clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Return of the Weird Blockbuster King

On Friday, Sam Raimi returns to the big screen. His road to ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ has been paved with goofy and grotesque gore, singular humor, and Spider-Men.

Sony/Disney/Universal/Ringer illustration

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness raises the question: Is Sam Raimi the best director to ever be attached to a Marvel movie? He doesn’t have an Oscar like Chloé Zhao or Taika Waititi, the sorts of filmmakers who, if nothing else, win Oscars (their movies really make you think). He doesn’t typically do prestige, and he avoids serious subject matter. But Raimi is also a singularly kinetic visual storyteller—a true showman—and, in his way, a transformational figure in the recent history of American cinema.

When Raimi directed the first (and arguably best) Spider-Man in 2002, comic-book properties were a volatile prospect, if not an all-out gamble. The Joel Schumacher Batman movies were a pop-culture punch line, and R-rated Bayhem was all the rage. That Spider-Man surpassed even the most optimistic box-office expectations is only part of the story, however. The fact that a major studio would entrust such a valuable title to a guy like Raimi—whose most famous movie to that point featured a screaming woman swallowing an eyeball—connects to a larger narrative that has defined Hollywood since the 1990s. Like Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, Raimi personifies the revenge of the nerds—the rise of weirdo geniuses who mutated their low-budget ingenuity to monolithic proportions.

By now, the Raimi myth is familiar and endearing. Like Steven Spielberg, he spent his adolescence orchestrating Super-8 movies with his friends, including childhood pal (and future indispensable leading man) Bruce Campbell. Working with Campbell and his brother Ted Raimi—his other main wingman and eventual stalwart cowriter and cameo specialist—in 1977, he cranked out a $2,000 feature called It’s Murder!. The next year, Raimi recruited producer Rob Tapert and crafted a 31-minute short called Within the Woods that, over 40 years later, looks like the primal scene of his cinema. Inspired equally by Raimi’s love of B-movies and the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Within the Woods features a set of unlucky characters venturing out to an isolated cabin and succumbing, one dismembered body part at a time, to accidentally awakened demonic forces. After convincing a sympathetic theater manager in Detroit to screen the film before a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Raimi pivoted to using Within the Woods as proof of concept for a feature entitled The Evil Dead.

Despite costing exponentially more than its predecessor (a few hundred thousand dollars in all), The Evil Dead is as thrifty and threadbare as horror movies get. It wears its cheapness proudly. The joy of the film owes partially to its palpable homemade quality—the feeling that it was created guerilla-style by a group of friends—and the genuine inventiveness of Raimi’s direction, which attempts to mitigate the predictability of the plot and the shortcomings of the production budget by blasting right past (or through) them. If the tracking shots in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are the cinematographic equivalent of a gold-medal ice-dancing program—graceful figure eights traced into infinity—Raimi’s aesthetic in The Evil Dead is like an obstacle course. In bravura scene after bravura scene, the director wields his makeshift “projectile cam” like a weapon against the characters, stalking, chasing, and even assaulting them. Meanwhile, the film’s wonderfully disgusting and gory effects are complemented by the authentic battle scars suffered by the cast and crew under adverse, unsupervised conditions. “If everyone was in extreme pain and misery, that would translate into horror,” Raimi said on a 2007 DVD commentary, striking a note of playful sadism at odds with his later transformation to a clockwork professional who wears a suit and tie at all times on set—a ready-made metaphor for a one-time hellraiser’s eventual taming.

A cult hit that eventually grossed almost eight times its budget despite being branded with an X rating by the MPAA—a scarlet letter that ultimately helped attract a hardcore horror-movie audience—The Evil Dead remains one of the most influential movies of the 1980s, a veritable how-to manual for aspiring backyard auteurs everywhere. It’s one thing to see a movie like The Shining or The Thing and marvel at the smooth, implacable craft; it’s another to watch something that seems like it could plausibly be replicated with a few thousand dollars and some buckets of corn syrup.

The movie had some high-end influence, as well: After serving as an apprentice editor on the project, Joel Coen was inspired by Raimi’s example to craft an extended trailer for a movie called Blood Simple with his brother Ethan in an attempt to secure private financing. With their shared background and love for older American cinema, it makes sense that Coen and Raimi would be friends, and their next collaboration stands as one of the 1980s’ true films maudit: the batshit (and underrated) horror-comedy Crimewave, a wild noir pastiche that nearly ended the group’s careers before they’d really gotten started. A madcap riff involving burglar alarms, exterminators, and a carload of nuns (one of whom was played by a very young Frances McDormand), Crimewave skirts incoherence to the point of feeling like an experimental film, albeit one produced on a studio budget; in what basically amounted to his industry debut, Raimi clashed with his producers (including the venerable veteran Norman Lear), seethed over his inability to cast The Evil Dead’s leading man, Campbell, in the lead, and at one point used dynamite to explode a frozen section of the Detroit River in order to shoot there—as good a metaphor as any for a combustible filmmaking experience. The film was taken away from Raimi in post-production and dumped into theaters without any support. As Campbell put it in his excellent autobiography, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, “It wasn’t released—it escaped!”

