Friday, May 29, 2009

Drag Me To Hell

As the star horror directors of the '70s and '80s have aged, fans have had to adjust their expectations when watching the latest efforts from icons like George Romero, John Carpenter, and Dario Argento. And by "adjust," I mean "drop altogether." I've liked some of the later work of all these gentlemen but as a horror fan, it's hard to accept that these artist's best days are behind them - especially when the genre needs them to be at their peak again. When I see junk like the Prom Night remake and The Unborn perpetrated on audiences, I'd like to believe that the horror masters we grew up on could rediscover their mojo and step in to save the day. Well, that fantasy is playing out right now with Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell.

If anyone thinks that Raimi's time spent bringing Marvel Comic's wall-crawling hero to the screen has softened his sensibilities, or that Drag's PG-13 rating is a sign that this isn't a movie for the hardcore fans, they'd be wrong. Drag Me To Hell is Raimi reclaiming the geek crown that got knocked off-kilter with his poorly received Spider-Man 3 (2007). This is a virtuoso performance that will single-handedly keep Raimi's reputation intact for at least another ten years. But don't expect Raimi to be coasting any time soon. Drag Me To Hell is the work of a hungry young director, not a middle-aged success story with nothing left to prove. It's bracing stuff, filled with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the kind of thrills that until now have belonged to another time.

The story of a bank loan officer (Alison Lohman) who denies a mortgage extension to the wrong gypsy woman and spends the next three days of her life looking for every possible way to escape a sentence to Hell itself, Drag Me To Hell is a simple tale, told with a master's knack for wringing the most out of every scene. It's essentially a Tales from the Crypt episode, with the same strident moralizing as the best of those stories, served up with extra helpings of maggots, blood, and other viscous fluids. It doesn't pave any new ground for the genre but it does confirm that even in a post-torture porn era, there's still a place for Raimi's brand of 'spook-a-blast' entertainment. That said, what I appreciated most about Drag Me To Hell is how mean-spirited a film Raimi has made. Even if Raimi is playing much of this with a grin, the outsized retribution visited upon this eager-to-succeed farm girl and how her ordeal changes her makes for a blisteringly bitter fable.

I'd like to think that it won't be just Raimi that's energized by Drag Me To Hell but everyone out there currently making horror movies. I just hope it won't be so long until Raimi decides to drag himself back to doing what he does best.


Marty said...

I liked the movie enough, and loved the ending, but can't help but think 'mean-spirited' is the wrong word to use here. The film is so fluffy and innocuous that Raimi allows no weight to any of the characters, thus their relative fates are of little interest to the audience (or, at least, to me).

It's clear that Raimi doesn't have a 'mean' bone in his directorial body (or at least broke them all after 'Evil Dead), so I'm not sure he's even capable of a truly successful horror movie any more. That's not to say that 'Drag Me To Hell' wasn't a movie successful... just one that, as you say, is a 'spook-a-blast'.

Timmy Crabcakes said...

Yeah, as you predicted DMTH has grown on me over the past day or so.
It didn't blow me away, but it's a good solid tale that easily stands above the other flotsam that has been making it to the screen.
I hope it does well enough to steer the horror train away from the torture porn... and encourage Raimi to make more.

Jeff Allard said...

Spoilers here, for folks who haven't seen DMTH yet...

Marty, I wouldn't use 'fluffy and innocuous' to describe a movie in which the main character decides to kill her pet kitten to save her own neck. I actually think this is far meaner than any of the Evil Deads as Raimi invites us to feel more sympathaty for Christine than he ever did to Ash, who he constantly portrayed as a buffon worthy of punishment. With Christine, there's some insight given into her struggles to prove herself to her boss, to her boyfriend's family, and to escape what she sees as her shameful past as a dumpy farm girl.

That Christine is so relentlessly hammered for her one transgression is pure Raimi - part of the 'mean streak' he typically shows towards his characters. Whenever you think Christine has had enough, Raimi finds more ways to torment her and no amount of mea culpa on her part can grant her a reprieve.

And Knob, I'm glad you warmed up to Drag a bit more! I have a feeling Drag will do 'ok' at the box office. Nothing more or less than that - although it'll still likely make more in its first weekend than the entire Evil Dead trilogy combined!

Marty said...

The kitten is a great example. It was played for laughs and clearly caused Christine little sadness. And I found it very telling that, from beating to beating, Christine never exhibited any scarring, bruising or, during each subsequent scene, seemed worse for wear (after the very first attack, for instance, a fat lip, her only injury from an attack that would've killed you or me, even disappears. If Raimi were a 'mean' director, these injuries would have been severe and long-lasting, resulting a crippled Christine by story's end).

Jeff Allard said...

In regards to Raimi portraying Christine's injuries, you're confusing "mean" with "medically accurate." If Raimi wasn't mean to his characters, he would've ultimately let Christine off the hook (as test audiences forced him to do to Ash after they rejected Raimi's original ending to Army of Darkness). He may not cripple Christine physically but he does force her to turn into a shrewder, more cold-blooded person in an effort to save herself. And that Raimi still pulls the rug out from under her one last time certainly rates as 'mean'.

Anonymous said...

I'd say it has more of a spook show mentality, where the frights are done in such a way as to play off of genre cliches with expert exuberance. About time, too. There's so much more available to horror directors than what you'd guess watching much of today's offerings. This gives me hope we're entering a new (old) cycle of scares that jolt tongue in cheek style.

Jeff Allard said...

It's definitely the kind of horror film that Raimi has a special knack for. I'd like to see others attemtping that same funhouse brand of scares but we'll see.