Director Retrospective: Sam Raimi
In my previous director retrospective, I took a look at the filmography of Christopher Nolan — a critically acclaimed and commercially successful director best known (among most viewers) as the director of a famous superhero trilogy. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to take a look at a very different director but one who similarly helmed a trilogy of superhero films: Sam Raimi.
The Big List
So far, I’ve watched 13 (of 14) Sam Raimi films. If I haven’t watched it, then I excluded it from the list and discussion below. [NOTE: To my knowledge, the only Raimi film that I’ve not yet seen is Crimewave (1985), a tough-to-track-down film that was actually written by the Coen Brothers. Oh well…]
Anyway…here’s the list: Evil Dead (1981); Evil Dead II (1987); Darkman (1990); Army of Darkness (1992); The Quick and the Dead (1995); A Simple Plan (1998); For Love of the Game (1999); The Gift (2000); Spider-Man (2002); Spider-Man 2 (2004); Spider-Man 3 (2007); Drag Me to Hell (2009); Oz the Great and Powerful (2013).
The Top Five
And without further ado, here are my picks for Sam Raimi’s top five films (#1-#5, with comments on each one)…
Evil Dead II (1987) – Simply put, Raimi’s Evil Dead II is one of the best horror-comedies ever made. If you have ever seen and enjoyed horror-comedy flicks like Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland, Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, or (especially) Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, then chances are you’ll appreciate what Evil Dead II brings to the table and the way that it certainly inspired those subsequent films. The rare sequel(?) that’s considerably better than the original, this film is packed with now-iconic hallmarks of horror cinema — e.g. the isolated cabin, the creepy tape-recordings, the Necronomicon, the chainsaw hand & “boomstick,” etc. etc. etc. [There’s been a long-standing debate about whether this film is actually a sequel or, rather, a remake; for whatever it’s worth, Bruce Campbell calls it a “requel,” which makes a lot of sense in retrospect given that Raimi didn’t legally own the rights to the original film.] The camp is in full effect here, as it features hilariously over-the-top performances — notably from the aforementioned Campbell, who absolutely shines in this role as the “hero” Ash. There’s some pretty heavy influence here — especially in terms of ancient-evil and academic-meddling, etc. — from horror luminaries like H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, M.R. James, etc. but with a greater dose of humor added to the equation. One of the rare films that’s sometimes thought to be “so-bad-that-it’s-good” but is actually “so-good-that-it’s great.” An amazingly entertaining and immensely re-watchable film! [Btw…if you haven’t yet watched the Starz series, Ash vs. Evil Dead, you need to do that — it’s amaaaaaazing and really nails the tone from these films.]
Spider-Man 2 (2004) – Here’s an entry from Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy from the early 2000s. Interestingly, like the previously mentioned film in our list, Raimi’s sequel outshines its predecessor in the trilogy — a somewhat rare feat and definitely strange that the best two films of a director’s oeuvre would both be follow-ups to films previously directed by said filmmaker. For those who haven’t seen it, Spider-Man 2 features everyone’s favorite web-slinger exchanging punches (and quips) with the brilliant, powerful, and deranged (but also somewhat tragic) Dr. Octopus. In terms of performances, Tobey Maguire plays a convincing Peter Parker (although I never fully bought into him as Spider-Man); however, it’s Alfred Molina that shines here as the villainous Dr. Otto Octavius, as he brings a certain gravitas that’s necessary to play one of the most iconic villains in Marvel comics history and, arguably, Spider-Man’s most dangerous foe. I’ve not seen the 2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming, so I can’t speak to the quality of that film; however, at this point, Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is easily the best Spider-Man film that I’ve seen and one of the greatest superhero films of all time. (It’s not the “best” superhero film of all time in my book — that honor would still go to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight or James Mangold’s Logan — but it’s almost certainly in the top-five for me and, depending on the day, could contend for a spot in the top-three.) At the very least, the movie’s big train-fight scene remains one of the most exciting (and comics-like and heroic!) action scenes in all of the Marvel-related films.
