Sam Raimi’s 10 Best Films, Ranked

Evil Dead II

by Ben Travis, Tom Nicholson |
Published on

You know when you’re watching a Sam Raimi movie. Not just because his name comes up in the opening credits (duh!) but because his films have a distinctive feel and energy – whether he’s pushing the boundaries of good taste with his horror films, mashing up genres with glee, playing around with superheroes, or taking you back to the Old West, a Sam Raimi film makes you strap in before dazzling you with wild camera movements and outrageously entertaining delights. From the Evil Dead trilogy, to his Spider-Man films and beyond, Raimi’s impact on modern cinema can’t be understated.

Now, as Evil Dead Rise hits the big screen – with Raimi as producer, bringing director Lee Cronin into the undead fold – Empire presents a ranking of Raimi’s ten best films. Make way for killer carnage, heartfelt heroes, doomed protagonists, and Deadites galore.

10) Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness

Bigger, bolder, and barmier than the first instalment in the adventures of everyone’s favourite surgeon-turned-wizard, the Doctor Strange sequel didn’t just tempt Raimi into the MCU, nor back to the genre he helped create in the first place – it brought him back to directing altogether after a nine-year absence. He’d been bruised by the reaction to Spider-Man 3 (“People disliked that movie and they sure let me know about it,” he reflected later) and wondered if he still had it in him after 15 years away. As it happened, he definitely did. Multiverse Of Madness’ set-up feels particularly Sam Raimi-ish, following Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange – well, a few of them – through parallel worlds on the tail of a homicidal Scarlet Witch. Cue music-note battles, surprisingly gnarly kills, and Strange possessing his own rotting corpse. Individual directors’ instincts can get swallowed up in the Marvel juggernaut, but there’s loads of Raimi-isms here – not least that Bruce Campbell officially exists in the MCU now. Groovy.

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9) The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead

When Sam Raimi started work on The Evil Dead, he was a 19-year-old Michigan State dropout with one mission: get $100,000 together, and make a movie with his childhood friend Bruce Campbell. Nearly everyone he spoke to said his script wouldn’t work: you couldn’t just dive into the blood and guts without setting it up, they said. “But that's exactly what we want to do!” he told Empire in 2009. “I wanted it to be 85 minutes of the fun stuff!” And as it turned out, they were really good at it. Raimi’s debut feature sends five clueless Michigan students into a creepy cabin in the woods where they accidentally resurrect a demon with an ancient book of spells. Splattery, gonzo, scary carnage ensues – the laughs of the sequels are largely absent here, for a deeper, darker telling of the Ash vs. Deadite tale. But Raimi’s gleeful eye is present and correct, Tom Sullivan’s special effects are marvellously gruesome, and Bruce Campbell is utterly committed in his first take on Ash. “We were trying to be out there,” Raimi told us. “We weren't aware of rules, necessarily.”

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8) Army Of Darkness

Army Of Darkness

By the time the end of the Evil Dead trilogy rolled around, the scales had tipped from flat-out horror with some oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-they-did-that shocks, to a brilliantly entertaining comedy-action romp which sent wave after wave of Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion ghouls over the ramparts of the medieval castle at poor old Ash. As ever, he’s been through the mill: hoiked back through time, shorn of his chainsaw and chucked into a dungeon, all in the opening half-hour. But reunited with his boom-stick and on the trail of the Necronomicon, he gets to be the action hero he always wanted to be. There’s a palpable joy in Raimi’s direction after six years away from the character Ash, who ended up in his own multiverse, of a sort – Raimi’s original ending saw Ash trapped in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but the studio insisted he make it back home.

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7) Darkman


Though the first pair of Evil Dead movies had been pulled from comic books as much as the drive-in horror movies Raimi gorged on while a teenager, his first foray into superhero movies didn’t come until 1990. Liam Neeson, then best known for popping up in the limp Dirty Harry five-quel The Dead Pool, is the brilliant but tortured scientist Dr Peyton Westlake. When gangsters attack him with acid he has an experimental treatment which gives him super-strength and a burning desire for revenge. He becomes “a hideous thing who fights crime,” as Raimi put it, a noble man who turned his misfortunes to his advantage. It’s deliciously gruesome and lurid, much more in the lineage of comic book adaptations which would bring us Hellboy and Deadpool, but with the pained romance of The Phantom Of The Opera. It’s the missing link between Evil Dead and Spider-Man.

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6) Spider-Man


We live in a time of Spider-Man plenty. If a Spider-Man movie lands without at least three Spider-Men in it, you feel a bit cheated. But back in 2002, even one Spider-Man was miraculous. For the best part of a quarter-century, a movie about your friendly neighbourhood web-slinger had been a pipe dream – Raimi ran with it, making a big, spectacular heartfelt blockbuster, and minting pretty much all the beats of the golden age superhero movie. Great power! Great responsibility! Dead mentor! Balletic soaring through a cityscape! Iconic snog! Scenery-chewing turn from a Hollywood heavyweight or two! (Seriously: try to imagine anyone but JK Simmons on rat-a-tat form, chewing cigars and demanding pictures of Spider-Man. It’s physically impossible.) And, at the centre of it all, Tobey Maguire melts your heart – emblematic of Raimi’s take on the material as, essentially, a love story between a nerdy all-American teen and the beautiful girl next door. No Spider-Man, no MCU.

