The new EVIL DEAD, directed by feature newcomer Fede Alvarez, may seem to be the latest chapter in Hollywood’s ongoing descent into creative bankruptcy. But is that actually so? Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons get together to debate whether this return to Sam Raimi’s prototypical cabin-in-the-woods bloodbath is yet another wan knockoff being shoveled into theaters in lieu of, oh, something new and different, or a fitting follow-up that respects Raimi’s delirious, anything-for-a-scream aesthetic and then throws in an emotional grounding not exhibited in the previous entries.
Then, Steve and Dan discuss the nuanced, Norwegian horror film THALE, and Dan gives his opinion of the not-quite-as-nuanced horror comedy, EDDIE THE SLEEPWALKING CANNIBAL. Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week.
Another film that answers questions we didn’t ask, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is a prequel showing how the magical land over the rainbow got its formidable-but-all-too-fallible wizard. Director Sam Raimi makes his 3D debut in this big-budget project, recruiting James Franco as his soon-too-be Oz, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams as a trio of witches good and wicked, and Zach Braff and Joey King voicing some of the kingdom’s more magical inhabitants: a flying monkey and a China girl. Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons bought a round-trip ticket to this fantasy world, and are back to discuss whether the newer actors live up to their original counterparts in 1939’s THE WIZARD OF OZ, if the CG-enhanced visuals add new grandeur to the predecessor’s production design, and if the entire experience is more like a wild ride into a tornado or a soporific stroll through a field of poppies.
Also: Steve gives his opinion of THE ABCS OF DEATH, and what’s coming to theaters next week.
WEEKEND OF HORRORS
LOS ANGELES, CA
Fri., Sat. & Sun.
October 15-17, 2010 Marriott Burbank Airport Hotel
With Guests Including BRUCE CAMPBELL
SEAN PATRICK FLANERY (SAW 3D)
NORMAN REEDUS (THE WALKING DEAD)
TROY DUFFY (BOONDOCK SAINTS)
SID HAIG (SPIDER BABY & MORE)
KEN FOREE (DAWN OF THE DEAD)
ADRIENNE KING (FRIDAY THE 13th — Crystal Lake Wine)
ROBERT Z’DAR (MANIAC COP)
WILLIAM LUSTIG (MANIAC — Blue Underground Video)
FRANK HENENLOTTER (BASKETCASE)
“UNCLE BOB” MARTIN
NATHAN HANNEMAN (HORRORHOUND) PlusJEFFREY COMBS’ One Man Show NEVERMORE
A complete schedule of events will be posted shortly before the convention. Check their NEW webpage for Updates. Note: Cinefantastique is a Media Sponsor of this event.
When THE EVIL DEAD exploded onto theatre screens in 1983, it was with all the gorily gleeful impact of a Jack-O’Lantern detonated by over-enthusiastic kids playing with firecrackers – a wild and unrestrained blast of grueling horror influenced by everything from THE EXORCIST to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Although the film essentially came out of nowhere – shot in Tennessee by unknown filmmakers from Detroit – it did suffer from unrealized expectations in at least one sense: author Stephen King had helped rescue THE EVIL DEAD from obscurity by writing a review in which he called it “the most ferociously original horror film of the year.” Although the adverb “ferociously” is perfectly appropriate, one can only credit the adjective “original” to excess enthusiasm on King’s part, THE EVIL DEAD’s essential virtue is not originality but an unrelenting intensity born of a go-for-broke attitude that seems to known no limits, pummeling the audience with one insane shock effect after another.
Unfortunately, these overblown horror theatrics are preceded by early scenes that are lame even by the standards of exploitation cinema, as five hapless friends arrive at an isolated cabin for a weekend of vaguely defined fun (with no obvious interest in having sex and/or exploring the woods, they mostly sit around talking). The attempt to establish setting and build mood is laudable, but there is an amateurish quality to the character interaction. The directorial flourishes – which will work so well later – only underline the weaknesses: for example, during a scene of Ash (Bruce Campbell) pretending to be asleep while Linda (Betsy Baker) examines a present he has given her, a series of close-ups of the characters’ eyes suggests a dramatic intensity that is entirely lacking.
