Ranked: Sam Raimi Films
What are the best 12 films from the legendary director?
He’s back with Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, having changed the face of horror and comic-book movies before now… but how does Sam Raimi’s back catalogue shape up?
Despite being the film that seemingly sent Sam Raimi into self-imposed exile for nearly a decade, I’ve never hated Oz the Great and Powerful. Every movie that’s attempted something adjacent to The Wizard of Oz (1939) has failed with audiences, but I have a soft spot for the attempts— even the more disreputable Return to Oz (1985). This is a “spiritual prequel” to the iconic MGM movie, explaining how Oz (James Franco) himself came to be, and there’s a lot of imagination and verve to the filmmaking.
I particularly love the opening black-and-white sequence in 1905 with Oscar escaping a travelling circus in a hot air balloon, with the academy ratio view transforming into widescreen and rainbow’s array of colours once he drifts into the Land of Oz. It does occasionally drown in CGI and bloat, suggesting this was Raimi falling down the hole Tim Burton had with Alice in Wonderland (2010), only without as much commercial success (this grossed $492M to Alice’s $1.025BN). He was perhaps wise to take stock and back away from filmmaking.
This can be a left-field favourite of Raimi fans who don’t hitch their wagon to either the Spider-Man or Evil Dead franchise. The idea of a western with Raimi’s unique style and camerawork is undeniably exciting on paper, and I like how The Quick and the Dead is a simple story about a fast-draw tournament in a small town run by a ruthless outlaw (Gene Hackman). It also offers early performances from both Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, plus a memorable turn from Lance Henriksen as overconfident gunslinger “Ace” Hanlon.
But this homage to spaghetti westerns doesn’t quite come together, not helped by Sharon Stone being too inert as the “The Lady” (as she was trying to move away from the erotic thrillers that made her name in the early-1990s). There are some wonderful shots and it’s definitely an underrated part of Raimi’s filmography, but I only love bits and pieces of it.
After The Quick and the Dead flopped, it seems like Raimi reevaluated his career and opted to ditch his signature style and instead make something more grounded with an emphasis on story and performances. I often wonder if he also saw the success the Coen Brothers had with Fargo (1996), as they’d been collaborators of his in the 1980s and were now enjoying a far more varied and critically successful career.
Like Fargo, A Simple Plan is also set in Minnesota, telling the story of three brothers who stumble upon a crashed plane containing a bag of $4.4M. A mix of their greed and ineptitude soon leads them all down a dark path involving murder, of course. This was an unfortunate blind spot of mine until only a few months ago, and I enjoyed it, but it’s indistinct as something from Raimi and a few of the developments to the story struck me as annoying or convenient. But it does end brilliantly, which rescues it.
Most people hate this movie, which I’ve never understood. It’s definitely the worst in the Spider-Man trilogy and there’s obvious push-and-pull over what it wants to be, but I also think this is the most emotionally engaging of the three movies because of the Sandman storyline and how Harry Osborn’s arc ends.
It’s unfortunate they retconned the circumstances of Uncle Ben’s death and didn’t have enough time to properly set up Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) and Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), but many things people say they dislike about Spider-Man 3 don’t bother me. I love the sequence where Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) struts around New York being a total dork, thinking he’s effortlessly cool, as that’s exactly how his character would think to behave when under the influence of the “venom” parasite. An underrated movie.
After a directorial hiatus lasting almost a decade, Sam Raimi returned with a superhero movie that played to his strengths: a crazy horror-tinged adventure involving a wizard and a witch. Marvel movies had changed enormously since his time working on Spider-Man, but after studio interference led to a compromised vision for Spider-Man 3, Raimi was given more artistic control and delivered an imaginative spectacle with many of his stylistic trademarks. While not the most complex of narratives, the emotional throughline for the villain was strong and one could sense Raimi’s glee every time there was an opportunity to unnerve audiences or throw a rotting zombie into proceedings.
It looks a little simplistic by today’s standards, and some of the VFX hasn’t aged too well, but Spider-Man was a seminal movie for superhero cinema. If the late-1970s introduced comic-book fans to the possibilities of big-budget cinema to bring their heroes to life with Superman (1978), and the late-1980s saw audiences introduced to the idea of darker superheroes with Batman (1989), then Spider-Man showcased what the digital filmmaking world could achieve with characters hitherto considered impossible to translate accurately.
This marked a career resurgence for Raimi, who brought his eccentric sensibilities to a family-friendly crowdpleaser, without sacrificing his unique tone and visual playfulness. It helped that it does get a little dark at times, too, which plays to Raimi’s horror background. Blade (1998) and X-Men (2000) were the opening salvos, but Spider-Man is when Hollywood suddenly realises those decades of comic-book characters and stories could now be brought to the big screen verbatim.
