Sunday, June 7, 2009

Going Willingly: Drag Me To Hell

I am not the target audience for Drag Me To Hell, let’s get that out of the way. I’m as ignorant of the horror genre as I am indifferent to it. I understand the allure of a scary movie in principle – being terrified, clutching the person next to you (or being clutched), chewing through your Junior Mints box and then walking away with some kind of cathartic survivor’s high – it’s just not something I yearn for. I’d love to come off macho and say that I’m not easily frightened, but in fact the opposite is true. Scary movies scare the shit out of me. They don’t give me nightmares, nor do they make me afraid to walk down dark alleys in the middle of the night (even in cases when caution would be wise), but within the friendly confines of the movie theater, where I know that the only real danger is having someone’s drink spilled on me, I am petrified. When the defenseless pretty girl walks down the too-quiet hallway I Do Not Want To Look, which is problematic when you’re someone who, you know, likes watching movies.

But despite all the reasons I shouldn’t, or at least usually wouldn’t, I enjoyed Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. I liked the parts when I was too scared to look. I liked the parts when I was scared and looked anyway. And I especially liked the parts when I looked, then looked away and then looked again, forcing my eyes to the screen not out of obligation but because I genuinely wanted to see what was going on. To my fright-averse mind, that’s the main ingredient separating Drag Me To Hell from the gruesome torture porn flicks or the black-water-soaked J-horror flicks or the ubiquitous unrelenting-masked-killer flicks. Simply put, this movie, written by Sam and Ivan Raimi, has an appealing story that I found myself caring about. If that makes me sound like the square recommending a Jenna Jameson film for its plot, so be it. Where shocks and monsters and chainsaws are concerned, I am admittedly something of a prude. But fear not, horror perverts; Drag Me To Hell comes through with all the sweaty thrills and chills that make you horny, baby. At least, I think it does.

Raimi’s film is stimuli potpourri. It’s packed with scenes of drawn-out tension and quick out-of-nowhere scares. It is slathered in B-movie gore, ejaculating blood or Nickelodeon-esque slime from multiple orifices. It is infused with creepy haunted house staples – gypsies, seers, spells and sacrifices. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, eliciting amusement in the style of Will Ferrell in his underwear – because the humor is so nakedly and proudly lowbrow. We laugh, and then we laugh at ourselves for laughing, for succumbing to such adolescent absurdity that we like to pretend we’ve outgrown. It’s refreshing. Drag Me To Hell might as well run under a banner disclaimer saying, “It’s only a movie; enjoy yourself.” And we do. Telling the story of Christine (Alison Lohman), a SoCal transplant from farm stock who winds up cursed by an old gypsy with disgusting dentures and unmatching eyes (Lorna Raver), Raimi’s film is both participatory and voyeuristic. Whereas in forgettable horror films the characters are mere bait, luring the audience into a jump-in-your-seat trap, here Christine is more than an audience surrogate. As she endures all sorts of terror and trauma, as she is driven to extremes (“Here, kitty, kitty…”), we are made to feel for her plight even more than our own. That’s what’s great about it.

If there’s a significant fault with Drag Me To Hell it’s that, for all its lightheartedness and joyful spunk, it can’t escape the limitations of its genre. Alas, there are only so many ways things can go bump in the night. There are only so many ways a pretty girl can back away in fear only to turn around into the face of the very danger she is trying to avoid. There are only so many times that a door or curtain can surprise us with what’s on the other side. At some point, these gimmicks lose their effectiveness. Raimi’s picture uses all of these already-familiar tricks repeatedly. Sometimes the shear force with which Raimi’s jack-in-the-box explodes is still enough to make us recoil, but all that hand-cranking is nevertheless monotonous. That said, Drag Me To Hell isn’t without surprises. An early battle royale between Christine and the gypsy that’s staged in a car and utilizes office supplies as weapons is tremendous for the way it balances humor with horror, panic with playfulness. Raimi’s film dances to its own mischievous beat.

