He’s back… the man who made the Deadites and that fabled Book of the Dead, The Necronomicon, a fright fan household name. Yet ever since he struck professional paydirt with an oddball Western starring a then hot Sharon Stone, Sam Raimi has wondered away from his horror roots. Over the course of the next few decades, he made two thillers, a baseball themed drama, and then literally re-invented the post-millennial popcorn comic book superhero blockbuster with his Spider-man movies. And now he’s tackling the family film (?) genre. That’s right, his recent release for Disney’s (??) Oz the Great and Powerful has just broken $80 million at the box office on its opening weekend, securing his legacy as both commercial king and ruler of the crepshow.
Still, when one looks over his oeuvre, concentrating only on his feature films, it’s hard to get a handle on which Sam Raimi will be remembered. There are literally millions of fans who never knew he had a horror hound past. For them, Raimi is the man who brought Peter Parker and a myriad of web-slinger icons to life. For others, however, his career ended back when Bruce Campbell failed to properly utter the classic sci-fi mantra “Klaatu Barada Nikto” and wound up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (look it up). In light of such a drastic dichotomy, SE&L has decided to take the 14 works in Raimi’s creative canon and rate them, worst to best. Of course, by its very nature, the list will be unfair. Can you really grade the wonders of The Evil Dead against the spine-tingling chills of A Simple Plan? Does the same filmmaker really exist in both Spider-man III and Crimewave?
No matter how hard we try, no matter how many times we read that Raimi really wanted to make this beleaguered baseball pic, we just can’t buy the man responsible for tree rape delivering a sudsy mid-life crisis drama. Kevin Costner was at the tail end of his superstar downward spiral when he made this miscue, and he almost took Raimi with him.
After the brilliance of Part II, this almost unnecessary trequel really had little chance of succeeding. Then Raimi had to go and indulge in some of his most mediocre aesthetic aims, like turning Peter Parker into a whiny whelp Goth boy with Adam Lambert’s fashion sense. What this movie needed was less goofing around, less villains (two is one too many), and more of the well paced pizzazz of Spidey’s previous entry.
This is the point where the grading of Raimi’s canon gets a bit wonky. None of the next films are bad, per se. Instead, they offer intriguing glimpses into the man’s peculiar forward progress. When you read the synopsis on this story (a psychic “witnesses” a crime, then becomes a target herself) and see the talent involved (Cate Blanchett? Hillary Swank?) it seems like a no-brainer. Yet sadly, somehow, this movie got lost in the weird wilderness of Oscar season 2000. It deserves to be rediscovered.
This was the geek breaking point for many a certified Raimaniac. First off, it was a Western in the days when the genre was more or less struggling for life. In addition, it starred a yet to be hot Leonardo DiCaprio, a question mark named Russell Crowe, and the sexually inert Sharon Stone. About the only thing it had going for it was Raimi’s manic direction, and even that seemed…showy. Still, in retrospect, this is a good film, undermined by forces outside itself.
First films in potential superhero franchises are always tough going, and Raimi had more than said set-up to contend with here. The long in development project had lured and spurned such celebrated names as James Cameron and David Fincher before Sam the Man was brought on, and like Tim Burton with the original big screen Batman, there were creative restrictions in abundance. And of course, Nerd Nation took every minor change to task. That it succeeded at all is a miracle—the kind Raimi frequently manages quite well.
It has a script co-written by the Coen Brothers. It features Raimi in full bore Three Stooges mode. And it remains the only true comedy in his three decade career. So why don’t more people know about this clever, quirky effort? Well, when Raimi couldn’t hire Bruce Campbell as his lead, and had several key crew members replaced by the producers, he disowned it. Since then, it’s been lost in limited release limbo. It definitely mandates a proper re-release second chance.
How ironic. Nearly two decades before, critics were crucifying Raimi for his gore-drenched fright flicks. But in 1998, there was heavy awards buzz for his adept adaptation of Scott Smith’s superb suspense novel. Even former ‘haters’ Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had to bite back the bile as they praised this taut, intense thriller. Featuring wonderful performances and masterful execution, Raimi proved he could do mainstream, and do it really, really well.
// Notes from the Road
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