Evil Spawn

Color, 2000, 111 mins. / Directed by Sam Raimi / Starring Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank, Kim Dickins / Music by Christopher Young / Cinematography by Jamie Anderson

Format: DVD - Paramount (MSRP $29.98) / Letterboxed (1.85:1) / Dolby Digital 5.1

One of the most poorly marketed films in recent memory, Sam Raimi's The Gift continued the director's attempt to reconcile his low budget Evil Dead roots with the more grandiose demands of Hollywood cinema. With A Simple Plan he had proven he could tell a story rich in characterization without directorial flashiness, but this film finds him merging the two with mostly successful results to craft what could best be described as a Southern fried tribute to Italian murder mysteries.

The story, which could have been lifted almost wholesale from Lucio Fulci's Seven Notes in Black, concerns Georgia fortuneteller named Annie Wilson (Kate Blanchett, expertly trading in her Aussie accent for a convincing twang). Annie's clients include Valerie (Hilary Swank), a battered housewife whose reactionary husband, Donnie (a gutwrenching Keanu Reeves), doesn't take too kindly to a "witch" tampering with his family's affairs. Living alone with her two children to bring up out in the middle of nowhere, Annie proves a vulnerable target to Donnie's threats, but that's nothing compared to the horrific, murderous visions she experiences involving Jessica (Katie Holmes), a sweet young debutante engaged to the local principal, Wayne (Greg Kinnear). Suddenly Annie disappears without a trace, and only Valerie's "gift" can solve what proves to be a dark, complex mystery.

The most obvious attributes of The Gift include its assured direction by Raimi, which proves he can still orchestrate a magnificent jolt or two without the aid of zombies, and the top rung cast obviously having a field day without resorting to hamminess or hambone, overdone accents. The potent atmosphere generated by skillful lighting and art design (which naturally includes lots of Spanish moss) creates a sense of foreboding from the opening credits, while Annie's visions (including a terrifying cameo by Danny Elfman as a fiddler) are among Raimi's best work to date. Unfortunately the script by Billy Bob Thornton, reportedly inspired by his own mother, proves to be too simplistic and ultimately clumsy to really carry the film over the top, with far too many nagging plot holes left wide open during the unconvincing feel-good fade out at the end. Blanchett does her best to cover up some of the story's more glaring inconsistencies, and by and large she succeeds; had Paramount done a more honest job of marketing the film as the next Sixth Sense rather than a dreary ensemble piece, she could have nabbed a bounty of award nominations for her fiery courtroom showdown with Michael Jeter alone.

Unfortunately Paramount's inability to come to grips with the film extends to the DVD packaging, perhaps the least appealing of the year. Ignore the cut and paste, brown-tinted cover and focus instead on the film itself, which sports a magnificent anamorphic transfer rich with ominous blacks and only some faint dustings of grainy texture where it originally existed in the film elements. The subtle but effective 5.1 mix offers a wonderfully spacious aural environment, with natural sounds constantly wafting from all of the speakers with the big shock moments offering more traditional showoff material for audiophiles. As with A Simple Plan, this disc is sparse in the extras department, offering a shaky theatrical trailer and a ten minute promo piece. The potential for supplementary material was obviously much greater, but at least the film itself can be enjoyed in all its peculiar, beguiling splendor.

Color, 1998, mins.

Directed by Sam Raimi

Starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Gary Cole, Brent Briscoe / Written by Scott B. Smith / Produced by James Jacks & Adam Schroeder / Music by Danny Elfman / Cinematography by Alar Kivlo

Format: DVD - Paramount (MSRP $29.95)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 5.1

Best known for his kinetic mixtures of slapstick and comic book horror, director Sam Raimi here makes a cinematic gearshift even more radical than his last film, the feminist western The Quick and the Dead, by tackling - gasp! - a subtle, psychological thriller. Fortunately, he succeeded beyond most expectations and delivered a mature, insightful work, proving once and for all his immense gifts as a visual storyteller. While longtime fans may regret the absence of those trademark whooshing "Sam cam" shots (and Bruce Campbell isn't anywhere in sight!), A Simple Plan nevertheless stands as one of his strongest efforts to date.

Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) and his wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), lead a humble but relatively content existence. During a snowy hunting day through the forest, Hank, his socially challenged brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's redneck friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), stumble upon a small crashed airplane containing a dead pilot and a gym bag filled with money - $4.4 million, to be precise. After much deliberation, the men decide to stash the money until the snow melts, and if no one has come to claim it, they'll keep the cash and split it among themselves. Despite their pact of silence, Hank reveals the secret to Sarah, who immediately conjures up various schemes to keep their self-interests protected. Not surprisingly, the "simple" plan begins to spiral horribly out of control, leading to chilling and morally anguished consequences.

While the entire cast is at their solid best here, with Fonda playing amusingly against type as a pregnant Lady Macbeth, the film's real center is Billy Bob Thornton's remarkable performance. Essentially an inversion of his role in Sling Blade, here Thornton portrays a simple man whose often surprising intelligence has never been used due to his gawky appearance and lacking social skills. The warmest and most human element of the film, Thornton imbues the character - and thus, the rest of the film - with a complexity and sense of a live trapped in futility which allows the narrative to transcend its familiar plot setup and rise to level of bitter tragedy. While comparisons have been drawn between this film and other grim moral tales like Shallow Grave and Fargo, this basic storyline has been around with us since The Canterbury Tales. Thus, the magic lies in the reinvention of the tale, and thanks to Scott B. Smith's icily precise distillation of his novel, Raimi and company have conjured up their own shuddery, emotionally wrenching vision of the American dream gone horribly wrong.

Paramount's presentation of A Simple Plan on DVD is nothing less than remarkable and one of the crispest-looking titles released so far. The astonishing detail provided in the anamorphically enhanced image captures every snowflake and tree branch in razor-sharp detail, and the colors look astonishingly pure and "film-like." Though this isn't much of a audio showcase, Danny Elfman's marvelous, underrated score (which includes some unexpected homages to Mancini's Wait Until Dark!) sounds even better than it did in theaters. The only extra is the theatrical trailer, but given the first rate presentation, Paramount is obviously on track at last with providing their features with the transfers they deserve.

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