Graphic horror film tickled director Raimi's funny bone

Sam Raimi does not seem like a gleeful sadist. On a recent morning in the sparsely populated production offices of "Spider-Man 4," he's exceedingly polite and far more modest than the average A-list director whose comic book movie franchise has grossed almost $2.5 billion worldwide.

But lurking beneath that gentle exterior is a man who, in the interest of ratcheting up the tension in his new horror movie, "Drag Me to Hell," dreamed up a gantlet of physically punishing torments for his star, Alison Lohman.

"So much happens to her," Raimi says, recounting the 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."

Says Lohman later: "Sometimes I would look at Sam and say, 'Are you serious?' 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 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.

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 Raimi and his brother Ivan adapted "Drag Me to Hell" from an unpublished short story that they had written years ago.

Raimi says he was overjoyed to tap into his inner geek once more. Raimi forged his career in low-budget horror with the 1981 cult cinema classic "The Evil Dead" (starring Jackson County resident Bruce Campbell) 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.

His return 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 will 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.

"It was the most fun I've had in 20 years directing pictures," he says. "It was great to make a horror film where we had money to hire the best technicians in their fields."

Shot in and around Los Angeles over the course of 60 days, the modestly budgeted "Drag Me to Hell" gave Raimi a chance to get back to basics after having had the most technologically advanced filmmaking tools at his disposal on the "Spider-Man" series.

"I realized, all these toys I'm used to are wonderful, but they're not always necessary," Raimi says. "All I really need is the actress. ... I never should have been thinking about anything else."

The "Drag Me to Hell" experience has left the director creatively rejuvenated, and he's ready to attack "Spider-Man 4," which is due to begin shooting early next year, with a new level of fervor.

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