Saturday, May 30, 2009
Anyone who is a fan of Sam Raimi's from his Evil Dead days has been waiting for him to return to horror. We were thrilled to see a DIY filmmaker like him break into the mainstream with Spider-Man but deep down we all wanted to see him return to his low budget indie roots. We've seen a few horror films produced by Raimi, most notably the U.S. version of The Grudge made by the film's Japanese director. But Raimi fans always held firm to the hope that Raimi himself would return to the genre. What endeared the Evil Dead films to fans was that they were so much fun and their whole DIY quality inspired us, leading admirers to think anyone could run out and make a movie. Raimi's early films had a bold sense of innovation from a young filmmaker who couldn't afford a steadicam so he mounted his camera on a two by four and ran with it. Well Raimi's not that low budget any more but Drag Me to Hell (opened May 29 throughout San Diego) does return Raimi to his roots and he seems to be having far more fun and providing the viewer with far more pleasure than he did in the last Spider-Man installment.
Drag Me to Hell serves up a simple horror premise: a curse that sends its victim to hell in three days. But during those three days the demon pursuing them will have a little bit of fun at their expense. The film delivers a brief prologue involving the demon taking a young boy. Then we jump to the present day and Christine (Alison Lohman), who longs for a promotion at her bank. Her boss (David Paymer) wants her to kiss his butt and not show too much compassion for clients applying for loans. He says the promotion could be hers but she has to able to "make tough decisions." So to prove herself, she goes against her impulses and turns down an old lady asking for an extension on her home loan. The old lady begs for help and Christine denies her. So she gets cursed and suddenly weird stuff starts to happen – she hears strange noises, gets thrown around her house by an unseen being, and I won't even explain what happens with insects. This particular curse calls upon a Lamia, a goat-demon from hell who takes three days to fully materialize and drag the victim literally to hell.
This premise provides Raimi with all the elements he needs for a horror comedy – a crazy lady witch, supernatural forces, and an innocent victim. But I have to warn viewers that the ads for the film are misleading, trying to pitch it as the scariest film you'll see this year. Anyone who's seen Raimi's Evil Dead films know that his specialty is splatstick, a form of gross-out horror and slapstick comedy, something akin to Looney Tunes or Tex Avery doing horror. In fact there's even a scene in Drag Me to Hell where Christine is attacked by the crazy lady and looks up to see an anvil tied to a rope in the ceiling of the garage and she cuts the rope to drop the anvil. That's Wile E. Coyote material and it's funny not scary. At the preview screening I sensed that some people didn't think they were supposed to laugh. But you definitely are. Just look at Raimi's Crimewave, a film he did with the Coen Brothers to see his penchant for cartoon exaggeration.
Raimi also packs Drag Me to Hell with gross-out gags and the most effectively unpleasant use of bodily fluids you'll find this year. This is not a film about subtle build up of tension with a clever pay off. Instead it's about shock gags punctuated by over the top sound effects and heavy-handed music, and delivered for the purposes of fun not fear. Drag Me to Hell is not chilling or scary as say a 28 Days Later or the atmospheric horror coming out of Japan and Korea are. There's actually more disturbing content in Raimi's crime drama A Simple Plan in which a bag of stolen money causes friends to turn on each other. I don't think Raimi's intent in his latest film is to scare the hell out of you but rather to give you a fun ride and Drag Me to Hell delivers exactly that. Plus you gotta love a film with a title like Drag Me to Hell.
The acting is what it is. Lohman tries too hard to be sweet and sincere. She starts to get the hang of it around the time of the delicious kitty joke but that's a little late. Justin Long as her rich boyfriend looks too young to be a professor and is a little too bland. The film really needs someone like Bruce Campbell (Ash in all the Evil Dead films) to set the tone and let everyone know it's okay to laugh at this horror.
There are a few disappointments in Drag Me to Hell. Raimi avoids his early signatures of Raimi cam, there's no Bruce Campbell (he was supposedly too busy with his TV show Burn Notice) and there's no brother Ted (he would have made a great old witch), and there's not a commitment to over the top craziness as in the Evil Dead, and that's a little sad. There's nothing particularly innovative here, nothing that grabs you with the wacky freshness of Evil Dead. But it's refreshing to see Raimi return to the genre that won him so many devoted fans.
Drag Me to Hell (rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language) might have been better if Raimi had gone for the R rating and not allowed the studio to market the film to a younger and potentially larger audience. But Drag Me to Hell serves up plenty of fun, like a cheap haunted house ride at a traveling carnival -- you know it's going to be cheesy but you go along for the ride anyway and take delight in its silliness.
Companion viewing: The Evil Dead, A Simple Plan, Darkman, Crimewave