Tag: sam raimi

Evil Dead II


Evil Dead II (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” begins like any other cabin-in-the-woods horror picture: an unsuspecting couple goes on their romantic weekend getaway and suddenly their plans are completely derailed. Something unusual, shocking, almost off-putting: not eight minutes into the picture, the woman is dead—beheaded!—and buried in the ground. The man named Ash (brilliantly played by Bruce Campbell) is left to fend for himself against the demonic forces residing in the woods. Terror and… hilarity ensues. The work, written by Sam Raimi (who directs) and Scott Spiegel, is a satire of horror movies.

It is not so much a love letter to horror films—the first “Evil Dead,” a straight-faced scary movie involving a group of friends who meet in their doom in the very same cabin of this sequel—is closer to that. This is a love letter to horror images, from the undead rising from the grave, malicious-looking trees capable of uprooting themselves, a severed hand moving on its own, to buckets of blood being sprayed from the walls. It is so over-the-top that one cannot help but smile at its earnestness, its willing to entertain no matter the cost. And it does not run out of energy.

There are numerous crafty sequences powerful enough to embed themselves in our memories. I will give two examples. The first involves Ash finding himself surrounded by laughter… not of other people but of inanimate objects (deer mounted on the wall, bookcases, lamp) that shouldn’t be capable of moving let alone laugh. The demons are mocking him for being alone, for being weak, for being terrified. The evil knows it is going to win and so it plays with Ash for as long as possible. Ash can’t find himself to do anything at that point but laugh along. That is, until his laughter turns into sobs of desperation. He is the target and the evil force aims to drive him mad; he is entertainment to them—and he, along with his tormentors, in turn is entertainment to us. Clearly, the satire has bite.

Another example: the unbroken shot involving a chase between Ash and the unknown force that follows him from the woods to the cabin. We take the point of view of villain. But notice the content of the chase: it is a slapstick comedy. Ash wriggles about, stumbles, inserts himself in various cracks and corners like a little mouse. He opens and breaks down doors… and the evil is capable of doing the same. Things go wrong for our protagonist and yet somehow the force never gets to him, perhaps on purpose. It is loyal to the theme of Ash being its plaything. The evil is not evil because the ominous Book of the Dead says so. It is evil because of its actions: It enjoys tormenting its victim for the sake of entertainment. Raimi is in complete control of not only the images but the messages he wishes for us to consider. It is clever nearly every step of the way. (“Nearly” because I am not a fan of the final scene that sets up the next movie.)

“Evil Dead II” is not just any other remake or sequel or reimagining. I think this terrific follow-up can be considered as the “alternate spirit” of the original. Both share the same setting, but emphasis is on completely different ideas. Similar special and visual effects are employed, but they must be utilized in different ways in order to accomplish a specific goal. Together, these two make an excellent double feature for those who wish to analyze and understand specific types of storytelling told through similar vein. There is plenty to appreciate here.

The Evil Dead


The Evil Dead (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

Windows magically being repaired two or three scenes later, decaying flesh along the hands and arms looking like modified gloves in order to minimize time and effort in reapplying makeup, and the fog sitting so thick in one area of the screen that one could practically pinpoint the precise location of the fog machine are only some of the myriad “mistakes” (read: charm) in Sam Raimi’s horror classic “The Evil Dead.” And yet the movie stands the test of time because it is propelled with unbridled passion for the work. Love can be felt in every square inch of this movie—flaws and all. One does not have to wonder why it has such a strong cult following.

The characters may not be smart nor do they undergo compelling development, but the writer-director is consistently one step ahead. Notice his vision right from the opening sequence in which five university students (Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly) drive toward the isolated rundown cabin in the woods. Editing is swift and generous: we are placed inside the car one moment and out in the woods the next. Both places are alive: the chattering of youth who are excited to begin their weekend getaway and the hunger of the spirits in the woods waiting to possess their next victims. There is energy in the push and pull between natural and supernatural forces. Although apparent that the film has low budget, it cannot be denied that it is filled to the brim with purpose.

Its purpose is to entertain. Nothing else. In modern horror films, it takes at least telling a third of the story until the main players get on the same page and recognize that something bizarre or horrible might be happening. In this movie, the cellar door bursts open on its own during the first ten minutes. There is no room for stupid questions like, “What’s going on?” “Is this really happening?” “Should we call the police?” These unsuspecting victims are thrown right into the mouth of hell; we expect most of them to die in gruesome ways (and they do) and for one to survive. And all this is before they find the dreaded book with human skin as its cover.

