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Sam Raimi: A Simple Plan for Success

A funny thing happened last year. A film by Sam Raimi - schlock horror maestro extraordinaire - actually received mainstream critical praise. People even queued to see it. How could this be? How could the man behind 'The Evil Dead', a seminal horror masterpiece (or 'video nasty', as it was unfairly labelled in these parts), make a film that Joe Public wanted to part with his money for? Could it be a result of his mainstream success as executive producer of the popular TV shows 'Hercules: The Legendary Journeys' and 'Xena: Warrior Princess'? Could it be his long-time friendship with the fabulous Coen Brothers? Or could it simply be the fact that he is a fantastic filmmaker?

Until very recently, Sam Raimi was of course best known for 'The Evil Dead', a gloriously gory and inventive take on the often-stale horror genre that gained much notoriety due to its refusal of certification in Britain under the Video Recordings Act in 1984, (along with fellow so-called cult classic, Abel Ferrara's excruciatingly overwrought 'The Driller Killer'). Although it lived up to its cult status as a shocker classic - a veritable rollercoaster of action, suspense and, well, randy trees(!) - it was hardly the stuff to corrupt minds as it was made out to be by the media. It still stands today, and rightly so (despite the pointless cuts made to it by the BBFC), as one of the greatest modern horror movies yet made.

Raimi would follow up his underground success in the States with the generally little-seen 'Crimewave', co-written with his friends Joel and Ethan Coen, who had already brought attention to themselves with their noir-ish debut feature 'Blood Simple', and featuring 'Evil Dead' star, childhood friend and Raimi acolyte Bruce Campbell.

But Raimi could not resist a return to the genre that made him famous, and a big budget remake of the Evil Dead would follow, imaginatively titled Evil Dead II. It served as a grand showcase for Raimi's talent as a filmmaker, as he threw in every trick in the book - crash zooms, swift pans, multiple angles, stop motion animation and, by now his trademark, the point-of-view shot - particularly effective when we see through the eyes of a malevolent demon thundering through the dark forest of our fears!

In the following few years Raimi financed a low budget zombie horror after his own heart - 'The Dead Next Door'- from his salary for 'Evil Dead II', before returning with his first mainstream feature, the Liam Neeson-starring 'Darkman'. The movie served as an homage to Raimi's love of comic books and superheroes since childhood, and it goes without saying that it was another showcase for his talent and passion for film. However, being classed as horror at a time when horror movies were out of fashion ensured that it was not the success it could have been (it has since spawned numerous straight-to-video sequels). Around the same time his friends the Coen Brothers, however, were fast becoming critical darlings. They had received much acclaim for 'Raising Arizona' in 1987, and had done it again both in 1990 with 'Miller's Crossing' and the following year with 'Barton Fink'. For their next project they summoned Raimi for scriptwriting duties. The result, 'The Hudsucker Proxy', divided moviegoers between those who couldn't take the eccentricity and those who revelled in its tomfoolery. Like most projects that Raimi has had a hand in creating, it went on to video and gained a strong cult following (and, of course, featured a Bruce Campbell cameo).

Subsequent pseudo-western 'The Quick And The Dead' featured a veritable who's who of late '90's Hollywood - Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Gary Sinise, and a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio (who still looks, well, about as childlike now), as well as that all-important blink-and-you'll-miss-it Bruce Campbell cameo (as the 'wedding shemp'), but suffered a similar fate to everything that was attached to the Raimi name (that is, bombing at the box office only to become a video favourite).

Possibly disgruntled at his lack of cinematic success, particularly as the Coens went from strength to strength, particularly with the phenomenon of 'Fargo', Raimi's company Renaissance Pictures turned its attentions to television and hit the jackpot in with the internationally-syndicated 'Hercules: The Legendary Journeys'. A couple of years later, along came 'Xena: Warrior Princess', and the rest, as they say, is history.

A refreshed Raimi was the surprise choice to direct 'A Simple Plan', with a lot of critics convinced that his energetic style would ruin the drama. But most overlooked the fact that Raimi's previous work had demanded such a style - the dramatic material would showcase a new side to his talent. The subtlety with which he handled the performances of Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda and Bill Paxton in this 'Macbeth-in-the-snow' melodrama certainly impressed those critics who eschewed cheap and unfair 'Fargo rip-off' jibes, and made an impact on Hollywood - his latest effort is the big budget baseball-themed drama, 'For The Love Of The Game'. While it is also, unfortunately, a vehicle for Kevin Costner, this can be forgiven of a down-to-earth family man who has finally edged his way towards the directorial 'A-List'.

So long as the rot doesn't set in, Raimi's best work still undoubtedly lies ahead of him, possibly in the shape of the masked web-slinging superhero better known as Spider-Man. Only a fan could do this movie justice; Raimi has been a Spidey-fan for donkey's years. It looks like a good omen both for next summer's blockbuster season and also for Sam Raimi, a movie-making survivor who deserves all the success he can get.

- MacDara Conroy