Friday, September 8, 2017

Book Review: The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi by John Kenneth Muir

The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi by John Kenneth Muir

Sam Raimi made his name in movies when he made The Evil Dead, a small budget, independently made horror film that became a seminal work in 1980s horror. His career moved in fits and starts. He is visually inventive with a style that is distinctive. His genius for visual storytelling can be seen in the Evil Dead sequels, his early and original superhero movie Darkman, and the oddball western The Quick and the Dead. Having burned out a bit on style, he shifted gears to more character-driven films like A Simple Plan and The Gift, where the directing doesn't overwhelm the story. He had a return to visual creativity when he was selected to direct the 2002 Spider-Man, a massive box office hit that was well-regarded critically for a superhero film.

Author John Muir gives a comprehensive review of Raimi's films, with plenty of original interviews from cast, producers, and crew members to fill in the details on the films. Muir starts by discussing Raimi's early life and work with Super 8 cameras, including college projects that gave him an early experience of audience feedback and what works (and doesn't) for creating an entertaining movie. Each subsequent chapter focuses on one movie and goes fairly in-depth about the production, the critical reception, and the author's own thoughts about the film. The book (published in 2004) ends with a preview of Spider-Man 2 (which came out in 2004).

Oddly, he has no interviews with Raimi himself, relying on previously published interviews in magazines and trade papers. Other major figures like Raimi's usual co-producer Rob Tappert or go-to actor Bruce Campbell are also only present through secondary sources. The book is still rich with detail on the films.

Muir expresses his love for Raimi's character quite thoroughly. Raimi is famous for wearing a jacket and tie as a director, taking the job very seriously as did great directors before him like Alfred Hitchcock. Raimi is also well-liked as a director, able to get the shots and performances he wants through gentleness and enthusiasm rather than dominance and anger. He's also open to good ideas from others that enhance the storytelling. Actors have sought him out for their projects and generally are very positive about working with him.

Muir also loves the films themselves, sometimes bending over backwards to praise even the lesser films. His critical analysis is on the mark with movies like Evil Dead II or A Simple Plan, but he struggles to find praiseworthy aspects to Crimewave or The Quick and the Dead, falling back on academic distinctions to create positive opinions about every movie.

The book is a fascinating look at Raimi as a movie director, giving insight into his character, his creativity, and his struggles with low budgets and with Hollywood nonsense. It is occasionally uncritically positive about the movies, making it a little less convincing overall. Still, for fans of Raimi's work, it is a great read.


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