Sam Raimi is returning to the world of superhero cinema with Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. The beloved icon of genre movies has made a career from blending pulp schlock with high-concept thrills and a proudly chaotic quality that laughs in the face of good taste. It’s one of the great Hollywood tales that a kid who made Super-8 movies with his friends grew up to become one of the true pioneers of 21st century blockbuster cinema.
To celebrate, we’re looking at Sam Raimi’s best movies, from his early horror days with the Evil Dead franchise to his superhero era with Spider-Man.
Evil Dead II (1987)
While 1981's The Evil Dead remains a groundbreaking horror film that pushed the boundaries of censorship, it's the sequel/remake, Evil Dead II, that took things to the next level. This is where Raimi fully established his style and tone with a seamless blend of ultra-violence, old-school slapstick comedy and savvy genre satire.
The movie basically redoes the plot of the first one but dials things up to a new level of lunacy: the violence is more garish, the acting more bombastic and the jokes funnier. It’s still horrific in places, with Raimi eager to remind audiences he’s the king of bad taste, but it’s all done with such a giddy smirk you can’t help but laugh along with him. The practical effects still pack a punch (often literally) and you just never get sick of seeing Bruce Campbell, Raimi’s beloved muse, kick zombie butt over and over again.
Where to watch Evil Dead II: Digital on-demand in US and UK.
Before Spider-Man, Raimi tried to secure the rights to both Batman and The Shadow for lavish adaptations. When that fell through, he just decided to make up his own superhero. Enter Darkman, an old-school superhero that blends Universal's 1930s monster movies with pulp comics and Raimi's giddy grotesqueries.
Liam Neeson is in chaotic form as a scientist left brutally disfigured by a scheming mobster. His attempts to cure his injuries leave him with superhuman powers but also have the nasty consequence of rendering him a tad psychotic. While Darkman is undeniably the work of a comic book geek, it’s striking how un-child friendly the entire thing is. The gore and prosthetic weirdness of The Evil Dead is all over, albeit packaged less in the horror mold. It’s easy to see how Darkman laid the path for Raimi’s future as one of the defining filmmakers of superhero cinema.
Where to watch Darkman: Digital on-demand in US and UK.
Army of Darkness (1992)
When it came time to return to The Evil Dead for a third instalment, Raimi didn't make things easy for himself. Out of the cabin to the Middle Ages, Army of Darkness had a bigger budget, a more ambitious scope and a 100-day shoot in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
It's not as violent or horror-focused as the first two movies, but the real charm of Army of Darkness comes with its madcap pastiche of epics like Jason and the Argonauts and Conan the Barbarian. The humor is still peak Raimi but now the hammy comic tone is amped up, with Campbell showing his chops as both the ideal leading man and a spot-on spoof of it.
Though Raimi had his original ending changed and a lot of the gore cut to make an R rating after studio pressure, Army of Darkness is still a blast of a movie very much cut from the same cloth as Ash’s prior adventures.
Where to watch Army of Darkness: HBO Max in US; digital on-demand in UK.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Raimi was hired to direct the revisionist western The Quick and the Dead by its star/producer Sharon Stone. While the film is her baby, it's a great showcase for Raimi's skills with more serious fare. Stone plays a gunslinger known as The Lady, who joins a deadly dueling competition in an attempt to exact revenge for her father's death.
The Sergio Leone influences are evident, with some scenes seemingly designed to recreate the specific mood of classic Spaghetti Westerns. It's no copycat movie, however, as Raimi keeps the pacing brisk and is having so much fun with these well-worn genre tropes. It doesn’t hurt when you have a cast as stacked as this one: Stone, Gene Hackman, pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe in his Hollywood debut.
Where to watch The Quick and the Dead: Digital on-demand in US and UK.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Without the seismic impact of Raimi’s Spider-Man, we would not have the superhero movie industrial complex we have today. While the first movie is great, it’s Spider-Man 2 that deserves to be seen as one of Raimi’s true masterpieces.
Spider-Man 2 is a blast from start to finish, a kinetic adventure and VFX spectacular that brings the right balance of thrills, laughs, pathos and comic book weirdness. Alfred Molina as Doc Ock is simply one of the best superhero movie villains of all time (and one of the most emotional too) and the set pieces still stand up to 2022 scrutiny.
Most importantly, Raimi refused to soften the silliness of superhero narratives. He doesn’t do fourth-wall breaks to let the audience mock the material nor does he try to dilute it. He understands that this unreal and frivolous quality is what makes superhero stories so thrilling. The MCU could learn a few lessons from Spider-Man 2.
Where to watch Spider-Man 2: Digital on-demand in US; Netflix in UK.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Raimi returned to his roots with Drag Me to Hell and it felt like he’d never left the grimy glory of horror behind. Alison Lohman is terrorized by a Roma woman who curses her to be literally dragged to hell. What follows is an inimitably Raimi-esque blend of tension, high-concept scares and bad taste camp humor.
There’s a distinct lack of gore here but that doesn’t stop Drag Me to Hell from being a ceaseless horror-fest. After several years in blockbuster territory, Raimi clearly had a ball indulging his weirder and sillier whims, but all with such an impish glee you can’t help but route for our poor heroine to suffer more.
Where to watch Drag Me to Hell: Hulu in US; StarzPlay in UK.
Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.
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