Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell comes out on home video next week. Universal's essential DVD release contains both the unrated "director's cut" and the theatrical cut, although the unrated cut runs just a few seconds shorter than the theatrical cut. The major change -- I'm told -- is a moment's hesitation before the main character considers... well... it has to do with a cat. In the theatrical cut, the character hesitates for a moment, which, frankly, makes the situation all the more squeamishly gruesome, and in the other cut, she charges right in for a more sudden and gorier effect. This tiny change says a lot about Sam Raimi, who was once a talented B-movie director with a narrow range, and has now graduated to one of Hollywood's major A-list players, as well as being one of the cinema's most interesting potential masters. Best of all, he shows up for work in a suit and tie. How cool is that?
Drag Me to Hell is currently one of my favorite movies of 2009, and I like it for some of the same reasons I like Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy. More than nearly anyone else alive, Raimi has a feel for the movement of cinema, and the sheer joy behind that movement. His films pulse and flow and dodge and dart and fly; they never move too fast or too slow and the cuts always seem to arrive right on time. His films aren't roller-coaster rides, exactly, nor are they meant to be "intense." It's more like they pick you up and carry you along; it's an exhilarating ride not because the vehicle is moving fast, but because the road is interesting.
The Evil Dead trilogy -- The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1993) -- remain unique for their effortless combination of dark humor, light humor and gore. One can't claim that they're frightening, exactly, but you'd have to go all the way back to James Whale to find a similar kind of sinister glee from behind the camera. Raimi is a known Three Stooges fan, and their brand of humorous cruelty often makes it into his work; and even when it doesn't it's certainly there off screen. Bruce Campbell once told me about the time he showed up on the set of The Quick and the Dead, just so Raimi could boss him around and beat him up to earn the respect (and fear) of the other actors.
Later on, Darkman (1990) seemed influenced by some of the huge, operatic dramatics of Hong Kong films (Raimi later produced John Woo's U.S. debut film) and The Quick and the Dead (1995) put an even more vicious, violent spin on Spaghetti Western traditions. After seeing these two, I questioned how much further Raimi could go. His talents seemed suited to horror, and his subsequent work didn't seem particularly deep or lasting; he looked a bit like a one-shot director who would forever live in the shadow of his horror debut, never equaling it and eventually burning out. Against all odds, he managed to perfectly marry his special, personal touch to the multi-million dollar Spider-Man franchise; and a personal touch on a movie that expensive is the very last thing the studios want. But it worked, and the first two movies are practically action classics, while Spider-Man 3 at least has some spectacular moments in it.
Regardless, two things happened that gave me great faith in Raimi. One of them is a small moment, in Spider-Man 2 (2004), that elevated the film to something quite beyond a summer superhero movie. After just about everything in the world has gone wrong in Peter Parker's life -- including losing his job, losing his girl, knowing his best friend wants to kill him, and dealing with the latest supervillian on the loose -- he looks like he's just about to give up hope. But then, his landlord's gangly, cute pigtailed daughter (Mageina Tovah) knocks on his door with some cake and milk. Thanks to Raimi's kinetic intensity, Parker had suffered to such a degree up to this point that the small gesture was nearly enough to bring tears to my eyes. It was a brilliant scene, and one of Raimi's most humane achievements.
However, as much as I love Raimi's work as a whole, his masterpiece undoubtedly has to be A Simple Plan (1998), a little nugget of genius nestled, almost forgotten, in his filmography between the Evil Dead and Spider-Man films. Far more subtle and emotional than anything else he has done, it's a psychological meat pie that echoes Fritz Lang. It's all about characters succumbing to a dangerous choice, and then constantly re-living and re-evaluating that choice. New facets of personalities emerge and the natures of relationships change. And somehow Raimi captures all this talking and turmoil with a visual flair, using a chilly, wintry feel, and dead trees to enhance the quiet tension. Billy Bob Thornton received an Oscar nomination for his exemplary performance (the only acting nomination in all of Raimi's career), but Bill Paxton and Bridget Fonda deserved nominations as well.
As a producer, Raimi's career has been less interesting, with the notable exception of "Xena: Warrior Princess" (1995-2001) for television; it was one of the greatest examples of girl-power entertainment in the 1990s, complete with a graceful sense of movement and an infectious sense of humor. Otherwise, he seems engaged with a lot of horror remakes, including a dubious project to remake his own classic debut The Evil Dead, as well as another obligatory Spider-Man sequel. But A Simple Plan gives me hope that, when Raimi is ready, he will knock on our doors with milk and cake, and all will be right in the world.