Monday, June 15, 2009

Drag Me to Hell / **** (R)

Christine Brown: Alison Lohman
Mrs. Ganush: Lorna Raver
Clay Dalton: Justin Long
Rham Jas: Dileep Rao
Mr. Jacks: David Paymer
Shaun San Dena: Adriana Barraza

Universal Pictures and Ghost House Pictures presents a movie directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi. Running time: 99 min. Rated R (for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language).

Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” relishes in what it is. It is a goofy, gory, funny, over the top, balls-to-the-wall, and genuinely scary, classic horror flick. It’s like what you might imagine a Dario Argento movie might look like if he were also a director capable of making one of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood history.

Raimi, as many people are aware, is responsible for the mega popular superhero series of “Spider-Man” movies (rumors about Spideys 4 and 5 have been flying around the Internet from the moment Raimi announced he would be back to helm them). He began humbly with a series of ultra-low budget horror movies known as the “Evil Dead” trilogy. “Drag Me to Hell” is his triumphant return to not only the genre, but also to the unique, vivacious, daring, and ultimately original style of filmmaking that he made his name on.

The screenplay by Raimi and his brother Ivan (who also shared screenwriting credits on “Spider-Man 3”, “Army of Darkness”, and “Darkman”) has a simple premise. A bright young thing offends an old gypsy hag, who curses the heroine. The curse calls for a demon to torment the poor girl for three days and then take her soul back to Hell. Not in my memory has such a simple horror premise been approached with such cinematic zeal by the filmmakers. Rarely is horror this much fun.

Christine Brown is a woman trying to rise above her station in life. She listens to enunciation lessons on her drive to work every day to rid herself of the southern drawl she gained growing up on a farm. She fights the career-climbing ladder at her bank job trying to win herself a big promotion. Her boss (David Paymer, “Ocean’s Thirteen”) tells her she must make tough decisions in a bank. With this in mind, she has no pity for a gypsy woman (television actress Lorna Raver) who has been given several payment extensions on her house loan and is now threatened with eviction. When Christine refuses the woman’s request for yet another extension, the old hag attacks her and puts a curse on her that will make all her little life problems seem insignificant.

The genius of Raimi’s effective vision can be easily observed in the parking garage scene in which the old lady places the curse on Christine. As she walks to her car after work, Christine notices the old lady’s car sitting across from her own. The tension builds during the first few moments in a very traditional way. This is a horror scene we’ve seen before, but soon it becomes clear that Raimi’s acute attention to detail will make this one of the more memorable scenes in recent horror history.

Notice that when Christine goes to unlock her door the internal door lock is already unlocked. Raimi brings no obvious attention to this fact, and it may even play as a gaff to audience members who aren’t paying attention when Christine has trouble unlocking the door. The reason she has trouble is because the door was already unlocked, but she never realizes that. Then the slow reveal of the old woman sitting in her back seat becomes one of the most sublimely chilling moments I’ve seen. Raimi suddenly takes the scene in a new direction as the two women have a fight so brutal it might make Quentin Tarantino cringe. Again, Raimi’s attention to detail during this fight adds new dimension to what we are witnessing. The staple popping out of the old woman’s eyelid is one moment not to be easily forgotten.

Although, like many supernatural terror victims Christine is alone in her suffering from this monstrous curse, people who actually notice that something is very wrong surround her. The Raimi’s don’t make the mistake of alienating their heroine by having her friends dismiss what is happening to her as nonsense. Her boyfriend, Clay (Justine Long, “Live Free or Die Hard”), is willing to take her to a seer even though he doesn’t believe in the supernatural. While he faithfully stands behind her in her time of crisis, his parents present possibly a greater terror to Christine than the demon that is stalking her.

Alison Lohman, perhaps best known as the kid who conned one of the best in Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men”, may seem muted in her performance as Christine at first, but this stoicism plays well into the harrowing journey her character will take as she is terrorized by her curse. Notice how subtly her attitude has changed by the end of the movie. In a scene where she struggles against the lifeless corpse of the old lady in a grave, she has a look of satisfaction on her face as she exacts her own form of revenge against the dead gypsy. It would be easy to play these situations over the top, but with Raimi’s often over the top direction, such a prospect for the acting could be disastrous.

Raimi also respects his characters. None of the humor, and there is a great deal of humor to be found in this horror movie, is taken at the characters’ expense. Raimi’s humor develops from the situations and his own zeal for literally eye-popping effects. Look at how often our heroine is forced to ingest something disgusting. The list of things that find their way into Christine’s mouth include a fly, embalming fluid, maggots, grave water and a decaying corpse’s fist.

“Drag Me to Hell” is one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve had. With horror films at their height of popularity, a great many moviegoers are seeing many horror movies. Few horror films seem to be in it for the fun of going to the cinema, however. While it is important for horror to carry the weight of their situations to convey their terror, Raimi has found a way to tell a scary story and acknowledge the absurdity of what the audience is witnessing at the same time. Perhaps he is a little too fixated on the oral ingestion of disgusting things, but he certainly knows how to make you squirm.

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