Thankfully, once the characters discover and play an old tape recorder, with an incantation that resurrects Kandarian demons lurking in the woods, the unsatisfying dramaturgy is replaced by an all-out assault of horror. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) is raped by moving branches and vines in the woods. Morphing into a demon, she plunges a pencil into Betsy, breaking off the tip in her ankle. When Shelly (Theresa Tilly) also becomes possessed, her boyfriend Scott (Richard DeManicor) resorts to the only method of dispatching the demons: total body dismemberment. When Betsy joins the ranks of the Evil Dead, Ash is forced to defend himself, beating her with a wooden beam and eventually decapitating her with a shovel. When Scott finally falls prey to the evil forces, Ash is driven to the brink of madness before making a final stand against his former friends… How do we account for the effectiveness of THE EVIL DEAD, a film that uses its simple story only as a pretext to hurl horror at the audience? Sure, it is loaded with gore and violence (so much so that the filmmakers had to sidestep the MPAA and release the film unrated rather than take an “X”), but that is hardly unique. I think that there are three basic qualities that raise THE EVIL DEAD to the top of the bloody heap of exploitation horror.
The first is that, despite THE EVIL DEAD’s dramatic deficiencies, there is an absolute conviction about its horrors – they get inside your head, making it difficult to dismiss them mere gratuitous excess lavished by overenthusiastic filmmakers. Even when the film oversteps the bounds of good taste, with the notorious and potentially offensive tree-rape sequence, the viewer reaction is one of “Oh my god, what’s happening to that woman!” – not “What kind of sleaze-balls made this movie?”
The second essential quality is a nightmarish situation that grabs you by the gut and forces you to confront the horror in a supremely visceral way: the characters are basically trapped in a cabin and must use whatever sharp or blunt instruments are available to defend themselves – from monsters that used to be their friends. It would probably take a scorecard to determine which side sheds the most blood, the humans or the Evil Dead, and the violence gets an extra kick of revulsion when performed by hapless heroes reluctantly carving up their girlfriends.
The third element that lifts THE EVIL DEAD above the charnel house and into the realm of grotesque art is the manic stylings of director Sam Raimi, whose restless camera, contrived angles, and jagged editing propel the audience into the action. Although the abundance of flashy technique can be distracting during the character moments (e.g., the aforementioned gift-giving scene), it is perfectly suited to the intensity of the horror sequences, forcing you to go along for the delirious ride almost as if you were another character.
The effect becomes the cinematic equivalent of the over-heated prose of an Edgar Allan Poe or an H.P. Lovecraft, who managed to convey the tortured mental state of their characters (usually first-person narrators) through an abundance of verbiage. Raimi uses the camera to convey an almost deranged state of mind to the audience, who find it easy to identify with Ash when he starts to crack under the pressure: at one point he sees his hand slide into a mirror as if into a pool of water – a moment of pure insanity that disturbs as deeply as any of the carnage. In a film notably short on characterization, this audience empathy is a remarkable achievement. In retrospect, it is worth noting that Ash here is not the resilient monster-fighter of EVIL DEAD 2, nor is he the over-confidant blow-hard of ARMY OF DARKNESS. Still, as the mayhem mounts higher and higher, Campbell becomes more comfortable with the role, offering hints of where he would take the character in the sequels. In THE EVIL DEAD, Ash is simply the last survivor – the fifth little Indian, so to speak, and there is little heroic about him. But that’s all part of the film’s grueling horror aesthetic, in which the characters live only so that they can die in horrible ways for the entertainment of the audience. It’s a simply formula, but it works well here, earning the film’s reputation as a cult classic if not a full-blown masterpiece.
HOME VIDEO HISTORY
Thanks to its original English distributor, THE EVIL DEAD is one of the first films to be released simultaneously into theatres and on home video, back in the days of VHS. A little movie without stars or a big advertising budget, it was unlikely ever to become a theatrical blockbuster, but videotape sales turned it into a cult success. Appropriately then, it has seen several resurrections in different formats: laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray.
Up until Anchor Bay Entertainment’s Augst 31, 2010 release of the limited edition Blu-ray disc, the essential version for serious collectors was Anchor Bay’s previous “Ultimate Edition” DVD. Since the new Blu-ray is almost, but not quite, a duplicate, we will examine the DVD first and then note the additions, deletions, and improvements in the Blu-ray version.
