Sunday, June 7, 2009

Drag Me To Hell (but try not to scratch the floors)

Thirty years ago a bunch of kids went out to the woods and a young director made a balls-out horror movie by hanging from the rafters, attaching to cameras to 2x4s and running with them, and (according to some rumors) attaching cameras to motorbikes and nearly running down actors.

The uneven mess that resulted (Evil Dead) made an impact. It created a genre. Inspired a generation. Accidental camp and genuinely effective moments created a uniquely harrowing experience. I'd say it launched a career, but it was 10 years before Sam Raimi got a shot at a real movie (Darkman).

He remade Evil Dead as the much better Evil Dead II, which substituted the accidental camp and amateurishness of the first with an almost bizarrely acute awareness of how horror and humor overlap, and how you could make an audience laugh, squirm and scream at the same time.

This distinguishes it from the grimly serious style of horror and the wisecracking style. This is the William Castle-style, the James Whale-style, and it's remarkably refreshing. Raimi may try to gross us out, but there's no sadism in his film. At the same time, he's never letting his characters out of the vice: they don't get to laugh along with us, no matter how absurd the situations. And there are are a lot of absurd situations here.

The funny thing is, Sam Raimi claims to not even like horror movies. (Hence the near complete transformation of the Evil Dead series to action/comedy in Evil Dead 3, Bruce Campbell vs the Army of Darkness.) But there were occasions to think he missed the genre: The stark presentation of A Simple Plan and the horror overtones of The Gift certainly suggested it, but nothing moreso than the use of his Evil Dead camera tricks and stylistic approaches for the surgery scene in the excellent Spiderman 2.

Well, most (but not all) of those tricks are present in Drag Me To Hell. In fact, there's a seance scene that could have been right out of the original movies, complete with a floating body, and vocal distortions saying a line very close to "I'll swallow your soul." (The only thing conspicuously missing is Raimi's trademark zoom-stop, where the camera zooms in and stops when something makes a big noise.) Which isn't to say he doesn't have a few new tricks in his repertoire.

Still one thing hasn't changed in three decades: Nothing is scarier than an old woman with cataracts who vomits goo.

So, what do we have here?

Christine Brown is a girl from down on the farm who's trying to make her way in the big city, and has made it to bank loan officer. She's landed rich guy psych professor Clay Dalton and she has a nice home in the Hollywood Hills. (A little too nice, I think, to be realistic. It's not big, but those places are expensive.) Her big problem is that her boss is considering new-guy suck-up for the position of Assistant Manager, because she's maybe a little too sweet.

Enter the old gypsy woman. Yeah, you heard me. Next to ancient Indian burial grounds, there's probably nothing more hack. But it's okay. This is a carinval ride: The point is not breaking new thematic ground but to scare you with the familiar. (A harder trick if you think about it.)

Anyway, the gypsy is behind on her payments and already has had two extensions. But Christine's manager leaves it to her: extend again or foreclose. I won't say what she decides to do here, but I will say she ends up with a curse on her. 'cause, you know, that's what the movie is about.

This is a tightly compressed movie where Christine ends up terrorized by an evil spirit (called the Lamia) and she's got three days to get rid of the curse or end up being dragged to Hell (do not pass go, do not collect $200). Along the way, she gets beaten up, terrorized, betrayed and rebuffed in attempt after attempt to make things right.

She looks for help among the gypsies, with a spiritual reader, and finally with the Lamia's old nemesis. The climax of the film has the previously mild-mannered Christine pushing herself to the limit to rid herself of this curse.

And then there's the "twist" ending. The Boy and I were of two minds about it. We both saw it coming. I saw the device they used to set it up, but got distracted by the expertise of the execution. He thought, "Well, this is how they all end," and so was just disappointed by it when it finally came.

So, we both agreed: Excellent movie, disappointing ending. Again, the execution here is top notch. It's just the way Raimi chose to end it was just very typical.

Still, hard to complain: Genuinely good horror movies are few and far between. This one was, in turn, scary, funny, clever, involving, suspenseful, squicky and just plain fun.

I've heard that Raimi was disappointed with the third Spiderman movie, and has said that he wasn't given the creative freedom he was given with the first two. And also that that would be his criteria for moving forward. I tend to believe that, and would rather have him make fewer and lower-budget films he has control over rather than lots of big budget films he doesn't.

Don't drag me to hell for saying so.


  1. I've heard a lot of good things about this. Dennis Miller was saying on his radio show that he really loved it. Can't wait to see it.

  2. It's definitely in the "Fun House" category. You don't get a lot of movies in this category. We saw one called "Autopsy" at the After Dark Horror Fest that was also pretty fun, within the budgetary constraints.

  3. I was also disappointed with the ending. Argh! I'm more disappointed today after having time to think about it than I was after I watched the movie last night. I just think it should have gone another way. Although I will say it was better this way than it would have been going with the ambiguous Hollywood horror movie ending (for some reason Michael Jackson's Thriller comes to mind).

    Other than that I enjoyed Raimi's treatment (send up) of horror movie cliches. In general it was very well done. Mrs. Ganesh is a great character, and I liked the interviews with the actress who played her, Lorna Raver, in the DVD extras.

    There was a lot of stuff in the DVD extras about the Indian psychic who aids her that I didn't get in the movie at all. Actor stuff, mostly.

    Anyway, good flick for playing with the viewer's sympathy in an interesting way. I mean, I have no sympathy for the evil gypsy bitch, but there was that kitten...

  4. Yeah, that was sort of unexpected, with the kitteh.

  5. Ok, still thinking about this movie, I'm going to risk ire and ridicule by saying that I now see the whole thing through the prism of race! Ha! It's a gothic subversion of white racial anxiety!

    The key for me was realizing that the Indian-ness of psychic was his most important quality, not all the mumbo jumbo the actor talked about in the DVD extras, like how his character has all this depth. There was no depth! He's a dark "other" (friendly for sure, but ultimately unhelpful) who bridges the heroine's white world (She grew up on a *farm* raising prize pigs! What's that about?! That's how white she is! And her boyfriend's parents--the epitome of white stereotypes: rich, cold, superficial) to that of the dark and mysterious world of...wise latina spiritual mediums and grotesque gypsy half-breeds.

    And the Asian dude at the bank who vexes our poor heroine? "Stu"? Ha! He was Asian coincidentally. He's closest to her world, but a traitor and ultimately a coward. Sort of the toxic opposite of the movie's other racial portrayals.

    Btw, I could this blog comment "Thngs I Learned at a Liberal Arts College".

  6. He was *not* Asian coincidentally.

  7. You know, I noticed that: It did seem like it was very much white versus non-white—not so much in some kind of profoundly deep post-racial-racial analytical way, but more in a
    "how many pre-PC horror movies does THIS remind you of"?

    Corny, but done with conviction.


Grab an umbrella. Unleash hell. Your mileage may vary. Results not typical. If swelling continues past four hours, consult a physician.