Some directors make low-budget horror films because they love the excitement, the transgression, and the lack of boundaries that are inherent in working with such an unregulated arena; some directors make low-budget features in the hope of creating a calling card for their skill and work their way up into big-budget, mainstream filmmaking. And there are those rare occasions when someone works in low-budget horror, gains the notoriety and mainstream success, and comes back to low-budget horror simply because they still love it. Sam Raimi is one of those rare occasions.
With a career that began in high school, working with friends Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell (both of whom he would work with on and off throughout his entire career), Raimi made his name directing the cult horror hit “Evil Dead.” He followed that up with “Crimewave,” a little-seen and not very good crime film he made with the Coen brothers, before revisiting the place that made him famous with “Evil Dead 2.”
A third entry in the franchise, “Army of Darkness,” was a cult success, but not the hit the studio had hoped for, and Raimi moved on to non-horror related material, such as the Sharon Stone western “Quick and the Dead,” starring Russell Crowe and a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Several mainstream thrillers like “A Simple Plan” and “The Gift” led to his most well-known work as director on the original “Spider-Man” trilogy.
His work in horror continues frequently through his production house Ghost House Pictures, and he is a prolific producer of television, from “Hercules” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” to “American Gothic” and “Spartacus.” His most recent theatrical film was the successful re-launch of L. Frank Baum’s magical world in “Oz the Great and Powerful.” Though the “Evil Dead” films will be his most enduring legacy in the horror arena, he has made at least three other excellent and extremely memorable horror films.
After lobbying to direct the big-screen version of “The Shadow” and losing out (to “Highlander” director Russell Mulcahy, of all people), Raimi decided to create his own mythic and flawed pseudo-powered hero in “Darkman.” Driven by the intense performance of Liam Neeson as the severely burned scientist constantly walking the world in false faces, this film has the same darkness as its contemporary, Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but with the added level of wicked humor absent in Burton’s film. And Larry Drake, known best from “L.A. Law,” has the performance of his career as Robert Durant (and as Robert Durant’s secret double with the slowly melting face).
With a script from Billy Bob Thornton (with whom he had recently worked on the excellent thriller “A Simple Plan”), and a great cast of dependable actors (and, strangely, Keanu Reeves), “The Gift” is a slice of classic Southern Gothic storytelling that lives and dies on its compelling characters. The third of Raimi’s so-called mainstream films (after “A Simple Plan” and “For Love of the Game”), this run of films proved to Sony that he could handle character and drama as well as action, and probably led in large part to him being given control of “Spider-Man.” With an excellent lead performance from Cate Blanchett, and solid supporting turns from Giovanni Ribisi and J.K. Simmons, “The Gift” is a great slow burn thriller in the vein of “Frailty.”
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A film that had been in the planning stages since back in Raimi’s early career (in fact, they broke out an old draft of the script to rework it when he finished the original “Spider-Man” trilogy), “Drag Me to Hell” is a film that owes a great debt to the horror-comedy roots of “Evil Dead 2,” and is one of the reasons why the film was so strangely received by viewers. The marketing of the film, which made the film seem like a dark and creepy supernatural tale, gave no hint to the broadly comical violence in the movie, and the deadpan delivery from the actors left audiences confused for a good length of the running time of the film. Seen in the proper context, it is a brilliant follow-up to the trajectory of the later “Evil Dead” films, and a nice change of pace from the big-budget work in the “Spider-Man” series.
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