ANCHOR BAY’S ULTIMATE EDITION DVD
The Ultimate Edition DVD of THE EVIL DEAD is a three-disc box set that will probably remain a collector’s item despite the Blu-ray competition – for its impressive packaging, if nothing else. The box unfolds into five segments, which are decorated with publicity artwork (featuring Campbell with a female model not seen in the actual film). The discs themselves are also nicely illustrated with artwork or photos, and there is fold-out recreation of the theatrical poster (14 inches by 19 inches). The 25 chapter stops (with titles like “Violated in the Woods” and “Hacked to Bits”) are listed on the inside front cover. DISC 1 – WIDESCREEN presents THE EVIL DEAD in a 1.78 transfer, with an optional audio commentary by producer Rob Tapert and writer-director Sam Raimi. Also on the disc is the lengthy documentary, ONE BY ONE WE WILL TAKE YOU: THE UNTOLD SAGA OF THE EVIL DEAD.
The widescreen transfer is not bad, but it is marred by a problem inherent in the film, which was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution. The result is grainy, especially because the film was intended to be shown in the old-fashioned 1.33 aspect ratio; stretching it out to the 1.78 aspect ratio for today’s widescreen televisions brings the grain out even more. The transfer also looks a bit dull and soft, as if it needs more contrast, and it seems slightly over-matted – almost zoom-boxed – cutting a bit too much off the bottom of the frame. (This is noticeable in a scene wherein Shelly fools Betsy into thinking she has ESP: the first card that Theresa holds up for Betsy to guess is barely visible at the bottom of the frame.)
Audio Commentary: The remarks by Raimi and Tapert are friendly but not as lively as one would expect. Some good behind-the-scenes stories emerge (such as one about Raimi falling asleep behind the camera – a secret he kept from the crew until the dailies were seen, revealing that he had left the camera run on endlessly). However, at times Raimi and Tapert sound as if they do not have much to say about the film, and there are numerous drop-outs.
ONE BY ONE WE WILL TAKE YOU: THE UNTOLD SAGA OF THE EVIL DEAD is an extensive chronicle of the making of the film, loaded with interviews from most of the major players and many of the minor ones as well: Rob Tapert, makeup man Tom Sullivan, Josh Becker, and actresses Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, and Theresa Tilly (Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are noticeably absent). Fans like filmmakers Edgar Wright (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) and Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER) show up to express their enthusiasm. The result is nicely intercut with clips from the film, including outtakes and trims, with sound recorded live on set, that will give you a new-found appreciation for the post-production sound enhancement that turned these voices into demonic howlings from hell.
DISC 2 – FULL FRAME preserves the original 1.33 aspect ratio in a superior transfer with an optional audio commentary by Bruce Campbell, plus the bonus feature THE EVIL DEAD: TREASURES FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR. The full-frame transfer is preferable over the widescreen version, leaving picture information intact and not magnifying the graininess as much.
Audio Commentary: This disc benefits from Cambell’s amusing audio track. All by himself, he out-talks Raimi and Tapert combined, offering a continuous stream of jokes, asides, and anecdotes far more informative than one usually expects from an actor (no doubt because Campbell served double duty behind the camera, he is well acquainted with the nuts-and-bolts kind of details that make for a compelling commentary). This commentary (not duplicated on the Blu-ray) remains a selling point for the DVD.
THE EVIL DEAD: TREASURES FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR: Not as much can be said for the bonus feature, which offers unedited outtakes and trims, with slates intact, rather than deleted scenes. Presented in continuity, without audio commentary, the footage winds up feeling like a fragmented alternate version of the film, seldom providing any interesting information about the making of the film. The sole exception is the tree-rape scene: in the actual film, the footage is run in reverse to create the illusion of deliberate movement by vines and branches; seeing the action staged is an interesting glimpse into how the effect was achieved. The key scene (a branch thrusting between Ellen Sandweiss’s legs) belies the actresses’ claim that the branch was added in post-production. Overall, this footage is put to better use in ONE BY ONE WE WILL TAKE YOU, which inserts illustrative clips at appropriate moments.
EASTER EGG: This disc contains an Easter Egg that is recycled on the Blu-ray, where it is listed as a bonus feature. (See Blu-ray review section, below.)