Campbell has the face of a hero, but the practical special effects is the star of the show. Here is a movie that shows viewers dismembered human body parts but because the person—or what was once a person—had been possessed by evil, the chopped up limbs remain to tremble on their own. It is a terrifying image even by today’s standards.

Think about it: most violent horror movies settle for showing hacked up bodies—which shows the aftermath of violence—but special projects, those that go the extra mile, tend to highlight the horror after the fact. And because they do, these types of images tend to stick in the mind. This is just one example. Another is the scene involving a woman being attacked by trees in the forest. It sounds amusing: plants attacking a human being. But the way it is shot in addition to the extended duration of the attack, it feels like we are watching a woman get raped in slow motion. (Her desperate screaming for help adds further urgency to the scene.) We are meant to be horrified, uncomfortable. Perhaps we might laugh precisely because doing so is cathartic. Isn’t that the point of horror stories: to provide catharsis?

“The Evil Dead” is no generic horror film. It is kinetic, smart, daring, and atmospheric. It can be enjoyed on a superficial level: college students get more than what they bargained for after a voice from an old tape recorder utters phrases in Ancient Sumerian. Or it can be enjoyed as an experience: how sounds of demonic voices (which changes depending on the person possessed) taunting never let up, how the camera remains dead still when showing a body part being torn off, how the enthusiastic writer-director juggles suspense, jolts, and horror with seeming ease.

Oz the Great and Powerful


Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

On the run from and desperate not to get clobbered by a fellow circus performer, Oscar (James Franco), a magician whose stage name is Oz, gets on a hot air balloon. The ropes are detached which allows the balloon to float away from the impending threat. For a second, Oz thinks he is safe. That is, until he looks behind him and discovers that the wind is carrying his transport toward a destructive tornado and there is no turning back. After praying for his life and making a promise, he is somehow taken to the land of Oz, a magical place filled with vibrant colors and innocuous beings who fear the Wicked Witch.

Although visually spectacular in just about every scene, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi, is somewhat of a disappointment because its story, while appropriately simple, requires too much time to launch. As it barely chugs along, we are left with no choice but to treat the visuals as a sort of comfort blanket. The longer we look at them, like analyzing a magic trick, we realize that it is not really all that magical. We begin to notice the images’ artificiality and so a significant amount of excitement and curiosity is lost in the process.

When the visuals are used correctly, it makes us want to visit Oz. For instance, the transition from Kansas to Oz, from a black-and-white to a pavonine palette, is executed with the perfect amount of grandiosity and humility. It hearkens to a similar experience of reading an excellent opening chapter of an adventure novel: our heart skipping a beat because we are so captivated and excited by it. We wonder what is in store for us.

As it goes on, it becomes clearer that there is possibly nothing more than what is seen. The screenplay does not allow its characters to become more than caricatures: Glinda (Michelle Williams) the Good Witch is good and sweet, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) the Wicked Witch is wicked and formidable, and Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora’s sister, is naive and, well, sort of boring. Meanwhile, while Oz is not too likable because he is somewhat egotistical, the manner in which his journey is written and executed lacks enough verve and depth. Inevitably, the changes we see in him later on appear disingenuous.

One of the main problems is the lack of detail in Oz and Theodora’s relationship. They meet, converse, and walk together to Emerald City, but they are not given a personal connection. Their interaction is rushed. It does not make sense to spend only about ten minutes out of over two hours to try to establish the crux of the story. Later, when feelings end up being hurt, instead of watching a convincing fantasy-drama, it is like watching a marionette show. The strings controlled by the filmmakers are felt and seen. If anything, the charade is laughable rather than commanding a proper dosage of seriousness when necessary.

I was not convinced that Franco and Kunis are right for their roles. Though I tried hard to see Oz, Franco overacts so consistently that his performance dares us to notice him rather than the character he is playing. Still, I did enjoy that one scene when he slides down a mountain of gold coins. Who doesn’t want to do that? In that scene, overplaying it works. As with Kunis, she does not play it naive enough. Instead, I wondered if it might have worked better if she played Glinda and Williams (who is solid as the Good Witch) played Theodora. There is a difference between being good and being naive.

“Oz the Great and Powerful,” based on the screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, has fine touches here and there. For example, there is a nice parallel drawn between the land of Oz and Kansas regarding girls who cannot walk. In an early scene, a little girl (Joey King) so convinced that Oz can really perform magic asks him to heal her so she can walk again. Since all he has is a bag of tricks, of course he is unable to grand her wish. Later, in Oz, the magician encounters a China Girl (voiced by King) with broken legs after her village is attacked by the Wicked Witch’s flying baboons. Though she does not ask him for anything, Oz helps her anyway by gluing the legs back to her body.

