Friday, November 06, 2009
DRAG ME TO HELL
by Brian Holcomb
The poster says "From The Director of SPIDER-MAN" but this is really from the director of EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, a filmmaker who has been MIA for a long time. Since the mid '90s, Sam Raimi has spent his career auditioning for and then reaching the "A" list of Hollywood directors. This is how the very quirky, handmade style of films such as The Evil Dead, DARKMAN and even The Quick and the Dead suddenly gave way to the incredibly impersonal style of both A Simple Plan and the maudlin sports opera For Love of the Game. Those were films which could've been directed by virtually anyone-put James Mangold (Copland, Kate and Leopold) behind the camera on either of them and not much would be different. Perhaps they would even be better since Mangold wouldn't be faking it. While A Simple Plan still had its moments of dark humor and well crafted tension, For Love of the Game expressed little but directorial boredom. For a man who invented a rig called the "Shaki-cam" in order to best depict the POV of a demon, over the shoulder shots and close-ups of talking heads were definitely a step back. They were what Alfred Hitchcock called "photographs of people talking".
Both films are examples of the "well-made play" crafted as invisibly as possible. In providing unchallenging, easy entertainment, these films proved to the Hollywood industry that Raimi could make 'em as dull as anyone else. That he could be controlled. Raimi had become just the man that an expensive franchise like the Spider-Man films needed. The studio could count on his visual imagination to give the action some punch secure in the knowledge that he would play ball with the front office. That said, the Spider-Man films were mostly great fun. Especially the first sequel which seemed to express much more of Raimi's mischievous personality. The less said about the third film in the series the better except that its best scene has Bruce Campbell stopping the movie dead as a surreal waiter-a scene that looks like something out of Raimi's early Super-8mm work.
While that was merely a throwaway return to an earlier style, it may have been an indication of Raimi's mindset at the time of production-perhaps stirring his desire to return to something smaller and more personal. For most filmmakers, "smaller and personal" means a character drama or indie talkfest but for Raimi this meant FILMMAKING. A return to a genre which requires more cinematic skill than any other and inspires a full expression of style and playfulness. Digging up a script written with his brother Ivan around the time of Army of Darkness, Raimi has made what must be his best film in years, the surprisingly smart and exciting DRAG ME TO HELL.
The Universal Studios logo that opens the film is a real tip-off to the film's personal meaning. It isn't the current logo but one that dates from the time Raimi got his start as a filmmaker. I remember growing up in the '70s and '80s and dreaming of making a film that would open with the classic MCA-Universal globe that preceeded the films of so many of my favorite filmmakers from Hitchcock to Spielberg and Landis. It was a corporate signature to be sure-the world spinning on the tip of Lew Wassermann's finger-but it usually meant GENRE as this was Universal's specialty and seeing it instantly sparks my imagination with thoughts of the exciting film to follow-The Birds, Duel, Animal House, The Sting, Back to the Future, or An American Werewolf in London. MOVIES.
This is what DRAG ME TO HELL is all about and you can feel Raimi's excitement coming through the screen to grab your throat. But the best thing is that the film is not just a throwback but a realization. This isn't some attempt to merely recapture a retro feel and in fact I don't think Raimi could've made this film so well in the '80s. While it has the energy and the endless cinematic invention of his early work, the film's command of economical storytelling is something that once eluded him. There is a command over the ENTIRE film from story to character to effect that makes the whole thing integrated which is a culmination of all the work Raimi has done over the years. It is a work of maturity that can still express itself childishly. Which is what an old fashioned scary movie needs to do and this film is gloriously old fashioned as it feels like something William Castle would've made in the mid 60s or some alternate reality remake of NIGHT OF THE DEMON starring Vincent Price. In fact, NIGHT OF THE DEMON haunts the whole film from the three day "death sentence" and the "woodcut demon" design of the "Lamia" to the film's train station climax.
Former "Pork Queen Fair" farmgirl Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) has come a long way from her roots. She practices her speech and diction while driving to her bank job each morning and struggles to establish herself among her male colleagues. Both her boss (David Paymer) and her rival for the much wanted assistant manager's position (Reggie Lee) seem to exclude her from their boy's club. To prove her grit, she decides to turn down nasty old Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) for an extension on her mortgage payment which, of course, means that she will lose her house. Unfortunately, Mrs. Ganush doesn't only look like Bela Lugosi, she is also some kind of old witch and Christine soon finds herself on the other end of a terrible curse that will literally "drag her to hell" in three days time. Neither the help of a fortune teller (Dileep Rao) who accepts American Express nor the truly unending support of her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) can save her.
The script by the Raimis does an effective job of establishing a strong lead character and Alison Lohman is excellent in the role, finally playing a character close to her actual age. The film's production design has the clean studio backlot feel of Henry Bumstead's work on films like To Kill A Mockingbird while Christopher Young's score channels Bernard Herrman as well as the very particular violin riffs of Jerry Goldsmith's work for '60s TV programs like Thriller and The Twilight Zone. In jokes abound from the cameo by Raimi's classic EVIL DEAD Oldsmobile, having Justin Long surrounded by MAC products to the name of David Paymer's character "James Jacks", a well known Universal Studios producer and friend of Sam Raimi. Altogether there is an air of comfort and control throughout. The feeling that the director has nothing to prove and is just having fun.
Raimi teaches an entire generation how to make full use of the PG-13 rating-the film is released to DVD with both the theatrical and Unrated cuts included but as another example of his growth as a filmmaker the difference between the two are mere seconds and not of gore but rather character. The Unrated version is actually SHORTER-cutting a few frames away that show Christine looking remorseful for killing her cat. In the Unrated version, Christine just wants to survive and has reached a point where her furry friend has to go. Raimi seems to go a bit "off the rails" during the train station climax with some Tales from the Crypt obligation for a grim twist. After investing 2 hours of time with Christine it seemed rather cynical to drag her off to hell. Especially in a film that is mostly jokey. But then again, the film IS called DRAG ME TO HELL.
CAST: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee, Molly Cheek, Bojana Novakovic, Kevin Foster, Alexis Cruz, Ruth Livier, Shiloh Selassie, Flor de Maria Chahua
DIRECTOR: Sam Raimi
RUNNING TIME:(Unrated version) 99 minutes