DISC 3 – LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD offers the majority of bonus material, including featurettes, makeup tests, trailers, and image galleries.
LIFE AFTER DEATH: THE LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD features interviews with Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, and Theresa Tilly, explaining how they became part of the EVIL DEAD convention phenomenon decades after putting the film behind them.
THE LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD MEET BRUCE CAMPBELL is a group interview, spiced up with a few film clips, in which the actor and the three actresses share several funny stories about the injuries they received while working on the film.
DISCOVERING THE EVIL DEAD offers insight from Palace Video partners Stephen Wooley and Nick Powell, along with Bill Warrern (author of The Evil Dead Companion), who discuss the day-and-date simultaneous theatrical-video release strategy that helped the little horror movie finds its audience in England (and make a profit even though American theatrical distributor New Line Cinema coughed up few if any dollars to the filmmakers).
UNCONVENTIONAL is a group interview with Campbell, the actresses, and Hal Delrich (Richard DeManicor) discussing the convention phenomenon, while Sam Raimi’s brother Ted recalls visiting the film set and being drafted as a “Fake Shemp” (i.e., body double).
AT THE DRIVE IN features the by-now familiar faces, plus makeup man Tom Sullivan, giving away DVDs to enthusiastic fans at a drive-in screening in Chicago. Though nicely shot, this is essentially a home movie, with little of interest.
REUNION PANEL features a Q&A discussion with the usual suspects at a 2005 convention. The best story comes from actresses Sandweiss, Baker, and Tilly, who recall signing the thigh of a man, who later had the signatures permanently tattooed onto his skin. Otherwise, this is fun but somewhat slow, with apparently the entire conversation playing out in real time, as we wait for questions from the audience that are barely audible on the soundtrack. Also, some of the stories are starting to sound familiar. Editing together the best bits might have been a wiser strategy.
MAKE-UP TEST is a bit misnamed. The footage is actually special effects test footage, first of blood dripping on a white background, then with a split-screen shot of model, combining stop-motion and live-action.
TRAILER in widescreen with no narration
TV SPOTS – full frame with narration melodramatically warning potential viewers about the horrors contained therein
STILL GALLERY:behind-the-scenes images, location shots, makeup shots
POSTER & MEMORABILIA: poster art, video box art, and 2 design sketches of makeup and effects.
EASTER EGGS: This disc contains two Easter Eggs: one with Rob Tapert, Betsy Baker, and Therese Tilly (a.k.a. Sarah York) appearing at an American Cinematheque screening in Hollywood; the other with Ellen Sandweiss discussing the film with her old high school drama teacher.
ANCHOR BAY’S LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY
Anchor Bay’s limited edition Blu-ray release OF THE EVIL DEAD (which hit stores on August 31) is essentially their old three-disc Ultimate Edition DVD condensed down to two discs: one Blu-ray (which contains the film) and one DVD (which ports over most of the old bonus features). DISC ONE contains two high-def transfers and an all-new audio commentary featuring Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, and Bruce Campbell. The 1080p transfers are presented in anamorphic 1.85 and the original 1.33 aspect ratio, with Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio. Essentially, this recreated the Ultimate Edition DVD presentation, which also offered widescreen and full-screen transfers (although on separate discs).
Unfortunately, the disc seems slow to load (I have heard complaints that it freeze, but this did not happen on my low-cost Insignia player). Then you have to sit through the obligatory trailers for other Anchor Bay releases; the disc will not allow you to skip this section by pressing the menu button, but you can chapter stop through. This can be very frustrating if you have to take the disc out of the player for some reason before you are finished watching (for example, if you are going back and forth between the Blu-ray and the DVD for the purpose of writing a review like this one).
Due to the 16mm origins of THE EVIL DEAD, with its legacy of visible film grain, it is unfair to expect the full benefit of high-def; nevertheless, both transfers offer visible improvements on the DVD versions: they are clearer, brighter, and sharper. Especially impressive, some flawed matte work has been corrected: the moon, inserted via split screen, was once surrounded by visible matte lines, and the color of the sky was noticeably different (dark blue instead of black). On Blu-ray, the effect is near seamless, visible more in memory than on the screen.
