In less than 20 years, director Sam Raimi has upped his budgets considerably.

In 1971, when Raimi was an 11-year-old junior high school student in Detroit, the cost of his films was less than the price of admission to the $14 million "Darkman," his dark, comic-bookish fantasy thriller that opened nationwide Friday.

Raimi remembers shopping for film -- Super 8, in this case -- at the local K mart.

"There was one price for silent, one price for sound," he recalled during a recent Washington stopover. "Super 8 was $2.25 for 50 feet and $1.98 for processing, so for $4.50 you could make a 2 1/2-minute movie -- if you were shooting at 18 frames a second.

"If you wanted to get fancy -- get a higher-quality image, with less flickering -- you could shoot at 24 frames a second, but your film could only last about two minutes.

"So you had to make budget decisions even then."

With its old-fashioned melodramatic sweep (both visual and aural, thanks to one of Danny Elfman's best scores), "Darkman" may finally make Sam Raimi a household name, though he's had substantial critical and cult followings since debuting in 1983 with the shocker "The Evil Dead," and particularly since 1987's "Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn," a horror classic that elicits equal parts of giggling and gagging.

Raimi in person betrays none of this rudeness. He's gracious, soft-spoken, nothing remotely demented in the eyes. He grew up on a cultural diet of comic books and Mad magazines, cartoons and afternoon movies on television. "Like every kid, I was just taking it all in," he said. "I was a big fan of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner."

By the time he got to high school, Raimi was making movies with a group of like-minded film buffs from the Detroit area, including Bruce Campbell (who would star in the "Evil Dead" films), Scott Spiegel (who wrote "Evil Dead II") and Josh Becker (who is currently directing Campbell in "Lunatics").

"We'd meet up and talk about cameras, films, moviemaking," Raimi recalled, "and we formed the Metropolitan Film Group," a lofty title for kids pooling their leaf-raking and snow-shoveling funds to make Three Stooges-style shorts. "Sometimes we'd just take the soundtrack from a Three Stooges picture, act it out and cut it to the soundtrack," said Raimi. "Then we'd show them in school and kids would laugh, or not laugh, and then we would make another one."

Such slapstick films required cleverness rather than special effects and also brought Campbell out in front of the cameras. "Back then, Bruce made as many films as I did, but he was the best-looking guy, the one all the girls wanted," Raimi said. "And we were smart enough even in high school to think about marketing."

It was at his next stop, Michigan State University, that Raimi met Robert Tapert, who produced both "Deads" and "Darkman" after starting out as an economics major and an occasional actor in Raimi-directed student films. With Ivan Raimi, Sam's brother, they formed the Michigan State Society of Creative Filmmaking, another impressive front that simply made it easier to get school funding and access to campus theaters.

Still working in Super 8, Raimi made a half-dozen feature-length films while at MSU. At screenings, Tapert would sell tickets; Ivan Raimi (now a doctor) would rip them; Sam Raimi doubled as projectionist. "Sometimes a big crowd would come in and sometimes a miserable few -- sometimes one -- but we'd always show the movies and we'd always get a reaction from the crowd. When they didn't like it, they let you know right away because they had paid $1.25, and for the same price they could see {recent} movies on campus."

What did Raimi offer? "The Happy Valley Kid" starring Rip Tapert ("back then, we needed a more Hollywood-type name"). "The tag lines were: 'His roommate hated him. ... His girlfriend dumped him. ... Now, the week before finals, he cannot take it anymore. ... His mind snaps. ... He becomes A STUDENT DRIVEN MAD!" Naturally, such themes had resonance for much of the MSU student body, Raimi said. "They could watch professors being gunned down by this insane student -- that was a big hit."

In 1979, after two years of college, Raimi and Tapert dropped out to pursue their celluloid dreams. "We wanted to make feature films, and we were so ignorant that all we knew was we needed to get jobs to afford attorneys to put together a legal document that would allow us to raise money to make a feature film. We had no idea how difficult it would be and we didn't really know what was in store for us."

What they settled on as their entry into the feature world was horror -- which was Tapert's decision, Raimi said. "I'd only made comedies, but Rob said it had to be horror."