The Quick and the Dead (1995) – I’ve mentioned before in previous retrospectives that I’m a fan of the Western genre. That said, I can see how/why others don’t like Westerns — after all, they tend to follow a pretty narrow set of storylines and archetypes, they are often over-long and bloated, they can feature long bouts of not-much-happening, they can be racist and misogynist and xenophobic and jingoistic, etc. etc. etc. For those reasons, Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead — a film that is mostly panned by critics (with a 56% critical score on RT) — is definitely a cinematic “guilty pleasure” for me. In terms of the plot, it’s a pretty typical Western-revenge meets high-noon shootout sort, with characters who fill those common Western “types” (e.g. the stranger, the kid, the tyrant, the penitent, and so on). But Raimi wisely tinkers with some of those expectations both in terms of characterization (e.g. providing us with a “woman-with-no-name” of sorts in the Clint-Eastwood vein) and, particularly, in terms of style. Once again, Raimi goes to the familiar (for him) well of campiness to provide us with over-the-top death scenes and tilted angles of perspective without sacrificing the thematic weight of those classic Sergio Leone epics. Sharon Stone provides a stilted, and I think purposefully so, dramatic performance here as our main character, Gene Hackman gives an even more villainous version of his “evil-protector” that we see in Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and Leonardo DiCaprio oozes charm (and naivete) as a cocky and talented but inexperienced gunfighter. Moreover, there’s a whole host of good supporting roles here from the likes of Lance Henriksen, Keith David, Gary Sinise, Roberts Blossom, etc. — not to mention a very good turn from Russell Crowe in his first starring role in a mainstream American film. I’m not sure if The Quick and the Dead is really a “good” film but it is certainly a “fun” one, mostly because of Raimi’s ability to take a classic cinematic genre and inject some life into it via quirk, camp, and pulp.
Darkman (1990) – Oh, boy. This is the one in this Raimi retrospective film-list that I’m probably most excited to recommend to you, if you’ve not seen it: Darkman. If you’re a lover of “genre” in film (like I am), then this is just a treasure trove of good times — as its formula is basically “superhero film” + “Universal monster film” + “sci-fi film” + “revenge action-thriller film” + “opera / melodrama,” etc. So…yeah. It’s pretty bonkers. The plot involves a brilliant scientist (Liam Neeson) specializing in experimental skin-fabrication production for skin-graft medical procedures, who’s brutally attacked, acid-burned, blown-up, and left for dead by a group of nefarious mobsters — only to return with a vengeance, using his skin-tech to create temporary disguises and his newfound superhuman strength (uh huh) and pain resistance (yep) to destroy his enemies and to protect his true love (Frances McDormand). Darkman has some extremely campy performances from Neeson, McDormand, Colin Friels, and Larry Drake. [Neeson and Drake are particularly great in this movie and absolutely chew their scenes to pieces.] The action scenes are memorable and the special-effects, while really outdated by today’s standards, maintain a peculiar sense of charm that you’d get from a much older film. If you’re looking for a purposefully dumb — enjoyably dumb, in fact — and over-the-top movie to get you through the week, you can do much worse than checking out Darkman.
A Simple Plan (1998) – In the middle of his directing career, Raimi made three back-to-back films that seem, in retrospect, quite tonally different than his more famous films before and after: A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game (1999), and The Gift (2000). Of those three films, I think that this film (A Simple Plan) is easily his most successful endeavor in diversifying his directorial style. While some critics — and this was a critically praised if commercially unsuccessful film — talk about the “humor” of A Simple Plan, I find those evaluations to be very misleading. To me, there’s very little humor here — even dark-humor; rather, this is a closer to a “domestic” horror / thriller film where each choice made by the characters opens another bag of worms. The basic plot involves three men who discover a mysterious bag of money in the woods and who then conspire to secretly hold onto the money until such a time as they can figure out what to do with it and whether it’s safe; and, obviously, as you’d expect, things quickly go off the rails with their “plan.” The performances here from the late Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Brisco, and, notably, Billy Bob Thornton are all very strong, and the snowy rural Minnesota landscape feels like a character all in itself. There are certainly some noir-like inspirations here, though it doesn’t fully operate like a noir either, and Raimi’s contribution is surprisingly subtle and restrained — allowing these characters and their (mis)calculations to “hook” the audience. If you’ve not seen this, it’s a sort of cross between the Coen Brothers Fargo (in terms of small-town snowy setting and criminal activities but not tone) and Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave. A good one to watch, if you can track it down.