The framing of the widescreen transfer has been improved (the first card Shelly holds up for Betsy to guess is now clearly visible), and overall this version is now quite presentable. Still, the full frame version is preferable, both for preserving the director’s original intent and for keeping the magnification of grain to a minimum. (Raimi and Tapert understandably express a preference for this version in the audio commentary.)
Audio Commentary: The combination of Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell is a good one, as between the three of them they know just about everything a fan could want to know about the making of THE EVIL DEAD. Perhaps in an effort to avoid duplicating their previous (separate commentaries), this one is not scence-specific; instead, it proceeds chronologically, offering an audio account of the film, from conception, through financing, production, post-production, and distribution. The conversation is loaded with detailed information about such subjects as the switch from Super 8 (which they used in their student films) to 16mm, in their effort to go pro, and there are many kind words for Irvin Shapiro, the rep who helped the film make money on foreign and home video sales (which saved the day, since they saw no money from New Line Cinema’s theatrical release). Along the way, there are many new stories (or at least stories not heard on the other commentaries), such as Sam Raimi’s disappointment over the reaction to the script from one potential investor, who said, “You can’t have five minutes of set-up and 60 minutes of THE EXORCIST!” One minor quibble: in the back-and-forth dialogue about various people encountered during post-production, Raimi references writer-director Frank LaLoggia’s THE LADY IN WHITE, in a way that might make a careless listener think the film was directed by Joel Coen.
Missing are the two audio commentaries from the Ultimate Edition DVD. In the case of the Raimi-Tapert commentary, this is not as severe a loss, but the Campbell commentary is dearly missed.
The LIMITED EDITION BONUS DVD (whose surface lacks cover art, sporting only the lettering of the title) ports over most of the bonus features from the Ultimate Edition DVD and adds one “new” feature.
OLD BONUS FEATURES:
ONE BY ONE WE WILL TAKE YOU: THE UNTOLD SAGA OF THE EVIL DEAD
THE EVIL DEAD: TREASURES FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR
DISCOVERING THE EVIL DEAD
AT THE DRIVE-IN
THE LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD MEET BRUCE CAMPBELL
Missing are LIFE AFTER DEATH: THE LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD and the Poster & Memorabilia Gallery. However, some images from the latter have been added to the Still Gallery: four professional poster images, a homemade ad for the film under its original title (BOOK OF THE DEAD), and two makeup-effects sketches.
“NEW” BONUS FEATURE:
BOOK OF THE DEAD: THE OTHER PAGES is not technically new, as it appeared on the second disc of the Ultimate Edition DVD as an Easter Egg. This is a longer version of the scene wherein Ash flips through the mysterious book found in the cabin’s cellar. Basically, you see more of the strange illustrations that fill the pages. This looks like footage from an unfinished rough cut, and it is easy to see why the scene was trimmed down.
Anchor Bay’s limited edition Blu-ray lacks the beautiful packaging of the Ultimate Edition DVD, and it is missing some bonus features: two audio commentaries, the LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD featurette, and some of the gallery images. The inclusion of BOOK OF THE DEAD: THE OTHER PAGES is not enough to compensate for these omissions, so that the DVD box set remains an essential component for a hardcore fan’s collection, even one who decides to acquire the Blu-ray as well. Fortunately, the new Blu-ray audio commentary is not only excellent but also quite different from the previous ones, making it worth hearing even for fans who think they have heard it all before. The real selling point, however, is the high-def transfers. Although a grainy grindhouse horror film hardly seems like the ideal candidate for a lavish Blu-ray treatment, the new transfers are such an obvious improvement that you do not have to be a tech-geek to spot the difference. If you want to savor the gory goodness of THE EVIL DEAD on home video, with every burst pustule and glob of blood as clear and sharp as the day it was filmed, then the Blu-ray disc is the way to go. THE EVIL DEAD (Renaissance Pictures, 1981; released by New Line Cinema, April 15, 1983). Written and directed by Sam Raimi. Produced by Rob Tapert. Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManicor (as Hal Delrich), Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly (as Sarah York).
