Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. October sees not only the onset of Halloween but the birthday of cult horror maestro-turned-mainstream filmmaker Sam Raimi; all month, we’re web-slinging through his vibrant, diverse filmography. Read the rest of our coverage here.
In some ways, it may feel unfair to review It’s Murder!, Sam Raimi‘s first feature-length effort. After all, it was made while Raimi was still in film school, filmed for ultra-cheap on Super 8. The only available way to see it is a brutal transfer in the darkest corners of Youtube, with unsynced audio and 240p visuals so blurry it’s nearly impossible to recognize that one cop on a bike as the man, the myth, the frequent Raimi collaborator Bruce Campbell.
But It’s Murder! also feels so deeply proto-Raimi it feels almost irresponsible to ignore. Everything you think of when you think of the man can be found in this inaugural work: think of it as the Raimi Rosetta Stone. On its own, it may be a mere curiosity. However, as part of an over 40-year career, it becomes instructive to where the man started and how he refined his craft.
A Police Detective (co-writer/Raimi’s other lifetime collaborator Scott Spiegel) has arrived at the site of a murder. A rich family man has been slain and everyone in the family, all under the same roof, stands accused. Uncle Jasper (Sam Raimi) stands head and shoulders above the other suspects due to his bizarre appearance and behavior. He laughs maniacally frequently, claims to have a twin brother, says he can’t walk despite doing so multiple times, and, well, constantly blatantly tries to murder the detective.
Thing is, he’s hardly the only one: every member of the family, including niece Jane Bradley (Cheryl Guttridge), will try to stab, shoot, strangle, or spider (yes, spider) the Detective to death before his investigation concludes. Only the victim’s two sons (Richard Smith and Ted Raimi, natch) don’t seem to actively have it out for him, although young Bradley (Raimi) and his terrible cello playing may end up doing it by accident.
The whole affair is bizarre and over the top silly. Puns, visual and otherwise, litter the screen. Jokes fly so fast, but even then you notice only about 25% of them land. Sam Raimi’s make up is so caked on and stagey that even the deteriorated print cannot hide it. And it’s all kind of…great?
For one thing, Raimi does create an immersive atmosphere. He nails the off-putting geography of the house where most of the action unfolds. Even as the Detective ventures into the outside world, the movie feels insular enough that you never wonder why he just wouldn’t walk away or call for more help.
Also, all this excess is clearly intentional. Raimi knew how his makeup looked; he wanted to make Jasper wildly off-putting, a silent-era movie monster as Super 8 murderous stooge. He knows a gag in which our lead squeezes out a grilled cheese sandwich isn’t funny-funny — it works because the whole movie has been set at that level. You don’t laugh at the joke, you laugh at the attempt. Raimi wants the humor to come from the ridiculousness, It’s Murder! insisting on making the bad joke time and again.
Finally, Raimi does have chops. A car chase near the film’s conclusion goes on for far too long, but demonstrates his early skills at action setpieces. He knows how to stage it, even if he doesn’t know when to wrap it up. Honestly, that’s a fitting summary of It’s Murder! in total. He has all the skills; he just needs to refine them.
Don’t get me wrong, if this opened at your local multiplex (remember movie theaters?) it’s not the sort of thing I would recommend. However, 43 years after the fact and at just 68 minutes long, it feels like a must-see for Raimi enthusiasts. Everybody starts somewhere, after all, and It’s Murder! is an entertaining glimpse at the filmmaker’s future promise.