Why this might not be so easy
From his youthful beginnings making low-budget super 8mm films in his native Michigan, Sam Raimi graduated from controversial cult horror figure to a blockbuster director whose films spearheaded the 21st-century rise of the superhero movie. That he’s proven influential in both fields is significant, a mark of his talent for orchestrating a good time at the movies.
Whether it’s a feast of gore in the woods or a trip to the merry old land of Oz, what sets a Raimi picture apart is a kinetic visual style, with trademark moves that you come to recognise from one film to the next. Roving camera movements, Dutch tilts, snap zoom montages and exaggerated sound design are elements you’ll find time and again in his work. Scenes can pivot quickly from nail-biting suspense to thrilling action to comedic gags.
His visual extravagance can be dialled up or dialled down to suit. At full steam ahead, he’s a pop art expressionist who found his place in the American cinema by mixing two emotional extremes – horror and laughter – into potent and entertaining form. But there is also an intriguing, more straight-down-the-line aspect to his filmmaking, represented by A Simple Plan (1998), For Love of the Game (1999) and The Gift (2000).
The best place to start – The Evil Dead trilogy
The Evil Dead trilogy is rites-of-passage viewing for burgeoning horror enthusiasts. The 1981 original, The Evil Dead, was a low-budget, privately financed endeavour, shot on 16mm by a college dropout and his friends. Seeing a group of students heading to a cabin in the woods and unwittingly unleashing a demonic force, it became a worldwide phenomenon – not least in the UK, where the VHS edition got caught up in the 1980s video nasty scare. Its infamous tree rape remains audaciously unpleasant, the pencil stabbed in the ankle will never not be wince-inducing, and the POV shots of spirits roaming in the woods at speed are creepy and unsettling.
Working with a bigger budget, 1987’s remake/sequel/parody Evil Dead II is considered one of the finest horror comedies ever made, as well as a key entry in the ‘splatstick’ subgenre. Few films are so effective at making you laugh your head off while grossing you out at the same time.
Continuing the series in 1992 on a grander scale, Army of Darkness dropped chainsaw-handed ‘final boy’ Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) into a medieval fantasy romp, filled with glorious Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation and tongue-in-cheek chauvinistic quips.
What to watch next
Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) kickstarted the modern superhero era, providing the future MCU and DC behemoths with a loose formula. Supreme popcorn entertainment packed with humour, engaging performances, romance, tragedy and vivid spectacle, Raimi’s templates also – crucially – have a genuine heart. The superior sequel, starring Alfred Molina as villain Doctor Octopus, gave Raimi some wiggle room to bring more of his singular sensibilities to the franchise, including an attack by Doc Ock’s mechanical tentacles in an operating theatre that’s staged and cut like a scene from Evil Dead II. It’s a moment that had Raimi’s loyal horror fans grinning from ear to ear.
Also within the world of comic books, 1990’s Darkman, starring Liam Neeson, is aimed more at adults than kids, but it’s a wild and violent ride, featuring striking compositions and some of Raimi’s most energetic camerawork. It focused on the types of flawed heroes Raimi has favoured throughout his filmography.
After Spider-Man 3 (2007), Raimi got back to horror basics. Drag Me to Hell (2009), about a bank-teller being cursed by a Gypsy for denying her a loan, is a morality tale dressed up as a ghost-train frolic; it proved the maestro hadn’t lost his touch in the genre that made his name.
Raimi then signed up to make a prequel to his all-time favourite film, The Wizard of Oz (1939). The MGM classic had been openly referenced in Evil Dead II (the tree coming to life; Ash being sucked into a vortex and landing in another world) and Spider-Man (The Green Goblin flying across the sky like the Wicked Witch of the West, smoke trail in his wake). Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) is a beautifully mounted and very expensive-looking picture that sometimes feels like a subversive remake of Army of Darkness (both Ash and Oz are sleazy cowards who find inner courage). Given this a Mouse House production, it’s surprising that The Evil Dead even gets a direct reference, when CG monkey sidekick Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) gets attacked by malevolent vines in the woods.
Away from horror and comic books, the 1995 spaghetti western homage The Quick and the Dead, starring Sharon Stone, is well worth your time. Raimi has a six-shooter blast staging an array of gunfights and duels, as much Chuck Jones as Sergio Leone. It’s a rare example of a western with a female lead too.
Then there are the Raimi outliers, one of which – 1998’s snowbound noir A Simple Plan – might be his finest work to date. A gripping story about two brothers with a strained relationship who find a downed plane stuffed with drug money, it’s superbly acted by Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton and Bridget Fonda. As the stolen dough casts a malefic spell (not a supernatural one in this case), it twists already fragile dynamics, the sensible Hank (Paxton) turning from a small-town George Bailey type into Macbeth, while Bridget Fonda’s avaricious housewife duly obliges as his Lady Macbeth.
Finally, there’s his missing-person thriller The Gift (2000). Although it comes with supernatural trappings and jump scares, it’s a dark take on the ‘women’s film’ genre, offering up a sensitive and empathetic portrait of small-town southern women brutalised by men. As in The Quick and the Dead, the ensemble cast is impressive, with Keanu Reeves relishing an unusual, against-type role as a nasty redneck terrorising Cate Blanchett’s single mother.
Where not to start
Crimewave (1985) is virtually forgotten today. A screwball caper co-written with his friends Joel and Ethan Coen, the film was plagued by studio interference (something that also beset Raimi to various degrees on Darkman, Army of Darkness, For Love of the Game and Spider-Man 3). Embarrassed by what was put out there after Embassy Pictures imposed their own editor, Raimi and the Coens disowned it.
On its own merits, 1999’s For Love of the Game is a watchable baseball drama, with gorgeous sequences capturing the poetry of the American sport. Although it’s fundamentally a Kevin Costner vehicle, Raimi still found subtle ways to make it his own, including the impressionistic sound design and whip pans during pitching scenes.