Sam Raimi Returns to His Horror Sensibilities in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

Sam Raimi Returns to His Horror Sensibilities in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

As I walked home from a (more or less) midnight unlock showing of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, I turned the last corner to get to my house, and I saw a flashing light. A group of them. There, on the corner, at a house I had walked by hundreds of times, the porch light was turning on and off, on and off, on and off. A tripped fuse, maybe? A bad practical joke? A faulty timer rig? Or perhaps an interdimensional witch of unrivalled power out to unalive me, specifically?

Clearly, Sam Raimi had gotten into my head. I walked slowly on the opposite side of the street from my normal route (which would have led me directly past the clearly haunted porch) and did not look at the house for longer than two seconds, keeping my eyes fixed ahead of me. Raimi had returned to horror just in time to give me a good old freakout, on my walk home, and I loved every minute of it.

Sam Raimi Returns to His Horror Sensibilities in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

Now, I know I got to see an as-early-as-possible release for this film, but I’ve warned you. I’m going to dive into the Raimi hallmarks that appear in Multiverse of Madness, and give y’all a bit of a refresher on some of his work. Really, as soon as the first scene took place I was surprised and excited to recognise Raimi’s hand in the film. The first few minutes have America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) running across an interdimensional junction in the multiverse, pursued by a mummy/zombie spirit with way too many arms, while aided by a version of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) with a ponytail. Besides the rotting monster, wrapped in bandages — a clear throwback to the zombie films that made Raimi’s name in the early ‘80s and ‘90s — there were also some truly amazing smash zooms on both Chavez and the Book of Vishanti, which is held securely in the junction, and presumably holds the key to saving Chavez from being pursued by an army of darkness forever.

(Raimi loves a smash zoom — where the camera really quickly zooms in on a subject and then cuts away, sometimes with extra camera shake or a lens change hidden in a cut between the start of the zoom and the end. Please watch The Quick and the Dead for some truly excellent examples)

And then, Strange (the one we know and tolerate) wakes up. The cinematography here is classic Raimi, spinning slowly as it pulls back, turns over to the side, watching Strange as he comes to realisation that he’s woken up before the camera settles again. A bit of fun, internal-POV camerawork that shows off Strange’s own mental state. Basic film school analysis, but honestly, what’s missing in so many Marvel films is a director’s panache, and here we had it multiple times in the first five minutes, and I was ready for more.

“Raimi’s back, baby,” I muttered to myself in the back of the theatre. “My man is fucking back.”

Image: Marvel Studios
Image: Marvel Studios

Raimi made his directorial mark with 1981’s The Evil Dead, a wild creature feature that’s part isolated cabin slasher and part zombie escape film. It established Raimi as a gore-happy, blood-and-guts kind of horror director, and we got to see some establishing hallmarks and motifs of Raimi’s oeuvre even in this film. There were evil books, monster POV shots, undead creatures, and even a kind of magic that binds a person to the will of an evil force.

It’s worth noting that all of these motifs are present in Multiverse of Madness. There’s one scene in particular that recalls the uber-campy horror of this first big Raimi film, which happens when universe 616’s Scarlet Witch possesses the body of the Wanda Maximoff in universe 868 and proceeds to completely eviscerate the Illuminati in 868. She literally unravels Reed Richards (John Krasinksi), magics off Black Bolt’s (Anson Mount) mouth so that when he tries to speak his head implodes with horrible gushing sound that made everyone in the theatre gasp, slices Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) in half with her own shield, and finally crushes Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch) under a statue. What follows is puppet-Wanda on a shambling zombie-walk through the under-river tunnels of the compound with a a jump scare moment that made me start in my seat. All of these scenes are reminiscent of the low-budget gore of The Evil Dead and, of course, Evil Dead II.

Raimi’s next big hit was 1987’s Evil Dead II, which was essentially a better-funded and more polished remake of The Evil Dead, since studios hate risk. He had some bonkers ideas that got tamed down, but between the two films, Evil Dead II stands out as the real masterpiece, a better conceived and more technically well-executed movie.

A whole slew of of motifs have been liberally transferred from Evil Dead II into the Multiverse of Madness, such as an actual zombie, a hand bursting out of the ground, a woman who used to be considered beautiful turning into a vengeful creature, evil moving through reflections, clear fourth-wall-breaking winks to the audience, a fantastically campy makeup job on Ponytail Strange that could have been ripped from the Evil Dead II lookbook, and a truly iconic giant eyeball falling out of a massive space-creature in literally the second fight scene. The iconographic parallels between Evil Dead II and Multiverse of Madness were really delightful to pick up on, and it was such a fun watch because I felt like where, in a lesser director’s hand, there might have been nods to the Marvel franchise, Raimi instead decided to reference his own own body of work, pointing out again and again the signs of an auteur who knows what he’s about.

