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The Filmography of Sam Raimi Ranked

by James Preston Poole

One of the most celebrated and discussed filmmakers of the past 40 or so years, to say that Sam Raimi has left behind a heck of a legacy would be an understatement. From the graphic horror of The Evil Dead to the crowd-pleasing spectacle of his Spider-Man trilogy, the only true constant in his filmography is to expect the unexpected. A true auteur, in every sense of the word, Raimi’s work bears an inventive spirit that makes it clear someone very passionate made what you’re watching with all of his heart. He’s a kid in a candy store, if said kid switched up which candy store he goes to frequently. 

His first feature in nearly a decade is not only his long-awaited return to the superhero genre, but it’s also his first film in the ever-present Marvel Cinematic Universe: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. So close to the reality-bending sequel, just as many are debating the film’s potential cameos and plot details as they are wondering how much of Raimi’s signature style will come through the Marvel machine unscathed. Nonetheless, it feels like an appropriate time to do a thorough examination of his eccentric filmography. A couple of disclaimers before we get started: there is no truly bad Raimi film on here and this is a purely opinion-based list. Everyone is likely to look different, which is why these sorts of things are so much fun! So, without further ado, this is the Filmography of Sam Raimi ranked from worst to best.

Sam Raimi Ranked

16. It’s Murder!

The hand drawn DVD cover for the collection of Sam Raimi's old super 8 short films, also including his first feature IT"S MURDER!

Well, we all have to start somewhere. Released in 1977 while Raimi was still in college and currently close to impossible to find on anything that isn’t a crude pirated version, It’s Murder! has all the trappings of a student film. That is to say, it’s full of ambition but nearly unwatchable. The story follows a detective (Scott Spiegel) trying to find out who murdered the uncle of a patriarch whose dysfunctional family stands to profit from his untimely demise. 

Shot in black-and-white, starring several future Sam Raimi mainstays such as Spiegel, Bruce Campbell, his own brother Ted Raimi, and incorporating impressive amounts of wild camera movements, It’s Murder! does a lot with its below shoestring budget, not to mention the limiting Super 8 film stock it’s shot on. There are brief glimpses of the special brand of black comedy that would go on to permeate the director’s later work. Yet, it’s all so sloppy – dialogue barely audible, plot meandering all over the place – that it only really serves one purpose: providing a neat curio of where one of cinema’s freshest voices got his start. It was on to bigger and better things for everyone involved. 

15. Oz the Great and Powerful

James Franco as Oz hides in the haunted forest with a small painted glass doll girl and a flying monkey dressed as a bellhop in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL directed by Sam Raimi.

Under anyone else’s watch, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz would be an unmitigated disaster. Under Sam Raimi’s watchful eye, Oz the Great and Powerful manages to become… perfectly fine. At a base level, the story of magician/con-man Oscar Diggs (James Franco) being swept into the mystical land of Oz works. Shot gracefully by Peter Deming in a glorious faux-technicolor style, a genuine sense of wonder creeps in from time to time. A trip to a haunted forest, for example, plays like “Baby’s First Evil Dead,” in a good way! In her all-too-brief screen time, Michelle Williams embodies the wholesome joy that comes from seeing Glinda the Good once more. Unfortunately, the nature of the project undermines the rest of its clever ideas. 

For every fresh concept like the tragic supporting character that is the painted doll voiced by Joey King, there’s something like a misguided origin for the Wicked Witch of the West waiting around the corner. A series of episodic mini-adventures spread throughout entertain, sure, though they’re merely flashes in the pan of a script that was clearly mandated by Disney from the get-go. Mostly, however, Oz the Great and Powerful kneecaps itself in its central casting. James Franco sleepwalks through the role, being neither charismatic nor complex enough to carry the film beyond the shadow of its historic predecessor. He’s a lifeless, stock asset to an origin that was told with far more imagination in Frank Baum’s original novels. In spite of Franco, Oz at least isn’t a total disaster as far as hired-gun directing gigs for auteurs go.

14. For Love of the Game

Kevin Costner as famous pitcher Billy Chapel talks to his catcher played by John C. Reilly on the mound while a sold-out baseball stadium crowd watches from behind in FOR LOVE OF THE GAME directed by Sam Raimi.

Dads need movies to watch too! Part of Kevin Costner’s all-time run of baseball pictures in the 90s, For Love of the Game feels more at home on a ranking of all those movies. Still, this is a Sam Raimi movie and one that he was very passionate about, being a lifelong fan of America’s favorite pastime. On the mound during what may be his final game, renowned pitcher Billy Chapel (Costner) reflects on the past few years of his life, constantly going back to his on-again, off-again romance with Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston). 

