Douglas Norton selects his five essential films of Sam Raimi….
After a four-year hiatus from feature films, director Sam Raimi is back in cinemas with the fantasy spectacle Oz the Great and Powerful. Raimi began making films at age ten, armed with a Super-8 camera and a fascination with the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges.
In honor of the return of the man who forever altered the landscape of film horror, and substantially raised the bar on the superhero saga, here’s the essential introduction to a low-budget legend who’s become an A-list director.
5. Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Crafty genre exercises don’t get much better, as Raimi gets back to basics with a hugely enjoyable supernatural thriller about a bank officer cursed by an old woman she wrongs. Her worldly disbelief turns to terror, as she learns she must break the curse and escape the clutches of a haunting demon before it takes her soul to Hell. Raimi brings his knowing dark sense of humor and visual flair, along with terrific pacing and a game cast that plays it to the hilt. Drawing on the 1957 film Curse of the Demon, which Raimi intended to remake but could not get the rights for, this is great fun from start to finish, with clever effects and narrative turns, and an ending that doesn’t disappoint. There are fan-friendly references to the Evil Dead films scattered about, and pay close attention for Raimi’s cameo as a spirit in the exorcism.
4. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
At the time, widely hailed as the best, most mature superhero movie yet made. And it still holds up well, despite the new reality of the post-Christopher Nolan / Dark Knight landscape. Raimi plays it straight throughout, exploring Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker as a three-dimensional person dealing with a real burden, and investing every character with dignity. Even the super-villain Dr. Octavius emerges as that rare, sympathetic opponent, thanks in no small part to Alfred Molina’s standout performance. Raimi clearly learned from some of the weaknesses of the first Spider-Man film (2002) — the script benefits from the story work of novelist and comics fan Michael Chabon, the action and web-swinging flights are exhilarating, and the romance with Mary Jane actually carries some real emotional juice. With this one, Raimi opened the door for other serious filmmakers to take on superhero projects and treat them as fully-realized films. Undoubtedly Raimi’s most influential film in terms of the current blockbuster landscape.
3. The Gift (2000)
An underrated supernatural thriller with a powerful lead role, Cate Blanchett is exceptionally good as Annie Wilson, a single mom with a psychic gift, who is brought in by police to find a missing woman. Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank, and Giovanni Ribisi round out the exceptional cast, along with another Raimi favorite, actor J.K. Simmons (better known as Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man trilogy). Critics were divided about this one, and complained about the predictable ending, but Raimi provides plenty to enjoy in a taut, steadily-building story that rises above its Southern gothic melodrama elements and characters. With a script co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, Raimi skillfully fuses several strands of genre into an engrossing and atmospheric winner. (Note the car that Annie drives—it’s Raimi’s own Delta 88, which appears in some form in almost all of his films).
2. A Simple Plan (1998)
Up to this point, Raimi was known predominantly for his kinetic, sugar-rush visual style and his quirky takes on genre work, like the fantasy-noir Darkman and the flashy gun-slinger showdown western The Quick and the Dead. The surprise was clear when A Simple Plan turned out to be a restrained, smart and emotional character study inside a suspenseful crime film. Two brothers get caught up in a plan to keep a pile of cash discovered in a crashed airplane, and find everything going fatally awry. Bill Paxton and Bridget Fonda are great, and Billy Bob Thornton received an Oscar nomination for his work as Paxton’s mentally-challenged brother, as did Scott Smith for his screenplay, based on his novel. Raimi builds tension based on character, never relying on phony payoffs or easy editing or script tricks. Start to finish his most polished and complete film.
1. Evil Dead II (1987)
More a re-make than a sequel, Raimi’s bigger budget re-do of his breakthrough The Evil Dead takes the ragged low-budget energy and manic visual sense of the first film and adds better performances, effects and editorial flourishes. Over-the-top gore and hyperbolic cinematography mix with surprisingly sly satire, as Raimi stalwart Bruce Campbell and company battle the forces of demonic evil in a remote cabin. Campbell is at his human cartoon best as Ash, the hapless chain-saw wielding main man, and Raimi’s wildly creative direction elevates a boilerplate scenario to legendary status. Still an influential picture 25 years later, the exterior of the cabin in Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods is an homage to the setting of Evil Dead. One of my personal greatest experiences in the cinema, and an astonishingly deft blend of dark comedy and gripping horror. A pencil has never seemed so sharp, and the word “groovy” has never been so sweet, or so blood-soaked.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
The Evil Dead (1981)
What do you make of our choices? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave your thoughts…
Douglas Norton is a full-time high school music teacher and part time film nerd from Lima, Ohio.