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.