“There are monsters out there,” Ted Raimi states emphatically at the Shelter-In-Place edition of Telluride Horror Show. Hosted by Fangoria’s Meredith Borders, Raimi has everyone in stitches in the Deathly Spirits chat, a virtual cocktail hour offering viewers an opportunity to mix Ted’s drink recipes and engage with the genre favorite after the screening of his new short film Red Light. Hoping to turn this short film into a full length feature project, Raimi explains how initially, the plan was to just go ahead and make the movie. Sadly, like many in the entertainment industry, the outbreak of COVID-19 put plans on hold.
“We shot a proof of concept, it was never meant to be a short, but then COVID hit and we were boned,” says Raimi. “Like everybody else in the world, our plans got waylaid. We thought, what are we gonna do? We can’t take this to producers now. We thought well, let’s take it to film festivals. We can do that. Even though they’re virtual, like this awesome one. We’re just pleased as punch that it’s here. We’re looking for finance right now, and with the amount of positive response it’s gotten, I can’t imagine it’ll be long.”
In the short film, Ricky’s on his way to the Halloween party of the century, but he’s a little bit lost. Struggling to maintain cell phone service in the middle of nowhere, Ricky and his influencer friends are pulled over on the side of the road when a homeless man attempts to ask them for some spare change. Instead of helping him, the obnoxious curbside crew shove the man away, yell at him, and then continue to cut up, as they film the interaction and share it on their social media accounts. Suddenly, just as the gang is about to head out, an unmarked van pulls in front of their car and slams to a stop. Toting big guns and bigger attitudes, a group of strangers kidnaps the kids, takes them to a warehouse at an undisclosed location, and submits them to a night filled with fear. When one of the girls cries for mercy, Raimi’s character calls his mother and relays the situation. “She’s begging for help and asking for mercy,” he says into the phone. “What? Yeah, she didn’t give any to that homeless man today. Right. Love you too.” He hangs up the phone, turns back to the frightened hostages at his feet, and picks up where he left off.
Back at home, snuggled up safely with a ‘Sir Graves Ghastly Old Fashioned’ – a drink which he concocted and coined himself, named after his favorite Detroit horror host, Sir Graves Ghastly – in hand, Raimi gushes over director Kahuam and his latest short film. During the hour long shindig, the horror icon discusses his legendary career in the industry, his advice for up-and-coming filmmakers, the way he uses his fear to his advantage, whether he prefers to kill or be killed onscreen, and the key to making a timeless horror movie. /Film was lucky enough to attend and report back on everything we learned.
Winning Over Wes Craven
Whether it be the time his Henrietta found a fresh soul in the fruit cellar of brother Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, his sultry sleazeball in Bernard Rose’s Candyman, a condom salesman in the criminally underrated Thanksgiving horror Blood Rage, an innocent coworker in 2004’s The Grudge, an executive assistant for an avid art collector in Wishmaster, the subject of a gruesome death sequence in Ryûhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train, his hilarious turn as a slacker type in Starz’s Ash vs Evil Dead, popping up in Wes Craven’s 1989 slasher Shocker, a naïve metalhead in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a cowardly warrior in Army of Darkness, the Daily Bugle’s bullied Hoffman in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 1, 2, and 3, or his 44 combined episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some of Ted Raimi’s work. What was the key to landing so many iconic properties? As it turns out, a mixture of mostly good-natured enthusiasm, combined with very little porn.
“I love horror, I’ve always loved it,” reflects Raimi. “I started back in the ‘80s, and in those days, nobody wanted to do horror. It’s hard to imagine for new audiences today, especially for millennials, who grew up with it being popular for as many years as it has, but there was a time in Los Angeles when if you said you did horror films, other legitimate producers would think to themselves, ‘Well, he’s not doing porn, so that’s good’.
“I mean honestly, that’s really what it felt like. And I love the genre, so when I would go in to read for directors like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, guys like that, I wouldn’t go in like, ‘Oh crap, I hope no one sees me go in here’. That was the vibe for most actors. I was enthused. When I went in to read for Wes, I was like, ‘Man! Last House on the Left, this technique, that technique, man you aced this’ and he was like, ‘Oh shit’. So, that was the kind of attitude I had, and I would get many auditions just because I was enthused about the material. At that time, typically, actors were not enthused about the genre.”
As an Actor, Being the Bad Guy is Always More Fun
When it comes to playing prey versus playing predator, Raimi has been on both sides of the spectrum. Several times. When asked which role he prefers portraying in his stories, Raimi explains how it all comes down to a choice between static and dynamic characters.
