Plotting director Sam Raimi’s unlikely path to Oz

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

There’s a moment in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” Disney’s much-anticipated prequel to the 1939 MGM classic “The Wizard of Oz,” where a character falls to the floor, in the midst of a witchy transmogrification into something evil. Off-screen she remains until suddenly, with a heart-stopping smack, a huge green hand pops up and out of the screen (in glorious 3-D), and the clawlike fingernails scrape across a marble tabletop to the agony of any moviegoer’s ears.

It’s only here, halfway through this oh-so-Disney fable, that we sense the man behind the curtain, director Sam Raimi, who — like that other fabulist, Peter Jackson — got his start working in horror of the most eye-popping, jaw-dropping kind. Raimi’s had an eclectic three-decade run at moviemaking, ranging from shoestring indie to Hollywood blockbuster, but few who saw his dismemberment-heavy debut “The Evil Dead” back in 1981 would have predicted that he’d someday be working for the Magic Kingdom.

When a director’s career entails a tectonic shift as massive as that from X-rated splatter to family-friendly fare, it’s safe to ask: What is a Sam Raimi film? Does the director have a signature style — the “vision thing,” as George Bush used to call it — or is he merely a gun-for-hire, bringing his considerable skills in stylized fantasy to whomever’s signing the checks?

Plunging through Raimi’s early career —from 1987′s “Evil Dead 2″ through “Darkman,” “Army of Darkness” and “The Quick and the Dead” — it’s impossible not to notice how unique the director’s films feel, with their mix of gruesome but goofy Three Stooges-on-crank slapstick, campy, cartoony acting style and in-your-face camera zooms and swoops. Typical is a shot in “The Quick and the Dead” where a high-noon showdown ends with a gunfighter who’s only aware he’s been shot by the beam of light passing through a huge Looney Tunes hole in his chest.

Raimi was an early entrant into comic-book moviemaking with 1990′s “Darkman” — a fictional superhero he created after being unable to get the rights to “The Shadow” — and this would eventually pay off for the director when he landed Sony’s “Spider-Man” franchise a decade later. Yet the Spidey films look positively tame compared with what Raimi achieved in “Darkman”; just check out that film’s classic “pink elephant” circus scene to see how closely Raimi was able to emulate the slam-bang panel storytelling of actual comic books.

Raimi’s early films were always a bit much for the mainstream, though, and the director had a hard time finding funding for his own projects. (“Drag Me to Hell” would take almost two decades to reach the screen in 2009.) Raimi took what work he could get and detoured into a pair of suspenseful thrillers — “A Simple Plan” and “The Gift” — and a Kevin Costner baseball flick, “For Love of the Game.” These were like nothing he’s done before or since, but Raimi proved he was versatile, could work with stars (and even get them Oscar nominations) and come in under budget.

Since then, it’s been all fantasy once again: the “Spider-Man” trilogy, producing shows such as “Hercules” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” for TV, and a brief return to his signature scary-zany style to finally make “Drag Me to Hell,” one of the best American horror films of the decade. It’s clear that while Raimi can do many things, he’s best at making people jump out of their seats.

Which brings us to “Oz the Great and Powerful.” This is very much a children’s film, with a story about a cynical fairground magician from Kansas named Oscar Diggs (James Franco) who is tossed by a tornado into the magical land of Oz, where he is reluctantly proclaimed king and has to cope with a trio of comely witches (Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams). While his Oz is full of pastel-colored fauna, talking dolls and chirpy Munchkins, Raimi — like many of us — recalls watching the original “Wizard of Oz” at a very young age and being scared out of his wits, and he aims to do the same here. As he noted in a recent interview, “I tried to find a line where it’s scary for the kids, but not so scary the parents think, ‘I shouldn’t have brought my child to see this.’ ”

In that sense, Raimi was a good choice for the flick, but he’s saddled with a script that has an acute case of sequelitis, seeking to ape iconic scenes from the original as closely as possible while managing to lose the songs, which undeniably made Judy Garland’s Oz a more magical place. While “Oz” will be entertaining enough for the younger set, it remains Raimi’s most generic work, a twee fairy tale which — no surprise — only really comes alive when the Wicked Witch shows up.

But before you suspect Raimi’s lost his edge, note that he’s not only reportedly directing a remake of horror classic “Poltergeist” and working on the script to “Evil Dead 4″ but also producing the remake of “Evil Dead” due out next month in the States — which is being billed as “The most terrifying film you will ever experience.”

“Oz the Great and Powerful” is now showing. For a chance to win one of three limited-edition “Oz” T-shirts (size M), visit jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is March 18.

Oz on film

“The Wizard of Oz” (1939): Surrender Dorothy. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Ding, dong, the witch is dead. There’s no place like home. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Need I say more? The most watched movie ever, according to the Library of Congress.

“The Wiz” (1978): Richard Pryor, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson (back when he didn’t look like her) in a Motown-funded disco/soul remake of the above. Much-derided at the time, and age hasn’t been kind either, but fans of ’70s kitsch will be in heaven.

“Return to Oz” (1985): Disney’s first stab at appropriating the Oz franchise bombed, despite hewing close to L. Frank Baum’s books. Directed by “Apocalypse Now” sound designer/editor Walter Murch, this starts off dark (Dorothy has been institutionalized by Auntie Em) and stays there. Flawed but intriguingly so.

“The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” (2005): Utter dreck, with Ashanti as Dorothy belting out soulless contemporary R&B ballads and the Muppets as Scarecrow/Tin Man/Lion working out their “issues,” and Miss Piggy croaking “The witch is in the house!” Just one guaranteed-laugh line: “Those of you who have ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ press play now.”

“Tom and Jerry & The Wizard of Oz” (2011): This mash-up features an almost shot-by-shot animated version of the original cut with dollops of cat-on-mouse cartoon violence that would make Itchy & Scratchy green with envy. Raimi would likely approve.