Thanks to his role as Ash in the EVIL DEAD films, actor Bruce Campbell has earned a place in horror movie history as the as an undefeatable monster-killing uber-warrior, capable of dispatching hordes of Deadites with nothing more than a sawed-off shotgun and a chainsaw attached to the stump of his arm. The aura of invincibility that surrounds him is so powerful that it renders some of his other films – as disparate as CONGO and MANIAC COP II – utterly incredible, because as all his fans know, you just can’t kill off Bruce Campbell. Now, along comes MY NAME IS BRUCE, a movie that takes Campbell’s image as an invincible monster-fighter and spins it to comic effect. In the story written by Mark Verheiden, real-life actor Bruce Campbell plays on-screen actor “Bruce Campbell” – who is kidnapped by a fan and involuntarily drafted into a small town’s battle against an ancient monster. Convinced that it’s all a joke sponsored by his agent (Ted Raimi), Campbell goes along – until he realizes that he is fighting not an actor in a rubber suit or an optical effect but an actual Chinese god of war, Guan-di (Jamie Peck), out to avenge the desecration of the graves of Chinese miners smothered in a cave-in decades ago. Can the actor rise to the occasion and recreate his on-screen exploits in “real” life? Audiences can now find out, as Campbell today starts a tour of Landmark Theatres, appearing in person to open the film for special engagements across the country. As part of the promotional push, Campbell took time to talk with Cinefantastique by phone last week. STEVE BIODORWSKI: I’ll start with the obvious. How is this different from films like THREE AMIGOES or GALAXY QUEST, which feature actors suddenly thrust into real-life situations?
BRUCE CAMPBELL: This is the horror version of those. Was that the concept – to do a horror version of those films?
No, the concept was never to copy anybody else’s movie, but it’s got similar elements – no question about it. It’s for a very specific crowd – for the neglected horror crowd. How was this conceived? You didn’t write it, yet the concept is obviously built around you.
The concept was pitched to me by Mike Richardson from Dark Horse Comics. He had a long association with Mark Verheiden. Those guys pitched an idea that was really based on a comic from the ‘40s about Alan Ladd, who was kidnapped to fight pirates. That’s how that formulated. They pitched it to me and I said, “Let’s do it,” because I was looking for something to direct. Mark did a couple of drafts, and then I made it my own from there. When the project was offered to you was it was not just as an actor?
No, Mark Richardson and I had been talking about making movies before, and this was something he thought might fit the bill, as partners and with me as director. Tell me about the challenges of being on both sides of the camera.
I’ve done it since ’96, I think, so it’s not real new to me; I’ve done it on HERCULES and XENA. I got used to dealing with special effects and how you manage being in front of the camera and behind. I find it to be no big deal. I block everything with a stand in, so I can watch it objectively as a director. Then I jump in at the last minute. How do you find it, as a director, having to evaluate your performance as an actor?
I’ve had to go on auto-pilot many times, when my director blows, so it’s no big deal. If I have to, I can always push the auto-pilot button. You get the gut feeling of whether something is printable or not. You use video assist?
Absolutely, because if there’s technical issues involved, I want to see those before we move on. I might do something that I’m happy with, but if there’s focus issues or the framing is wrong, then you got to go again. It’s a useful tool. You have several EVIL DEAD alumni on the crew.
As many as possible. My director of photography, Curt Roth, was a P.A. on EVIL DEAD. Ellen Sandweiss was in it, who played Sheryl; she plays my ex-wife in this. I got Danny Hicks from EVIL DEAD 2; he plays a horrible, toothless hick. I brought Tim Quill in from ARMY OF DARKNESS; he plays a blacksmith. I tried to get as many as I could, as many as would say yes. Are you trying to recapture that hand-made style of filmmaking from the good old EVIL DEAD days?
Absolutely. I shot it on my property. You can’t get anymore hand-made than that. I built a Western town on my property. My local town of Jacksonville, Oregon was having a big music festival. The town would have been perfect to shoot in, but they didn’t want to block streets and all that, so I went, “All right, we’ll build the town.” We found local ranchers, and we rent, borrowed, and stole whatever we could. I got to sleep in my own bed for the first time while working on a movie! Obviously you’re working on limited resources. What was the biggest challenge in terms of taking the script and getting it up on the screen?