It’s a fine line between disaster and genius, and as ragged as Crimewave is, it’s possible to see the greatness of its makers’ next films in it—the screwball exuberance of the Coens’ Raising Arizona and the slapstick velocity of Raimi’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. Essentially a remake of the original film on a bigger budget—secured under the supervision of super-producer Dino De Laurentiis, fresh off of working with David Lynch on Blue Velvet and alerted to Raimi’s talents by no less a fan than Stephen King—Evil Dead II is first and foremost a showcase for Campbell, whose performance is a marvel of physical comedy. When the unlucky Ash gets possessed by a Kandarian demon accidentally summoned by a tape-recorded reading of the Necronomicon, he enters into a crazed fugue state of terror, rage, and self-harm culminating in the severing of his own hand with a chainsaw; cue an insert shot of Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms.

By refusing to choose between goofy and grotesque, Evil Dead II angled for cult classic status, and gave Raimi a second wind as a potential studio director. Hence his assignment helming the low-budget Universal horror homage Darkman, about a disfigured scientist turned vigilante. Released one year after 1989’s Batman, the film plays like a scrappy B-side to Tim Burton’s operatic chart topper; set in a stylishly dilapidated version of Los Angeles and populated by sadistic gangsters (including a mob boss who collects his victims’ fingers), it’s a pulpy, propulsive melodrama powered by the better-than-it-has-to-be acting of Liam Neeson in the title role. His Dr. Peyton Westlake is a tragic avenger with a bandaged face that recalls Claude Rains as the Invisible Man and a nasty streak that keeps the audience at arm’s length. “I’m learning to live with a lot of things,” Neeson’s Westlake sighs before dispatching his rival at the film’s climax, a line that cuts to the core of the film’s grim comic-book metaphysics. Where The Evil Dead films played with ideas and images of demonic possession for laughs and screams, Darkman resonates as a portrait of a body and soul scarred beyond recognition, and potentially redemption.

The ’90s were a banner decade for Raimi, comprising an interregnum between two definitive trilogies. There’s a lot to say about 1992’s Army of Darkness, which picks up where Evil Dead II left off (i.e., with Ash transported to the Middle Ages), but the other movies Raimi made before landing Spider-Man are more interesting—the work of a filmmaker pushing outside of his comfort zone. Capitalizing on the brief resurrection of Hollywood Westerns in the wake of Unforgiven, The Quick and the Dead cast that film’s villain, Gene Hackman, in a nearly identical role as a frontier strongman presiding over a lethal gunfighting tournament. Raimi was hired because star Sharon Stone had liked Army of Darkness. (She also pushed for Raimi to cast Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, and reportedly paid the latter’s salary herself.) Despite the shift in genre, Raimi’s R-rated playfulness remained intact, highlighted by a series of splatter-movie money shots that wouldn’t have been out of place in Evil Dead. The film is a Spaghetti Western with extra meat sauce: For all his brilliant play with close-ups and point of view, Sergio Leone never included a shot in which a victorious gunslinger is seen at 20 paces through the blown-out brain cavity of the loser. Critics accused the film of being style over substance, and Raimi was guilty as charged. But when the style is so much fun, that’s hardly an offense that justifies a hanging.

The restraint that was nowhere to be found in The Quick and the Dead was applied judiciously in A Simple Plan, an adaptation of novelist Scott Smith’s 1993 bestseller about a pair of brothers who come across a crashed airplane and decide to split the $4 million in cash they find at the scene. The film’s wintry Minnesotan location can’t help but evoke Fargo, and one way to compliment A Simple Plan is to say it’s Raimi’s most Coen-esque film—a screw-tightening thriller that puts the flaws and hubris of its characters underneath a fine-grained microscope. Billy Bob Thornton was Oscar nominated for his fine, showy performance as the impulsive, slow-witted Jacob Mitchell, whose role evokes the doomed Lennie in Of Mice and Men, but Bill Paxton as his brother Hank—the George figure in the film’s subtle Steinbeckian allusion—is the film’s most indelible character. Paxton was one of the most underrated American actors of his era, and A Simple Plan cast him not as a sleazebag or a goofball (his specialties) but as a profoundly ordinary man whose moral compass becomes demagnetized. Raimi’s gifts for sustained tension and sudden, startling violence served him well in a film that plumbs the depths of genuine, haunting human darkness. After spraying viscera all over the place in the Evil Dead films, Raimi triumphed with a story about the bleak, devastating sensation of living with blood on your hands.

