Friday, March 29, 2013

Director Essentials: Sam Raimi

by Patrick Bromley
Hail to the king, baby.

Oz the Great and Powerful is currently in theaters, and it has given Sam Raimi the biggest non-Spider-Man success of his career. Unfortunately, it's not really a Sam Raimi movie after the first 10 or 15 minutes. So here are the essential movies in Raimi's filmography, so beginners know where to start and diehard fans are reminded that they want to watch all of these again.

1. The Evil Dead (1981) - Sam Raimi's calling card to the world remains one of his best movies. The low-budget nature of this "cabin in the woods" movie -- one of only two pure horror movies in his filmography -- means there's a whole lot of ingenuity and creativity on display, while the fact that Raimi was using the movie to get some attention means he literally throws in every single thing he can think of or do. Modern audiences might have a tough time looking past the low-fi special effects, which is too bad, as it's still one of the most grueling and relentless horror movies ever made. Better yet, it manages to be those things without losing a sense of fun, something that can be said about nearly every Sam Raimi movie.

2. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) - Raimi made one movie in between the first two Evil Deads (Crimewave in 1985), and it was a horrible, soul-crushing experience for him that he has since basically disowned. It's no surprise that returned to the familiar, delivering a sequel that's more of a remake -- a chance for him to do the same material on a bigger budget and with a different approach. Whereas The Evil Dead is grisly and genuinely scary, Evil Dead 2 ups the "fun" quotient considerably and is alternately bloody and funny -- Raimi pretty much invented "splatstick" here. It's not necessarily a better movie than the original, just a different one, and both worth like gangbusters on their intended levels. A whole lot of what Raimi would spend the rest of his career doing finds its genesis here.
3. Darkman (1990) - Raimi's major studio debut combines many of the things the filmmaker loves -- old monster movies, film noir and comic books -- into one tight little package. This dark superhero movie, featuring Liam Neeson as a scientist who's left for dead and becomes a superhero, was hurt by being released in the wake of Batman, because a) audiences weren't familiar with the character of Darkman (because Sam Raimi MADE HIM UP!) and because they didn't know what to make of Raimi's directorial flourishes. He did not water his style down AT ALL, and the movie is the better for it. This is another of the director's work that had done better with age, when audience's sensibilities finally caught up with what he was doing.

4. Army of Darkness (1992) - The third installment in Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy brings Ash up to the majors, thanks to the backing of Universal Studios and a wide release. Not surprisingly, it pretty much sank at the box office, because no one knew what to make of it or even that it was the third movie in a series. It takes the series in a totally different direction, ditching the splatter in favor of more old-school adventure (the movie is practically a love letter to Ray Harryhausen) and being the most overtly comedic of the series. Like most of Raimi's movies, time has been very good to Army of Darkness, which became such a cult phenomenon on video and DVD (possibly because Anchor Bay put out a new version every other month) that many young film fans continue to name it as one of their all-time favorites. Raimi later remade the movie -- with a much, much higher budget and huge box office success -- as Oz the Great and Powerful.

5. The Quick and the Dead (1995) - Raimi continued to struggle in the '90s, making smaller genre movies that no one really saw but which would all go on to become cult movies. Though it's mostly just an exercise in style (a tribute to the Italian westerns of the 1960s), The Quick and the Dead is one of the few good westerns to come out of the 1990s -- especially because it's not the kind of meditative, deconstructionist western we had come to expect in that decade (thank you, Unforgiven). The movie celebrates being a western. Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe were barely-knowns at the time, and there's a killer cast of character actors including Pat Hingle, Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Mark Boone Junior, Tobin Bell and Roberts Blossom, plus a great villain turn by Gene Hackman. It's not one of Raimi's absolute best, but it's very entertaining and lets us see what a Sam Raimi western looks like.
6. A Simple Plan (1998) - Here's where everything turned for Sam Raimi. After years of working in genre movies and making -- at best -- cult favorites, Raimi finally got some critical legitimacy with this film version of the novel by Scott Smith (who also scripted). The critics raved -- and rightfully so -- about this pitch-black neo-noir about a group of men who find a lot of money and the ways in which it eats at their souls. Great performances and a perfect sense of place (snowy Minnesota), coupled with some of Raimi's most controlled, least showy direction make this one of his best. Critics fell all over themselves to talk about how Raimi "grew up" with this one (often mentioning him in the same sentence as frequent collaborators and friends Joel and Ethan Coen) and acted somewhat surprised to discover that he's a great director. To which the rest of us responded "Um, no shit."

