Few horror directors ever really get to crossover into “mainstream” films, and if they do, they tend never to go back to their horror roots. They pretty much either stay in the horror fringes or become part of the Hollywood system. This can’t be said for Sam Raimi, who made some of the most acclaimed and most gruesome and gritty pictures of the ’80s and then parlayed that into a successful career making all sorts of movies, a lot of them having nothing at all to do with fright, but he still retained a lot of his scary and slapsticky roots.
As such, it’s pretty difficult to narrow down a career most impressive to a top 7, but I’ve done it because that’s literally my job. Below is a list of my seven favorite films by Sam Raimi. As always, these are just my humble opinions, and surely your mileage may and will vary. Without further adieu, let’s hit it!
7) Army of Darkness (1993)
This is a trilogy that lives steadfastly in the hearts of Raimi’s fans and the director himself, so we’ll see a good amount of it here in this list. The third and final feature film installment to date of the Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror changes tones almost entirely, embracing the funny in ways the previous two hadn’t, and mixing horror and slapstick with a Harryhausen-style adventure yarn. Our hero, Ash (Bruce Campbell), after having survived a horrible, horrible night, gets sucked through a portal and ends up in medieval times where he’s supposed to save the world from the evil of the Deadites. Naturally, he screws that up quite a bit. While, clearly, my least favorite of the group, it’s still beyond enjoyable and allows Campbell and Raimi to do what they do best with studio backing, in this case Universal. Quotable? You bet your ass! “Shop smart. Shop S-Mart. YOU GOT THAT?!?!”
6) A Simple Plan (1998)
In the mid-90s, Raimi made a quartet of films that didn’t seem to track following the kind he’d made before, even if a couple of them were thrillers. He made a western, a baseball romance movie, and a supernatural mystery, but for me the best of those was this crime thriller in the same vein as the Coen Bros’ Fargo (Raimi and the Coens are friends and early collaborators, ya know). Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bridget Fonda all turn in amazing performances as a group of people in a cold, rural part of the South whose lives change and their loyalties are tested after they find a bag full of cash in the wreckage of a small plane. Naturally, they aren’t the only ones who know about the money, and whenever money’s involved, death and violence are sure to follow. This is really great movie and, though reviewed very well, is sort of forgotten in Raimi’s canon now.
5) Drag Me to Hell (2009)
I was sure hoping for a return to dark horror for Raimi following the debacle of 2007’s Spider-Man 3, and he really did. Even though nothing in the plot connects them, this feels like a natural successor to the Evil Dead trilogy, especially with Raimi’s childlike penchant for putting his lead character through gross and uncomfortable experiences, here replacing Bruce Campbell with Alison Lohman. Really an old EC Comics-style morality play, Lohman plays a nice young woman who wants to get a promotion at the bank and so needs to “step up,” which results in her evicting an old Russian woman who ends up cursing her and dying. Now she’ll have all sorts of nasty, demonic interactions and then get dragged to hell. Unless she can stop the curse, of course. I had such a good time with this movie, and it reminded me of what Raimi’s whole ethos used to be: make the audience jump and then laugh and then jump and then go “Ewwww” and then laugh.
4) Darkman (1990)
I didn’t have much of an opinion of this movie until last year when I watched it again for a Blu-ray review. I was ridiculously impressed by it. Raimi somehow managed to make a very dark, very horror-infused superhero movie that works as both of those genres as well as a very black comedy. Raimi had wanted to make, and was developing, the pulp character of The Shadow, but wasn’t able to secure the rights and it ended up being made by Russell Mulcahy with Alec Baldwin. Instead, Raimi created his own superhero in a similar style but made him insane and violent and very tragic. Liam Neesons (we miss you, Key & Peele) plays Dr. Peyton Westlake, a scientist who’s working on facial reconstruction when his lab is blown up by gangsters employed by a greedy land developer. Horribly scarred, Westlake uses his unstable mask-making ability to blend in, but also impersonate people, vowing revenge on those who’ve wronged him. This movie is really fun, very violent, and features—I think—one of Danny Elfman’s best and most melancholy scores (much less baroque than his Batman work). Give this one another watch, it’s a good time.
3) The Evil Dead (1981)
I mean, how do you not love this? I remember being sort of terrified to watch this one in college, and actually it was the last of the three that I saw, mostly because of the reputation it had gotten—branded as one of the dreaded “Video Nasties” in Britain, though unsuccessfully prosecuted. (Raimi himself went over to Leeds to defend his film, and won.) It’s certainly got some low-budget laughs in it, because it was made by kids who didn’t have the means to do it any other way, but it’s got an attitude and a level of torment that very few horror movies can muster. Not a long movie, but once it starts with the horror, it never lets up, and the constant laughter and distorted growling of the possessed kids with the cakey-gross makeup will really get under your skin, the way it does to our cowardly hero Ash. Raimi knew what to do to really make this a scream, including jabbing a pencil in someone’s ankle, spewing blood and colorful secretions everywhere, and doing a particularly nasty thing with a tree. You feel like you’ve survived something after watching this movie.
2) Spider-Man 2 (2004)
While I really enjoyed the first Spider-Man movie, Raimi made a superhero classic with its sequel, which brought in the very famous Marvel Stan Lee/John Romita storyline “Spider-Man No More!” and blended it with Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Harry Osborn (James Franco) as he continues his search for (and hatred of) Spider-Man, not realizing it’s his best friend Peter Parker. While the Tobey Maguire performance of Parker is a bit weepier than I’d have liked it to be, this movie does it the best and is the best version of him trying to balance a personal life with a saving-people life. And Raimi even allows himself some horror indulgences as evidenced when Doc Ock wakes up in the hospital with the metal arms fused to his spine and with a mind of their own. They certainly do their fair share of murdering before he’s even awake. A major improvement over the first film. I’m really glad Raimi only made those two Spider-Man movies, that’s for sure. *Kyle sticks his fingers in his ears and says La La La*
1) Evil Dead II (1987)
And, of course it’s this one, right? Who doesn’t like Evil Dead II? The dumb or insane, that’s who. This movie is the perfect midpoint of the true grueling horror of the first film and the uber-slappiness of Army of Darkness. This is a movie I watched for the first time alone on Halloween 2003 along with Swingers and Reservoir Dogs, and that night is the night which ignited my true love of cinema. I showed Evil Dead 2 to anyone who was willing to sit through it, and it’s still one of the best horror movies of all time. It feels so unnatural, having recreated the cabin from the first film inside a makeshift soundstage in a school gymnasium in North Carolina, which adds to the manic Warner Brothers cartoon aesthetic. For a good chunk of the film, you’re just watching Ash go crazy alone in the cabin after having killed his girlfriend (the other friends were omitted for the sequel) and lost his hand to the infection of the Deadites. He becomes a demon for a little bit even before strapping a chainsaw to his stump and sawing off a shotgun to fight the gramma in the fruit cellar (played by Sam Raimi’s little brother Ted). Gah, what a great movie. I’m probably gonna watch it right now. Kbye.
And there you have my list of 7 favorite Sam Raimi movies. Let me know your top 7 in the comments below!
IMAGE: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!