Bereft of the untamed nature that marks much of Raimi’s work, For Love of the Game is nonetheless an extremely pleasant flick. Costner, per usual, turns in a soulful performance that feeds into an endearing romantic tale. Although baseball has never quite caught my fancy, this movie is highly engaging for non-fanatics of the sport, particularly in its climactic sequences that put you right there on the pitcher’s mound. Despite not being a standout in this beloved filmmaker’s repertoire, it’s a nice film to throw on during a lazy afternoon. What may be one of Raimi’s lesser films would be another filmmaker’s crowning achievement. 

13. The Quick and the Dead

Sharon Stone as "The Lady" rocks sunglasses as her and Gene Hackman prepare for a classic Western stand-off in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD directed by Sam Raimi.

The Quick and the Dead does exactly what it has to do. Nothing more, nothing less. Somewhat of a cult favorite amongst Raimi heads, this Spaghetti Western regales us with the legend of “The Lady” (Sharon Stone), a gunslinger who wanders into the lawless town of Redemption. The town’s malevolent ruler John Heard (Gene Hackman) institutes a single-elimination quick draw competition with a hefty cash prize. The Lady enters, thus beginning a tournament best described as “Wild West meets Mortal Kombat”. 

Really, what The Quick and the Dead is about is allowing a unique filmmaker the opportunity to play around in a new cinematic sandbox. By that trade, it’s a rousing success. All around, the cast is committed – Hackman’s snarling villain, early turns from Leonardo Dicaprio and Russell Crowe, not to mention a performance from Sharon Stone that deserves its own franchise. The stand-offs are tense, and the pacing is just as tight; it’s thoroughly entertaining all the way through. Given Raimi’s innovative spirit, it’s hard to not feel a little slighted by a filmmaker that rebuilt the horror and superhero genres from the ground up multiple times simply making… a Western. Still, judge a film for what it is and not what it could have been. By that trade, Sam Raimi made a damn fine Western. 

12. Crimewave

A close up of Reed Birney's face as his big nerdy glasses shine bright blue with electric bolts running through the frames in CRIMEWAVE directed by Sam Raimi.

Sam Raimi and the Coen Bros. have all but disowned their big 1985 collaboration. That’s a real shame, I say, because, for all of its messiness, it’s a hoot! A pastiche of noir and slapstick comedy, Crimewave is in many ways a good omen of what was to come for both Raimi and Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote this film. Security technician Victor Ajax (Reed Birney) stumbles upon a vast murder plot that finds him running from assassins, competing with a brash lothario (Bruce Campbell) for the affections of Nancy (Sheree J. Wilson), and eventually winding up telling the tale from the electric chair. 

More people know about Crimewave for its infamous production than they do the film itself. Embassy Pictures notably locked Raimi out of the editing room, Raimi and the Coens expressed deep dissatisfaction with the film, and it nearly killed the career of everyone involved. It’s hard to see why. Yes, the story is all over the place, but it feeds into a kind of Looney Tunes-esque energy. Committed performances and great gags balance out the weaker moments of Crimewave. Much like It’s Murder!, this is very much a dry run for much better things later in the careers of everyone involved. Unlike It’s Murder!, this is one stepping stone that holds up in its own right. 

11. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Stephen Strange resurrects as a zombie and uses dark magic to harness black demon souls to form a new cloak of levitation in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS directed by Sam Raimi.

Expectations were not high for this one. Given Marvel Studios’ propensity towards a “house style” prioritizing their larger universe over unique director’s visions, save for notable exceptions like Taika Watiti or James Gunn, the prospect of Sam Raimi’s return to the comic book genre being just another MCU movie did not bode well. Take into account as well that the original film’s director Scott Derrickson left over “creative differences,” and the stage wastruly set for a disappointment. Thankfully, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Doctor Strange in theMultiverse of Madness can often be a bit of a mess, but it’s a mess with a huge personality. 

Eschewing the expectations of some sort of cameo-filled, Avengers style event, this film actually turns out to be a wicked chase through several universes and tones. Sam Raimi is clearly having a blast playing in the world’s most expensive sandbox. He embraces the absurdity of the comic book happenings with a gleeful earnesty you don’t always see in superhero movies these days. Despite a simplistic script from Loki writer Michael Waldron, Raimi directs this movie like it could be his last, forming a nice bridge between his horror and superhero work. Whether it be the titular character fighting a grotesque tentacle monster or his own sinister doppelgänger with magical musical notes in a haunted Sanctum Sanctorum, there’s all sorts of spooky fun to be had. The real kicker is Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch without question, who gets a glorious descent into campy villainy that’s surprisingly mean, to the point where ridiculous discourse is being sparked as to if Marvel went too far with horror in a PG-13 rating. You should expect nothing less from such a filmmaker who relishes in pushing the audience’s buttons. Even if it’s not in the upper tier of his films, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is easily one of the best films in the MCU thanks to Raimi’s great enthusiasm and energy.

10. Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man in his new all-black suit strikes a battle pose as he shoots webs from both of his hands in SPIDER-MAN 3 directed by Sam Raimi.

Another film with a storied difficult production, Spider-Man 3 is a victim of an unearned bad reputation. It came out at a distinct cultural moment where a trend of angry, hyperbolic reviews dominated film criticism at the time. Just as well, its off-beat sense of humor (think both of Peter’s notorious dance scenes) didn’t quite jive with audiences. To this day, a rewatch of Spider-Man 3 will confirm the negativity towards the film as entirely off-base. In fact, what Raimi was doing with much of the film is kind of brave!

The whole creative team swings for the fences here. Action sequences are bigger than ever. Raimi embraces the themes of failure, grudges, and the dark side we all harbor underneath. Two of its villains, the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and Harry Osborn/New Goblin (James Franco) are logical next foes to further Peter Parker’s arc. For much of its runtime, Spider-Man 3 is just as good as the other two films. Hell, in moments it’s even better. Where Spider-Man 3’s reputation is absolutely justified, regrettably, is its jumbled third act. By introducing a villain that Raimi expressly didn’t care for in Venom (Topher Grace), the finale of Spider-Man 3 is a bloated, studio-mandated mess that simply goes through the motions until the credits roll. It’s empty spectacle that still can’t totally bog down a fairly underrated threequel.

9. The Evil Dead

The deadite version of Linda played by Betsy Baker taunts Ash Williams as she sits down criss-cross on the floor of a broken down cabin in THE EVIL DEAD directed by Sam Raimi.

Putting Sam Raimi’s true feature debut The Evil Dead in anything less than the top spot invites controversy. Hear me out – The Evil Dead is one of the most important films in horror history. 1981’s lurid tale of a group of college students who travel into the woods and accidentally summon all manner of grotesque spirits via the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, aka “the Book of the Dead,” still remains shocking to this day. The practical effects are unimpeachable, not to mention disgusting, and those last 15 minutes leading to a (literally) face-melting stop motion sequence would get a rise out of anyone. Here’s the thing: The Evil Dead has already cemented itself as a marvel of DIY film production. The making of it is simply more entertaining than the film itself.

The legendary reputation behind the film shields the fact that there’s a lot of downtime. Most of it is spent with characters who don’t have much of a personality, nor do they ever gain one. You can’t really ignore the sexual violence involving a tree that’ll spark an awkward conversation with any friend you show the film to. There’s a lack of cohesion in The Evil Dead that keeps it from being the out-and-out masterpiece its reputation would suggest. By another trade, that rough nature keeps The Evil Dead an unmistakably great film. Like Tope Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre before, there’s a lo-fi charm coursing through the veins of what is essentially an accidental chronicle of young and hungry filmmakers learning the craft in real-time. Whether you walk away thinking it’s a masterpiece or not, you’ll come away from The Evil Dead with a great deal of respect.

8. Army of Darkness

Ash Williams wrestles with a deadite witch at the bottom of water pit with spiked walls closing in as seen in ARMY OF DARKNESS directed by Sam Raimi.

You couldn’t go more opposite than The Evil Dead, and this is the film’s second sequel! By this point in time, not only had Sam Raimi’s career advanced but so had the little franchise that kick-started his career. Now, series lead Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) wields a chainsaw hand and gets transported to the 1300s. Oh yeah, and it’s a comedy now too! Army of Darkness is as much a victory lap for the Evil Dead trilogy as it is a hilarious showcase for Bruce Campbell’s comic chops. Steadily, the first two films put him through more and more, to the point that now everything is beating up Campbell! 

Campbell takes this abuse with gusto, mining the physical comedy as if Buster Keaton was an asshole with a heart of gold. Much of Army of Darkness is a one-man show. Ash Williams constantly spews out one-liners like there’s no tomorrow. Any repertory screening will have audiences screaming along with delight. Raimi’s directing, however, is just as much the star of the show, still gleefully painting on the ever-shifting Evil Dead canvas in whatever new ways he can think of. Army of Darkness is more lightweight than the previous two, and that’s no problem. This is one hilarious midnight movie that stands the test of time. 