7. For Love of the Game (1999) - This is one of Raimi's worst movies, even though it's not that bad. It's on the list because it's a key moment in his evolution as a filmmaker and critical in understanding the trajectory of his career. A Simple Plan brought Raimi critical acclaim and made him a "grown up" filmmaker in the eyes of the studios, so Universal gave him a shot at directing their $50 million baseball drama For Love of the Game. The movie is fine -- it's sappy and overly long, but certainly inoffensive -- and is only one of Raimi's worst because it feels like he sold out. There are no real traces of him as a filmmaker on display. It's not just the lack of any crazy camerawork, which would have felt self-conscious and wrong for the movie. It's that, for really the first time (Crimewave doesn't count), it doesn't feel like Raimi loves what he's doing. There's no sign of his enthusiasm; it just feels like generic studio product.

8. Spider-Man (2002) - For all of its flaws, For Love the Game should be recognized for proving that Raimi could handle a big-budget studio movie and serving as his audition for Spider-Man. This was the moment that the Sam Raimi aesthetic finally matched up with a commercial aesthetic, and he was rewarded with massive box office success for the first time ever (like, so massive that it basically spawned a decade's worth of comic book movies). On a script level, the first Spider-Man is still a big mess, but, in the words of the great Film Crit Hulk, the movie works in the way it needs to work. Raimi obviously loves and understands the character of Spider-Man, and his movie gets right at the heart of what makes the character special. Both comic book movies and summer blockbusters have come a long way since 2002, but few that are as affectionately made as this one.
9. Spider-Man 2 (2004) - It may seem disappointing that HALF of this list is made up of either Evil Dead movies or Spider-Man movies, because Raimi has made other original movies worth mentioning, but each one finds him at a different point in his evolution and tells us something new about him as a filmmaker. By Spider-Man 2 -- still the best superhero movie ever made -- Raimi had worked out all the rough spots of the original movie and was at the absolute height of his abilities. It's his most confidently made film, combining the crazy energy of his early movies, the character study of A Simple Plan, the relationship drama of For Love the Game (which he gets right this time) and the comic book scope of Darkman. It's like a combination of Sam Raimi's Greatest Hits, but this time every single aspect clicks into place. This is as close to a perfect movie as Raimi has ever made.

10. Drag Me to Hell (2009) - After the frustrating experience and bloated disappointment of Spider-Man 3, Sam Raimi went back to basics and made his most balls-out horror movie since the original Evil Dead nearly 20 years prior. It's PG-13, no less! And, like all of his best genre efforts in the '80s and '90s, no one went to see it. It's amazing that audiences are only interested in Sam Raimi doing big blockbusters, since those movies sometimes swallow up everything that's interesting about him. It's the small to medium-sized movies like Drag Me To Hell that find him at his best.


  1. While I'll agree to disagree with you on "Spider-Man 3" and "Oz"(though I"ll concede it's a "Army of Darkness" remake), I agree he deserves more respect than he has been given.

    I can understand the absence of "The Gift" from your list. I haven't seen it in years, but it's an interesting look at a Raimi take on the thriller genre. I'm sure Raimi "loves" that the only cultural notice the movie received was for Katie Holmes being topless. Though it did lead to a (admittingly) funny gag in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle".

