Sunday, May 31, 2009

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Drag Me to Hell is director Sam Raimi’s return to his horror-comedy roots. In the late 80s, he found success with his super-low budget Evil Dead and a sequel, two grungy, spooky, ghoulishly giggly movies, not entirely effective, but grounded in a superbly goofy performance from Bruce Campbell. After those movies, Raimi moved on to bigger studio pictures (including a third Evil Dead) before landing at the center of the Spider-man series, with which he has made one good, one great, and one crummy movie, in that order. In Drag Me to Hell, Raimi directs with a sense of energy and fun. The movie’s devilishly clever, howlingly funny, and hysterically creepy. This is genre filmmaking at its finest, a perfect B-movie gem that allows Raimi (from a script co-written with his brother Ivan) to play with all aspects of filmmaking to get a response out of his audience.

From the opening notes of Christopher Young’s excellent score, I suspected I was going to like this movie. I didn’t think that I would love it as much as I did. Nor did I suspect that I would think it just might be my favorite Raimi film. After a brief prologue (with booming sound design and a great title card – I love the font and the way the title blasts onto the screen), we meet Alison Lohman who plays Christine Brown, the sweet, pretty, young loan officer, desperate to impress her boss to win a promotion and impress her boyfriend’s snooty parents to win their respect. She turns down an elderly woman’s request for yet another loan extension. The woman doesn’t take this well, to say the least, and, after attacking Christine after hours, curses her with a Gypsy curse that will subject the recipient to three days of torment before a demon will arrive to drag the person to hell. It’s certainly timely to have a movie center on torturing a banker (coincidence though, I hear), but it’s not self-damaging in tying itself to our particular time period. Besides, this isn’t one of those horror movies that mistakes leering at bodily harm for true fright.

So, Raimi has a ticking-clock scenario for urgency and three days of torment for plenty of scares. Once the curse takes effect, the sound design is pitched at a louder volume than expected. The wind whips, leaves rattle, pots clang, and footsteps boom through the surround sound with ferocious intent. At times it seems like a surround sound demo with clangs to the right, bangs to the left, clunks behind. Raimi will then toy with the audience by cutting back the sound, creating one of those lulls where it’s obvious that there will be a jump moment any second now. But then the lull will go on much longer than expected, stretched out to a squirmy length, until…BAM!

This is a movie that revels in making the audience jump, scream and squirm, not just with long lulls but with great gallons of goo for gross-out moments involving saliva, blood, formaldehyde, and undefined oozing, often landing in peoples' mouths. In fact, Lohman takes almost as much punishment in this movie as Campbell does in an Evil Dead picture. Well, not quite, but it’s heightened by her appearance of innocence. She’s constantly getting drenched in blood, mud, and bugs, not to mention slowly losing her mind to fear. Throughout the picture, she’s pushed to her limits. Her skeptic boyfriend (Justin Long) finds it odd that she wants to visit a psychic, but that’s just the first in a long line of boundary-pushing shifts that Lohman goes through. Animal sacrifice? (There are some funny jokes with this). Séance? (There is one, and it’s a great explosion of sound design and effects work. It’s funny and spooky, sometimes in the same instant). Who knows what she’ll decide to do to rid the curse? A great deal of the fun comes from seeing just how far she finds herself willing to go.

A great deal more of the fun comes from the comedy. Raimi shoots the film with a vivacious energy that launches the paranormal at the characters and the audience in a sly deadpan. Just look at the confidence and cool with which the movie ratchets up the ridiculous, like the matter-of-fact introduction of a goat, or the sudden appearance of a coffin while Lohman (and the camera and, by extension, we) are distracted. Look at the parking lot scuffle in which two characters engage, with the way a stapler, a ruler, and a pair of dentures becomes bizarre and intense weaponry. This is a movie that encourages you to laugh while you can because you never know when the sense of dread will be punctured again, if ever.

The thing that most elevates the movie above most other contemporary horror films, beyond the great, confident boldness of Raimi's craft, is the deep compassion that I felt for Lohman’s Christine. She’s not a perfect person – she’s not as entirely blameless as she might seem – but she’s wonderfully human, more than a pawn in a parable, grounded in an emotional reality that makes her an easy character with which to identify. Justin Long is equally human in his secondary role as the boyfriend. Together, they bring a real sense of tragedy to the proceedings. It’s one thing to fear for characters’ lives; it’s another to fear for their souls. Yet Raimi manages a tricky balancing act by allowing the film to be incredibly entertaining and very funny but also creepy and unsettling. The last scene of horror is especially frightening, and lingering. This is a great B-movie carnival ride with genuine chills and jumps, excellent tension, and fine jolts of comedy: fast and freaky funhouse perfection. I sure hope there’s a worthy sequel. Drag Me Back?

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