Director Spotlight: Sam Raimi
by Barry Wurst
May 8, 2007
Few directors have careers that cover as wide a spectrum as Peter Jackson, George Lucas and Sam Raimi; these three (to name just a few) began as low budget filmmakers whose early, visionary work behind the camera has proven influential, long lasting and wildly popular. They later conquered Hollywood with surprise blockbusters that re-wrote the rulebook, made overnight stars of everyone involved and gave them directorial clout and massive popularity worldwide. Raimi, who, prior to Spider-Man, was a cult favorite whose thrillingly energetic, genuinely sick and twistedly funny early works gave way to dramatically rich, underappreciated films. After he seemingly had nothing left to prove or lose, he made a comic book movie that made him Sony's Golden Boy. Here's how he got there.
May 8 - Sam Raimi
The meagerly budgeted The Evil Dead (1981), the first film Raimi helmed that caught the attention of curious movie goers and midnight movie aficionados, became a talked about must-see almost immediately. Filmgoers were stunned by the crazy ingenuity of the film (Raimi's tendency to strap a camera to the middle of a long wooden board, then run with the board through the woods, created an exhilarating effect). Everyone from Stephen King to Tobe Hooper voiced their praise and astonishment at a film that, while messily gory and quite sick, was also darkly humorous and fiendishly clever. It introduced cult favorite Bruce Campbell to audiences and, in its day, was known to be one of the grossest, most disgusting horror films ever made. Truly, Raimi took a familiar premise (teens go into the woods, stay in a cabin...never to be seen again) and added touches both jolting (the final shot is a knockout) and tasteless (it could be the only movie where a woman is raped by a tree).
The little seen, little admired Crimewave (1985) followed. Even Raimi completists don't have much to say about this failed, would-be dark comedy. It has Bruce Campbell, but then, so does The Ant Bully. Not worth saying much about it, except approach with caution and only if you must!
Raimi did a higher (but not much higher) budgeted sequel remake of The Evil Dead that, while not a hit in theaters (the art movie-level grosses of the first two Dead films weren't much to brag about), was a smash on video. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987) brought Campbell back to that kooky cabin in the woods, except, from the very first frame, everything is noticeably better; from the title credits on, the sequel improves on the original, as the gore is more plentiful (though as cartoonish as before), the acrobatic camera work more artful and effective and the black humor better realized and far funnier than in the predecessor. Campbell plays the somewhat heroic, often idiotic Ash with an even more deft, no-holds-barred, fearless spirit than before, and Raimi's funhouse of gore and excess is far more satisfying the second time out.
Universal Pictures gave Raimi the opportunity to make a film within the studio system and it lead to a strained experience. Raimi wanted to make an adaptation of The Shadow, but the studio wouldn't give him the chance to do it (though they did greenlight an unsuccessful version of it four years later). Instead, Raimi made Darkman (1990), which bears similarities to The Shadow, as well as The Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast and Batman. He wanted Campbell to star, but the studio objected, as they didn't think Campbell was up to the emotional demands of the role (even die hard fans of Campbell are hard pressed to argue with that and Campbell has a nice cameo in the film's final scene). Liam Neeson, then a character actor who never played the lead in a film before, was cast in the title role.
Raimi was met with studio interference during filming, with budget restrictions and objections to some scenes hindering his intentions (the ending was originally different). Yet, the film (which was well marketed and became a solid, surprise hit during its summer of 1990 release) is terrific, thrilling, touching and flush with Raimi's grand stylizations. The performances (particularly Neeson's and Larry Drake's) fit the operatic tone of the story, as does Danny Elfman's quirkily grim score, and the gloomy production design. Raimi's trademarks (dependably dazzling camera work, black humor, violent slapstick and light skewering of genre conventions) are on hand and the film is such a solid, enjoyable film (often called one of the best comic book movies not based on a comic book), you'd never know Raimi had such a trying time making it.