Well, I had to do a draft just to get it into the right production reality, based on where we could shoot or couldn’t shoot or what was available. You always have to do one of those drafts, just to adjust it to the reality of what’s happening. You try to do as much on paper first before you go in. It’s all about planning as far as I’m concerned. We had a lot of planning because on a low-budget you can’t shoot for 100 days like ARMY OF DARKNESS; you’ve got to get it done. But coming from a television directing background, shooting six pages a day is not intimidating at all; it just means you have to be ready to do it. You can’t sit around on the set going, “Gee, what should we shoot today? Maybe I’ll shoot it this way – no, maybe that way.” You don’t get to do that; you’ve got to be ready. I come with a shot list and say, “Here’s our marching orders for the day.”
We try to keep it to 12-hour days, too, because I don’t want to work more than 12 hours. You hear all this crap about independent filmmakers: “We shot 18-hour days.” I’m like, “Then, sir, you don’t know what you’re doing.” I’m serious. I hear that and go, “Include me out!” That must affect the level of performance.
It makes it dangerous for the crew to drive home. You’re not getting the best out of anybody, particularly the actors, because they’re going to get all bleary eyed and tired. It’s stupid. Whenever I hear that, I feel sorry for everyone involved, because obviously the people at the top don’t know what’s happening. If the people at the top don’t know what’s going on, the people at the bottom are screwed, because they’re the ones who have to bear the brunt of the bad decisions. So we pull the plug at 12 hours. Technology has advanced a long way since the EVIL DEAD films. There must be advantages now for low-budget filmmakers.
Tons of advantages, mostly advantages. We shot in HD, which is still clunky. I call it “H-Delay.” It’s not as fast as film, but it’s very cool. It’s a neat format. The finished product looks terrific. So I’m happy with that, but it’s not that fast. Digital editing – non-linear editing – has been massive. You can save eighteen versions. You can save a director’s cut, a producer’s cut, a studio cut. Before, you had to physically make a print and cut it. Now you’re not losing two frames at the bottom of a trim bin that you want to splice back on. So you can try stuff; you can experiment. “Oh, that didn’t work – speed that up.” Creatively, it’s terrific.
Digital sound editing has been unbelievable. You can take someone – if they said a word and it took too long, you can speed up that one word and make it fit. If someone has sibilance on their S’s, you can shave the S’s off. You can pitch someone up or down – make them sound scary or like a little girl. It’s just gotten better and better, and the quality is crisp and clean now; it doesn’t have any analog hiss.
And the digital effects are getting easier to do and cheaper. So, it’s all good. I love the technology. And look, between email and all that stuff, the technology has allowed me to not live in L.A. Because the gear isn’t as expensive now, more people can have it. So it empowers the little guy. I think it’s good to get HD cameras all over this country in the hands of film-makers. Let ‘em make movies in Gerry, Indiana. Why do they have to go to L.A.? It seems easier to get a finished result that looks polished. If you look at low-budget movies from the past, they had that stun-gun look to the lighting.
And the sounds like crap! The two things that give a movie away right away: if it looks bad and if it sounds bad, just turn it off; they don’t know what they’re doing. You’re going on tour to promote the film at screenings around the country. Have you had the opportunity to see the film with an audience yet?
I have, at a couple of sneaks. The response has been good, so I’m feeling good about getting it out to the world. This gives you an opportunity to see you audience face-to-face.
I feel it’s very necessary to go out. Aside from the fun road trip, I get to see who shows up: Who’s watching these things? Is anybody watching these things? And gauging the reaction. The only way to know if your movie really sucks or not is to sit in front of fifty audiences and watch it.
You always gage it to see if it starts strong but you lose ‘em. It’s all about: Do you hold their attention? What parts do they like? After awhile, you can predict. It becomes like a performance: it will always work in this area; it will always be a little slow here. Last question: A year or so ago, you were quoted in regards to a proposed reboot of the EVIL DEAD franchise. Is anything happening with that?
No really. Not because we don’t respond to it. The desire is there because Sam and I still like working with each other and still have a lot of fun. We want to, but Sam just signed up for Part IV [of SPIDER-MAN]. I’m on BURN NOTICE, which is a hit show on cable; I got to go back there for the third season, so we’re kind of busy. So until we become old men, I guess, I don’t know what’s going to happen. And Sam’s raising a family now, so I don’t know. The EVIL DEAD movies are really a pain in the ass and take a long time to make, so you’ve got to commit a year, and neither of us are able to do that right now.