7. A Simple Plan

Billy Bob Thornton and Brent Biscoe ride happily in a van together in the snow as Bill Paxton sits annoyed in the passenger seat from A SIMPLE PLAN directed by Sam Raimi.

The mid-90s to early 2000s for Raimi was a time of experimentation. Moreover, it was a time of forgotten projects. Lesser-known entries that, ultimately, constitute some of his more interesting work. 1998’s A Simple Plan is a bone-chillingly subtle neo-noir that features Raimi doing his best Coen Bros impression. Straight-laced Hank (Bill Paxton) and his eccentric brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), along with Jacob’s friend Lou (Brent Biscoe), stumble upon a crashed plane in the woods containing $4.4 million cash. They decide to keep the money secret until they know what to do with it. 

Rather than the splashy horror he’s known for, Raimi zeroes in on a much more insidious horror: greed. Throughout the course of this white-hot slow burn, paranoia, deceit, and, finally, violence takes hold of the trio and Hank’s darkly ambitious wife (Bridget Fonda). It’s rare, exhilarating even, to see Raimi tell a tale so deeply human. There’s a disturbing nihilism at the center of A Simple Plan that very well stays with you long after you’ve seen it. In another world, Raimi kept on making these tense, grounded thrillers. In this world, you would be more than happy to settle for Fargo’s estranged black-hearted cousin.

6. Spider-Man

Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker looks astonished as he tests his wall crawling powers for the first time in SPIDER-MAN directed by Sam Raimi.

Were this a list of films I had a personal attachment to, Spider-Man would likely rest at the top. Were this a list of films that are important to the evolution of the modern blockbuster, it would likely rest somewhere near there as well. As a film, Spider-Man remains a highly enjoyable piece of superhero cinema. Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is this film’s rock-solid heart. His journey from the selfishness of his great power to learning how to manifest that great power into responsibility is one of the most memorable cinematic journeys of the modern age. You can’t discredit Willem Dafoe’s tragic, very scary Norman Osborn, a performance so iconic it practically carried last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Successfully translating what made Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original comics so timeless, Spider-Man moves along at a breakneck pace so quick that you hardly recognize its one big flaw. Notwithstanding all of its ambition, the technology simply wasn’t there at the time to truly polish up Raimi’s vision of the wallcrawler from an action standpoint. With a major exception of the brutal final battle, the big hero moments can feel weightless and a little dated, more like a prototype of the masterful sequences that would dominate later films. No matter, David Koepp’s timeless script and Raimi’s “gee-whiz” wonder are what makes Spider-Man a certified classic to this day.

5. Drag Me to Hell

Alison Lohman shoves a blunt object down the throat of a gypsy witch from inside her car in DRAG ME TO HELL directed by Sam Raimi.

Did you know that Sam Raimi made a secret fourth Evil Dead movie? Okay, not really, but Drag Me to Hell is the closest we’re going to get. Bizarrely coming right off the heels of Spider-Man 3, Drag Me to Hell is Raimi returning back to the horror genre with great aplomb. Timid loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman) is on the verge of a promotion, but is deemed not assertive enough. To try and prove her superiors wrong, Christine denies an elderly woman (Lorna Raver) an extension on her mortgage. Much to her surprise, the woman curses Christine, condemning her to three days of torment by evil spirits before she’s eventually, you guessed it, dragged to hell. 

Thankfully, I don’t have to find the perfect term to describe this film because Raimi already coined it: “spook-a-blast”. In spite of its PG-13 rating, Drag Me to Hell is a gonzo beast of unimaginable horror, demented comedy, and some of the most disgusting images put to film. Mostly the latter. We’re talking possessed goats, projectile nosebleeds, the old woman spitting her dentures at Christine, and vomit. So much vomit. Much like what Christine endures, Drag Me to Hell is an endurance test for what the viewer can handle. If you manage to make it through to the devious final frame, you’re likely to have gotten the feeling of riding the world’s grossest roller coaster. 

4. The Gift

Cate Blanchett walks down the middle of an empty road in a dreamlike state while wearing a white gown in THE GIFT directed by Sam Raimi.

Earlier I mentioned the uncharacteristic era where Raimi was making films outside of his comfort zone. The grand finale to this experimental phase, The Gift, will be a big surprise to anyone working their way through Raimi’s filmography. We follow Annie Wilson, a woman (Cate Blanchett) with the supernatural ability to commune with the dead and perceive things before they happen, as she uses her powers to deduce who murdered a local young woman (Katie Holmes). A sleepy Southern Gothic, The Gift thrives off an excellent script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. 