Universal Pictures released another solid genre offering from Raimi three years following, the long planned, long delayed Army of Darkness (1992), the final (?) entry in the Evil Dead series. While not a box office hit, it was spawned a substantial cult following and, even moreso than Darkman, it is the film that brought awareness and newfound fans of Raimi more than any prior work. While rated R, the film, a goofy sword and sorcery spoof with grisly humor and an overtly comic tone, is a tamer, funnier, more accessible film than its predecessors. Campbell's performance is something special - the inexperience as an actor on display in the first film is gone. Instead, his confidence and approach to "Ash" (his definitive role) results in inspired silliness, particularly with his delivery of the films' hilariously campy, now classic dialogue. Like Darkman, the production values are impressive, with old school special effects that have a film school know-how and charm that you can't get from glossy, CGI-driven effects. Raimi's go-for-broke approach fits the screenplay's nutty vision and the result is a clever send-up of Ray Harryhausen, Mark Twain, Conan, and K-Mart. Die hard Dead fans aren't big on this being a watered down, lighter entry than the gore-soaked original and its sequel. Yet, Raimi devotees are big on this, a certified VHS/DVD blockbuster seller (and yes, the film's original ending is better).
A prestigious, though uneven, change of pace followed. The Quick and the Dead (1995), a wiley western full of Raimi's cockeyed camera work but devoid of much substance, was a bomb during its brief theatrical run. Starring Sharon Stone (then one of the top stars in the world) as a master gunslinger on a quest for revenge against the man who killed her father (Gene Hackman, playing a broader variation on his Unforgiven role). Stone doesn't pull off the lead, but a scene stealing Leonardo DiCaprio and Hackman are first rate and their performances (as well as that of Gary Sinese, Lance Henricksen and Russell Crowe) are the prime reason many sought this out on video. Some of the action sequences are exhilarating, but the film, while lively, doesn't completely work.
Raimi took on another project that didn't appear to be a natural fit for him, an adaptation of Scott Smith's beloved novel, A Simple Plan (1998). Instead of attempting to beef up a puny screenplay with style (his failed approach to The Quick and the Dead), Raimi made a straight-forward, deadly serious, character-driven thriller. The result is one of his best films and certainly the finest non-genre work of his career. Starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as brothers who discover a crashed airplane containing $4 million dollars, this tale of evolving evil, corruption and greed amongst family is a shocking, engrossing film. The performances are phenomenal - Thornton got the most attention and an Oscar-nomination for his work but Paxton has never been better and Bridget Fonda is also first rate. Only one brief moment reminds you visually that this is from the director of Evil Dead. Otherwise, Raimi lets Smith's layered, intriguing and devastating story be the film's driving force and the resulting film was one of the best of 1998. The only complaints came from fans of Smith's book, who stated the film wasn't as good as the book. Even so, this is one of Raimi's finest hours.
A Kevin Costner baseball drama may have sounded like a box office sure thing in the early 90's, but For Love of the Game (1999) came out post-Waterworld and his fans (and box office grosses) were diminishing. Costner is a solid actor, but some of his choices around this time (Message in a Bottle, Dragonfly and 3,000 Mile to Graceland) were questionable and didn't win over anyone. Raimi took on For Love of the Game, a polished but overlong and unmemorable ode to baseball. Some see this as one of Raimi's most overlooked and, in fact, Tim Robbins has called it one of his favorites.
Raimi went back to Gothic drama with The Gift (2000), from a screenplay co-written by Billy Bob Thornton. The film, which has the most impressive ensemble cast ever assembled for a Raimi-directed work, was positioned as an Oscar contender by its studio but was overlooked during awards season and in theaters. Yet, while imperfect, the film rivals A Simple Plan as a compelling character drama and actor's showcase. Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes, and Hilary Swank are excellent in the lead roles. Danny Elfman has an odd, quickie cameo and, while a tad uneven, the film is satisfyingly scary. A word about Keanu Reeves: he plays Donnie Barksdale (one of those movie names that hasn't left me), Swank's abusive, redneck husband. Reeves gives his best performance. Ever. This is a disturbing character and Reeves' forceful, frightening work is stunning (you won't believe this is the guy from The Matrix) and his scenes with Blanchett are riveting. Critics were so over the moon about his work, that they noted the film in subsequent reviews of his later films. Every single review of Sweet November (which came out not long after this) complained that his stunning, newfound ability as an actor, as seen in The Gift, had vanished and that he was back to being stiff and uneven.
