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There are multiple generations now of moviegoers who primarily know Sam Raimi as a superhero guy, something he's embracing yet again as the director of May 2022's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. At the turn of the century, Raimi was able to turn his childhood dreams of comic book weirdness into superhero gold with a blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy that changed the course of blockbusters and, as Spider-Man: No Way Home just proved, retains its particular emotional oomph even 20 years after it launched.
His career, which now stretches all the way back to his breakthrough Super 8 films in the late 1970s, is often overlooked in terms of its diversity, as though he was the guy who made The Evil Dead and then suddenly catapulted straight into Spider-Man. In between, he made heist films (A Simple Plan), Westerns (The Quick and the Dead), R-rated pulp (Darkman), and even sports dramas (For Love of the Game).
He also, of course, made some of the most memorable low-budget horror films of the 1980s, notably 1987's Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. While he has brought the same enthusiasm to all of his films, the real key to Sam Raimi's greatness, and the gateway to his filmmaking sensibility, is Evil Dead II. It's not his biggest film, or even his most narratively daring, but its madcap mix of horror, comedy, fantasy, and outright slapstick lunacy is the brew that would turn Raimi into one of the most interesting filmmakers of his generation. One can strongly argue that it also makes him a perfect choice to direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Though Raimi initially envisioned a medieval time warp sequel (akin to what Army of Darkness would become) for his follow-up to The Evil Dead, producer Dino De Laurentiis convinced the filmmakers to produce something closer to the first film. So, Raimi and co-writer Scott Spiegel dreamed up another version of Ash Williams' (Bruce Campbell) journey to a remote cabin in the woods, where he'd once again find The Book of the Dead. He would also once again accidentally read aloud passages from it (this time, via an audio recording), and, once again, battle a horde of hellish monsters descending on the woods at night.
But of course, the sequel had some distinct advantages that allowed it to be more than just a clone of The Evil Dead. For one thing, Raimi, Campbell, Spiegel, and producer Rob Tapert were older, wiser, and perhaps a bit bolder with a few more years of filmmaking under their belts. For another, they had the backing of De Laurentiis, allowing them to bump the new film's budget up considerably from what they scraped together to make the original. And finally, thanks to a lifelong love of The Three Stooges, as well as a continued evolution of his filmmaking style and directorial courage, Raimi decided this Evil Dead would be more of a comedy than pure horror.
The first Evil Dead is at times a wickedly funny film, making witty use of its low budget and limited cast to paint a portrait of a group of people slowly going mad in the presence of gallons of fake blood. But it's still firmly a horror movie, with a nightmarish soundscape and some truly unsettling creature effects. For Evil Dead II, Raimi decided to take all the inertia and bravado from his first film and pour it into a kind of living cartoon. It's a film where your girlfriend could die tragically one minute, and then return as a rotting ballerina the next. A horror movie where mounted deer heads on the wall laugh at your pain, and where Ash must pin down his own severed hand with a copy of A Farewell to Arms.
The comedy in The Evil Dead is wicked and simmering, while the comedy in Evil Dead II is palpable, ostentatious, and gloriously silly — from mirror gags to flying eyeballs and everything in between. It's what made the sequel stand out to so many fans, and what placed it in the annals of horror history, but that's not necessarily the secret to why it's so important. Or at least, that's not the whole secret.
Sam Raimi is a filmmaker who does nothing halfway. No matter the genre, no matter the budget, no matter the cast or the studio or the audience, he is throwing every trick he has at the screen, piling on dissolves and whip pans and visual gags and mad-dash point-of-view shots with every frame. That's there in his earliest work, too, but Evil Dead II feels like the place where his "Hook-them-early-and-never-let-up" philosophy was really codified. It takes less than ten minutes for Ash to discover that his girlfriend is possessed, cut her head off with a shovel, bury her in the woods, and then become possessed himself.
At the half-hour mark, Ash cuts off his own hand. An hour in, there are multiple deadites and major death scenes, but Raimi's not even close to done.
On a craft level, Raimi imbues the entire cabin with light so that it shoots beams out from crooked boards like a rustic phantasmagoria. He's building stop-motion animation into his shots, whipping the camera around in a frenzy, dragging characters through the woods as we follow them at lightning speed. He's playing with the very concept of time in a film that seems to drift between night and day on a whim. In doing so, he is also disorienting and overwhelming the viewer at the same time he's disorienting and overwhelming the characters, manipulating us into going just as crazy as Ash.
It's that energy, that frenetic yet somehow controlled fervor, that's come to define Sam Raimi's works, whether he's turning Spider-Man into a living comic book, staging kinetic gunfights in the Wild West, or preparing to rip the Multiverse to shreds with Stephen Strange. His is one of the most distinctive, stunning, and unforgettable styles of popular cinema, and it all began 35 years ago, in a scary cabin in the woods.
So, if you're looking for the origins of that weird Raimi magic, you've found it with Evil Dead II.