This was actually the first Evil Dead movie I saw, without even realising it was an Evil Dead movie. I just thought Army of Darkness was this weird, goofy, strangely charming horror-comedy with a lot of silliness that took the edge off any of the scarier moments. Despite opening with a sequence that continued on from Evil Dead 2, with Ash (Bruce Campbell) dropped into medieval England armed with a “boomstick” and chainsaw, I just thought it was a bizarre shortcut to get to the humour of a present-day wise-cracking American engaging with a Dungeons & Dragons-style world full of Ray Harryhausen-style skeletons and monsters.
Once I’d caught up with the preceding two films, this one is clearly the weakest of the trilogy — and seems like a way for Raimi to recalibrate an existing character and franchise to appeal to a wider audience. It didn’t work out, but Army of Darkness is still the funniest Ash has been and remains endlessly quotable. “Hail to the king, baby.”
Everyone’s favourite Spider-Man from Raimi’s time working on the property, and most people’s favourite comic-book film ever until Marvel Studios upped the ante with their cinematic universe. However, this is still a high bar for Spider-Man and comic-book action in general, as there’s so much energy and personality put into every single frame.
The design and performance of Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) was so good they’ve not yet tried to improve on it in live-action — even reviving the character for Spider-Man: No Way Home decades later. Spider-Man 2 simply took everything that worked about the first movie and levelled it up.
Of all the films on my list, Drag Me to Hell surprised even me with how high it’s been placed. But I rewatched it in preparation for this ranking and had an enormous amount of fun all the way through. Burned by the experience of making Spider-Man 3 and not receiving the same level of control he had with Spider-Man 2, Drag Me to Hell felt like Raimi running back to his comfort zone and using his Spider-Man cachet to make a quick big-budget Evil Dead film— only now with a female lead and more of a Stephen King-meets-Looney Tunes vibe.
It’s not operating on many levels and any subtlety is thrown out the window, but if you want cartoonish horror, lashings of gore, extreme campiness, weirdness, hilarious OTT performances, and Raimi’s roving camera on overdrive, Drag Me to Hell is arguably the peak for that stuff.
There are other Sam Raimi movies I’d watch over The Evil Dead, but this is where it all started for him — unless you count the Within the Woods (1978) an even cheaper short film with much the same story—so it deserves a high placement. It perhaps doesn’t help that the Evil Dead franchise improved immensely with its 1987 sequel and the franchise became progressively more comedic, as this original seems oddly antithetical to what we perceive an Evil Dead film to be nowadays.
The Evil Dead was infamously banned as part of the “video nasties” controversy in the UK for many years, but it’s a stunning calling card for a talented filmmaker who essentially made a “student film” with his friends in the wood and unwittingly created a long-running horror franchise (Evil Dead Rise is coming soon at time of writing.) It also gave modern B Movie cinema the legendary Bruce Campbell and is pretty much the template for every “cabin in the woods” movie to follow. Not bad going.
Sequel or remake? I’m never quite sure, but Evil Dead 2 is definitely an attempt by Raimi to improve on his 1981 original thanks to a $3.5M budget (quite a leap from $375,000). This is quintessential Sam Raimi filmmaking and arguably the best use of his distinctive style, blessed with a cracking performance from Campbell and an even wilder sequence thanks to the SFX team led by Mark Shostrom, Greg Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman and Tom Sullivan.
It only made $6M at the box office, but it sold Hollywood on what Raimi could do and is still seen as one of the very best horror comedies ever made. Groovy.
The top spot is a toss-up between Darkman and Evil Dead 2, frankly, but I’ve chosen Darkman because it occupies less space in today’s pop culture conversation. While it was was a box office success with two direct-to-video sequels and an unaired TV pilot made in the ‘90s, all without Raimi’s involvement, this has always felt like a singular movie to me. Raimi had wanted to make The Shadow or Batman in the late-1980s, but when neither project came his way he decided to make his own superhero instead.
I adore the concept of Darkman, with a scientist (Liam Neeson) working on synthetic skin who is hideously burned after a gang attack his laboratory, leaving him with super-strength and unable to feel pain. So he continues to try and perfect his artificial skin for his own benefit, realising he can use it to mimic the appearance of other people, which he uses to exact revenge on his tormentors.
It’s RoboCop meets The Invisible Man, with other pulp influences mixed in. Darkman works brilliantly as a high-concept sci-fi horror with a heightened comic-book tone. Neeson is fantastic in the lead role as the psychologically damaged scientist turned reclusive vigilante, while Larry Drake is tremendous as mob boss Durant — a performance so memorable he was asked back for the 1995 sequel and even the failed TV pilot. A rare instance of a villain’s performance having a greater legacy than anyone else’s in a franchise! In some ways, it’s a shame Raimi’s major successes always led to him revisiting Evil Dead with extra money and clout — perhaps because he always wanted to help his friend Bruce Campbell become a big star? — as Darkman should arguably be a bigger franchise for Raimi. We’re due a remake with him producing at least, right?
This article ties into a podcast I host called ‘Reel Talk’, where I discussed my list with guest Robert Turnbull (pre-Doctor Strange 2). Click here to listen to our conversation and see how his list compares. And leave a comment with your own ranking!