The third SPIDER-MAN film is a bit like a web that’s been hanging in a dusty corner for years: it’s so weighted down with sticky bits and pieces of past detritus that it’s in danger of being ripped apart by the struggles of the new prey caught in the strands. Fortunately, the franchise strengths remain strong enough to support this wobbly structure: SPIDER-MAN 3 is still about ordinary people whose ordinary problems are complicated by the burderns of superherodom.
The first half is a a slow-moving unruly mess that desperately tries to introduce new characters while simultaneously re-introducing continuing plot threads from the previous two films. Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) escapes from prison and turns into Sandman. Harry Osborn (James Franco) adopts the mantle of the New Goblin and tries to avenge himself against Spider-Man for the death of his father in the first film. Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) seeks to usurp Peter Parker’s position as photographer at the city newspaper; eventually, so late in the film it almost feels like an afterthought, he turns into Venom, a sort of evil version of Spider-Man.
Meanwhile, what should be the focus of the story appears only in bits and pieces: Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) lets being Spider-Man go to his head, first succumbing to the adultation of fans and later succumbing to his dark side when he uses his powers to extract revenge on Marko (who it turns out is the real killer of Parker’s uncle, who died in SPIDER-MAN). This plot thread is pretty thin at first, with Parker evincing disinterest at the plight of his long-time girlfriend Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) when her Broadway singing career bombs; however, it kicks off to hilarious effect later in the film, giving Maguire a chance to show that, beyond playing a nerdy nice guy, he can really excell at playing a self-absorbed, arrogant dickhead. (The sight of him walking the street – a la John Travolta in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, dancing to the music in his head and obviously thinking he is the epitome of cool even while everyone else is rolling their eyes – is a wonder to behold.)
Once the movie finally gets all its ducks lined up in a row, the later half does serve up the requisite action thrills, with Venom and Sandman teaming up against Spidey, who gets some help from an unlikely ally. As in the previous films, there is lots of comic book action rendered courtesy of computer graphics; it’s almost never convincing, and it’s seldom genuinely exciting, but it is colorful, and at times the drama of the situation helps us overlook the technical shortcomings (shortcomings to which the filmmakers themselves seem blissfully indifferent – they serve up webfuls of the CGI, especially of Spidey’s web-swinging among skyscrapers, as if no one’s going to notice how cartoony it looks).
Maguire gets to stretch out this time, thanks to Parker’s flirtation with the dark side. Dunst is lovely, but there is not much she can do with Mary Jane, who is a bit of a self-pitying whiner in this film. Bryce Dallas Howard barely registers as Gwen Stacy, the new woman in Parker’s life, and Topher Grace is a bit too wimpy to make a truly threatening villain, even with the help of the special effects, but Church pulls off Marko with aplomb (he actually sells the character’s last-reel change-of-heart, something the script expects us to accept on faith). And Bruce Campbell, veteran of many early Sam Raimi films, is terrific in a bit as a waiter in a French restaurant where Parker blows his attempt to propose to Mary Jane.
In the end, SPIDER-MAN 3 – at least in its later portions – stands alongside its predecessors reasonably well, evincing many of the same strengths and weaknesses. What lifts the franchise above most comic book fare is the wonderful way it focuses on Parker as a nerdy do-gooder, uncomfortable with his powers and how they impact his personal life. This creates an instant identifiability that makes the movies engaging – they have a ring of recognizable truth about them, even though they are about a guy who dresses up in a costume to fight crime. On the other hand, when Parker dons the Spider-suit and the special effects take over, the SPIDER-MAN films have yet to deliver a truly out-standing display of virtuoso superhero theatrics. Sure, there has been some fun stuff, but they have yet to deliver a scene as breath-taking as the jet plane rescue in SUPERMAN RETURNS.
The conclusion of SPIDER-MAN 3 features a confrontation between the hero and the villains in the skeleton of a building under construction. A similar setting was used for the conclusion of DARKMAN, director Sam Raimi’s attempt to create an original comic book-type anti-hero for film. SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007). Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent; screen story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Riami, based on the comic book character by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, James Cromwell, Theresa Russell, Dylan Baker, Bill Nunn, Bruce Campbell, Elizabeth Banks, Ted Raimi Perla Haney-Hardine, Willem Dafoe, Cliff Robertson.