Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Drag Me to Hell (2009)


How much better is Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell for having Alison Lohman as its lead actress rather than the early choice, Ellen Page? Lohman—who lent the impersonal Ridley Scott a lovely pathos in the otherwise mediocre Matchstick Men (2003)—was born in 1979 but she looks not a day over twenty-five and imports a vibrant youthfulness and little-girl giddiness and magnetism of a high school student. Page, by contrast, was born in 1987, yet she pollinates her work with an ever so slightly brash cynicism and despondency. Lohman radiates a welcoming patina to the men who share the screen with her; Page's subtle attitudinal negativism would suit a young woman with a worldview tinged by misandry. Page would probably have succeeded in the role of ascendant loan officer Christine Brown but she would have had an uphill climb—for Lohman, however, the role is ostensibly like playing a variation of herself.

Raimi's long absence from the unadulterated horror of his Evil Dead pictures has made the wait for Drag Me to Hell nearly unbearable. The payoff, however, is so grandiose that there is no fear of disappointment or letdown. Drag Me to Hell—as the title itself vociferously declares—is no halfbreed excursion into the mundane passing for direly rampaging terror: it is the real deal. Like Raimi's grin-inducing cult films, Drag Me to Hell is wacky and warped. Reprieves from the assaulting horror—most conspicuously whipped about on the big screen and in the cinema by the exuberantly impressive and Academy Award-worthy sound-editing and -mixing—are short and exist not to banally contrast with the thrills and chills as in all too many films belonging to the loosely-defined genre, but to inform it. Raimi's newest picture is a smashing, exhausting triumph because he and his screenwriting collaborator brother Ivan so consummately embed the everyday quotidian world of Christine's with the oncoming gypsy curse which threatens her at every turn.

Lohman's performance never drives the film, because Christine as a construct is intended to make pivotal choices and continually react. Some critics have perhaps docked Raimi points for this—they may raise their thumb in approval but quibble with some of the particulars. They have it backwards. As a horror film, Drag Me to Hell, while featuring a dazzling facade, is not truly unique. As a complete film, however, it is an enticingly intimate composition. Raimi's art, even when anchored and occasionally buried by cheesiness (The Quick and the Dead) or apathetic bloat (Spider-Man 3), beams through. It is academic to suggest that all of drama comes down to choices made by characters, but Raimi's particular—sometimes feverish—interest in the consequences of choices endows his films with an unusual heft for such a populist-minded filmmaker. Raimi's multifarious interpretations of morality and choice is an articulate, somewhat astral stand against rampant positivism. Raimi's characters are burdened by the inestimable accountability out of which their metaphorical bed is made.

Whether it be Peyton Westlake/Darkman or Peter Parker/Spider-Man, or the poor Mitchells of the melodramatically charged, deathly ashen A Simple Plan, Raimi's characters are in command of their own destinies, subjects to their own administration. They are infused with the culpability and original sin with which Catholics ceaselessly wrestle. Some critics may chide Raimi's “moralistic” approach—they are mistaken. As in the under-appreciated The Gift and the amiable but quite uneven For Love of the Game, Drag Me to Hell echoes beyond its running time because of the repercussions against which Christine, like Raimi protagonists before her, so tirelessly chafes. As rudimentary as Spider-Man's outstanding line of dialogue may in truth be (“With great power comes great responsibility...”) it remains potent—and in a vein deeper than materialistic or paternal noblesse oblige, which were the oversimplified readings of that film's tonal substance—in no small measure because Raimi is not a pedestrian journeyman ensuring the line readings were recorded; he believes the words.

Now opting for more visceral representations of that implication, Raimi allows the conveyed statement to reverberate with action. Christine's position at her bank is uncertain: she is desirous of a promotion but she must overcome the daunting obstacles of a weasely rival and the all too easily discerned air of sexism and buddy-buddy networking which plagues her professional life. On numerous planes, Christine is a symptomatic creature of modern American society. Gradually pushed to the brink of myriad possibilities such as taking shortcuts, fulfilling vengeance-laden gratification and aiming to please her fickle boss, Christine's journey is an enriching etching of feminine vim and dynamism set against the backdrop of a largely insensitive and hard-featured world. Lohman's sweetly angelic and innocent features italicize the Raimi brothers' point: the darkness of the world is always seeking out the beautiful for retribution, whether deserving of its presence or not.

The meshing of the most base elements of the corporeal and the unthinkable devastation of the otherworldly has rarely been this rivetingly staged. In Drag Me to Hell, bodily fluids, insects and varied repulsive creatures and pests ground the presence of inconceivable evil like the “pea soup” of The Exorcist. While the visages of the picture sometimes play out like grotesque freak show acts strung along together, they cumulatively inspire a level of fright that surpasses mere sensorial reaction. Raimi's manipulative tricks taken by themselves are not breathtaking; the final, haunting tableau they engender is. This is a major accomplishment for Raimi, who proves that his prolonged stint with elephantine budgets has not irreversibly diminished his keen cinematic senses.

