Director Sam Raimi returns to his first love

By Roger Moore

“Sam Raimi works exclusively in the horror genre,” Richard Skorman wrote in an appreciation of “Evil Dead II” in the 1989 reference guide Off Hollywood Movies. And so it seemed at the time.

But the intervening years have been grand to Sam. At 49, he has all the fame and riches that the “Spider-Man” franchise can bestow, with a fourth film in that series sitting next on his directing plate. First though, Raimi revisits his horror past. The man who got his start spattering Karo syrup as fake blood all over his childhood pal Bruce Campbell in the “Evil Dead” movies returns to the genre that gave him a career. With “Drag Me to Hell,” fans have proof; Scott Weinberg writes on, that there’s no need to worry that Raimi is “lost in the wilds of big-budget Hollywood.”

“It was really nice to step back into this genre for a little while,” Raimi says in between sessions in the editing booth, prepping the TV, DVD and “director’s cut” versions of the film, which rolls into theaters Friday. “I really enjoy the process of building sequences of suspense, trying to guess what the audience thinks is going to happen and either giving it to them or trying to pull a surprise on them that they’ll enjoy. I like that game you play with the audience in a horror film, all that back and forth of expectation, fear, surprise.”

The movie is an old-fashioned chiller about a young banker (Alison Lohman) cursed by an old woman whose home is in foreclosure, hunted by a mystical beast who will drag her to you-know-where. Raimi tried a Western (“The Quick and the Dead”), thrillers (“A Simple Plan,” “The Gift”) and even a baseball romance (“For the Love of the Game”) after leaving horror behind with 1993’s “Army of Darkness.” He says he missed “the best genre for entertaining people, because that’s all these movies are — escape, losing yourself in the moment, in fear.”

Raimi has learned much about his craft in the intervening years, how to make his films “work.” He asks a lot of questions. He wants to know if the audience that I saw “Drag Me to Hell” with talked back to the screen. The leading lady is faced with a moral choice — pass on her curse to a stranger, a lover, a hated colleague, or deal with it herself. More than a few viewers called out, “Give it to him, girl!”

“You mean the audience you were with wasn’t going, ’DON’T give it to him. That’s WRONG?”’ Wow. Tough crowd!”

Raimi cackles.

“One thing I’ve learned in the years since I last worked in horror was to really respect the audience,” Raimi says. “They are smarter, as a group, than any individual in it. We teach each other what’s funny, or what’s scary.”

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