Sam Raimi knows how to scare people. With the Evil Dead trilogy, his name became a byword for pure pulp horror: slicing, dicing, stabbing, gushing, oozing, bursting... Raimi's ghouls were the Three Stooges run amok. Since then, Raimi has slowly slipped into the mainstream with mixed results. High point: the taut, Fargo-style thriller A Simple Plan. Low point: the Kevin Costner baseball vehicle For Love Of The Game, which had even his most hardcore fans throwing up. Coming so soon after this, The Gift poses some questions. Is it an attempt by Raimi to get back to his genre roots and round up the old fans while they'll still forgive him? Or is he trying to infiltrate the mainstream with something he's more comfortable with?
Fortunately, it's the latter. Even though Raimi has the most stellar cast he's ever worked with (including Cate Blanchett, Oscar-winner Hilary Swank, Dawson Creek lovely Katie Holmes and Keanu Reeves), this is actually a modest, low-key affair. With little cash for effects, Raimi has to rely on all his spooky know-how and swampy Deep South locations to create a surreal, gothic dreamworld where the trees cluster like vengeful wraiths in the night. It's a nice contrast to last year's What Lies Beneath, which had bucketloads of money for special effects, using them to tell a similar tale.
The plot relies on some well-worn conventions, weaving together court- room cliffhanger, domestic-abuse drama and ghost story to trace the mystery of country club slapper Jessica King's (Katie Holmes) disappearance. The sixth sense possessed by Cate Blanchett's character adds a much-needed extra dimension to a story which, at times, threatens to descend into by-the-numbers blandness - especially when it resorts to a ham-fisted whisk through the line-up of suspects that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Scooby Doo.
It's a tribute to Cate Blanchett's amazingly grounded performance, however, that such clunkinesss doesn't overwhelm the movie. Her Southern accent is spot-on (mind yer back, Meryl, there's a new girl in town) and, steering clear of melodrama, Blanchett's Annie Wilson is just a brave blue-collar mom, a supernatural Erin Brockovich on the lookout for what's right, not what's convenient. Meanwhile, the cast around her rise to occasion, especially Swank as the meek, dominated Valerie and even Reeves, playing grittily against type as her vicious, sadistic husband.
That Raimi brings real life to such creaky and familiar material only bodes well for the future. With Spider-Man, who knows? Maybe he'll finally nail it.