Saturday, June 6, 2009

Movie Review: Drag Me to Hell

You can almost hear Sam Raimi giggling in mischevious liberation in every frame of "Drag Me to Hell."

After a few serious dramas (including the brilliant "A Simple Plan") and then the blockbuster "Spider-Man" franchise, I'm sure fans who had followed Raimi through the "Evil Dead" franchise wondered whether he would ever let his ghoulish side out again or whether he could even capture the anarchic spirit of his self-christened "spook-a-blasts": films that mix terror, excitement and outlandish comedy. Certainly "Spider-man 3" hinted that the studio system had gotten to him, resulting in a weak, formulaic and dull entry in a series that had previously been a breath of fresh air.

And when it was announced that "Drag Me to Hell" would be a PG-13 studio entry, my fears were that Raimi had totally sold out--lending his name to horror without any teeth.

That's why it was such a great surprise to realize that if you replace the beautiful Allison Lohman with the chinerrific Bruce Campbell, "Drag Me to Hell" would make a perfect fourth entry in the "Evil Dead" series.

It also proved to me that as long as you keep light on the blood, sex and swearing, the MPAA will give a PG-13 to anything. Even a movie in which an old lady has her eye stapled shut and vomits bugs on a pretty young woman.

Christine Brown (Lohman) is a nice girl just trying to do her job as a loan officer at a bank. She's so nice, in fact, that her boyfriend's (Justin Long) parents wonder what a well-to-do young man sees in a former farm girl. She's also too nice to refuse loans, which puts her in jeopardy for a promotion at the bank.

Brown picks the wrong time to decide to assert herself, refusing a mortgage extension to an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver--who doesn't really ingratiate herself by emptying Brown's candy jar into her purse and taking her dentures out on her desk). The woman, feeling shamed, gets on her knees to beg...and then, after an altercation in the parking lot, places a curse on Christine. Christine will be tormented for three days by the Lamia, a cloven-hoofed demon who will, on the third day...drag her to hell (what did you THINK was going to happen in a movie called "Drag Me to Hell"?). We've seen the Lamia at work before in the film's prelude, in which Raimi proves he's not going to play by conventional rules by dragging an 8-year-old boy to hell.

Yes, it sounds absolutely cheesy and ridiculous. But Raimi, channeling his inner prankster, plays it not as a dark, foreboding horror film but more like a carnival haunted house, jolting the audience out of their seats, making them groan at some really grotesque gags (the formeldahyde sequence alone--which is not even a horror scene--had me laughing and trying to keep down my lunch at the same time) and then following it up with events so over-the-top and out-of-left field that the audience quickly switches from screams to laughs. One scene, in which Christine battles the reanimated corpse of the old woman in her shed, is basically set up so that Lohman can drop an anvil on the woman's head (because we all have anvils hanging from our ceiling, right?). Only Raimi could use his artistic freedom to set up a Looney Tunes gag...and make it work.

This isn't really a step forward for Raimi; it feels more like a cry of freedom after being mired in the studio system. This is the "Evil Dead" film he would have made on a big budget and, indeed, the film opens with the old school 1980s Universal Logo (this week's "Land of the Lost" opens the same way). His camera twists, turns and zooms at impossible angles and he plays the audience like a piano--yes, everything is absurd but Raimi's command of the camera and his skill in setting up set pieces is so strong that we never ask any questions. It's also refreshing to have a horror director who knows that there's a fine line between a scream and a laugh--"Drag Me to Hell" is scary and intense but it's always meant to be fun, unlike a lot of American horror these days. Raimi has a dark sense of humor and knows when to push the envelope (the fight in the parking lot is pure, unhinged Raimi) and when to draw back and let the audience's mind do the work (poor'll know what I mean). A seance late in the film's second Act is so over-the-top and energetic that I half expected it to be revealed that this was, in fact, a sequel to the Evil Dead series...items in a small room reanimate, demons zip from body to body, a goat talks and the entire scene plays as pure horror-comic bliss.

Raimi loves to put his stars through the ringer and he doesn't hold back on Lohman. She's more than willing to let Raimi toss her across the room, bash her into furniture and dump loads of gross fluids on her--there may be only one sequence with any blood in the film but Raimi goes full-out in the gross out realm, and it's a pleasure just to see how far he can go with the grossness and still keep it safely in PG-13 territory. Lohman's a sweet girl and yet Christine also has her moments of selfishness---again, there's the poor cat, and then a scene when she contemplates passing the curse onto innocent bystanders. It creates a nice tension for the audience--we want to see her escape...but we also don't mind seeing her get roughed up for her actions.

I'm not the first critic to point out that Raimi has basically made a morality play here. Christine has the chance to do something right at the beginning of the film. She doesn't do it and she spends the rest of the film suffering for that. And rather than try to make things right, she tries to get herself out of the situation...which only makes it worse. It's why Raimi can pull off a deliciously wicked twist in the final act and we're both shocked and yet, to be honest, a little giddy that he actually went that far. "Drag Me to Hell" is just that type of taps into our twisted sense of fun--that kind that enjoys seeing Wile E. Coyote fall off that cliff--and then makes us pay the price by jumping out of our seats).

Is this a great horror movie? I don't know...I was scared and I jumped but it's too fun to say I was horrified. But I don't think Raimi simply wanted to make a horror movie, but a great piece of entertainment, a summer roller coaster. And in that, he's succeeded...I'll gladly be dragged back to hell again.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.