9 June 2009

Review: Drag Me to Hell

As the 00's draw to a close, you could say they've been eventful for Sam Raimi. He's well and truly passed into the mainstream by directing the Spider-Man films, in stark contrast with his early days directing Darkman and of course the classic Evil Dead films. After the quite fairly lambasted Spider-Man 3, he's taken a little time out to return to horror by making Drag Me to Hell.

This is a film that seems to have flopped stateside, with most choosing to see Pixar's latest effort, Up, which was released on the same day (and I'm still dying to see it myself), and some of Raimi's more hardcore fans being alienated by what they see as a "tame" PG-13 rating. While the rule seems to be that PG-13 horror films are a contradiction in terms because they can't effectively scare you, the audience is in safe hands with Raimi. If you're looking for a quick summary of my thoughts on the film without looking through the whole post, that's it basically- horror fans are in safe hands, and Drag Me to Hell is definitely worth a watch.

But for everyone else, here's a review that contains a spoiler or two, but nothing crucial, storywise.


Who's in it?
Alison Lohman (Beowulf), Justin Long (He's Just Not That Into You), Lorna Raver (TV's Nip/Tuck), Dileep Rao (TV's Brothers and Sisters) and David Paymer (Ocean's Thirteen)

What's it all about? Christine Brown (Lohman) has a lot going for her with her boyfriend and her high-ranking job at a bank, but in an unguarded moment of selfishness, she incurs the wrath of an elderly gypsy woman, Mrs. Ganush (Raver), whose house she is forced to repossess. Consulting a seer (Rao) about her encounter with Ganush, she discovers she has been cursed with the Lamia, the most feared of all demons, and has three days to break the curse before the demon, you guessed it, drags her to hell for all eternity.

Any good? Sam Raimi's philosophy of horror owes much to his love of Three Stooges shorts. It's only in Evil Dead II that we start to see him leaning towards slapstick rather than the abject horror of its predecessor, and Army of Darkness became more comedy than horror, on balance. That worked in its favour in my opinion, as I reckon the films got progressively better, and now 17 years later, we have Drag Me to Hell, which dispenses slapstick and shocks in lashings to the audience. The first real confrontation between Christine and Mrs. Ganush is like a sickening version of Tom and Jerry- Tom bringing a hammer down on his own tail has been gruesomely and hilariously supplanted by Mrs. Ganush attempting to bite her quarry without her false teeth, resulting in Christine's chin being thoroughly gummed and covered in phlegm.

You may well have gathered from that alone that Lorna Raver is utterly disgusting, but the audience will love it. She's the best screen villain in a while, never mind the best horror villain. But the beauty of her character is in how she's mostly in the right- Alison Lohman's endearing performace as Christine makes us root for her, sure, but it's her one selfish act in pursuit of a promotion that's enough to get her cursed and send her down a path where she'll do terrible things to protect her own soul. Lohman gamely substitutes for the mighty Bruce Campbell here too, and is thrown this way and that in the pursuit of scares and laughter from the audience.

Another surprising aspect of Drag Me to Hell is how it puts one of the worse horror tropes to good use. A variety of jump scares are involved, as in the most generic of Hollywood horrors, but Sam Raimi appreciates the value of visuals as opposed to volume when scaring the shit out of an audience. The inevitable stabbing music chord accompanies most of the jumps, but sound is applied with dazzling effect throughout. The key reason to see this in the cinema, besides the reactions of the audience around you, is the sound- the sound system of any cinema will be put to good use by the film's occasionally deafening sound and music, designed specifically to make the audience uncomfortable, only to relent without anything happening. Three seconds later, just when you've relaxed, something does happen, and you'll hit the ceiling of the auditorium.

All of this is not to say that Drag Me to Hell is without its flaws- the dialogue isn't perfect and there's some occasional clunky exposition, and with all the best will in the world towards Justin Long, I can't quite believe that he's a professor at a university. This is the kind of thing that usually takes me out of a film, along the lines of believing Jessica Alba as one of the smartest women in the world in the Fantastic Four films, but Long's performance is as amiable as we've come to expect and so it didn't bother me too much. The other disappointment as far as dialogue goes is that it's just not as quotable as Army of Darkness. That film was jam-packed with lines that people have been quoting for the last 17 years, and perhaps the discrepancy here owes as much to Lohman being unable to match Bruce Campbell as it does to the script. That's not really a negative- no one can match Bruce Campbell, and I was disappointed not to see him in a cameo here.

Drag Me to Hell is one of the more inventive horrors to come out of a Hollywood that now seems pre-occupied with two types of horror film- the remake, and the "Ooh, kids are scary" film- and it's a must-see for any fan of Sam Raimi's work. It doesn't take itself massively seriously, and thus it's a funny and scary way to spend an evening at the cinema. Just don't piss off any gypsies on your way home.


Salutations, noble reader- I'm in the rare position of knowing for definite which films the next review post will cover. So come back next time for reviews of Terminator Salvation and 12 Rounds. I might chuck in another one if I see anything else between now and the next post.

Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch,

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