And what a beat it is! If you’re going to see this movie, you’re cheating yourself if you don’t see it in the theater. Fright-fests have always played better to the energy of a crowd, of course; that’s a given. But the more significant reason to head to the multiplex is to be immersed in the speaker-shattering ambiance achieved by the sound designer (Paul N.J. Ottoson). At its most awesomely catastrophic moments, Drag Me To Hell vibrates as if the ground might part and swallow the audience along with the damned. Here is a movie that frequently manifests evil in the form of menacing winds, and yet, thanks to the force of the acoustics, the danger is visceral. (M. Night? Are you paying attention?) Here is a movie so loud that you won’t care that the teenagers in front of you talk throughout whole fucking thing. (Kids? Are you paying attention?) Raimi’s film has visual effects, too, expensive ones, and all of them are effective, not because they are showstoppers but precisely because they are not; the effects serve the story rather than replacing it. (Michael Bay? Are you paying attention?)

For all that it has going for it, I suspect that horror diehards will find much to dislike in this picture. (Perhaps my outsider’s appreciation is the proverbial canary in the mineshaft.) Drag Me To Hell is rated PG-13, it should be noted, which will make genre purists skeptical from the jump. But unless braless women, teary-eyed terror and power-tool executions are essential ingredients to horror, it’s hard to figure what Drag Me To Hell could be missing. Seems to me that the only reason that Raimi’s picture is PG-13 instead of R is because of how tepid it is compared to the Saw movies, which are R when they should be NC-17. What Raimi’s picture sacrifices in gore it makes up for with general slapsticky (but still absolutely icky) grossness. Drag Me To Hell doesn’t rival the suspense or exhilaration of The Descent – the best horror film I’ve been brave enough to see in recent years – but who says is has to? Instead of being a typical horror yarn with a woman who can’t get away from merciless evil, Drag Me To Hell is a story about a young woman who for three days can’t catch a break. That’s a hell-on-Earth to which all of us can relate.


Hokahey said...

Like you, I'm not a big fan of the horror genre. I'm not into teen slashers, nor do I care for torture horror. I don't mind a little humor with my horror, but I prefer horror that's more on the intense, serious, and gripping side. My favorites of the past ten years have been Stigmata, The Ring, The Descent, and The Ruins.

As for Drag Me To Hell, my favorite thing about it is the title. Next, I liked some of the humor, but the silliness cut the intensity. Also, I found myself gripping my chair not because I was in suspense but because I expected something ridiculously disgusting - such as when the old hag's eyes pop out when she's hit by the anvil that is conveniently hanging from a pulley overhead. (Actually, the most horrifying part in the film comes when the hag takes her slimy teeth out of her mouth and puts them on the desk.)

My mind wandered at times - some of the lulls between frights went on too long. I liked Christine's struggle with the corpse in the flooding grave, but then the misplaced button seemed so obvious and anti-climactic.

FilmDr said...

There is something refreshing about a low-brow horror film that revels in its trashy effects. The only other relatively recent movie of its type may be Slither, or perhaps The Strangers, yet while the latter did not mind getting completely sadistic by the end, Drag Me to Hell stays oddly innocent in spite of its concentrated sense of doom. Raimi may be perfecting ironic horror-lite.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Wow -- great review. As a huge horror buff I couldn't agree with you more about the sad state the genre is in. I remember writing a couple weeks ago on my blog how I was really looking forward to this film because it looked like Raimi was making horror films fun again.

Sadly, as you so brilliantly state in your final paragraph, those that call themselves horror fans will balk at this because it's PG-13, but really, Evil Dead 2 would be PG-13 by today's standards. The rating should not dictate how scary a film is. Blood and guts and torture of innocent young women does not equate to scary, yet the current slew of Saw and Hostel films would have you believing otherwise.

You're correct in naming The Descent as one of the best modern horror films. It's a perfect example of how if it's in the right hands, the genre can be elevated to higher levels; rising above the stalk and slash drek that gets passed off as horror these days.

I haven't caught Drag Me to Hell, yet, but when I do I'm sure it'll be a fun experience that takes pleasure in scaring people with legit horror tactics, rather than gross out methods that just depress the viewer (and really you can trace that methodology all the way back to the overrated The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

I would like to second what FilmDr's recommendation of The Stranger's...a film that you should turn off with about 20 minuetes to go as it sadly succumbs the siren song of torture porn = box office. However, the first 2/3 of that film are a perfect example of how horror can be scary by using brilliant sound editing and staging. There isn't a drop of sadism or gore in the film until it all unravels at the end and makes you forget all the good ways it scared you.

