Sam Raimi: A portrait of the directing maestro (part one)

Sam Raimi: A portrait of the directing maestro (part one)

The horror genre intersects with some of cinema's greatest auteurs.

What do Coppola, Spielberg, Demme, Carpenter, Bigelow, Lynch, Altman, De Palma, Cronenberg, Denis and Raimi have in common?

All directed a film in the horror genre.

The great directors have all dabbled in the horror genre, and today's subject Sam Raimi is perhaps the greatest director to make his brand of horror a distinct brand.

When a young 20-something Sam Raimi burst onto the scene with 'The Evil Dead' in the early 1980s with his school friend Bruce Campbell in tow, a new poster boy had arrived.

Stephen King saw a cut of 'The Evil Dead' at the Cannes Film Festival and lended his quote and gravitas to the poster.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Over 40 years later, Raimi is now gearing up to release the latest film in the Marvel universe, essentially given an unlimited budget to conjure up some more memorable images for the masses.

With 'Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness' hitting Irish cinemas next week, we revisit why exactly Sam Raimi is one of cinema's great unsung heroes.

Groovy Chainsaws and a misfire

The production of the original 'Evil Dead' is something known by practically every genre film fan, and by all accounts, it was a miracle the film turned out as well as it did.

Funding was secured by Raimi and company traversing their home state of Michigan to get wealthy friends to fund their movies.

Per Bruce Campbell, "Dentists are great. Get money from dentists. They're loaded with dough."

Raimi, Campbell and their producer friend Robert Tapert would show previews of their work to rich dentist friends in order to get them to pony up funding.

"One guy gave us money because he didn't go to Vegas that year," Campbell recalled.

"I usually take two grand and blow it in Vegas. Well, here's my Vegas money," Campbell recalls of the dentist and added that the dentist has since made over 20 times the money he invested in the film.

Everything that could have gone wrong on the set of the film did, and shooting on location in rural Tennessee served as a baptism of fire for the young Raimi.

The troupe elected to shoot in Tennessee, believing that the winters were going to be milder than their native Michigan.

The winter they shot in Tennesse was one of the coldest winters in the state's history, while their native Michigan experienced one of the mildest.

Among the comedy of errors endured by the group was the cabin having no running water.

Speaking to IGN in 2015, Raimi recalled long, 16-hour shooting days, with his hands covered in corn syrup.

Raimi recalls "I'd be running the camera, but my hands were covered in Karo syrup."

"You’d lean against something and get it all over your hands. The only water we had was in a hot water heater so you could make instant coffee. Boiling water over your hands from the tap; that’s how you’d wash them, to load the film into the camera."

Over the course of filming, the prodigious physical acting chops of Campbell soon became apparent.

Raimi and Campbell quickly hit upon a Lennon-McCartney or Scorsese-DiCaprio style partnership, and the duo brought out the best in each other.

The original 'Evil Dead' had a barebones script, and a large chunk of the film is dialogue-free, giving plenty of time for Campbell to show off his leading man chops.

Widely regarded as a classic of the horror genre, 'The Evil Dead' is still one of the strongest directorial debuts in American cinema.

The film also showed off Raimi's penchant for moving the camera in kinetic and energetic ways, as this YouTube compilation shows.

Raimi's frenetic and kinetic energy caught the attention of one Joel Coen, an assistant editor on 'The Evil Dead'.

With Raimi hailing from Michigan and the brothers Coen hailing from Minnesota, the mid-western boys quickly bonded, with their script for 'Blood Simple' catching the attention of Raimi.

The future Oscar winners borrowed Bruce Campbell to star in a dummy trailer for the film to drum up interest, and the seeds of a strong working relationship began to bare fruit.

Raimi and the Coens collaborated on 'Crimewave' in 1985, which has slipped through the cracks among the general film-going public.

While the film isn't a masterpiece by any means, the film is worth seeking out for the novelty of a Sam Raimi film written by the Coen Brothers.

The film is full of the whip-smart dialogue and jet-black humour that is evocative of the later works of the Coens, and Raimi's trademark directing flourishes are on full display.

'Crimewave' has been largely disowned by the Raimi and Coens camp, but is worth the watch if you can get your hands on a copy.

The production of the film was tortured, with the studio vetoing casting Bruce Campbell in the leading role and Raimi being refused editing privileges on the film.

After essentially serving as a one-man army on the first 'Evil Dead' film, Raimi's first foray into the studio system was something of a failure.

No longer the leader of a guerilla group of filmmakers in a rural Tennesse cabin, Raimi struggled to get to grips with studio notes and interference, and as a result, 'Crimewave' is a compromised project.

It's worth noting that Raimi had directed a cult horror classic and had a protracted battle with a studio all by the time he was 25.