But occasionally hitting the target is not enough. We should be aware enough that we deserve to see and experience more than two good hits out of five attempts.

Army of Darkness


Army of Darkness (1992)
★ / ★★★★

Ash (Bruce Campbell) was sucked into a vortex which sent him to the Dark Ages in England. He was equipped with three objects: a chainsaw, a shotgun, and a car. The Wiseman (Ian Abercrombie) believed that he was the chosen one, the person who would bring peace between the humans and the Necronomicons, the living dead. Our protagonist was instructed to find the Book of the Dead in the cemetery and say three words prior to taking it. Naturally, scatterbrained Ash was unable to recall the phrase and took the book back to the fortress anyway. As a result, zombies rose from their graves to collect their valuable possession. Written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi, “Army of Darkness,” while successful in making me laugh from time to time, missed the mark because it had forgotten its roots. It was no longer scary or darkly comic. The skeletons, instead of looking even remotely evil, looked like something I would want in my room. Some scenes went on for too long, particularly when Ash had to fight miniature versions of himself, and although things happened for the sake of something happening, there was no real drama in Ash’s predicament. For example, when he was with Sheila (Embeth Davidtz), he seemed perfectly content so why did he want to go back to his own time? The special and visual effects looked schlocky instead of endearing. Sure, the claymation in “The Evil Dead” and “Evil Dead II” was no masterpiece but at least the images were driven by a defined concept: the spirits in the forest wanted to possess living beings and kill whoever got in their way. In here, we were left with one-dimensional humor that often missed the punchline. I mentioned the scene when Ash faced mini-Ashes. It showed us that Ash wasn’t very smart. The Ash we met in the first sequel wouldn’t grab a kettle and drink the burning hot water from it. He certainly wouldn’t refer to someone as a “primitive” with such disdain and arrogance. We came to know and love him because he had humility and, despite the insanity around him, he was intelligent enough not to burn himself. He came up with other creative and less painful ways to deal with the dead. Not only did the material lose touch with its roots but it also lost touch with its main character. Nevertheless, I did come across one or two amusing scenes. I loved the part when Ash grabbed a “Chemistry 101” book from the trunk of his car and used it as a guide to make gunpowder. He treated the book like it held a recipe. This was the same guy who put hot water in his mouth, so I had a very hard time believing that he could convert two moles of potassium nitrate into grams. Maybe his Chemistry teacher in high school drilled him in stoichiometry that he never forgot how to do it but I had to chuckle at its inherent silliness. If the recipe for gunpowder were in Chemistry books, crime would most definitely increase. Directed by Sam Raimi, I wasn’t convinced that the “Army of Darkness” was a required appendage in the series. It felt more like a possessed hand that needed to be cut off.

The Cabin in the Woods


The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.

Don’t Look Up


Don’t Look Up (2009)
★ / ★★★★

I can withstand a lot of bad movies but the really memorable ones are the movies that make me angry during and after I watch them. “Don’t Look Up,” directed by Fruit Chan, is a prime example. Marcus (Reshad Strik) was an aspiring filmmaker with psychic abilities. When he visited places with bad histories, which often involved a grizzly murder, he would receive visions and he would incorporate what he saw onto his script. While shooting a movie in Transylvania, his crew discovered an old footage of a prior film shot in their set. Soon “accidents” started to happen which led to a series of deaths until the film crew finally called it quits and left Marcus to deal with his demons. Everything about this picture was exaggerated. The acting was shockingly bad, the gore was gratuitous and unconvincing and the CGI was completely unnecessary. It was so bad, the movie tried to scare us with CGI flies. The last time I checked, CGI flies are not scary. It might have worked in Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” because that particular film had a nice balance of cheekiness and horror but “Don’t Look Up” desperately wanted to be taken seriously. Its desperate attempt to be liked left a bitter taste in my mouth. I did not appreciate its references to movies like the Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on” and Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu;” instead of paying homage, I felt like the movie was parasite and was an extremely unsatisfactory leftover. The horror did not work because it acted like it was above trying to tell a story that was interesting, involving and, most importantly, a story that made sense. I didn’t understand the connection between Marcus and his ill ex-girlfriend other than to serve as a stupid twist in the end (something along the lines of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” only lightyears less elegant). Eli Roth playing a director in the 1920s left me scratching my head. And there was no explanation why the girl was murdered back in the day and what the apparitions wanted to accomplish. A “seed” was involved which I thought was metaphorical at first but it turned out to be literal. It was just a mess and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to burn the DVD so the next person interested in watching it can use his or her precious time doing something else (perhaps read a book or volunteer at a homeless shelter). “Don’t Look Up” is a smogasboard of everything bad about modern independent horror movies that heavily rely on special and visual effects. I just don’t believe anyone in the world can actually enjoy it. I am at a loss with why it was released in the first place but I suppose connections can go pretty far. If I can prevent at least one person from watching this, I consider it a triumph.

