Film: A farewell to arms?

The Evil Dead established Sam Raimi as the king of lo-fi gore. But his new film is a moral thriller, his next a baseball movie. Has he lost the taste for splatter, stalk and slash?

Sam Raimi started his career early. He began directing short films at the age of 13, mainly sci-fi pieces and slapstick sketches in the style of The Three Stooges. At the age of 19, he got together with his high-school friend Bruce Campbell and shot Within the Woods, a half- hour Super 8 horror film made to chivvy investors into funding their first feature. By 1982, they had completed a 16mm flick with the wildly adolescent title of The Evil Dead: The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror, a melodrama about teenage vacationers who dig up an occult text and get spattered all over their log cabin by - what else? - Khandarian demons from Ancient Sumeria.

Raimi wanted to call it The Book of the Dead, but its backers vetoed the title, fearing that the whiff of anything literary might scare off its potential audience. Maybe they were right. Five years later, they had received a 150 per cent return on their initial investment of $50,000. The Evil Dead became an enormous cult hit, was applauded at Cannes, and gained notoriety from its skirmish with the British censors. Two sequels made Raimi the king of lo-fi gore.

A Simple Plan, Raimi's latest, reaches British cinemas next week. It contains no zombies, no demons, and no freshly killed corpses gibbering on the slab. It is substantially more Mametian than anything else in the Raimi canon. More Mametian than Army of Darkness: The Evil Dead 3, anyway. Based on a novel by Scott B Smith, it's a moral thriller about three men who find a stash of cash in the snow-covered wreck of an aircraft, and decide to keep it for themselves.

Though it's clearly Raimi's calling card to a more sensible audience, he couldn't resist the temptation to include a scene in which a raven pecks the eyeball out of a putrefying cadaver. "It's in the novel," he protests. But it's still an echo of Raimi's glorious entrail-spattered past, and perhaps a sign that body horror will always remain in his system. "I had to fight the urge to make things more visually dramatic, and keep the direction as invisible as possible," he admits. "It was a struggle for me to allow the actors to tell the story."

Despite the literary source, A Simple Plan is, in some ways, The Evil Dead for grown-ups. It's the story of a group of people in an isolated spot, who find a buried object that brings death and disaster down upon them. Nobody gets raped by a tree or transmogrified into a steaming heap of Satanic pus, but the same structure of desecration and retribution remains in place. And, Raimi concedes, the body count is actually higher.

It was Darkman (1990) that first brought Raimi's movies to a constituency wider than drive-in daters and hardened gore-bibbers. A live-action comic strip about a mad-ish scientist (Liam Neeson) who uses plastic sludge to remodel his mangled body, it allowed Neeson to give the least boring performance of his career, and gave Raimi the clout to tackle mainstream projects: The Quick and the Dead (1995), a Western starring Gene Hackman and Leonardo DiCaprio; A Simple Plan; and the upcoming baseball drama, For the Love of the Game.

Raimi is now a rich man, but this isn't really a result of his movie career - his wealth comes from his extensive moonlighting as a TV producer. CBS may have cancelled his wonderful, macabre soap opera American Gothic after one season, but Universal is now siphoning up revenue from more brazenly commercial projects. Raimi is the man responsible for those barmy pseudo-mythological series in which pneumatic Amazons in chamois leather bikinis punch the lights out of assorted Vikings, dragons and Roman legionaries. Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and Young Hercules might only be bemusing Channel Five fodder to you, but their combination of Baywatch bosomry and medieval martial arts has bounced them to the top of the US ratings charts. And the Dutch can't get enough of them, either.

Horror, however, remains the lodestone of Raimi's career. He is emphatic that he's not abandoned the genre, and thinks it would be "wonderful" to direct The Evil Dead 4. He'll put his money where his mouth is, too. In the past, he's handed out advice and cash to young film-makers who share his passion for the bile-smeared end of cinematic endeavour.

In 1988, he took a chance on JR Bookwalter, and used his salary from The Evil Dead 2 to finance the newcomer's zombie runaround, The Dead Next Door. Drunk with gratitude, Bookwalter named the film's hero after his patron, and has since enjoyed a modestly successful career as a director of low-rent horror. Though you're unlikely to have seen much of his work, Raimi's protege continues to direct straight-to-video pictures such as Robot Ninja (1990), a vigilante stalk'n'slash flick which features neither a Robot nor a Ninja, and stars Burt Ward - who played Robin in the Sixties Batman TV series.

"Sam Raimi is one of us," writes the compiler of a website in homage to the Evil Dead director. "An average Joe, and not some stuck-up Hollywood director. He does his job because he loves doing it." Raimi's CV would certainly seem to bear out this assertion. He has a predilection for acting cameo roles in his friends' movies, and it doesn't seem to matter to him whether their work is cool or crummy.

Raimi has known the Coen Brothers since his college days (Joel was assistant film editor on The Evil Dead), and he played a sniggering gunman for them in Miller's Crossing (1990) and also an advertising executive in The Hudsucker Proxy (which he also co-scripted). He was a meat man in John Landis's Innocent Blood (1990) and a security guard in the same director's Spies Like Us (1985).

They're the prestigious ones. You'd be hard-pushed to find the rest of the Raimi acting back catalogue on the skankiest petrol station video rack. These movies are, however, all products of his good-natured desire to help his mates become schlock auteurs just like him. He was Randy the butcher in Intruder (1988), a supermarket-set slasher flick directed by Scott Spiegel, a student friend who had acted in Raimi's first Super 8 shorts. He played a TV reporter in the ultraviolent, no-brainer Maniac Cop (1988) and its sequel, Maniac Cop 2 (1990).

Both films were artistically inept, but Raimi had a ball with their star (Bruce Campbell, again) and director William Lustig, another old mate. Lustig, who began his career producing and acting in Seventies porn flicks such as The Violation of Claudia and Hot Honey (under the name of Billy Bagg) was later given cameos by Raimi in The Evil Dead 3 (1993) and Darkman. Most recently, Raimi did a favour for William Mesa - the visual effects supervisor on Darkman - when he popped up in a small role in Galaxis (1995), a sci-fi turkey starring the late Fred Asparagus (no kidding) and the invariably dreadful Craig Fairbrass. Schlock, it seems, is where Raimi's heart is.

He is currently in post-production on For the Love of the Game, scissoring Kevin Costner's performance into shape. Many directors would rather be squished by Khandarian demons than work with the infamously self-obsessed star. This is the man, you'll remember, who demanded re-shoots on Waterworld because he thought that his bald patch was too visible. Raimi has this to say about the experience: "He's certainly a guy who knows what he wants. And that isn't always what I want. So we have some conflicts. But he's really put his heart into this movie, and I've never really seen him do that before."

In Hollywood, that might count as an admission of assault and battery. It might also suggest that Raimi will soon be cutting short his vacation from the horror genre, and chasing bloodied teenagers through the woods once more.

`A Simple Plan' is released 21 May

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