin a new life, somewhere really far away where no one will wonder where his four friends went.

In the last minute of the film, Raimi throws a wrench into the works and reveals that Ash didn’t triumph against evil, the demons are still after him. As the camera races to a close-up of his screaming face, the movie ends. It’s a really gutsy move to end with a cliffhanger like that, especially with a movie that is in no way guaranteed to lead to a sequel. 

The special effects were done on a tight budget, but Raimi put in as much gore as possible, leading the movie to be banned in England due to graphic content. “The Evil Dead” is over the top in every aspect with campy acting, strange camera angles and buckets of blood, but it all meshes together into a great flick. I can’t give any horror movie higher praise than to say I can’t wait to watch the sequel, “Evil Dead II.”

For movie buffs, the month of October means one thing: 31 days of horror movies. With tons of horror flicks to choose from, The Daily Texan is going to be providing a daily horror recommendation. Whether you prefer ghosts, zombies or stark explorations of the human condition, we’ll be featuring horror films of all flavors. Check back every evening for the movie of the day. Today, all you have to do is ask Sam Raimi to “Drag Me to Hell.”

When I think of horror movies, I usually don't think “funny.” I imagine myself cowering into the depths of a sofa, my hands covering my eyes as a character walks around a fateful corner. The rush that comes from being genuinely scared while watching such a movie movie is something almost impossible to replicate. But some movies, like 2009’s widely acclaimed “Drag Me to Hell,” add a different dimension to the horror movie experience: humor.

“Drag Me to Hell” follows Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a bank loan officer hoping to impress her boss enough for a promotion to the coveted position of assistant manager. In order to do this, she has to prove that she’s tough enough to make difficult decisions. The perfect opportunity arises when an elderly gypsy, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), comes in to ask for an extension on her mortgage payment. Christine, with an eye on her boss, denies the request, even after Ganush falls to her knees and begins to beg. Later, as Christine is leaving for the day, she is attacked by Ganush in the parking garage. Christine is able to fend her off, but not before Ganush takes a button from her jacket and uses it to place a curse on her.

What follows is a series of events that are as unsettling as they are absurd. Christine begins to dream about the old woman and see demonic silhouettes appearing in corners of her home. The next day at work, she gets a nosebleed so extreme she sprays her boss with blood from several feet away. The torment quickly becomes too much for Christine, and she seeks help from a fortune teller who offers a number of techniques to remove the curse looming over her. At one point, she sacrifices her pet cat in an attempt to make amends.

What makes “Drag Me to Hell” so different from most horror films is its awareness of the ridiculousness of just about everything that happens in the genre. It’s got all the ingredients of a textbook scary movie: the attractive, ambitious main character, the ominous shadows that appear beneath the bedroom door, the supernatural problem solver who finds a remedy in a yellowing leatherbound book.

In all of these things, the movie intentionally goes just a bit too far to be taken seriously. The result is a delightful blend of fear and humor that few movies have executed as well as "Drag Me to Hell."

Elizabeth Blackmore prepares to make a hasty amputation in “Evil Dead" (Photo courtesy of TriStar Pictures).

Remakes are tricky to get right, not just because they’re setting themselves up for comparison to another, usually better, film, but because they have to figure out how to put their own twist on a pre-established property. “Evil Dead,” billed as a rebirth of Sam Raimi’s horror classic, struggles to get out of the shadow of its predecessor. But when it’s doing its own demented, horrifically violent thing, “Evil Dead” is a visceral, visually impressive slaughterhouse ride bathed in blood and guts.

Unsurprisingly, “Evil Dead” finds a group of teens headed out to a cabin in the woods. They’re not venturing to the outskirts of civilization to drink and have sex. They’re going to get heroin addict Mia (Jane Levy) sober, whether she likes it or not. Once Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) makes the tragic mistake of reading from the gruesome Book of the Dead, demons begin encroaching on the gang’s already challenging weekend.

The idea of bringing characters face-to-face with their inner demons while literal ones come crashing through the door is a smart, original departure from the source material, but “Evil Dead”’s script, co-written by Diablo Cody, Rodo Sayagues and director Fede Alvarez, doesn’t do much with its intriguing initial hook. Interesting character arcs are set up but ultimately scuttled, and Jane Levy only gets to play vulnerable and terrified before being stuck in a basement for most of the film. “Evil Dead” attempts to cast Mia’s brother, played by Shiloh Fernandez, as the hero, but he fails to leave any kind of impression, creating a vacuum that Alvarez fills with a shower of blood and guts. 