“That question is answerable I think by this: Would you prefer as an actor to be a character actor or would you prefer to be a lead?” ponders Raimi. “Typically, for the most part, leads are killed, but character actors do the killing. I typically prefer to be a character actor, and that’s because in my opinion, in western literature for the most part, the lead is more stalwart and trustworthy and he’s the good guy for the most part, most of the time. The guy that does the things to the lead that leads his progress through our three acts is devious and creepy and weird, that’s the way writers like to write them. So, I prefer to be that guy. I prefer to be the weird guy, I always have. My instinct as an actor tends to go there.
“There’s also two kinds of actors in the world, in my opinion. One that the director, on the first take, has to go, ‘Can you bring it up a little bit? We’re not quite understanding the character’ because the actor is being subtle, that’s just what he does. In my case, they go ‘Let’s bring that down about fifteen paces there’. That’s what happens to me, until I get to a point where I should be. But my instincts are that, so I always prefer the character acting.”
Raimi Uses His Fear to His Advantage
A lot of people wonder if horror filmmakers ever get scared. While it’s true that working behind the scenes on project can make a person a little jaded, just like watching hundreds of scary movies can lessen the effect of the average fright, at the end of the day, actors are just like us. They jump at strange creaks and groans in the air when they’re home alone at night. They squirm at the sight of snakes. They get spooked over the everyday terrors in the news cycle. Actor or not, there’s no denying that it can be hard to shake off the stress that comes with daily life when you walk in the door at the end of the day. When it comes to working on film sets, a veteran performer like Raimi has learned a new way to grapple with his woes: using his anxiety to his advantage. Weaponizing what scares you. Getting angry with what causes alarm.
“I think you kind of use it,” muses Raimi. “You ever have a nightmare where first, you’re screaming in terror in the nightmare, but then, in theory, you start to scream at the nightmare itself? I don’t know if anyone has experienced such things. I know I have, many times. When I’m acting, on occasion, I try and use that. Like, you are enraged, and the material that you’re performing, you can see it from a third eye point of view that it’s threatening, but you’re within it, but so you sort of engage that part of you. Try to use it.”
The Key to Making a Timeless Horror Movie
As a filmmaker who has been actively working in the industry for over forty years, Raimi knows a thing or two about staying power. Aside from acting in over a hundred different titles, he has directed his own television series, conquered challenging stunt work, contributed countless hours and ideas and details to the prolific Evil Dead franchise, and even started his own production company with his family. What’s the key to sticking around long past your premiere date? Delivering an entertaining product with a timeless social message on top.
“We all love to instruct the next generation as to what we believe,” says Raimi. “Sometimes people do it with a kind word or gesture or example. Other times, people do it by enacting policy, and still other times, they do it by brute force. These brothers [in the short film Red Light] are the brute force mode of instruction, and that is partially what I found so appealing about the full length screenplay by Alex [Kahuam] is that it’s an internal fear. You can put horror movies into two basic categories. The first is timely topics and then there’s eternal topics.
“Here’s an example: in the 1950s, around the same time, there were two movies both at the drive-in. One was Attack of the Atomic Spider. Now, it’s a stupid title and how can you not laugh at that title? But when it came out, it was the real deal. People were afraid of nuclear attacks. Everybody knew at that point about the horrors of Bikini Island, everything that happened in Hiroshima, it was well documented. Now, we think of it as a dumb old movie because it’s a dated topic.
“But also, House on Haunted Hill was right around that same time. Now, they’re similar techniques, they’re similar budgets, similar star quality, more or less. House on Haunted Hill exists now, not only because it’s an excellent picture, William Castle, but also because it deals with a more timeless kind of idea. So, if you have all these awesome movies today about genetically engineered this, genetically engineered that, while it seems scary now, in twenty years it’ll all be very dated.”
Raimi was intrigued by the premise of his new movie Red Light because it deals with our preconceived notions about the generation that came before us, and the ever-repeating cycle of patronization that clouds communication through the years.
“I love the idea that this is a timeless horror topic, and it’s something that we haven’t seen ever before, which is the terror of generational anger, and it’s happening all over the place. The hippie generation is pissed at my generation, I’m pissed at millennials, and millennials are pissed at Gen Z-ers. And it goes the other way too. I just found that incredibly fresh and new.”
Raimi’s Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers: Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Not to Make Your Weird Monster Movie
Just a kid himself when he got his big break, Raimi hails from the school of fake-it-till-you-make-it. Well, actually, he hails from the University of Detroit, but the point is, the guy believes in the power of a positive attitude. That’s why he’s taking a chance on a young Hispanic filmmaker for his next feature, even going so far as to spend his very own money in a rare producing capacity. It’s also why he so strongly encourages aspirational movie makers to go out and make whatever peculiar picture their little heart desires. Don’t wait for permission, just make your movie.
“Look, if you wanna make a movie about a mad scientist alone in his apartment creating mutant creatures that attack the world, go do it,” says Raimi. “Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
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