There was some of the same psychic residue dripping off of 2000’s The Gift, a hothouse Southern Gothic with a killer cast (Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear) and an overwrought (and over-plotted) script cowritten by Thornton. But neither that film nor 1999’s sentimental baseball melodrama For Love of the Game—in which Kevin Costner throws a perfect game in Yankee Stadium—felt like ideal vehicles for Raimi’s talents. Spider-Man, with its broad, mythic comic-book outlines and high-flying protagonist, was an ideal marriage of director and material, and of all the things that work about the film—the inspired casting of every main role; the pop art color palette; the story’s refreshingly non-apocalyptic scale; that indelible upside-down kiss—its buoyant tone is the most enduring. Where Darkman had leaned into the idea that a man becomes a superhero at the expense of his soul, Spider-Man traced an optimistic arc by which Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker grows into his own outsized physical and moral strength without sacrificing relatable, human-scaled humor. “He’s identifiable as a human being,” said Raimi in a recent interview about why he was drawn to the character. “He’s got problems, he’s got bad skin, he doesn’t have enough money and yet he struggles to do the right thing, he puts everything he’s got. He sacrifices everything.”

The follow-up, Spider-Man 2, was cobbled together out of multiple high-priced script rewrites and stands unquestionably on some level as an example of sequel bloat. But the movie also displayed similar seriocomic agility, and in Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus unleashed a flawed, majestic bad guy for the ages, one whose brutal origin story deliberately recalls Darkman. (The wonderfully edited scene when Doc Ock’s mechanical arms first go haywire in the middle of his own life-saving surgery, meanwhile, has a cruel slapstick vigor in line with The Evil Dead.) Meanwhile, the less said about Spider-Man 3 the better, except maybe that its depiction of Venom ended up being a kind of reverse instruction manual for putting the character on screen; Topher Grace stumbled so that Tom Hardy might run (and eat a bunch of people’s heads).

Leaving aside its cluttered plotting and underwhelming villains—and the self-consciously ridiculous montage when Peter breaks bad and reenacts the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever while looking like a soldier in the Black Parade—the most disappointing thing about Spider-Man 3 was its desultory sense of obligation. It feels like a movie that Raimi had to make. At the other end of the spectrum sits 2009’s spectacularly mean-spirited and hilarious Drag Me to Hell, a distaff Evil Dead riff that substitutes Alison Lohman for Bruce Campbell and puts her through the supernatural ringer. If it was possible to detect some post-9/11 subtext in the Spider-Man trilogy’s various I-heart-New-York digressions, Drag Me to Hell is very much a parable about the ethics of bailout-era America. Lohman plays a callow, ambitious bank loan officer who meanly denies a mortgage extension for an elderly Eastern European client and ends up with an old-fashioned, Old World curse upon her head; nosebleeds, seances, and kitten sacrifices ensue.

The highest compliment that can be paid to Drag Me to Hell is that its title is not a metaphor. The film unfolds in a world where Good and Evil are tangible absolutes, and Lohman is terrific as a character who reaps what she sows. Like in all of his best films, Raimi has the guts to take the material to an authentically dark place, but also the good sense (and taste) to eschew the kind of torture-porn style gore that was proliferating at the time in movies like Saw and Hostel. Drag Me to Hell is undeniably disgusting, but it’s more about atmospherics than shock value, and unlike Spider-Man 3 (or the subsequent Oz the Great and Powerful), Raimi clearly put his heart into it.

In the decade since Oz, Raimi has been on the sidelines, as if waiting for the right project to come along. Now, the hope is that The Multiverse of Madness doesn’t end up a story of an auteur dragged to hell. In the same interview in which he waxed romantic about Spider-Man, Raimi sounded slightly resigned about his participation in Dr. Strange, explaining that the film was not “a full-on original work of [his]” but a “continuation of the Marvel pantheon,” and that his job “was not to make something outrageous or just about my sense of humor.” These are potentially ominous words, especially coming from a filmmaker whose sense of humor is his greatest weapon. But it’s always fascinating to see what happens when an artist meets the assembly line, and finds a way to make it pop out something worthwhile.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.