Tapert did research on independent films and discovered that "all the ones that made money were horror films." Raimi sought out the owner of a movie house, who told him the only way to make money was to "make sure blood runs down the screen."

Ironically, neither Raimi nor Tapert was a horror-genre fan, and they had seen few such films before deciding to make one in 1979. "When we decided to do a horror picture, we started going to horror movies," Raimi recalls. "I said, 'Let's pick one, go see it and make a decision as to whether we can make a better film or not. If we can, we will.' So we go to the movie -- and no one's in the theater -- we watch it and it knocks my socks off. I didn't know they were that good!"

A week later, they went to see the film again, this time in a packed theater.

"People were screaming, and the last time I'd seen that kind of vocal response was 'The Exorcist,' " Raimi said. "They went nuts -- people were jumping up out of their seats, girls were running back to the concession stands because they couldn't take it. And I kept feeling worse and worse because I couldn't make a movie this good. If this is the average horror picture, then I'm in trouble. I didn't know at the time that it was the best horror movie in a long set of years."

The film Raimi and Tapert chose was John Carpenter's low-budget, high-polish "Halloween," which would turn out to be a genre classic. "So I went home thinking, 'I can't make a movie this good,' " Raimi said. "I panicked."

After going to the drive-ins and seeing that "Halloween" was the exception, not the genre rule, Tapert and Raimi put together a 30-minute Super 8 version of "Evil Dead" called "Within the Woods," made for $2,100, and with a little subterfuge. "We had somehow ruined our camera and so we went to K mart, bought a new camera, shot all weekend and then took it back and said it was the wrong model," Raimi said, obviously hoping applicable statutes of limitation have long since run out.

With "Woods" in hand, the young filmmakers set about raising the $350,000 needed to make the 16mm "Evil Dead." Showing the rough draft on dining room and office walls, they somehow talked the money out of a group of Michigan doctors, dentists and real estate agents (who eventually would make a tidy profit when the film turned out to be one of the most successful low-budget horror films in recent years).

"Evil Dead" was advertised as "the ultimate experience in grueling terror" and pretty much lived up to its billing. In some ways, it simply built on genre cliches -- young people trapped in an isolated cabin inhabited by evil spirts -- but it took everything to, and over, the edge with narrative economy and a headlong rush that allowed no timeouts -- except for sudden death, resurrection, madness and dismemberment. With hell breaking loose, the actors really didn't have time to act; they barely had time to react.

Part of "Evil Dead's" power lies in Raimi's fluid yet frenetic camera work, subjectively representing a demon spirit crashing through the surrounding woods and in and through the house. The distinctive, nightmarish look was achieved with a Raimi invention, the "shaky-cam," a lightweight silent camera mounted on a board and raced through the woods by two crew members. There's plenty of blood (gallons), cuts (deep) and transformations (vivid), all rendered at a maniacal pace that makes the film stand out despite its limited budget.

Though Raimi was 20 when he wrote and directed "Evil Dead," he was almost 23 by the time a distributor was found for the film. At one point he, Tapert and Campbell took a train to New York, schlepping a print around on the subways, paying $75 to screen it for uninterested parties. "We only had enough for so many screenings, and every time they didn't like it, another $75 was gone," Raimi recalled.

After being turned down by virtually every American distributor, they lucked into the office of legendary overseas sales agent Irwin Shapiro. According to Raimi, "Irwin came down after seeing it and said, 'Well, boys, it's your lucky day. It's not 'Gone With the Wind,' but I think I can make some money with it."

What Shapiro did was get "Evil Dead" to the Cannes film festival, where they give prizes to good films, but show anything for distributors from around the world. Also in Cannes: horrormeister Stephen King, promoting his "Creepshow" film. King quickly recognized what he called the "simple, stupid power of a good campfire story" and hailed "Evil Dead" as "the most ferociously original movie of 1982."

"That's really where we got our start," Raimi said.

"It jumped to number one on the U.K. video charts, beating out 'Rambo' and 'Poltergeist,' " Raimi pointed out. "We doubted the sanity of the English people, but we felt we had succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."

