Scaremeister Raimi sheds light on his fondness for darkness

by George Hadley-Garcia

Sam Raimi is best known as the man behind the “Spiderman” franchise, but he’s also widely regarded as a master of the macabre and of horror. After all, he broke through in 1981 with “The Evil Dead” after fixating on horror movies as a child. Before age 10, he was making 8-mm home movies.

“I was always attracted to strong actions. I like strong reactions,” he notes quietly. “Subtle comedy wasn’t my thing. The Three Stooges, that was my thing. Oh, boy, was that my thing!” he says, fondly laughing. Indeed, many of Raimi’s films feature Stooges-like sequences. Asked if they’re meant as homages to the zany trio, he simply avers, “I just think they’re clever, funny sequences.”

Raimi’s latest offering is the un-Stooges-like “Drag Me to Hell,” which would seem to be another teen-targeted gorefest. But it isn’t. It has Raimi’s psychological touch, which some critics as well as admirers have labeled “intellectual angst” or “enduring to the limit.” The film’s tagline is: “Christine Brown has a good job, a great boyfriend, and a bright future. But in three days she’s going to hell.”

The film boasts no major stars. Its two leads are Alison Lohman and Justin Long. Raimi has said he feels a “certain taste” for casting actors whom the audience — especially teen audiences — identify with and then letting stardom take its course, or not. Thus, Tobey Maguire became a superstar via the “Spiderman” films. Bruce Campbell, often seen in Raimi’s films, has become a cult-movie star.

“Movies about the supernatural and/or horror don’t require star names,” says Raimi, who was born in 1959 in Royal Oak, Michigan, as Samuel Reingewertz. “Movies based on comic strips also don’t need a star. The star of the picture is the main character. Ergo Superman. Ergo Christopher Reeve, who became a star (in the late 1970s) as Superman. Reeve in another role might not have become a star. But Superman made him a star, and he reinvested that particular action hero with new life . . . new radiance.”

So how does Raimi reconcile a love for slapstick humor and his horror-laden body of work?

“I think laughter and fright are related. I think when there’s lots of laughs, lots of fright, that’s as close as we can come, publicly, to sex. Sex makes us nervous. So does horror. We give strong reactions to strong comedy or a strongly scary movie.

“Plus there’s the sadistic element. The watching a victim and being glad you’re not the victim. Maybe that’s not true sadism, but it is a very human and rather cowardly trait. We never want to be in those scary situations, but we get enjoyment, we get some kind of thrill or kick, out of watching a stranger in an awful situation.”

In “Drag Me to Hell,” a loan officer who is doing her job of evicting an old woman from her home becomes the innocent victim of a curse that turns her life hellish. She visits a seer to try and deliver her from the evil force or forces that are inexorably thrusting her toward breaking point. How does Raimi respond to the fact that many people deliberately avoid just such a film?

“Of course no movie pleases everyone. That’s a given. I can understand someone with a delicate emotional state who has enough to handle in their own life and who prefers to go see a comedy or something escapist than coming to see my movie, with all the horrible problems that descend on this poor young woman. Sure.

“But there’s also a point being made, a point that religion seldom makes, which is that ‘hell’ is something humans create here on Earth. It can start with a so-called witch — in a movie, it can. In historical life, it more often starts with a powerful, fascistic government that targets a minority, like Jews, primarily to consolidate its own power, to unite the majority.

“Now, in these sorts of movies, you usually have to have a supernatural element. They are not entirely realistic. Some less so than others. And it can be cathartic. You go to the movies; you watch someone with problems far worse than yours could ever be; you come out relieved. But different people have different reactions to the same movie. Naturally, I’m aiming mine at the people who like to be scared and who enjoy the paranormal.”

Sam directed “Drag Me to Hell” and cowrote it with his brother, Ivan. Asked if this constitutes nepotism, he corrects the use of the term: “In point of fact,” he says with a schoolmasterly drawl, “nepotism means favoring your nephew. It’s a Latin term. Not too many people do that. Not close enough. They’ll give a job to a son or a brother, more often. The nephew who gets lucky has to be a pretty special guy — and have talent to offer. Not that my family isn’t talented,” he snickers.

Raimi’s brothers are Ivan and Ted. An elder brother, Sander, died in a swimming-pool accident while on a scholarship in Israel. Sander used to perform magic tricks, and after his death, Raimi took up the same tricks. Speaking of brothers, Raimi is good friends with the Coen brothers. He is married to Gillian Greene, daughter of the late Jewish Canadian star of “Bonanza,” Lorne Greene. The couple have five children.

Raimi is a man of definite tastes. “Some directors or writers like to move all over the place. To do this kind of picture, then that kind of a picture. To experiment. Fine. Good for them. But I know what I like. My fans know too, and they know what to expect of me.

“There is a lot of variation in the films I do. I never feel limited. I just feel I’m sticking to what I know best and do best and like best. And what gets best results. A romantic comedy? Maybe someday. Maybe. But I have so many projects on my plate, so much in development. . . . I do not feel deprived!”

In the 1980s, Raimi tried in vain to obtain the rights to direct a Batman movie. Instead, the job went to Tim Burton, whose work he says he admires considerably. On the other hand, and more recently, Sam was offered the job of directing “I Am Legend,” but declined. He simply wasn’t interested (and doesn’t feel a need to explain).

“When you do a story — writing or directing — you should feel a passion for it. If it doesn’t grab you, on that level of enthusiasm and willing creativity, how’s it going to grab your prospective audience?”

Raimi also has a philosophy that a movie like “Drag Me to Hell” doesn’t necessarily need a villain, or that the victim of all the hellaciousness needn’t be somebody bad, someone deserving of punishment. “You look at life — today, yesterday, anywhere, any time. Bad things can fall out of the sky, even literally, upon an innocent person. Not that anyone’s that innocent these days. But we can identify with awful things or forces being unleashed upon somebody willy-nilly. For no reason.

“We do not live in a ordered universe. Things happen at random. Good things, now and then, bad things, of course, and terrible things. We accept this, especially in movies. The experience is one that many people seek out, again, because they can be spectators rather than participants. And that’s where horror and comedy often intersect: the guy flopping over backward after slipping on a banana peel. It’s funny, but it’s awful. But most important, it’s happening to somebody else.

“We hear a lot of talk about ‘hell,’ especially in the western world. Most of the time, we can avoid it by avoiding the people who make life hell or try to. Walk away. Report them to the police. Etcetera. But what if it’s more complicated than that — more relentless than that? (What) if supernatural forces are involved? Oooh, then you’ve got the makings of a really good scary movie.

“But you need more than the makings. The movie has to be good from A to Z, not just the beginning or the premise. You have to deliver the goods. That’s what I spend so much of my life trying to do. All for you.”

He concludes, “Again, different people look at the same thing differently. They react differently. And there are always at least two ways of interpreting something. For example, one dog is standing right behind another dog, quite energetically. A child asks you why. You can explain and just state the sexual facts, or you can use some imagination and put an entertaining spin on it. So you tell the child, ‘The doggy in front is blind, and the other doggy has very kindly offered to push it all the way home.’ “