Soon after Kiwi genius Peter Jackson proved to be an unlikely but stunningly perfect director for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sony went to Sam Raimi about Spider-Man (2002). One of the most troubled comic book adaptations, this character had multiple false starts in getting to the big screen, with everyone from James Cameron to Albert Pyun being in talks to direct over the years. Raimi's enthusiasm for the character made him a good pick, though the combined budgets of all three Evil Dead films and Darkman didn't even come close to how expensive (and, therefore, risky) Spider-Man would be. Also troubling for Sony and some fans: the casting of Tobey Maguire. While a reliably brilliant actor in art house films (like Wonder Boys and The Ice Storm), he seemed an odd choice to carry a lavish action movie (just as Raimi wasn't an obvious choice to direct it). After the opening weekend, all complaints went out the window.
Yes, the film had the biggest opening weekend EVER. More importantly, Raimi displayed both his ability at getting great work from actors and his skill at crafting a wild story with stylistic panache and heart. The first film is a tad underrated now: audiences didn't seem to mind then, but the special effects run hot and cold and a good deal of the film has two actors in masks, covering their faces, spouting comic-book dialogue while gesturing wildly, like scenes out of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Yet, Maguire's casting extends to why the film works as a whole - he's good as Spidey, but he's terrific as Peter Parker. The romantic triangle at the center of the story is compelling, as is the you-killed-my-Green-Goblin-dad story arch that starts with this film. The lead characters are quite likeable, so much, in fact, that the solemn, even downbeat scene that ends the film (a sequence that would fall flat in most other films) is strangely moving. Raimi's take on Spider-Man was joyous, exciting and unabashedly heartfelt.
The mega-sequel that followed is the antithesis of the original: overrated in the extreme. Even before it opened, many called it the Greatest Comic Book Movie Ever, an acclaim also bestowed on the equally overpraised X2: X-Men United. Like that film, Spider-Man 2 (2004) is solid entertainment and expands well on the story threads set up by the first film but, seriously folks, this is no classic. The film suffers from Batman-itus: the villain is far more interesting than the hero, who spends most of the movie whining about being a superhero. Meanwhile, scenes that are thrilling (like the majority of the action sequences) clash with moments that are pompously overdone (the downright religious encounter between Spidey and some especially zealous city goers, who carry him like a martyr, is gag inducing). The film takes its story deadly serious, which delights some but creates eye rolling in others. As pure entertainment, the movie more than delivers and the textured performance by Alfred Molina is something to see. A scene where Doc Ock's tentacles go on a rampage in an operating room has the manic energy of Raimi's early films and the closing scenes provide both satisfying closure and a nifty cliffhanger. Fans of the first movie loved this one even more and Raimi's film is constant fun but, really, the Greatest Comic Book Movie Ever? Nah.
The expectations for Spider-Man 3 (2007) are almost as big as the film's mammoth budget (Well, not quite. NOTHING is as big as this movie's production costs!). The first-one-out-of-the-box summer release puts a lot of pressure on this to stick around the entire summer to make an impression. Yet, I'm sure no one at Sony is losing any sleep (in fact, early talks about Spider-Man 4 are already circulating) and this one will likely make as much dough as Star Wars Episode III and not Mission: impossible III. Most importantly - will it be as good, if not better, than the first three? The expectations are high, but Raimi has met some pretty tall expectations before. His best films (Evil Dead 2, Darkman, A Simple Plan, The Gift and the Spider-Man installments) are examples of inventive, seemingly fearless, endlessly imaginative filmmaking, as well as parables of how evil can corrupt and eclipse the good that resides in all of us. His free-flowing camera moves have been frequently copied and celebrated for their cleverness. Best of all, he has successfully taken acclaimed but (then) not popular or obvious actors (Liam Neeson and Tobey Maguire), cast them against type as poignant, emotionally torn superheroes and found great success with these risky choices. With A Simple Plan and The Gift, Raimi proved he is able to pull complex performances from accomplished actors, though he may be best loved in the fan-boy circuit as the one who gave us Bruce Campbell. Whether set in the woods, the wild west, a baseball field, a mad scientist's laboratory, a small Southern town, a medieval castle, or high above the city, Raimi's work is rich with creative cinematic touches and an understanding of the human heart.