Now, what did Raimi do with all those ideas that got cut from Evil Dead II? Mostly he threw them into 1994’s Army of Darkness. (We are skipping over the 1990 Darkman, arguably his first superhero film ahead of his Spider-Man trilogy, because it frankly, wasn’t much fun.) Army of Darkness is about a man who gets sucked into the past, is prophesied to seal away an evil forever, but mucks it up by mispronouncing a magic spell. He then has to fight his way out of the past by weilding anachronistic weapons against stop-motion flying skeletons.

If you’ve ever watched Army of Darkness, you have a good sense of the kind of humour that Raimi brings to his work; sarcastic, fish-out-of-water absurdity, quick-talking wise guys who are definitely “chosen-one enough” to get the job done, even if they screw up a few times. Strange’s too-clever-by-far dialogue is perfectly matched to the main hero of this film. Army of Darkness also features evil books, a batshit insane witch, fourth-wall breaking, screeching evil spirits/skeletons, and the kind of absurdist magic that Strange is well known for.

Image: Marvel Studios
Image: Marvel Studios

So here’s where I get a little meta with it. The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness all star the same character–Ash Williams, played by B-movie superstar Bruce Campbell, who in every single one of his roles absolutely commits to the bit. In Multiverse of Madness, we likewise see these different Doctors Strange in various universes, some more or less evil than others, but all capable of understanding the consequences of their decisions. Much like Ash transcends horror and comedy in his roles, so does Strange, and Raimi’s take on the multiversal bodies feels like a real wink towards his work with the character of Ash and Campbell.

(Campbell, it’s worth noting, has a particularly excellent cameo, and even though I was convinced by the first scene that this was a Raimi spectacular, the post-credit scene with Campbell was the cherry on top of a deliciously gory and strange sundae. The Pizza Poppa hitting himself over and over is a direct reference to Evil Dead II where Ash’s hand becomes possessed and he has to cut it off and replace it with a chainsaw.)

Even Raimi’s 2009 horror Drag Me To Hell gets a nod as Charles Xavier enters universe 868-Wanda’s mind-space and tries to free her from the Scarlet Witch. This whole scene where he reaches out to the woman, trapped in her own mind, buried under rubble, can be seen in Drag Me To Hell. It gets even weirder when the red fog flooding 868-Wanda’s mind catches up to Xavier and out of it bursts the Witch, face contorted, CGI’d to be demon-like, as she grabs his head with clawed hands and wrenches his head around, snapping his neck. Jarring, brutal, and classic Drag Me To Hell vibes to have a witch out of hell murder a psychic in her own mind.

Now look, was Multiverse of Madness a good film? If you’re interested in the Marvel of it all… no. The plot is simple and predictable; the villain’s motivation is a half-baked idea without a lot of emotional thrust, no matter how much b-roll you have of the twins running around; and the fan service is more or less condensed into a 20-minute sequence that essentially ends with the (gruesome) deaths of all the cameo characters.

But if you’re watching Multiverse of Madness because you’re excited to see Sam Raimi’s work back on the big screen, then yes, this is a great film. It’s excellent. It’s a Raimi bone-breaking, sound-design-bursting, wince-in-your-seat, zoom smash. There are monster POVs as Wanda tries to comfort her kids, and as she tries to approach her alternate self. There are more crossfades in this film than in the entire MCU, probably, and I was living for every one of them. I’ve already mentioned the cinematography and characters looking directly at the audience, as well as a litany of motifs that occur in a lot of his films.

What Raimi really does by injecting all this personality into the film is show very clearly that you can have an authorial style and still make a Marvel film. Taika Waititi and James Gunn certainly have vision, and certainly have style, but in my opinion, the auteurship in those films pales in comparison to the brain-bursting horror that Raimi brings to the table. So while Marvel fans might watch Multiverse and be disappointed with the usual fatigue that has set in around the stagnation of a franchise that spans 10 years, 20+ films, and at least 10 TV series (including the Netflix Defenders), Sam Raimi fans will stay winning. I would advise you to watch this film and try to forget everything you know about Marvel. It’s more fun that way.

The directorial ownership that Raimi holds within many of these scenes is incredible, and harkens back to the horror films where Raimi first found major success. With a broad-brushstroke approach to plot and character, which largely has to follow what Marvel wants him to do, the how of the plot and the style of Raimi’s direction is what really makes Multiverse of Madness stand out. There’s a strange duality between Raimi’s heightened over-the-top horror sensibilities and the off-the-wall magic he’s given to play with that allows him to create pulpy, eyeball-popping visuals and stellar moments of directorial impact amid what mostly amounts to Marvel’s set dressing. As Raimi pushes the boundaries of taste and comfort, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness proves, once and for all, that if Marvel gives over the reins (and the budget) auteurs can create something that is representational of their own work, and not fully beholden to the demands of the Marvel script-by-committee.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is in theatres today.

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.

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