“Evil Dead” may be the single goriest film ever released by a major studio, or at least since “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” and the heights of brutality the film goes to are ridiculously audacious, unleashing a relentless barrage of carnage on the audience. The violence escalates throughout the film until blood is literally pouring from the sky at  its climax, and it’s an increasingly uncompromising, gleefully gory experience. With Lou Taylor Pucci’s character unintelligently unleashing the demons, Alvarez loads heaps of punishment onto the unlucky actor, whose wry performance perfectly embodies the tone “Evil Dead” is reaching for.

Despite the incredibly high gore quotient, “Evil Dead” isn’t an ugly film. In fact, Alvarez, making his feature debut, packs in lots of striking images, especially in a bracing opening sequence. The cabin in the woods has never been quite so lovingly rendered, but Alvarez also treads into familiar territory a bit too happily. The original “Evil Dead” masterminds, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, remain intricately involved on this one, and there are several moments that call back to the original film a bit too explicitly. While it’s always entertaining to have a character sever her own arm under extreme, supernatural duress — a scene that climaxes with a memorable, profoundly disgusting sight gag — moments of “Evil Dead” are in the film solely because they also existed in the original, which makes it occasionally overfamiliar.

The original “Evil Dead” could play as a schlocky comedy or a bone-chilling horror film depending on the context you watched it in. This new incarnation is a purebred crowd pleaser and should absolutely be seen in a sold-out theater, but it’s not hard to imagine the film’s whirlwind of evisceration and dismemberment striking some genuine fear into viewers watching on a small screen late at night. While its character work is sloppy and incomplete and it lifts a few too many beats from the film that inspired it, “Evil Dead” is a total blast — a bloodbath that will satisfy even the most weathered horror fan.

This film image released by Disney Enterprises shows James Franco and Michelle Williams in a scene from “Oz the Great and Powerful.”

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Disney’s motivation to return to the world of “Oz” for another film was likely driven not by any creative urge, but by the boatloads of money that Tim Burton’s reimagining of “Alice in Wonderland” hauled in. Thankfully, director Sam Raimi has an innate ability to create an engaging fantastical world and retain his directorial voice without descending into self-parody, something that made Burton’s take on “Wonderland” nearly unwatchable. Raimi’s distinct directorial stamp works wonders for “Oz the Great and Powerful,” an effortlessly entertaining and endlessly imaginative film.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” is a prequel to the classic 1939 film, focusing on Oz (James Franco), a schlocky, selfish magician who lacks the resolve to settle down with dream girl Annie (Michelle Williams), preferring to follow his aspirations of unquestionable greatness. Whisked away from Kansas by a tornado, Oz finds himself in the magical land that shares his name.

Ever since his disastrous stint as Oscar host, James Franco has brought a holier-than-thou attitude to his performances in blockbuster films, but he’s refreshingly subdued in “Oz.” Franco’s slow transition from small-time magician to leader of men (and munchkins) is played with amusing reluctance and heartfelt sincerity, but he’s less effective when embodying Oz’s inner showman, alternating between infectious confidence and unimpressive cheesiness with frustrating consistency.

The trio of witches that drive the conflict in “Oz” are realized by an impressive female ensemble. Michelle Williams is pure grace and wispy dialogue as Glinda the Good, but she’s just as effective and tender as Annie, Oz’s real-world love interest. Rachel Weisz plays Evanora with coiled frustration, barely able to hold back her contempt for Oz. Mila Kunis has the most challenging role of the three as Theodora, the young witch who discovers Oz upon his arrival. Kunis brings an innocence to the role that is slowly shattered as she becomes increasingly infatuated with the womanizing Oz, and her arc is where the film’s story becomes increasingly problematic.

As anyone familiar with the “Oz” mythology is aware, Kunis’ Theodora eventually transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West. Although she has the spunk necessary to embody the role, Kunis struggles to register behind thick coats of unconvincing makeup, something that only serves to underline the shortcomings of the film’s story. While the awakening of Oz’s inner hero is more inspired than your standard origin story, the dynamics required to get Theodora seeing green are strained manipulations of character logic.

