Drag Me to Hell (2009)Rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language.
Starring Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Adriana Barraza.
LVJeff's Rating: 7/10
Photo ©Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.
A Hell of a Show
Some artists may not like revisiting their old works and the material that helped establish their reputations, but happily Sam Raimi does not appear to have this hang-up. His new movie, Drag Me to Hell, is an out-and-out throwback to his beginning days as the director of the now cult horror classics, the films of the Evil Dead series. When I first watched The Evil Dead, the horror didn't hit me as much as the glee -- yes, glee -- there's no better way to put it. It was shot with a high spirit and what almost looked like reckless abandon. The monsters were outrageously over the top, the gore's splatter quotient was high, animation techniques were used, and absolutely nothing was sacred, and all not necessarily to say, "we'll scare you out of your wits," but almost more to say, "look, we're making a horror movie and we're having a hell of a good time, and so will you!"
That same spirit is in full evidence in Drag Me to Hell, a rather merciless fright show about an everyday bank loan officer named Christine (Alison Lohman) trying hard to get ahead who makes the mistake of getting on the bad side of an old gypsy woman desperately seeking an extension on her mortgage. The story is simple -- person receives a curse and tries to find a way to get rid of it -- but the curse itself, which takes the form of an ancient invisible demon, is the source of all the "fun." Well, it's no fun for poor Christine as she becomes the recipient of all manners of physical and gross-out attacks, but for those of us along for the ride, the evil demon might as well be that crazy ol' evil dead.
Raimi and his crew (which includes brother Ivan as co-screenwriter) call out their play before the movie begins by using the old Universal logo from the '70s/'80s -- this movie is meant to be old-fashioned, and it mostly pulls it off -- unfortunately, much of the computer-generated special effects lack the charm of the old low-budget approaches, which I might've preferred seeing. But no matter how it's done, the film is a string of set pieces designed to get rises from its audience, and there's also plenty of humor the whole way through. And Raimi isn't above "cheap" tricks of the trade here; in fact, he actually seems to revel in them -- jump edits to scary faces abound, increasing close-ups and music soundtrack crescendos ratchet the here-it-comes moments, and the camera whirls about to destabilize your bearings. Call this shamelessly old-fashioned, then, but they also go great with those moments when some kind of noxious element geysers on to our sad protagonist's face.
Raimi does pull off one slick trick, though, that distinguishes the film from his earlier horror entries -- we do get to know Christine pretty well here, which is more than anyone could say about Ash and his hapless friends who got stuck in the cabin in Evil Dead. They were just there to get beat up on; here, we actually kind of care about Christine. Maybe. She's just a normal gal, after all, who made an error in judgment, and is prone to human weaknesses. Lohman does a great job in making her empathetic.
One might say this increases the cynicism quotient here. The filmmakers may realize that horror has lost much of its bite these days because its characters are usually so disposable; also, they surely understand that their own film will elicit as many cheerful guffaws from horror afficionados as genuine scares from the relatively uninitiated. Filling out their protagonist actually introduces a dread behind the actions that occur to her. We become aware of the idea that what's happening here is pretty messed up -- it creates another level of involvement, a level of discomfort behind the so-called fun that too often lacks in other horror films.
And it does become more cynical -- after all, Drag Me to Hell seems to be pointing out that bad things can happen to regular people, and there may be no real justification for it. Or that it simply isn't worth it to cause hurt to someone else merely to gain a personal advantage. Or that a person can undercut her own innate goodness by caving in to any need to perform less-than-savory deeds. Or maybe it's none of those things -- it's just a set-up premise for various memorable horror scenes, including a fight with a gypsy in a parking garage and a seance involving a goat and a demonic possession. But it's also definitely Raimi going back to his roots, showing that he hasn't forgotten how to exercise his wickedly mischievous side to put on a hell of a show.
©Jeffrey Chen, May 26, 2009