The Underrated One
Both A Simple Plan and Darkman are films that not enough people have seen — the former being a surprisingly (for Raimi) low-key and nuanced noir, while the latter is an over-the-top campfest in the superhero mode. But since I’ve already talked about these two films, I’m going to go with Drag Me to Hell (2009) for this underrated spot. For fans of Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II, this is a return to Raimi’s horror-comedy roots. (Raimi and his brother apparently wrote this film after their Evil-Dead trilogy concluded in the early 1990s, which explains some of the tonal / genre similarities.) While it did alright at the box-office and was a huge critical hit (i.e. a 92% with critics on RT), I’ve not talked to all that many people who’ve seen Drag Me to Hell, which is a bummer because it’s such a fun and entertaining movie. The cast — particularly Alison Lohman, Justin Long, and Lorna Raver — excel in their respective roles, as we follow the story of a loan-collector (Lohman) who is placed under a mysterious gypsy curse after she evicts an old woman (Raver) from her home. Raimi was said to have made this film mostly because he was burnt out from the blockbuster Spider-Man films that he worked on for the better part of a decade and wanted to do something that was, in comparison, small-scale. The result is an underrated horror-comedy gem that I’d encourage you to watch this Halloween (if not sooner).
The One to Avoid
For all their “campiness,” Raimi’s final products have (generally) been pretty solid. The Gift features a very strong cast and is a fun mystery / thriller premise about a small-town clairvoyant; but the story, co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, wasn’t able to maintain my interest for the full duration (that said, there’s some obvious potential there). Likewise, For Love of the Game features solid performances from Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, John C. Reilly, J.K. Simmons, Brian Cox, Jena Malone, etc. — and, really, any baseball movie starring Kevin Costner and being “called” by Vin Scully is going to be enjoyable on a basic level; but the film’s temporal structure — which is reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) in its recurring flashbacks — becomes really tiresome as the narrative advances. But…look, what are we even talking about? The undisputed “champ” here — and we all know it in our hearts — is Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (2007). Where to start with what’s wrong with this movie? Just everything. More specifically, aside from suffering from an full-blown case of trilogy-itis — wherein the patient displays serious signs of miscasting, fabricated drama, and, in this case, a fatal diagnosis of “too many villains” — this film has the unfortunate “honor” of giving the world “emo Spider-Man.” Yeah………emo Spider-Man. (Everytime I write that phrase — “emo Spider-Man” — I die a little on the inside.) After that terrible image has cleared your mind, please proceed calmly to the quarantine area, where we can proceed with the full-body scrub and the administering of IV-fluids. You’re going to need it.
The Place to Start
Hmm…this is a bit tricky, mostly because not everyone is a fan of camp. Because I like horror-comedy, my instinct is to suggest starting with Evil Dead or Evil Dead II (again…the sequel is better and, oddly enough, there’s no real need to watch the first one in order to understand the second one). But I’ll compromise a little and suggest, instead, that most viewers — especially those on the fence about camp, horror-comedy, etc. — start with Spider-Man (2002). Again, I don’t think it’s quite as good as its successor, the very good Spider-Man 2; however, unlike the Evil Dead films, the viewer probably should watch Spider-Man before watching Spider-Man 2 (since some of the characters choices in the sequel are influenced by things that happen in the original). I would argue that Raimi’s campy style (mostly) pairs really well with superhero comics, since the majority of superheroes have a certain amount of “camp” or absurdity or over-dramatization built into them at the foundational level — e.g. secret identities, colorful costumes, convoluted storylines, diabolical villains, ridiculous one-liners, etc. Tonally and in terms of the look (particularly the use of light/color), you can see how later superhero films — like James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Taika Waititi’s forthcoming Thor: Ragnarok — might have been influenced by Raimi’s earlier installment. Spider-Man doesn’t have the degree of camp/schlock that is so appealing in Raimi’s best films, but you get little tastes of it here and there, which can help the viewer decide whether or not Raimi is a director whose larger filmography they might want to explore more thoroughly.
The Final Word
Sam Raimi is an interesting director to think about because, at various points in his career, he’s been a cult-classic director, a critical darling, a blockbuster movie-maker, and a franchise killer. In terms of reputation and reception, he’s pretty much run the full gamut at this point. To my mind, there are very few directors — e.g. the Coen Brothers and Edgar Wright come to mind — who are so adept at identifying those aspects of genre that are important and how (and when) to complicate / subvert those aspects in interesting ways. In particular, Raimi’s contribution to horror-comedy and to camp (in general) really can’t be overlooked, as his influence on subsequent directors (particularly in horror) has been really substantial. Above all, though, as I’ve mentioned above, his films work best when they have fun and when they keep audiences entertained — whether that be through humor or disgust. Elsewhere, Raimi has said that, for him, the cardinal sin in filmmaking is to create a “boring” film, that keeping the audience entertained ought to be of chief interest to directors. And I think that, for the most part, his films (as final products) reflect that artistic ideology. In that way, they are remarkably pure and honest and disciplined.