Throughout the film, even when the story teeters on the edge of nonsense, Raimi never fails to inject his own personal touch into the proceedings. Raimi’s Oz is flooded with creativity, and the film overflows with imaginative designs and characters. One of the allies that Franco’s Oz picks up during the film is a small girl made of china, and Raimi pulls the impressive feat of making a delicate CGI character the film’s emotional core. “Oz” is most fun in the brief moments when Raimi lets some of the tricks he came up with on the “Evil Dead” trilogy loose, staging genuinely harrowing beats in the midst of an immersive fantasy world full of beautiful colors and gorgeously scoped images.

While Disney was clearly inspired by “Alice in Wonderland,” Raimi draws from a very different source: his 1992 horror-comedy “Army of Darkness.” The films share many common elements, from structure to how conflicts are resolved to character beats, and it’s a joy to see Raimi working to bring freshness to such familiar territory. While “Oz the Great and Powerful” struggles to make sense at times, it’s a pleasure to watch thanks to an interesting cast, a stunningly realized setting and the simple joy of having Sam Raimi behind the camera.

Published on March 8, 2013 as "'Oz' misses 'Great and Powerful,' but achieves 'good'". 

(Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Back when Sony announced “The Amazing Spider-Man” as a reboot of the franchise after director Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire bailed on a potential fourth installment, they might have been a little off. After all, a reboot implies a reinvention, and while “The Amazing Spider-Man” makes a few small tweaks to its hero’s origins, it’s really a remake of “Spider-Man,” a mere 10 years after that film hit theaters.

If you saw the 2002 original, or have any familiarity with Spider-Man’s history, you know most of the story already. The smart yet awkward Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is bitten by a radioactive spider, one that gives him the ability to climb walls and impossibly fast reflexes. He learns the consequences of his powers after his Uncle Ben’s (Martin Sheen) death, and dedicates his life to fighting crime. “The Amazing Spider-Man” mixes in a few new elements, namely Peter’s interest in the circumstances that resulted in his living with his aunt and uncle. This ultimately leads him to Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), whose obsession with growing back a missing arm leads to his becoming the Lizard, a scaly, near-immortal beast.

In their reinvention of the franchise, Sony went with “(500) Days of Summer” director Marc Webb. This could have been a total disaster, throwing a rookie director into very deep water, but Webb rises to the challenge admirably. His strongest scenes are still the bumbling, sweet moments when Peter and his crush Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) get to flirt with one another. However, Webb also delivers an exciting, satisfying spectacle of a finale, and his use of the film’s Manhattan setting, particularly as Peter is first learning about his powers, is a franchise best. Webb also made some truly inspired casting choices, ranging from Martin Sheen’s warm take on Uncle Ben to Denis Leary, whose role lacks his trademark bite but still manages to play out an interesting, vital character arc.

Garfield was an interesting choice for Peter Parker, cast long before Garfield started amassing Oscar buzz for his performance in “The Social Network,” and he nails the character’s trademark awkward charisma. His take on Spider-Man is much more humorous than Maguire’s, and much more fun to watch. Garfield plays Parker as much smarter than the original films gave him credit for as well, something that comes across in small details like Garfield’s boyish face in his father’s oversized glasses, or in the big ones like the web shooters Parker builds for himself.

Casting Stone was another bold move, especially when they asked her to play Gwen Stacy instead of Mary Jane Watson, Peter’s love interest from the first three films. However, so early in the story, the characters are more or less interchangeable, and the gracelessly charming way Peter relates to his love interests is more or less the same with both characters.

A major problem with “The Amazing Spider-Man” is, frankly, that there’s no reason it couldn’t just be “Spider-Man 4.” The James Bond films get away with recasting their hero without much confusion, so why can’t superhero films adapt to the same standard? The Raimi films had also spent time setting up Dylan Baker’s Curtis Connors, who Raimi planned to transform into the Lizard this time around, and it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see Baker’s take on the villain. While Ifans is perfectly fine in the role, it seems to demand a subtle creepiness that Baker could have delivered.

More importantly, “The Amazing Spider-Man” spends half its runtime telling the exact same story that “Spider-Man” told just 10 years ago. Audiences may have short memories, but it’s still a waste of time to tell Spider-Man’s origin story if you’re just going to wheel out the exact same narrative with a few cosmetic tweaks to it. “The Amazing Spider-Man” may not be telling a particularly new or original story, but thankfully, Webb still keeps it exciting, coaxes strong performances out of each of his actors, and crafts a familiar but entertaining superhero film that will surely keep you sated until “The Dark Knight Rises” hits later this month.