Everything aforementioned handsomely buttresses Drag Me to Hell's delirious banquet of Raimi's self-proclaimed “spook-a-blast”; and at his best Raimi communicates to the viewer with wordless irony. Many scenes begin with a scare and conclude with a laugh, but there is a sensation of knowing attached to that laugh, which hurts. Pretty girls having nosebleeds has become a periodical staple of horror and science-fiction (any fan of The X-Files will attest to that) but Raimi pushes the accelerator all the way down to the floor (and in doing so proves that PG-13 need not be synonymous with toothless)—partly for the gasps and chuckles the more robustly animated mise-en-scene inspire but also because it is through the excellently explored absurd that reality finds itself most nakedly revealed. In this instance, a nosebleed becomes a Biblical flood, and a sight gag segues into primal, human fear. “Did any get in my mouth?” Christine's boss frantically asks. The fear itself is futile, as Raimi continually evidences: evil is already lodged within us, perpetually fighting to get out.

22 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Well, your deliriously favorable response to this deliciously terrifying film is warranted my friend. It's rare that a movie these days is genuinely scary and well-crafted, and this new Sam Raimi film is both. I saw this a few weeks ago at our local multiplex with my five kids, and they were all terrified to the point where they were constantly shielding their eyes. (and the older ones are not easily frightened). For me it is the scariest movie since the Australian film THE DESCENT, which released in 2005. But the two films are different in many ways, even though they are masterful at the surprise jolt.

I agree with you that this film is "wacky and warper" and that is largely wy it's so effective. The final hair-raising sequence in the grave with the rain falling is one of Raimi's greatest set pieces in any of his films. I will agree with you Alexander that this film is not remotely "unique" but the resurrection of the gypsy as a a variation on the hellish incantations he utilized in the Evil Dead films works spectacularly well, and as you say it's the real deal and it's compositions are hypnotizing.

But you pretty much say the bottom line earlier on in your review here:

"Raimi's newest picture is a smashing, exhausting triumph because he and his screenwriting collaborator brother Ivan so consummately embed the everyday quotidian world of Christine's with the oncoming gypsy curse which threatens her at every turn."

You really swing into high gear here, mid-way through your review:

"On numerous planes, Christine is a symptomatic creature of modern American society. Gradually pushed to the brink of myriad possibilities such as taking shortcuts, fulfilling vengeance-laden gratification and aiming to please her fickle boss, Christine's journey is an enriching etching of feminine vim and dynamism set against the backdrop of a largely insensitive and hard-featured world. Lohman's sweetly angelic and innocent features italicize the Raimi brothers' point: the darkness of the world is always seeking out the beautiful for retribution, whether deserving of its presence or not."

Superb insights. Actually most of your review pays special attention to Lohman's character, which I agree is the role that needs to work to avoid complete self-parody. I think Lohman is excellent, and was a far better choice than Page--an issue you broach at the outset.

And finally, there was descriptive fun to be had with your review:

"Drag Me to Hell, bodily fluids, insects and varied repulsive creatures and pests ground the presence of inconceivable evil like the “pea soup” of The Exorcist. While the visages of the picture sometimes play out like grotesque freak show acts strung along together, they cumulatively inspire a level of fright that surpasses mere sensorial reaction."

I really think you nailed it here. It's a triumphant piece, imbued with fervant appreciation and inform by superlative writing.

mc said...

Welcome back. I have missed your blog the past couple of months. I am not one to take in horror movies, and in reading your review, I'll make sure not to see this one either. But, I enjoyed your review, your insights and the unpredictablity of your blog. You are quite a writer.

Moses Hernandez said...

What a tour de force, Alexander! Great piece. I'm totally with you on this. I think it's a real fun and scary time at the movies. I also like the emphasis on character this movie has. The Evil Dead movies are great fun but to be totally honest I never cared what happened to anybody in them. Raimi makes you really care about Christine.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the tremendous response, Sam. I agree that Drag Me to Hell is one of the scarier films of recent memory and quite fun. I know your children were frightened and justifiably so!

And I concur with you, Sam, that the gypsy curse element helps to make the film function.

I also agree that the set-piece at the graveyard is one of Raimi's very best--tightly controlled and superbly paced, it's one of the strongest portions of the film.

It sounds like most agree that Lohman was the correct actress for this film. She was terrific.

Thank you again, Sam. I appreciate the kind words.

Thank you very much, MC. I'm glad you enjoyed the review even if you do not believe you could take in a film such as Drag Me to Hell. I greatly appreciate your comment.