Anyway, great review about a film that sounds like the horror genre has been looking for (genuine scares, humor, the silliness that is inevitable when thinking about a horror movies plot, etc.), and is in dire need of. I can't wait to see this.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Hokahey: I, too, found the plot wrinkle involving the misplaced button to be incredibly obvious, but, emotionally speaking, I didn't find the film anticlimactic. Yes, I knew what was going to happen, but I still felt for Christine. As for the ridiculously disgusting visuals -- there were a lot of them -- I took those to be visual jokes, part of its lowbrow charm. The same gags wouldn't work in every film, but they're effective here.

FilmDr: I can't promise that Slither or The Strangers will go to the top of my Netflix queue, but I appreciate the recommendations. Horror will never be my favorite genre, but I don't mind seeing the fun stuff.

Kevin: Thanks for the great comment. I always figured that the torture porn films were inspired by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but, being mostly ignorant of the genre, I never knew for sure. I suppose even those films have their charms, but the race to be the most disturbingly sadistic film ever has to have a limit at some point, right? Right? I hope so.

I'm glad that people confirm the excellence of The Descent. I saw that twice in the theater and I've watched my DVD at least twice. It's still fun.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the catalyst...also The Hills Have Eyes and the ugly Last House on the Left. It should surprise no one that those three films have been remade for modern horror audiences, because that's the kind of horror they want to see.

I think TCM has its moments, but that unrelenting sadism in the film is nauseating. The only kinds of films like that have elements of the disturbing deaths found in torture porn that I find myself enjoying are those of Italian masters Mario Bava and Dario Argento; who both made a name for themselves with the gaillo, or black gloved killer, films. These were cruel, sometimes sadistic films, but they were made with panache. They were aware of what they were juxtaposing the gruesome deaths with, and the Italian films always seemed indebted to Hitchcock and his theory about a bomb underneath someone's chair in mamovie theater...these Italian horror films were actually scary and intense.

America ripped off a lot of Argento and Bava's ideas and decided to replace that style with "gritty realism", creating films that are just nihilistic chores to sit through. Bleh.

In fact, I may be one of only self-proclaimed horror aficionados who doesn't like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

And yes, Neil Marshall's The Descent is a hundred times better on DVD than it was in the theater, and it was pretty dang good in the theater. I'd recommend his fun, Predator-like debut Dog Soldiers. Just a goofy straight to DVD movie, but it has a tremendous cult following.

Hokahey said...

Yeah, Dog Soldiers is my kind of horror movie.

Fox said...

Eek... I have to disagree with you fellas on Dog Soldiers.

That was a difficult movie for me to watch and the reason for that was the dreadful editing. I hated second and third Bourne movies for this reason as well, but Dog Soldiers was herky-jerky on a whole new level. I felt the same way about Marshall's Doomsday, which was also audiably irritating.

Kevin J. Olson said...


I'm with ya on Doomsday. Myabe I just disregarded the poor editing in Dog Soldiers because I was having so much fun watching it. Doomsday on the other hand didn't have a single humerous bone in its body. Which is too bad, because I think Marshall is a talented horror director. I'm interested in seeing where he goes next, because really, Doomsday was a failure on almost every level of filmmaking. (But I also don't dig the post-apocalyptic genre that much, so that may have had something to do with me not liking the movie.)

Alvy Singer said...

I'm not a fan of Michael Bay, but I have to say that this "Michael Bay? Are you paying attention?" is very easy to say and very unfair of something that has such a smart and classy and sometimes brilliant cinema weblog.

Be fair. Read the John Updike's critic decalogue. You are condemning Michael Bay for something that he never pretend: tell you a great story.

Well, he actually pretended that in Armageddon, in the inmoral Pearl Harbour, The Island and failed. In the Rock sometimes, but the action was the drive.

But in Transformers, and I'm not an enthusiast, and Bad Boys 2 he doesn't want to tell you a story. He is doing his movie with all form, effects, loud and car that becames robots fighting. It isn't his intention.