With its overseas credentials, "Evil Dead" made it home, and a year later, in 1984, Raimi was given a shot at directing a studio-funded film. "Crimewave" was written by Joel and Ethan Coen, who for many years shared a California house with Raimi and actresses Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand (the latter is "Darkman's" costar). The Coens would soon establish their own reputation with "Blood Simple" (also starring McDormand and made possible by Raimi's help in securing funding) and "Raising Arizona" (which uses Raimi's shaky-cam technique).

Unfortunately, "Crimewave," intended as a quirky, offbeat film, turned out to be a mess, though luckily a little-seen one. Raimi blames the studio, Embassy, now defunct. "They didn't want a cult picture like 'Evil Dead,' but something that would appeal to a mass audience, and so they ended up cutting out all the weird things and it ended up neither fish nor fowl."

Foul, actually, admitted Raimi, who sometimes refers to the film as "Slimewave." It ran (virtually unattended) for a week, and its only positive effect was to drive Raimi back to horror. If its predecessor was a combination haunted house and roller coaster ride, "Evil Dead II" was more of the same in overdrive, the electric version to the original's acoustic. Sharper, funnier, wilder and even more maniacal, it's in perpetual fast-forward.

"We were always afraid of boring the audience," Raimi said of "Evil Dead II" specifically and his films in general. "We wanted to keep them cooking, especially with the modern day audience. Our peers -- people who watch MTV -- have learned to accept input and interpret it much faster than audiences 20 years ago. Their film vocabulary is so much more advanced than their predecessors -- dissolves, wipes, time jumpcuts, montage sequences -- that they can absorb things visually faster."

"Darkman," based on an original story written by Sam and Ivan Raimi, is less about horror fantasy than about a real person in a horrible situation: A brilliant young scientist (Liam Neeson), close to a breakthrough in his research on synthetic skin, is hideously disfigured by ruthless criminals. Burned in a lab explosion and made insensate when a key nerve is severed at a hospital, he rebuilds his lab and uses the skin to achieve disguises that allow him to wreak appropriate vengeance. "It's not in the world of the supernatural," Raimi said, though the love-story subplot suggests that Darkman's genealogical tree includes the Shadow, Batman, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, a Beautyless Beast and the Invisible Man.

Storyboarded as a comic book (and soon to be released that way as well), "Darkman" feels like comic panels brought to life. Comic books, said Raimi, "use one frame to picture something in a bold representation that most clearly shows what's happening and has some drama to it, and that's what I did in this picture." While the camera work is less frenetic than his earlier films, Raimi said it's only because he wanted the audience pulled into the picture, not pushed around by it.

There's also the great Danny Elfman score, which may explain why Elfman gets close to top billing when the credits roll at the beginning.

"That's because he's the star of the film after Darkman," said Raimi. "I'm shocked musicians don't get higher billing, because music is the soul of a picture, especially in this film." Raimi and Elfman opted for a classic approach, "the score sweeping along with the visual images, without having sound effects hitting the audience over the head again and again."

Budget and ambition also enabled Raimi to work with more accomplished actors. Early direction, Raimi conceded, was decidedly simpler: " 'Okay, Bruce, run to the window, look back and see if there's any Evil Dead, and when the window shade flips up and you see the giant cockroach, take the gun and stick it down its throat and pull the trigger, then run away screaming.'

"In 'Darkman,' the story is more about characters than events, and they're no longer just cartoon characters, but real ones. It's more complex and it takes more time to establish the emotions and feelings of scenes, to motivate physical action, to set up transitions."

Raimi does not envision a "Darkman II," but his next film will definitely be "Evil Dead III," once again starring Bruce Campbell, who has a clever cameo in "Darkman." Picking up in the year 1300, where "II" left off, it may carry the subtitle "The Medieval Dead." It will not, says Raimi, be an X picture, but an R or possibly an A (for Adult, a rating stronger than R), should the new rating be applicable by then. "Hollywood is such a strange place," he said "that if we made another X rated picture now, they would probably never give us a chance to do a studio picture. In 'Darkman,' we want the audience to have a better time of it," he said. "Hopefully, a family can go and have fun with this film."

"At this point in my life," he said, "I don't want that much gore in it. I want more comedy and more horror."