Sam Raimi does not seem like a gleeful sadist. During a recent morning interview in the sparsely populated Culver City production offices of "Spider-Man 4," he's exceedingly polite and far more modest than the average A-list director whose blockbuster comic book movie franchise has grossed almost $2.5 billion around the world.
But lurking beneath that gentle, Midwestern exterior is a man who, in the interest of ratcheting up the tension in his new horror movie, "Drag Me to Hell," opening Friday, dreamed up a gantlet of physically punishing torments for his star, Alison Lohman.
"So much happens to her," Raimi says, recounting the various tortures he inflicted on the actress. "She has pumps placed inside her body to spew blood, inside her nostril, when she's got this big bloody nose scene. I have dummies that were made with extra wide jaw openings . . . to suckle her face with slime oozing out of it. And then I had to bury her in about 800 pounds of mud. And then we had puppets that were designed just to projectile-vomit maggots inside her mouth."
"Sometimes I would look at Sam and say, 'Are you serious?' " Lohman says later. "It was kind of unbelievable at times. It almost didn't feel like making a movie, but I was on 'Survivor.' He didn't ever let up on me."
Somehow, Raimi's dark side hasn't done any injury to his reputation as a gentleman filmmaker. The 49-year-old Michigan native has managed to become one of Hollywood's most successful directors, building a reputation over the last 10 years as a technical virtuoso who believes in emphasizing story over spectacle -- even when that spectacle involves a costumed superhero facing off against, say, a menacing villain possessed by a mind-altering bodysuit from outer space.
His ability to craft smart studio tentpoles like the three "Spider-Man" films and quiet dramas such as 1998's Oscar-nominated "A Simple Plan" has made him a favorite among critics, who, judging from early reviews, seem to be equally enthralled with his latest offering, which played at the Cannes Film Festival last week.
Given the events that set the story in motion, "Drag Me to Hell" couldn't be more topical: Bank officer Christine (Lohman) attempts to impress her bottom-line-minded boss by refusing an old gypsy woman's request for a third extension on her mortgage. The gypsy (Lorna Raver) takes her revenge in the form of a curse designed to put a serious damper on Christine's afterlife. The plot taps into real-world fears over the collapse of the world's financial markets, soaring unemployment and the burst of the housing bubble, but the timing is sheer accident. Raimi and his brother Ivan adapted "Drag Me to Hell" from an unpublished short story that they had written together years ago.
The pair, who were then struggling to complete a draft of the screenplay for 1990's "Darkman," decided that a creative diversion would improve their outlook, so they penned the tale in a weekend. Years later, after Raimi opened his production company, Ghost House Pictures, he lobbied several other filmmakers to take on the project, but no one would.
"It was depressing," Raimi says. "The screenplay, I tried to make it as good as I could, but it just didn't appeal to them."
Maybe it was movie karma, but there's no question that Raimi was the right man for this particular job. The film thematically fits into the director's body of work quite neatly, as he seems drawn to tales that revolve around a character living with the consequences of an important choice -- modern morality plays, in a sense.
In this case, he says, the setup "was just an economical way to tell this story and make the main character active and really responsible for everything that happened to her. We wanted the audience to identify with her and make this choice with her and sin with her in throwing that old woman out.
"So once they had made that greedy, sinful choice with her, whether they knew it or not, every moment that this demon from Hell, which was sicced on her as punishment, was coming for her, they would have been guilty of that sin too, and it would be coming for them also. They would be on that ride because they sinned right along with her."
Raimi says he was overjoyed to tap into his inner geek once more. He forged his career in low-budget horror with the 1981 cult cinema classic "The Evil Dead" and its follow-ups, using those movies as a place to perfect his signature brand of kinetic camera work and his habit of pairing horror with humor.
The fact that he's returning to the genre after such a long absence has transformed this compact little movie into the event film of the summer for devoted horror fans (who'll be thrilled to hear that he hasn't ruled out another "Evil Dead" movie), and even Raimi says it felt like a homecoming of sorts.