When TONY reaches Sam Raimi on the phone, we can hear him futzing around in his garage, like the dad he is. “This is actually one of the reasons I love Los Angeles,” Raimi says. “You can have a garage—you can have a lawn.” To quibble with him about the many other cozy places with garages and lawns is to miss the point. “I’ve got five kids and I live in Brentwood, but the big thing is, I can now afford a garage.”
Raimi, 49, will always be something of a “garage director,” certainly to his oldest fans who remember the bric-a-brac aesthetic of the independent film he dropped out of college to finish, 1981’s house-in-the-woods stalker The Evil Dead. That cult gem’s unhinged sequel, 1987’s Evil Dead II, cemented Raimi’s Looney Tunes brand of jack-in-the-box thrills made on the cheap; it’s a style that the director, now 25 years in L.A., has rarely had the chance to revisit. They haven’t been unprofitable years.
“I always thought in the back of my mind that if I really messed up in Hollywood, they’d still let me make another Evil Dead picture,” Raimi says, ignoring the fact that his past three films, the Spider-Man movies, have collectively grossed close to $3 billion. (Raimi hasn’t made an Evil Dead film since 1992’s Army of Darkness.) “Every new movie I make, I feel I’ve messed up. And when you make a picture like Spider-Man, you’re definitely not as free to do anything you want.” Now, after being entrusted with one of the most profitable franchises in blockbuster history, it must be time for Raimi to head back to the garage: Drag Me to Hell, his exuberant new comedy-thriller, is the return many have waited for.
Both a yuckfest and a yukfest, Drag Me to Hell lays the grossness on thick—surprisingly so for a PG-13 movie—while still delivering some fearsome giggles. Christine (Alison Lohman), a chirpy rural transplant to the City of Angels, finds herself pursued by all manner of evil spirits after reluctantly rejecting a Gypsy’s bank loan in order to seem tough enough for a promotion. The devoted boyfriend (Justin Long) and the assistant manager’s job may be hers, but in the interim, Christine’s got to deal with wild, antigravity flings across her bedroom, the stalkings of a toothless, dead-eyed rejectee and one geyser of an on-the-job nosebleed.
“When a good horror movie is working, it’s like electricity in the air,” Raimi offers, displaying the enthusiasm that has made his reputation. “There’s a giddiness, reacting with everybody else, all these strangers, in a kind of primal-fear mode.” It’s a variety of filmmaking that Raimi says he was craving to return to, though his approach remains rooted in a mainstream audience’s enjoyment. “There are so many different colors and flavors to being scared,” he continues. “Chill moments, jump moments, creep-outs, hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments.” (He’s obviously thought a lot about this.)
The story, cowritten with Raimi’s older brother, Ivan (these days a doctor), emerged out of a difficult period of collaboration on the script for 1990’s operatic Darkman, perhaps the closest Raimi has come to supplying his full-tilt sensibility to a superhero tale. “After about a year in development hell, we were losing our minds,” he recalls. “I said, 'Let’s just write a separate story this weekend, one with a beginning, a middle and an end, starting Friday afternoon and finishing Monday afternoon.’_” Raimi remembers a weekend of laughs and freed-up creativity, stemming from an unlikely source. “Our mother used to threaten us and say that if we don’t behave, this old woman she knew—maybe it was her mother?—would put the evil eye on us. We totally believed her.”
It worked. Drag Me to Hell bears the speediness of a ripping yarn, and that vibe translated to the director’s 2008 set, a shoot he characterizes as rejuvenating. “I was very careful not to tell Alison everything that I was going to do to her,” Raimi relates. “I gave her notes like, 'Oh, there’ll be a scene in the graveyard and you’re gonna have to do some digging.’ I didn’t tell her that I was gonna bury her alive under 800 pounds of mud. Or that a body was gonna fall on her—not that it was going be loaded with gallons of, what do you call that?” Green puke, I offer. “Embalming fluid.” There’s a pause. “Not real embalming fluid.” Spider-Man 4 may be next, but Raimi’s still in his garage, happily.
Drag Me to Hell opens Fri 29.
See also Drag Me to Hell Review