Monday, June 15, 2009

In Theaters: Drag Me To Hell

Drag Me to Hell poster and IMPAwards link
These days it’s considered a bad sign when a horror film is released with a PG-13 rating; the assumption is not that the filmmakers have decided to be classy and restrained, but that they’re saving all the blood and gore for the DVD and gifting theatrical audiences with watered-down teenybopper fare. So it’s nice to see Sam Raimi not only return to the genre that kicked off his career, but do so with a fun shocker like DRAG ME TO HELL, which milks the- heck out of its rating, and is never anything less than over the top and insane. It’s nowhere near the schlocky heights of the Evil Dead films, but it’s an unpretentious and fun picture; audiences may not get that it’s supposed to be more than a little cheesy and silly, but, well, I just told you so it’s not like you have an excuse.

The film revolves around a particularly nasty gypsy curse, in which the victim, in possession of a hexed object, is carried off body and soul to the Underworld by a horrific demon called a lamia, after three days of psychological torture. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), an aspiring bank loan office, runs afoul of this curse when she denies an extension to an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) who makes a bit of a scene begging not to have her house taken away. One switch of a button later, and Christine is being set upon by shadows, visions of demons, flies, and various and sundry scary stuff. She’s doomed unless a local fortune teller (Dileep Rao) and her skeptical fiance (Justin “Giving Mac Users a Bad Image” Long) can help find a way to break the curse before her three days are up.

So, a simple plot, on which is hung a series of scare sequences that frequently switch off between frightening and funny. I don’t think the people in the theater when I saw this movie entirely got this; Universal promoted this as a straight horror film, and for a while it plays like one, but that’s never really been Raimi’s bag. There’s a lot of deliberate exaggeration, both in the shock sequences and in the everyday scenes; I suspect Sam and Ivan Raimi are drawing heavily on EC Comics and its gruesome, heavy-handed, but strangely sardonic morality plays. It’s a style that takes some getting used to, mainly because it hasn’t been dragged out in a while.

The difference between horror and comedy seems to boil down to how much we are driven to identify with the protagonist, and it’s here that the film pulls off an unusual balancing act. Christine is no innocent; she does a bad thing, and later is motivated more by self interest than by repentance. However, her situation is sympathetic, we understand how she came to make her decision, and on top of everything the curse just seems like excessive punishment, especially when we first see it employed on a young boy whose great sin was to snatch a necklace. I’ve seen a couple of complaints about how gypsies are portrayed in this film, and this does seem to paint them as almost, well, dickish, and the sheer awfulness of what’s happening does tend to put us on the main character’s side.

Of course, it helps that the main character is a sweet-looking young woman, and I have to give Lohman a lot of credit; the film puts her through the wringer in an almost Bruce Campbellian fashion, and she comports herself well. That she never fully loses our sympathy even after some ugly behavior gives the picture some genuine suspense. None of the performances are anything less than broad, but of course that’s the point.

Now, I’m not entirely sure about the ending of this picture; on one level, it’s as sensible a direction as any for the story to go, but it’s pretty telegraphed and frankly reminiscent of, well, every other horror movie of the past few years. It’s a trick that was edgy sometime around the late Sixties, but that edge has been dulled and I honestly wonder just how shocking it would really be if horror movies started doing the exact opposite. But again, I can see why they went that way this time around, so it’s not really a flaw.

(Hence ends my entry for the 2009 Vaguest Paragraph competition. I’ve got a good feeling about this year.)

I gave SPIDER-MAN 3 a good grade and remember well that I enjoyed it, though I honestly haven’t seen it since, so honestly I can’t say whether or not this is a return to form for Raimi. But it’s a nice project to see from him, a film that sets its own terms and succeeds on them even if it’s nothing close to what audiences expect. You’ve got about five days before this one disappears from theaters completely, so hop to it.

Written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi
Directed by Sam Raimi

Grade: B+

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