When Sam Raimi’s name pops in the credits of a thriller about man-eating alligators, it’s only natural to assume that The Evil Dead auteur is behind the camera choreographing the carnage. But even though Crawl — which opens in theaters today — is a Sam Raimi production, it’s not a Sam Raimi picture. As the movie’s executive producer, Raimi tells Yahoo Entertainment that his primary job was facilitating the vision of another horror veteran, Alexandre Aja, who has been racking up the onscreen body count in movies like High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D.
“Alex was already attached to the project, and he and [executive producer] Lauren Selig brought it to me to ask if I could help get it made,” Raimi explains. “So I mostly helped get the financing and distribution and served as the sounding board for Alex. It’s great watching a master of tension work with actors and craft his shots and see how he experiments in the editing room.”
Raimi can’t blame us for wishing that he had played a more active role in unleashing Crawl’s gator cast on the film’s two human stars, Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper, who play Haley and Dave Keller — a daughter and father trapped in their Florida home during a hurricane and forced fight their way from the basement to the attack to avoid becoming reptile food. After all, it’s been a solid decade since he has directed one of his signature “Sam Raimi pictures” — 2009’s wickedly funny fright fest Drag Me to Hell. Since then, he’s helmed one big-budget F/X spectacle (2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful) as well as a handful of TV shows (including the pilot for the recently canceled Evil Dead series, Ash vs Evil Dead), but has otherwise amassed more producer and executive producer credits than director credits.
For his part, Raimi is happy to know that his distinctive voice is missed by moviegoers. “It’s a great inspiration to get back behind the camera. I’m just trying to find the right script. I don’t want to let people down, and if I can find the right script, I’ll jump right in. I can’t wait.”
Raimi’s absence is particularly felt in summer where moviegoers are flocking to another Spider-Man sequel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, exactly 15 years after Spider-Man 2 swung into theaters. And it’s worth noting that in another realm of the wall-crawler’s ever-expanding multiverse — call it Earth-2002 — Raimi would have turned his Spider-Man trilogy into a Spider-Man quartet.
Ten years ago, plans for Tobey Maguire to don the suit for a fourth time, facing off against John Malkovich’s Vulture (plus Bruce Campbell as Mysterio, played in Far From Home by Jake Gyllenhaal), were in active development with a scheduled Summer 2011 release date. But then the director and Sony Pictures parted ways in early 2010 due to creative differences. That resulted in the Andrew Garfield-led reboot, which in turn paved the way for Tom Holland’s current incarnation, shared by Sony and Marvel.
In the decade since the film fell apart, plot details and storyboards have leaked out about what Raimi had planned for Spider-Man 4. His regular storyboard artist Jeffrey Henderson has published some of these images on his own website, writing, “It would’ve been one absolutely kick ass movie. We were working on some crazy cool stuff, because everyone … really wanted to help Sam take SM4 to another level so he could end the series on a high note.”
Raimi himself says he’s still haunted by the Spider-Man film that never was. “I think about it all the time,” he admits. “It’s hard not to, because each summer another Spider-Man film comes out! So when you have an unborn one, you can’t help but think what might have been. But I try to focus on what will be, and not look into the past.”
Seen again today, Raimi’s Spider-Man films are a distinctly personal fusion of his horror roots as well as the imagery of the early Marvel comics he grew up reading. It’s certainly hard to miss the influence of vintage Universal monster movies in his depiction of traditional Spidey villains like Willem Dafoe’s Jekyll and Hyde-esque Green Goblin, Alfred Molina’s Frankenstein-inspired Doctor Octopus and even Thomas Haden Church’s Wolfman stand-in, Sandman. “I was super-influenced by those movies, and I also loved the Hammer horror films. But I was more influenced by Stan Lee’s comic books and the great artists like John Romita and Jack Kirby who told stories with visuals that had a real in-your-face, over-the-top presentation. I was trying to bring that kind of imagery to life in those Spider-Man films.”
One of the reasons why Raimi says he was attracted to Crawl — and another explanation for why he didn’t direct it — is that it operates on the opposite wavelength from the heightened realities glimpsed in his Spider-Man movies, to say nothing of wild and crazy Evil Dead series. “The writers, Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, came up with an interesting new attack on the creature feature,” the director explains. “It’s not like the creature is hit with radioactive waves and grows to giant proportions. It’s a set of circumstances that could exist right now and that’s what made it so fantastic to me. And Alex’s direction is rooted in reality, which is the strength of the concept — that it could happen.” (Not that Raimi is dissing the “giant proportions” school of creature features, mind you. The director cites Godzilla, King Kong and Them! as childhood favorites.)
According to Raimi, Aja’s desire to keep the action realistic also led him to pull back on the high liters of bloodshed that have seeped through his previous movies. While Crawl is hitting theaters with an R-rating, there is a gorier cut that exists. Nevertheless the theatrical version represents the preferred vision of the director and his executive producer. “The studio might release the [other] version on DVD, but I think Alex is very happy with this one. There are plenty of scenes he could have taken to more extremes, but he understood that you could make this for a general audience and still delivers shocks and tension without taking it too far.”
Raimi points to Haley’s first encounter with one of the alligator invaders as a scene that was gnarlier in its original form. “It was pretty brutal and awful,” he remembers. “But Alex thought, ‘Even though I like this very much, I don’t want the audience to question whether she could have survived that first attack.’ So he cut it back to a more modest attack than he originally shot. He tried to find the most extreme lengths he could go to while still having the audience believe that there’d be anything left of these two people by the end of the movie.”
While Raimi stands behind Aja’s decision to bandage over Crawl’s bloodier moments, he hasn’t lost his own taste for bloodier fare. If and when he unleashes another horror film on the world — possibly even another Evil Dead — he’ll be looking for new ways to gross out audiences. “I haven’t found the story that demands that yet,” he says, almost wistfully. “I was trying to break into the business with the first Evil Dead, and distributors would tell me, ‘Sam, you got to keep the blood running down the walls!’ So I really tried to give the audience what they wanted at the time. I didn’t know if I was doing too much or not. I may have miscalculated.” Allow us to say: Not bloody likely.