Drag Me to Hell(5/31/2009)

            This has been a pretty lame May for me movie-wise, I dug Star Trek but everything else that came out didn’t seem worth my time.  X-Men Origins: Wolverine looked like a blatant attempt to milk dry an already wounded series, Angels and Demons looked as stupid as the other Dan Brown properties, and Terminator: Salvation had a hack director whose intentions were only confirmed by the blatant sell-out of its PG-13 rating.  This trend of making movies PG-13 for no reason other than to make a little extra money is quickly becoming a major pet peeve of mine, I don’t demand extra sex, violence, and cursing but it’s indicative of a larger problem; one of trying to appeal to overly wide audiences and consequently making mild soulless movies made in marketing committees.  It’s beginning to seem like a PG-13 rating is like a stamp that has less to do with content and more to do with a lame attitude.  Shocking as that Terminator rating was, I was even more surprised when I learned that Sam Raimi’s new horror title, Drag Me to Hell, would also have this dreaded rating.  This shocked me first because this was supposed to be Raimi’s return to the hardcore and second because the film’s outlandish title seemed to indicate that this would be something that would revel in its content and wear a harder rating like a badge of honor.  I almost didn’t bother going to this, but unlike Terminator: Salvation, this still had a stellar director and solid reviews so I bit the bullet and went ahead to the movie.

            The film is about Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a loan officer at a bank branch in Southern California.  She’s good at her job, but her boss (David Paymer) feels that she’s been a bit too generous with people and is thinking about giving a big promotion to the suck-up rookie officer Stu (Reggie Lee).  Under pressure from the money chasing parents of her caring boyfriend (Justin Long), Christine sees an opportunity to prove she can make “tough decisions” when an old gypsy woman named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) comes into the bank asking for a not so reasonable extension on her sub-prime loan.  Christine denies the loan to the approval of her boss, but the gypsy feels she’s been shamed and makes a scene.  Later that day, the gypsy attacks Christine and places a curse on her… with spooky results.

            You did read that right, the villain of this is a gypsy curse… gypsy.  Do they even have gypsies in this country?  It doesn’t matter; this movie is obviously taking a campy approach to the genre.  The film reminded me a lot of the George Romero/Stephen King collaboration Creepshow, which was based on old EC comics.  This is a heightened world with heightened morality; Christine is punished for her immorality toward the gypsy woman in a very ironic way.  That the film can get very predictable at times, especially regarding the very last twist, sort of goes with the territory.  What Raimi does not do is go as far into the realm of tribute as something like Grindhouse, this doesn’t feel like it should be set in the fifties and the production values are just as good as the budget allows it to be.  I do question the sometimes excessive use of CGI and not very good CGI either.

            So how is Mr. Raimi going to scare anyone without gallons of plasma?  Well he’s going to makes stuff jump out at you unexpectedly… a lot.  You know those websites that people trick you into going to that make you focus on some sort of puzzle and concentrate before some sort of creepy picture suddenly pops out and a loud noise plays and sort of give you a heart attack?  The whole first act of this movie is sort of a chain of those sorts of scares, creepy things jump out at the character often accompanied by very loud music, these blatantly manipulative tricks have often been called the horror equivalent of a pie in the face, they’re effective but cheap.  Granted, Raimi does these more effectively than most filmmakers out there, but I expect a little more from him and for a decent portion of the movie I was afraid that was all I was going to get. 

Fortunately the film improves dramatically in the film’s third act where its inner Evil Dead kicks in and the curse begins to manifest itself in more tangible ways and Christine’s predicament starts to take precedent over the jump-scares which incidentally are becoming less effective around this point.  Many have said the movie is just as good without the blood, but I’m not as willing to give him a pass as some have been.  There is one scene in particular (it involves an anvil) which almost certainly would have benefited from legitimate splatter elements.  I’m sure this release is a big opportunity for Raimi’s horror shingle Ghosthouse Pictures, and he clearly wants to get as much money out of it as possible, but it’s clear he’s sacrificed the opportunity to make as much money as possible.  But is this really a wise decision even on a financial level?  I’d think the audience for something called “Drag Me to Hell” would want over the top violence.  Sometimes marketers are too busy chasing the 13-17 market that they forget that gore sells (just ask the producers of the Saw films) and you are sacrificing an audience when you do things like that.  Raimi tries to make up for this with material that is generically gross in a “Fear Factor” way without actual violence, but this mostly just comes across as crass.

A lot of people have been receiving Alison Lohman’s performance pretty negatively.  I’ve liked Alison Lohman’s work ever since her excellent performance in Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men.  Frankly, I think some people might be a bit too suspicious of attractive blonde women in horror films; maybe they just confused her with Lindsay Lohan whom Alison bears no relation.  I think Lohman portrays her character just fine; this is a broad performance in a genre film, it isn’t going to win Oscars or anything but it works for the film.  If anyone is annoying here it is almost certainly Justin Long.  I’ve had a firm dislike for Mr. Long for quite a while and this confirms all my suspicions.  Someone of this age being a University Professor is about as unlikely as Katie Holmes playing an ADA in Batman Begins (which isn’t to say such an achievement is impossible in either case).  Long just sort of plays himself, as he usually does.  More interesting is the work of Lorna Raver as the Gypsy woman, she totally commits to this crazy role and brings a lot to the project.

There’s a lot wrong with this movie… a Lot.  But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a very good time with it.  This in an unashamed B-movie in the classic sense of the word, and it is a whole lot of fun.  There are a lot of bad movies that claim to have a fun factor which overcomes whatever flaws they have; the problem is that they aren’t really fun they just think they are because they could cram a lot of special effects and explosions into every frame. Many reviews will compare this film to a rollercoaster, and rightfully so.  There’s a legitimate energy that makes you forget about the problems while you’re watching it, it’s one of the few movies that really earns the right to ask you to leave your brain at the door.  I saw it as a Sunday matinee and that’s probably the best place to experience it.  This probably needs a big screen and a great sound system to make the jump-scares really work, though I’m not sure I’d be happy to pay full price for it, it is a B-movie after all. 

*** Out of Four

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