The wunderkind came out of the 'Crimewave' saga bruised, saying in 2015 "Only after that awful, awful experience did we realise we can't do this again. Hollywood is messed up. We need to get back to independent filmmaking."

Ash Williams Rides Again

With the only way back into the industry making a sequel to his horror classic' Raimi and co set their energies on making an even bigger and bolder sequel to 'The Evil Dead'.

Around this time, Raimi had already attained cult status in Europe, and Jonathan Ross became an early champion of his films.

The pair notably appeared in an ad together for 'Evil Dead 2' for its UK release, which further raised his public profile as a director with a brand, like Spielberg or Hitchcock before him.

Directors Edgar Wright and Peter Jackson have cited 'Evil Dead 2' as a major influence on them as directors, and 35 years on, the film is still a masterpiece in comedy horror.

Like 'An American Werewolf In London' before it, the combination of silly comedy and gory scares makes for one of the best films ever committed to celluloid.

Raimi's emphasis on practical effects and as much in-camera trickery as possible lends the film a sense of tactility that modern films simply do not have.

With a slightly bigger budget to play with, Raimi once again showed audiences that he had the most prodigious sense of direction and camera movement in American cinema since De Palma.

An oft-repeated story about Spielberg is he showed up to set on his first project and knew where to place the camera.

Raimi not only knows where to place the camera, but he also knows how to make the camera a character in his films.

Modern Marvel films are known for being such a well-oiled machine that the director has little input into the visual element and the visual effects do most of the storytelling - one hopes Raimi can get a shot like this into the new 'Doctor Strange' film.

'Evil Dead 2' is often regarded as one of the best film sequels of all time, and is rightly mentioned in the same hushed tones as 'The Godfather Part Two', 'Aliens' or 'The Empire Strikes Back' among genre fans.

By age 30, Raimi already had a hit franchise under his belt, and had created a new cult hero in the form of Bruce Campbell.

In 1989, the cinematic landscape changed forever when Tim Burton directed 'Batman' - and the success of this would end up changing the trajectory of not only modern filmmaking but also the career of Sam Raimi.

Going Dark

Raimi was a lifelong fan of comic books, and in 1990 introduced the world to Darkman.

Nearly 20 years before Liam Neeson became a leading man in the lkes of 'Taken' and 'Non-Stop', Raimi recognised the inherent matinee idol appeal in Liam Neeson.

A wholly original character, 'Darkman' was released a year after Tim Burton's 'Batman' film changed the cultural landscape and can be seen as something of a cousin to Tim Burton's ode to the caped crusader.

While Tim Burton's film leaned more into the Art Deco aesthetic, Sam Raimi's first superhero flick leaned into the pulp elements and made a film that could have just as easily been a radio serial in 1940.

'Darkman' was a wholly original creation, yet Raimi treated the character with the reverence of an established hero and part of the modern American mythology.

Casting Ballymena man Liam Neeson in the title role proved to be a masterstroke, with the lumbering actor and his soulful eyes lending gravitas to Raimi's creation.

'Darkman' helped popularise all the tropes that Raimi later solidfied in his 'Spider-Man' movies; a normal person is granted superhuman abilities after an accident, must balance his private life with his alter ego, and keeps the city safe from crime.

Of course, the camera also moves with the characters and becomes an active participant in the action.

Through Raimi's career, no matter if the budget is $300,000 or $300 million, the consistent throughline was the camera cannot stay static.

The truly great auteurs have their own distinct style and yo ucan tell when you're watching one of those films.

With 'Darkman', there are a handful of scenes that couldn't have been directed by anyone but Sam Raimi.

While not a blockbuster by any means, 'Darkman' turned a tidy profit and became a hit on home video, which is a common throughline with the Raimi filmography.

Raimi returned to the land of deadites once again with 'Army Of Darkness' in 1993, and had the financial backing of both Universal and Dino De Laurentiis to make the ultimate 'Evil Dead' film.

Raimi's career runs concurrent with Bruce Campbell, and after a movie apart from his lucky charm in the leading role, the pair returned to make 'Army Of Darkness' their answer to 'Lawrence Of Arabia'.

The sets were bigger, the practical effects were even better, Bruce Campbell's physical comedy and action man chops were in full flight and the quotes were as witty and iconic as ever.

The only problem? Universal didn't know what to do with the film.

Was the film a sequel? A prequel? Do you need to have watched the previous films to understand it?

While the film was a modest hit in cinemas, like all Raimi films it found an audience on home video but it proved one thing.

Raimi was keen and able to work within the studio system, and he foresaw the rise of nerd culture in Hollywood.

For his next film, he gathered a motley crew of Gene Hackman, Leonardo Di Caprio, Russell Crowe, and Sharon Stone for a rollicking western film.

But that will be explored in Part Two, along with a rundown of the rest of Raimi's career.

Part Two will be published next week.