Drag Me to Hell


Drag Me to Hell (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Originally, I was going to give this film a three-star rating but the more I think about it, the more I found myself liking/loving it. Every time I think of certain scenes (and there are definitely memorable scenes abound), I can’t help but have this smile on my face. Directed by Sam Raimi (“Spider-man” and “Evil Dead” series), “Drag Me to Hell” has more than enough energy to balance comedy with pure terror; it’s not afraid to look unrealistic and corny at times which I really admired. This film’s story thrives on simplicity: Alison Lohman (“Delirious,” “Matchstick Men,” “White Oleander”) wants to prove herself to her wealthy boyfriend’s (Justin Long) mother that she’s more than just a simple farm girl with a thick Southern accent (which she desperately hides via self-taught voice lessons). She figures that one of the ways to do so is to get a promotion in a bank where she works by impressing her boss (David Paymer) and beating out her enthusiastic–and sometimes ethically corrupt–co-worker (Reggie Lee). So when a gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) asks Lohman for a third extension for her bank loan, Lohman lies to the old lady and tells her that there’s nothing she can do. The gypsy woman kneels and begs to no avail and she decides to cast a curse on Lohman. And what a rollercoaster a curse it is.

What I love about this film is its ability to take risks. Sometimes the horror scenes may look like they’re cheesy or that they should be from a midnight B-movie but one should realize that it’s all purposeful. Raimi wants to communicate to his fans, especially of the “Evil Dead” series, that he’s still got it after all these years and just because he’s directed big-budget Hollywood movies, it doesn’t mean that he’s above using tried-and-true elements like wind and loud noises to scare his audiences. But “Drag Me to Hell” is not just about showing the movement of the wind and deafening loud noises. There’s a certain craft imbedded in those elements (such as perfect comedic or horrific timing) that separates it from other uninspired and recent American horror pictures. Another thing that I loved about this movie is that it’s disgusting but the disgust doesn’t mainly involve blood or guts. You name it, this film has it: bugs being swallowed and regurgitated, animal sacrifices, possession, psychics, destroying corpses, green saliva, mucus, nosebleeds… Listing those scenes brings back a lot of images in my head; as disgusting as they are, I would definitely pay to see them again. Lastly, the thing I liked about this picture was that it took the time to establish its characters. For me to ultimately care for a lead character, I have to know what is at stake–why they actively choose to overcome certain challenges (of course, other than the prospect of death itself). Because sometimes a character does the things she does not for herself but for other people, which adds complexity to the story. In here, I completely bought that Lohman and Long are happy together even though they come from completely different backgrounds. And that relationship is often challenged by the supernatural that’s unfolding before their eyes.

As for the film’s negatives, I do not have much to say because I enjoyed it that much. However, I would have liked to have seen more of Justin Long. I know he can do horror mixed with comedy really well (such as in “Jeepers Creepers) so I thought he was going to be more than just the boyfriend who offers unconditional positive regard (Yes, that term is purposeful because his character is a Psychology professor). Lastly, I think it needed at least three more genuinely scary scenes with no comedy involved. Most of the scenes are a mix of the two genres so it would have been nicer to have alternatives. I also could’ve used more psychology talk; I loved the heated exchange between Long’s character and the fortuneteller (Dileep Rao) regarding theories from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung about science and religion. As a Psychology student (partly), it was that much more enjoyable because I engaged with it. Regardless, these are minor flaws that I really had to think about so that’s a good sign.

“Drag Me to Hell” is not your typical horror movie. For one, it does not involve stupid, sexually-charged teenagers running around a deserted hallway as they try to escape from a serial killer, or cellphones/videotapes that have ghosts in them. It’s about how one decision that we initially thought others would notice and commend us for turns out to be the decision that ultimately shatters our lives. It’s been a really long time since I’ve enjoyed a first-rate PG-13 horror flick so watching this film was truly refreshing. I can only wish that Raimi would make another horrorfest (maybe take inspiration from those comedy-drama intersecting storylines?) because I could feel his passion through the lens. And yes, just in case you’re wondering, the title is very literal.