Annie’s journey to the heart of the mystery has her flanked by a series of supporting characters played by the likes of Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank, Greg Kinnear, and a career-best Giovanni Ribisi. Her investigation of sorts begins to expose the dark heart of the town she calls home, in a way that reminds of a less-surreal Twin Peaks: The Return. It’s an intoxicating drama, equal parts tender and jaw-dropping, that is content to just let its characters speak for themselves with no theatrics. This is a side we rarely see of Raimi, and it’s one I hope we see more of in the future, as The Gift stands among his very best.

3. Darkman

Darkman played by Liam Neeson runs away from a helicopter filled with mob goons shooting at him while on top of an industrial factory in DARKMAN directed by Sam Raimi.

Spider-Man wasn’t Sam Raimi’s first attempt at the superhero genre. Facing yet another troubled production, Raimi’s original creation Darkman is one of the most singular studio pictures to come out ever. Really, no film since has ever accurately captured the feel of a comic book in quite the same way, regardless of it being a completely original creation. Scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is left for dead after being attacked by a ruthless mobster. Using his ingenuity, he builds a series of swiftly degradable disguises to figure out what exactly happened to him, all the while pining after his love Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand). 

There’s a solid argument to be made that Darkman is the most jam-packed movie Raimi has ever made. Certainly, it tries to do the most. An unholy hybrid of action, noir, romance, comedy, and, of course, horror, Raimi is on overdrive the entire time. Each moment feels vital, exciting, packed with the verve of someone who’s excited to be here making a movie. Impressively, too, all the disparate tones of what he’s trying to do are united by a tragic leading performance from Liam Neeson, whose waning grip of humanity results in genuine pathos reminiscent of a Universal Monster. Darkman is, at its core, a deeply silly romp most would wave off on principle, but by bringing to life the pulp excellence that draws people to comic books, Raimi turns the absurd into cinematic bliss. How they didn’t immediately greenlit five more of these is beyond me. For the time being, we’ll have to settle for its two straight-to-DVD sequels.

2. Evil Dead II

The deadite version of Ash Williams choke holds the real Ash Williams as the two stare at each other face to face in EVIL DEAD II directed by Sam Raimi.

You can imagine, after The Evil Dead, Raimi rolled up his sleeves, said “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” and immediately got to work topping it. That’s far from the truth. After the flop of Crimewave, he returned in a last-ditch effort to salvage his career to the well that had put him on the map. Rather than simply cash in, he went for broke, making Evil Dead II like it was the last film he would ever make. A kind of hybrid between remake and sequel, Evil Dead II has Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) once again in the classic cabin, protecting himself and a new group of allies from evil spirits and, at times, even himself. 

Evil Dead II just swiftly breezes by. Every moment of this movie maximizes what it can out of a gore effect, a joke, a romantic interaction, or all three at once. Escalation is the name of the game, and Evil Dead II just keeps ramping things up until there’s no movie left and our protagonist has been transported to the middle ages. If the primary purpose of a movie is to entertain, Evil Dead II conquers that assignment. Most importantly, though, it represents the moment where Sam Raimi went from an interesting filmmaker to a master. Everything is solidified – his genre-bending, penchant for out-of-the-box camera movements, great protagonists, and mostly just giving audiences a great time. Evil Dead II is more than a blueprint, it’s a monument.

1. Spider-Man 2

Doctor Octopus squeezes Spider-Man's head with his tentacle arms in SPIDER-MAN 2 directed by Sam Raimi.

Sometimes, what makes a filmmaker’s crowning achievement isn’t what’s most entertaining or important in their canon, but refinement. And Spider-Man 2 is a perfect movie. In many ways, it feels like the culmination of Raimi’s entire career. Having dabbled in every genre, every tone, every kind of budget imaginable, all roads lead to Spider-Man 2, a picture that is as unquestionably commercial as it is the product of a distinct voice. Peter Parker’s struggle, between his responsibility as a crime fighter and wanting to be there for his loved ones, is a succinct parallel to a kind of a struggle everyone has to deal with. 

It’s the cornerstone of an adventure that’s universal to the human experience. Fear of disappointing someone, the battle between selflessness vs. selfishness; it’s just a fantastically relatable narrative, based on a comic book or not. This is to say nothing of the spectacle; complete essays could be written on the train fight with Doc Ock – another classically tragic Raimi villain. All in all, Spider-Man 2 is the type of movie that anyone can love, but everyone will have their own favorite moment or interpretation. It legitimized a genre, the superhero film, that is still chasing the high of what it accomplished. In a career of revolutions, Spider-Man 2 represents Sam Raimi leaving his mark on the movies forever, and for this reason, it’s his best film.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness hits theaters May 6!

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Follow writer James Preston Poole on Twitter: @JamesPPoole

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