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5) A Simple Plan

A Simple Plan

Across the Evil Dead movies, Sam Raimi proved a knack for telling stories about people who find cursed paper in the woods and have their lives fall apart as a result. In A Simple Plan, that paper is a duffel bag of cold, hard cash ($4.4 million of it, to be precise) retrieved in the frozen depths of Minnesota – the discovery of which breeds greed, tragedy, and resentment between Bill Paxton’s highly-strung Hank, his wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda), and Billy Bob Thornton’s nice-but-dim Jacob. Stylistically, this is at the other end of the scale to the kinetic energy of Raimi’s early work, arriving at the point in which he was aiming to evolve his signature style into something statelier. But it’s still visually astute, the director’s eye for compositions and pacing creating a tragic tension as this life-changing discovery proves the downfall of everyone involved. Chilly and chilling in equal measure. An excellent, grown-up thriller.

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4) Drag Me To Hell

Drag Me To Hell

After deciding to direct Spider-Man no more, it was time for Raimi to return to his horror roots – and while nominally its own proposition, Drag Me To Hell is as close as he’s come since to revisiting the Evil Dead. Despite its PG-13 rating, this is thrilling stuff – a jolt-filled runaway ghost train of a film, with a gleefully nasty puckish energy. Alison Lohman is Christine, a kindly but ambitious bank loan officer who, in an effort to prove to her boss that she can make the tough calls, declines to extend the mortgage of an elderly woman. Big mistake. Soon, she’s the victim of a curse that’ll see her – you guessed it! – dragged to hell by demons in three days’ time. And across those three days, she’s attacked by invisible entities, gummed by gooey corpses, projectile nose-bleeding, and, er, called a “black-hearted whore” by a possessed goat. Filled with gags that’ll make you gag (including Lorna Raver’s Mrs. Ganush plunging her entire arm down Christine’s throat), this is 99 minutes of the kind of deliriously dark fun that Raimi does better than anyone else. And the final minute is a mean masterstroke.

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3) The Quick & The Dead

The Quick And The Dead

Raimi only ever made one Western – but it’s a real sharp-shooter, an ultra-stylish shootout spectacular with a top cast, and some of his most creative camerawork. Sharon Stone is a mysterious woman who rides into the town of Redemption, where she enters a duelling competition – facing off against the town’s swiftest guns in a series quickdraw battles, all for a cash prize. Except, Stone’s Ellen is really in it for revenge against Gene Hackman’s evil John Herod – and is hoping to get a shot at him. That set-up is the framework for an effective tale of vengeance – but more importantly, it allows Raimi to go all-out on several cracking pistols-at-dawn setpieces, cranking up the crazy camerawork with crash-zooms, whip-pans, dolly shots, and dizzying tool-up montages that are thrilling to watch. Add in a great cast – including a pre-Romeo Leonardo DiCaprio as a cocky kid, and a long-haired Russell Crowe – and an explosive conclusion, and Raimi’s aim is as true as Ellen’s. Bullseye.

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2) Spider-Man 2

Spider-Man 2

Even after 15 years of the MCU, Raimi’s second Spidey outing still stands tall as one of the greatest comic book movies ever made. Everything that worked about the first film – those exhilarating web-slinging sequences, Peter and MJ’s will-they-won’t-they romance, the tension between Peter and Harry Osborn – is escalated here, for a sequel that’s more exciting, emotional, and exhilarating. Perhaps its greatest addition is Alfred Molina as tragic scientist Otto Octavius, whose transformation into Doc Ock is brilliant-realised – particularly in an all-out gonzo-Raimi sequence as the mechanised tentacles attack a set of surgeons. The effects stand up in the action sequences (the bank brawl remains the highlight), but it’s the character drama that works best here. Not just Harry’s horror on unmasking Spider-Man, nor MJ’s tragic disappointment in Peter has he lets her down too many times – but the reaction of the New Yorkers after Spidey just about saves a trainload of innocent people: ‘He’s just a kid’. This is pure, old-school comic book cinema – pop art that really pops.

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1) Evil Dead II

Evil Dead II

With his career stalling, Sam Raimi had one option: make an Evil Dead sequel. And make it the most flat-out, unapologetically entertaining film he possibly could. He succeeded. Across the 84 raucous minutes of Evil Dead II, not a single second is wasted – not an image or a moment that doesn’t deliver a laugh, or a scream, or both. Rather than following on where the first film left off, the sequel effectively remakes it in the opening minutes – sending Bruce Campbell’s Ash to a cabin in the woods with girlfriend Linda (Denise Biller), where they accidentally summon Kandarian demons. From there, Raimi takes the raw, wild energy of his original film and imbues it with slapstick gags and cartoon logic – with Ash chasing his own possessed hand around the floor, smashing plates over his head, dancing in sync with a lamp, being hoisted up by his reflection in the mirror, and eventually strapping a snarling, revving chainsaw to his arm. That unique energy and unpredictability – combined with bravura filmmaking techniques – results in one of the wildest rides ever committed to celluloid. It’ll swallow your soul – and then, you’ll beg it to do it all over again.

Read the Empire review

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