This article contains spoilers for every film Sam Raimi has directed, including the just released Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. You’ve been warned.
Sam Raimi was one of America’s best B-movie directors, and then he got picked to direct a trilogy of the biggest movies of all time. He didn’t necessarily intend to kickstart the comic book movie revolution, but a filmmaker who was once defined by geysers of blood and crude animation became a name almost synonymous with Marvel blockbusters. Where does his latest – Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – land? Read on to find out.
Oz the Great and Powerful
Studio: Walt Disney
Colorful but empty, this soulless “prequel” to The Wizard of Oz will never be beloved, and with good reason. At least two of its leads are seriously miscast, and the weak script doesn’t give the other actors much to work with. There are some decent special effects sequences, but it’s a completely anonymous failure.
For Love of the Game
No actor believes in the mythological power of baseball more than Kevin Costner. The star of Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and this extremely corny romantic drama must really love America’s favorite pastime. As an aging pitcher throwing his last game, he’s focused on taking down each batter while he reflects on his relationship with Jane (the late Kelly Preston). This movie isn’t bad so much as aggressively mediocre. Raimi probably got his biggest payday to date, but there’s not a single identifiable moment here. Even Oz had some scenes that were clearly his idea. Your dad probably loves this movie. In 20 years, I might grow to like it myself.
On paper, this should be a match made in heaven: Raimi *and* the Coen Brothers? Sign me up. Alas, this dark comedy fails to be compelling or funny. It does have a mean, madcap energy that at least distinguishes it. Unfortunately, that’s about the only positive thing to say about it. The filmmakers hated the experience and final product, though they would collaborate again on the much better Hudsucker Proxy.
As I mentioned when I ranked all the Spider-Man movies, this movie is overstuffed and miscast. But the bits that once felt like Raimi mocking the audience – especially Peter Parker’s post-symbiote douchebag persona – actually work. They just stand out in the midst of an overly serious, oversized blockbuster.
Studio: Paramount Classics
This Southern Gothic horror would work better if Cate Blanchett’s accent weren’t such a distraction. She plays a fortune teller who witnesses the murder of a local woman (Katie Holmes), but only in a vision. It’s got a good hook, a good cast and a good twist. But it’s often ridiculous instead of scary. With a few more tweaks, it probably could have been great.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Studio: Walt Disney
Inevitably, any director who tries to make an MCU movie this late in the game will have his or her style tampered by the demands of Kevin Feige’s machine. Whether the story supports it or not, it must connect to the larger world, which now includes TV shows and movies that may not come out for years. Raimi’s first movie since 2013 is no exception. But when he wrests control – which is more often than you might think – it rules. Fighting a giant octopus, turning musical notes into throwing stars, getting accosted by Bruce Campbell; that’s all him. The MacGuffin of the film is even a book with evil powers!
Army of Darkness
Year: 1993 (United States)
This is where ranking gets tricky. Every movie from here on out is excellent, and it all comes down to personal preference. Some people will be aghast this wacky time-travel comedy is so low, but it’s always been my least favorite of the Evil Dead films. Bruce Campbell is terrific as usual, and it’s a fun mix of Ray Harryhausen visual effects and Three Stooges-esque slapstick. But if the first Evil Dead is almost all scares, Evil Dead II is a blend of scares and laughs, Army of Darkness is almost all laughs. I prefer the mix.
Long before Liam Neeson brought his “particular set of skills” to more than a dozen interchangeable action movies, he starred as a mad scientist in this low-budget superhero flick. Though not based on a comic book, it has elements of Batman, The Shadowand The Phantom of the Opera. Neeson’s ability to turn on a dime from reserved to unhinged makes this one especially memorable.
The Evil Dead
Studio: New Line
Of all the low-budget horror films that came in the wake of John Carpenter’s Halloween, this one’s clearly the best. Its set-up is familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a horror flick: a group of attractive young people head to a cabin in the woods and get picked off one by one. But there’s a level of care and innovation that makes this one unpolished but not “cheap.” Still, it loses some points for taking things too far in an early scene when one of the women is, uh, raped by a tree.
Whether he intended to or not, Raimi is partly responsible for our current predicament: There are superhero movies seemingly every month, plus at least a dozen TV shows on broadcast or streaming. It’s too much of a good thing, but then and now this one feels special. Even if Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are too old to be believable teenagers, there’s a playfulness and imagination on display that feels absent in a lot of superhero content today. Want proof it endures? How many people adored Dafoe’s reprise of Green Goblin in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Drag Me to Hell
A lean, mean horror flick, Raimi returned to his roots after the excess of Spider-Man 3. Alison Lohman gives the performance of her career as a junior banker who’s mercilessly tormented after cruelly denying a mortgage extension to an elderly woman. It’s dark and hilarious, and possibly the grossest movie to ever earn a PG-13 rating. This was an incredible in-theater experience and a fun, scary movie to show friends or younger family members.
The Quick and the Dead
Criminally underrated, this Western doesn’t initially seem like a match for Raimi’s skill set. A mysterious woman (Sharon) arrives in a corrupt town for a shooting competition, ready to claim the top prize and expose some evil men. Its storytelling is old-fashioned, but its action and gore are decidedly modern. The incredible cast includes Gene Hackman (essentially reprising his Oscar-winning role from Unforgiven) and early turns from Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio.
A strong case can be made for this as the greatest of all modern comic book movies. Everything that worked in the first film is done even better here, with an all-time villain turn from Alfred Molina. The scene in which Doctor Octopus’s tentacles attack unsuspecting doctors and nurses is a signature moment.
Evil Dead 2
Essentially a remake of the first film, there’s something about Bruce Campbell’s go-for-broke performance that makes it more than the sum of its (dismembered) parts. There’s more time and money for better gags, grosser zombies and crazier camerawork. In a word: Groovy.
A Simple Plan
Can a film that’s hardly representative of a filmmaker’s distinct style be No. 1? It’s my list, so I say yes. This is a cold, devastating film about greed. Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton give career-best performances as two brothers who discover a downed plane with millions of dollars in the woods, and go to great lengths to keep the money for themselves. One snap decision leads to another, and soon two average guys are responsible for multiple murders. Unlike a lot of movies on this list, this one is no fun at all, and all the better for it.