Moses, thank you for the kind words as well. And I agree--Drag Me to Hell is a richer and more fulfilling experience than the Evil Dead films (I know some will find this to be blasphemy) and it has a great deal to do with what you are pointing to. The verisimilitude is rather piquant in Drag Me to Hell and the empathy is of a greater magnitude here than in Raimi's '80s films in my estimation. I'm not sure how popular an opinion that is, but there it is.

Thanks again, everyone.

tim watts said...

Sounds too scary but I'm ready to risk it now. Thank you for this most eloquent review, Alexander. And I love that you covered the film's thematic essence without spoiling it for any of us. Huzzah to you good sir.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you sincerely, Tim.

Books,Coffee,etc.... said...

Hi! Alexander,
I plan to send you,an email about this film and the Taking of Pelham
123.

Take care!
DeeDee ;-D

Alexander Coleman said...

Dark City Dame, thank you, I'll be sure to look when I awaken. Finally going to bed! :-)

Books,Coffee,etc.... said...

Hi! Alexander,
Wot?!?...You're not a "vampire" Just Kidding!
Take care!
DeeDee ;-D

Alexander Coleman said...

Haha, Dark City Dame.

Kevin J. Olson said...

You know my own love of this film well, and you're so right about Lohman as Christine being the right casting choice over Ellen Page. Page would (possibly) have failed in making this character that likable, flawed protagonist that reminds the viewer of a female Ash.

I still give the nod to Evil Dead 2 over this film, though. Mostly because of small quibbles like the CGI stuff making the film a little too cartoony (which is fine because I don't think Raimi is going for anything super-serious here, but I like the less polished effects of Evil Dead 2 better).

You're closing puts my thoughts on my blog to shame :)

Pretty girls having nosebleeds has become a periodical staple of horror and science-fiction (any fan of The X-Files will attest to that) but Raimi pushes the accelerator all the way down to the floor (and in doing so proves that PG-13 need not be synonymous with toothless)—partly for the gasps and chuckles the more robustly animated mise-en-scene inspire but also because it is through the excellently explored absurd that reality finds itself most nakedly revealed. In this instance, a nosebleed becomes a Biblical flood, and a sight gag segues into primal, human fear. “Did any get in my mouth?” Christine's boss frantically asks. The fear itself is futile, as Raimi continually evidences: evil is already lodged within us, perpetually fighting to get out.

What a brilliant passage to end on. I especially love the image of Raimi putting the "accelerator the floor" which is an apt description of how this film simultaneously fills you with a rush of glee and fear.

Great review, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Kevin, again for the fabulous comment and kind remarks.

Yes, Ellen Page, at twenty-two, incongruously seems much older; she's preternaturally cynical and above it all in much of her work. And that almost always works to her advantage; Lohman is entirely different, and was probably as good a choice for this role as anyone in Hollywood. Definitely a blessing in disguise for this film that there was such a casting change.

Terrific point about Lohman's Christine being a fair approximation of a fairer sex version of Ash. Fair enough, too that you still defer to Evil Dead 2. Seeing this film made me take a look at both Evil Deads again. Drag Me to Hell may be considered another step in Raimi's evolving maturation in its gender dynamics; he's come a long way from the phallic symbology of a raping tree branch accompanied by S&M-like vines. (This has continued from that moment onwards, perhaps, through such proto-feminist silliness as The Quick and the Dead, as well as the heightened sensitivity to female concerns in For Love of the Game and the Spider-Man films.)

On the subject of CGI, I have been a stalwart voice against its overuse, so I find myself nearly baffled by my practically complete acceptance of all of Raimi's CGI trickery in Drag Me to Hell. I love the practical effects of Evil Dead (which I must say is a terribly underrated film) and Evil Dead 2, though.

Thank you for the exceedingly kind comment about the review's wrap-up. Pish posh about it putting your piece to shame, however--I loved your right-to-the-heart take on the film, which fits perfectly with the material. Nevertheless, thank you again for the kind words.

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Hals said...

I found this film exceedingly cliched and a big-time bore. I love sci-fi (its one of my favorite genres as it is yours, and over the years I've celebrated THE FOUNTAIN, A.I., and GATTACA among others, not to mention the three you cite, 2001, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and SOLARIS) but this fiasco never came together. It was cryptic and muddled, and only Clint Mansell's exquisite score survived the debacle.

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I found this film exceedingly cliched and a big-time bore. I love sci-fi (its one of my favorite genres as it is yours, and over the years I've celebrated THE FOUNTAIN, A.I., and GATTACA among others, not to mention the three you cite, 2001, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and SOLARIS) but this fiasco never came together. It was cryptic and muddled, and only Clint Mansell's exquisite score survived the debacle.

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