    1. I like The Gift! I just think A Simple Plan does a better job of occupying a similar space in his filmography.

  2. Insert obligatory "I'm a manly man and yet Doc Ock makes me cry" comment.

  3. I LOVE how Spider-Man 2 cuts through a lot of the usual bullshit of a Hollywood movie, deals with the issues at hand and moves on. It's really great to see movies like that where characters say what they need to say. E.G. When Peter tells Aunt May about his part in Uncle Ben's death, him getting ready to tell Mary Jane on the phone that he's Spider-Man, him going after Mary Jane when he quits being Spider-Man. Man, I love that movie!

  4. Alright, I really think I need to see Darkman, now. I didn't realize just how lacking I was in how much of Sam Raimi's filmography I've seen, but that movie sounds right up my alley, as far as things I like. I highly enjoy all three of the genres you mentioned in describing it. A Simple Plan also sounds great!

    Evil Dead 2 and Spider-Man 2 are, in my mind, brilliant.

  5. ^^^ John, that sounds like a plan. "Darkman" and "A Simple Plan" are the cream of the crop of Raimi's 'B' titles (giving the "Evil Deads" and "Spider-Man 2" their due as Sam's calling cards).

    There's a co-worker at the office that is discovering and really getting into horror and 'gory' stuff. So every Friday there's a "magic drawer" at the office (i.e. the unused one in the desk that everyone uses) that I fill with five or six horror movies, and she takes home the three that she's sure she's going to watch. Then the next Friday I switch the movies around and so on and so forth. So far she's really gotten into Romero ("Dawn/Day of the Dead") while Cronenberg is 1 for 3 ("Rabid" and "Videodrome" underwhelmed, but "The Fly" was a big hit). This weekend she took the first two "Evil Dead" movies (because she's so looking forward to the new "Evil Dead") along with "The Howling," "Dead Ringers" and "Boogie Nights" (don't ask). So yeah, someone's watching the first two "Evil Dead" movies this weekend for the first time thanks to me. Aren't I a stinker? :-P

    Great director's profile on Raimi. The thing though is that Sam spent a good deal of the 1990's and 2000's producing more than directing (mostly TV and sci-fi stuff like "Xena," but also relatively mainstream stuff like Peter Hyam's "Timecop"), and that's where a great deal of his creative input went while the big studio work paid the bills and kept his name in the limelight. He was also early on the wave of PG-13 horror and American adaptations of J-horror flicks ("The Grudge"), so it wasn't just with "For Love of Game" that Raimi sold out a piece of his soul for the sake of a piece of the Hollywood pie.

  6. Good stuff Patrick and belated happy b day by the way. Sam has definitely always been at his best when the movie he's doing is high energy, whether its action, comedy, or horror. In my opinion A Simple Plan is the only one of his movies that doesnt have his usual high energy tone and still works. The problem he had with For Love of the Game in my opinion is he just got border. Anytime they aren't on the baseball field the film jsut grinds to a mind numbing halt.

    With that being said its still better then all of Katherine Heigl's rom coms put together. Really hope Sam aint jerking us again with talk of Evil Dead 4.

  7. Great article on a great director - I didn't even realize A Simple Plan was one of his - always liked that one - very rewatchable. And from Shannon's comments, The Gift is another one I like that I didn't know he made - I always just thanked God for the Katie Holmes boob-shot - now I know to thank Sam!

    I'm ashamed to say I have seen neither of the first two Evil Dead movies - I KNOW. I will okay - on Netflix - right now!

    Oh and Patrick, an early Happy 2014 Birthday to you, sir!

    1. Watched Evil Dead last night and thought it was great! In comparison to other Teens in the Woods horror of that time, it's just so much more interesting to watch. The weird camera angles and crazy POV shots - you can tell it's being directed by someone with both ambition and talent (still budding at that point I suppose but there). And yes- the sense of fun - I have seen Army of Darkness and I really liked that The Evil Dead had a bit of that humour while still feeling like a horror movie. Loved it.

  8. I watched the entire Evil Dead trilogy at school camp one year on the VHS player there. Still one of my fondest movie memories.