It’s about slapstick, yes. Splatstick, too, of course. And Bruce Campbell, mos def. But to me, Sam Raimi’s films have really always been about the camera.
Raimi’s camera is a spiritual presence. A thing of evil that roams the forests and the dark bowers of man’s domain. And when you purchase a ticket, this dark spirit is given license to possess the living.
It’s been a while since Raimi’s camera was able to be express its true, malevolent nature. Since 2002, it’s been restrained by the budgets and star-power of the Spider-man franchise, with notable exceptions. In Spider-man 2, the sequence in which Doctor Octopus’ arms awaken and tear apart the operating room is pure Raimi-cam, tilting, tracking, panning and zooming with abandon. And the scenes of Spider-man swinging through the skyscraper canyons of New York, although digital rather than practical, have their roots in the bargain-basement camera rigs Raimi and company built to shoot their earliest films.
But Raimi’s malicious lens is back in full force in his latest release, Drag Me to Hell.
In fact, in Drag Me to Hell, the camera is more present than in any other Raimi film I can recall. In one scene, we watch a fly buzz around a room. It eventually lands on the camera – on the screen – and walks around, as if we in the audience have our noses pressed against a window in the fictive fourth wall. And that got me thinking, and wondering: what does Sam Raimi’s camera mean?
In Drag Me to Hell, as well as in most of his other film, Raimi makes liberal use of Dutch angles. The Dutch angle (or canting, or simply Dutching) is achieved by physically tilting the camera so that horizontal planes meet the bottom of the frame at an angle, rather than running parallel to it. It’s also known at the Batman shot, since it was used pretty much to death in the 60s Batman television series, where shots of the villain’s lairs were Dutched to literalize their crookedness. And literalizing is what the Dutch angle is all about. It has its origins in German Expressionist cinema (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the – again, literal – textbook example); it was used to externalize a character’s unbalanced state of mind, or indicate that normal rules (be they societal or physical) no longer apply. The name “Dutch” is actually a corruption of Deutsch, or German.
And few directors dare to tilt the camera further or more often than Sam Raimi. Pop in a DVD of The Evil Dead, Darkman or The Quick and the Dead and skip to any random scene. You’ll see what I mean. And you’ll see that generally, he’s using the angle in a fairly traditional, expressionist way, to show that things are skew-whiff.
But that’s not all his camera does.
Raimi and the Coen brothers developed what they dubbed “shaky cam” technology in the late 70s/early 80s. It became the POV of the unseen undead in Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, and also got memorable use in the Coens’ Raising Arizona. The shaky cam is basically a camera strapped to a two-by-four and carried through the filming location by one or two people. The length of the timber smoothes out the motion of the carrier’s footsteps and creates a floating stedi-cam like motion (for a fraction of the cost). The shaky cam is to be confused with a verité-style hand held or a Paul Greengrass jitter-cam. It’s not about getting closer to reality. It’s about getting closer to the imagination – or perhaps, to the unimaginable.
In The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, we see the camera as the antagonistic point of view, but it is also used to express the protagonist’s state of mind, swirling, tilting and jabbing as minds disintegrate. It tracks in on characters, menacing them, just as easily as it tips and spins in sympathy with their mental states.
Raimi’s camera shoves the audience around, as well. It leaves characters behind and gets places ahead of you. It slides away from things you’re trying to focus on and shows you things before you’re ready to see them. This trompe-l’oeil trick of de-centering the frame leaves you vulnerable to shocks and scares, and it’s nothing new, but when considered alongside his other techniques, it leads to what is probably an obvious conclusion: Raimi’s camera doesn’t have a single affinity.
It’s on the side of neither the hero nor the villain, because it’s both. It is participant and narrator, inside and outside the story at the same time. It is the fourth wall and the wrecking ball that knocks it down. It is the monster that chases you through the woods.
Maybe Raimi’s camera doesn’t mean anything more or less than any other camera. Maybe they’re all monsters. Not alive, but certainly not dead.
Ian Driscoll is not about to discuss For Love of the Game, so don’t even bring it up.
Great post! I love Sam Raimi’s work. I had a question. Do you know if Raimi created the technique where the camera will quickly jump from one close up to the next eventually ending in a finished product, for instance when Ash assembles his chainsaw arm in Army of Darkness? It seems to pop up in all of Raimi’s films. Any info would be awesome. Thanks
I think what you’re talking about is a fairly classic montage, but as with a lot of cinematic techniques Raimi employs, he makes it his own, adding a series of very deliberate camera moves and zooms, plus sound design, to give it a real sense of momentum.
Montage goes back to Eisenstein, of course, who said: “montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots” wherein “each sequential element is perceived not NEXT to the other, but on TOP of the other” — it’s really stacking up shots to build something (in this case, a prosthetic chainsaw arm). More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_montage_theory
Hope that helps.