He burst onto the scene in controversial, tree-raping circumstances with – to quote legendary author Stephen King – “The ultimate experience in gruelling terror,” (THE EVIL DEAD), but director Sam Raimi is now cemented as one of cinema’s current blockbusting filmmakers. Thanks to his record-breaking SPIDER-MAN trilogy, Raimi now has a lot of say in the projects he works on. He’s no longer just a cult horror director of a ‘video nasty’ favourite, or even a fanboy’s wet dream.
With the upcoming release of his family fantasy prequel, OZ THE GREAT & POWERFUL, THN has decided to remember his seven best films from what has been a surprisingly varied career so far; from horror and superheroes, to westerns and baseball dramas. Raimi’s directing range reaches across more genres than you may remember, so here are our picks, beginning with…
Although it isn’t perfect, Raimi should be applauded for his take on Marvel’s favourite web-slinging superhero. After all, a number of high profile directors had failed to even get a big screen SPIDER-MAN feature off the ground. The cast assembled for the ground-breaking film was first class; from Tobey Maguire’s nerdy transformation as Peter Parker, to Willem Dafoe’s scenery-chewing nemesis, Norman Osborne, not forgetting J.K. Simmons’ pitch perfect, J. Jonah Jameson. SPIDER-MAN’s first big screen origin story was a huge success, in the eyes of fans of the comic book and those of the general cinema-going public. If only the Green Goblin’s costume looked less like a pathetic Power Ranger, and was inspired by the actual source material. Would the sequel that followed two years later be an improvement?
Raimi went back to his early horror roots after his wall-crawling shenanigans with this much overlooked effort. DRAG ME TO HELL saw the gorgeous Ellen Page drop out early, but an able understudy was found in MATCHSTICK MEN’s Alison Lohman. It had all the familiar Raimi hallmarks: blood, gore, laughs, slapstick and genuine chills, as loan officer Christine Brown is forced to evict an old gypsy woman from her home, but soon finds herself the recipient of a supernatural curse from the bile-spewing geriatric. The curse promises that in three days demons will do to Christine just as the title suggests, so she is forced to seek a solution before it’s too late. Maybe the fact it was promoted as straight horror hurt its box office potential but we found it a whole lot of demented fun.
1990 saw Raimi create his very own superhero as DARKMAN, no doubt, became the precursor to his future on the big screen. Liam Neeson plays it deliciously over-the-top as genetic scientist Peyton Westlake. Working on the creation of synthetic skin, Westlake finds his profession comes in handy after a group of mobsters, led by the super Larry Drake, leave him to burn in his lab. This ultimately turns him into the hideously scarred and mentally unstable anti-hero, who seeks cackling and hysterical revenge on said perpetrators in a number of ingenious ways. Frances McDormand co-stars as his ‘widow’, whose boss may just be behind the whole tormented tragedy. Raimi’s style is all over this one like a rash, and it spawned a couple of straight-to-video sequels, starring Arnold Vosloo, with Raimi producing.
While THE EVIL DEAD didn’t quite make the list mainly due to its raw, experimental execution, and the fact its follow-up is effectively a remake, threequel ARMY OF DARKNESS is hilariously grotesque. In this instalment our (h)armless, boomstick carrying hero Ash, is transported to the Medieval year of 1300 A.D. The man who owns everyone’s favourite chin returns to battle the demonic deadites in the dark ages, where he is looked upon as a harbinger for uniting the armies of two warring factions. As he attempts to retrieve the Necronomicon (Book of the Dead) so he can return home, he’s also, of course, hoping to get into the knickers of the lovely Embeth Davidtz, so give him some sugar, baby. Raimi still has plans for Ash’s return in an EVIL DEAD 4, despite him producing the upcoming reboot.
Raimi’s masterstroke with superhero sequel, SPIDER-MAN 2, concentrates on Peter’s personal demons and highlights the burden that comes with being Spider-man. He didn’t bow to studio pressure by seeking out a ‘big name’ for the tragic villain, Doctor Octopus. Instead, British thespian Alfred Molina was brought in and is outstanding as the former friend-turned-foe to Parker. Molina relishes the role as the key maniacal mischief maker, as he gives each of those extra mechanical limbs a personality all of their own. The epic and seemingly never-ending clock-tower battle between the duo, which continues atop of a moving train, is still jaw-dropping, and set the benchmark for future superhero set-pieces. SPIDER-MAN 2 is arguably the greatest feature adapted from a comic book, alongside Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT and Whedon’s THE AVENGERS.
How do you top the intense X-rated exploits of the horror classic that made your name? Easy. Look to the Three Stooges and animator Chuck Jones for inspiration. As mentioned earlier, Raimi essentially remade his own EVIL DEAD with sequel DEAD BY DAWN and threw in as many laughs as there were buckets of blood. While brother Ted made a memorable appearance in the role of the dearly departed (now demonic deadite) Henrietta, the returning Campbell cemented his cult status as ‘Groovy’ Bruce in his signature role of Ash. It’s sometimes difficult to see while you’re chuckling away (or chucking up) how good a performance Campbell gives. He’s put through the ringer, looking physically exhausted even before he’s having to saw his own arm off, yet he’s still bellowing quotable lines in an almost vivacious fashion. Soul-swallowing genius.
Fans of Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD and SPIDER-MAN trilogies may be a touch perturbed about our No.1 choice, but for us there was no doubt. A SIMPLE PLAN is the director’s most mature work to date, and it tells the tragic story of a pair of devoted brothers whose disconcerted relationship takes a twisted turn. Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are very affecting as the sibling duo, who along with their buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe), come across millions of dollars of lost cash in a downed aircraft near their home. They form an alliance in order to keep the loot from the authorities, but find complications and mistrust weaving its way into their plan, culminating in an emotionally devastating conclusion. Thornton was Oscar-nominated, as was Scott B. Smith who adapted the screenplay from his own novel. The equally outstanding Gary Cole crops up in a threatening, pivotal role, along with Bridget Fonda as Paxton’s Lady MacBeth-like wife, who gnaws away in this undervalued gem.
Have we missed any of your favourites? Let us know.
OZ THE GREAT & POWERFUL is released in cinemas Friday 8th March and stars James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachael Weisz and Zach Braff.