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Rating Raimi: Sam's Seminal 13

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thirteen. It seems like an appropriate number for 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 ten years, 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. But now, after 15 years in a macabre-less cinematic stasis, Raimi is back. His latest scare statement, the amazing Drag Me to Hell, manages the next to impossible - it readily reminds us of why we fell in love with the man and his anarchic directorial style in the first place while pushing his skills forever forward. Same may call it a return to form, but from the way this movie works, it’s clear that Raimi never really left his love of dread behind.


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 13 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?
  
Remember, this is just one opinion, coming from a source that has systematically followed everything Raimi has done. And also be reminded of the fact that not every movie here was the creator’s original idea. In at least two instances, he was a hot young gun for hire, hoping that appeasement would lead to greener, more gratifying motion picture pastures. Still, for someone whose about to turn 50, his past career arc suggests a sensational future - that is, if he can give up on the whole “Spidey” nonsense and get back to making the kind of movies he loves. Let’s begin the overview at the bottom, with the following:


13. For the Love of the Game


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.






12. Spider-man III


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.






11. The Gift


This is the point where the grading of Raimi’s canon gets a bit wonky. None of the next 11 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.






10. The Quick and the Dead


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.






9. Spider-man


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.

 




8. Crimewave


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 DVD release second chance.






7. A Simple Plan


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.






6. Darkman


The saddest thing about this amazing, original comic book movie is that it wound up fostering a fetid pool of useless, made on the cheap sequels. These hackneyed efforts definitely downplay the visual flare Raimi realized the first time around. As a precursor to Spider-man, this was solid enough proof that the director could handle this kind of epic entertainment scope. In some ways, the Raimi-created character is far more intriguing than Peter Parker could ever be. Besides, it’s a hoot to see Liam Neeson in full bore American hero mode. 






5. Spider-man II


With the leash loosened - just a bit - and the chance to build on what he had already started, Raimi delivered big with this (so far) definitive Spidey sequel. Of course, it helped that one of the best series villains - the tentacle terror Dr. Octopus - was the main focus this time around. Thanks to Alfred Molinas excellent performance, and F/X which realized the character’s clever mobility and mannerism, Raimi had the makings of a classic. This still stands as one of the genre’s best, right up there with The Dark Knight.




4. Army of Darkness


From the moment the iconic final shot appeared in Evil Dead II, fans of Raimi were eager to see the heroic Ash tossed back in time to battle medieval monsters. In fact, this was always part of the original Evil Dead mythos. Raimi never had the budget or support to realize his dreams until Darkman became a minor hit. As a further extension of his humor/horror ideal, Army of Darkness was a diabolic delight. Even today, it stands as an inventive, homage-laden romp.






3. Drag Me to Hell


Maybe it’s the rush of the recent screening still buzzing around in our head. Maybe it’s the comfortable feeling of Raimi returning to the type of movie he does best. It could be our latent love of any well made macabre. Whatever it is, few films in 2009 will match the insane showboating joy of this gypsy curse gone gonzo creepshow. Raimi pulls out all the stops here, upping the ante in both laughs and ludicrous, gross out shocks. All scary movies should be as evocative - and downright enjoyable.

 




2. The Evil Dead


One of the best pure horror movies ever. A gruesome, grisly experience made all the more meaningful by the director’s sinister slight of hand invention behind the camera. This is one gruesome, ill-tempered title, unwilling to let the audience off the hook until every last drop of blood is spilled and every last human body part dismembered. Dabbling in almost every classic fear factor - demonic possession, haunting, monsters, ample arterial spray - we are lost in a limbo where anyone can die at any moment…only to come back to life and wreck even more havoc. 






1. Evil Dead 2


For many, the argument is simple. This is the real deal Sam Raimi, packing as much horror as humor into his splatterific terror tour de force. And let’s face it, when you reinvent not only a genre but an entire school of filmmaking in the process, it’s hard to debate the result. This is indeed one of the most influential films of the ‘80s, a visionary effort that literally tore up the rulebook regarding macabre and manufactured it for a demographic spoon-fed fear via their handy dandy VCR. Raimi will never top this, and he’s been wise not to try since then.

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