Sam Raimi, whose new film, “Drag Me to Hell,” opened Friday, is probably best known to moviegoers as the director of the three “Spider-Man” pictures. But in some circles Raimi is even more revered as the creator of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, a series of horror movies, made in the 1980s and '90s, that have acquired a status that is beyond cultish.
As the title not so subtly suggests, “Drag Me to Hell” is also a horror movie – a seemingly backward choice for a director who has already signed up for a fourth installment of the “Spider-Man” franchise. But inexpensive genre films – horror, sci-fi and the like – sometimes serve as escape valves for directors weary of the studio scrutiny that comes with big budgets. Though he said it wasn't his reason for making “Drag Me to Hell,” this picture gives Raimi, 49, something he hasn't had since his first film – complete creative control.
Horror movies also appeal to filmmakers because of the visceral way they connect with an audience. “They're not looked up upon,” Raimi said recently, with a laugh. “But there's a craft to making a good one. It's like being a cabinetmaker, or maybe not a cabinet – more like a footstool. It's not something people value.”
He added: “I love good character dramas, but what I really wanted this time was a real audience thrill machine. I wanted to give them an out-of-control ride, and I wanted to get them up on their feet and screaming. I love it when at a horror movie you can sense the audience bonding together. It's a communal experience ”
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Sin and punishment
Raimi's new movie, which stars Alison Lohman and Justin Long, is a grown-up horror flick, if there is such a thing. “Drag Me to Hell” is even a little old-fashioned, both in its straightforwardness and its relative seriousness.
It's actually a morality tale about an ambitious young woman, a loan officer at a bank, eager for promotion, who turns down an elderly Hungarian woman for a mortgage extension. Big mistake. The old woman puts a curse on her that's a sort of living damnation and involves, among other things, levitation, projectile nosebleeding and geysers of bile and embalming fluid.
The torments the poor young woman suffers sometimes seem a little excessive compared with the relative smallness of her crime – she's hardly a Bernie Madoff – and that's part of Raimi's intention.
“This is a young woman who thinks she's a good person, but she acts out of greed,” he explained. “That's what seems relevant – the greed. I tried to make her someone you identify with, because at the moment she has to make her choice, I want the audience to make that choice with her.
“They sin with her. They know they're culpable, and now” – he lowered his voice so it sounded like the voice-over of a horror movie trailer – “now they know they're going to be punished.”
Less gore, less humor
“Drag Me to Hell” is much less gory than the “Evil Dead” movies – which feature numerous dismemberments and decapitations and torrents of blood that appear to be propelled from a fire hose – and it's not nearly as funny.
The Three Stooges really were an influence on those early films, which include extended moments of slapstick, like a character trying to smack away a severed head that has attached itself to his hand like a bowling ball, as well as sudden mood changes, deliberately hammy acting and parodies of other movies, “Rambo” especially.
“Horror can be very similar to comedy, the way you set up expectations and lead the audience down a path,” Raimi said. “The punch line of a joke is not that different from the punch line in a horror scene. Each results in an involuntary audible reaction.”
The “Evil Dead” movies were made on the cheap, and they look it. The lameness of the special effects is part of the joke. “Drag Me to Hell,” by contrast employs what Raimi calls “the whole bag of tricks,” including puppets, wind machines and computer-generated imagery.
“It was very complicated to make,” he said, “and it required everything I've learned from making my other movies. This is the first time I had a horror movie with a real character at its center, and so I needed to work with that.”