Friday, June 19, 2009

Review: Drag Me to Hell

Drag Me to Hell (2009, Sam Raimi)

After a thrilling ride with the Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi returns to his so called ‘roots’ by delivering movie goers a horror film with a heavy dose of comedy. Or maybe the proper categorization is saying it’s a comedy with a heavy dose of horror. You know, I doubt it matters much. Raimi fans, if you’re reading this, I’m you know what I mean. It’s a movie with gore, shocks and laughs. I got that part right at least, correct? Many people, movie buffs and critics alike, were pleasantly surprised with how of the first Spider-Man film turned out. It was colourful, funny and had interesting characters. This was from the bloke who made those Evil Dead movies? It’s widely accepted that he even surpassed himself with Spider-Man 2, bringing that franchise to even greater heights (even though this reviewer, while enjoying the sequel, doesn’t quite agree with such intense a sentiment). Alas, such a good ride couldn’t last forever, and when Spider-Man 3 was released, fans scolded Raimi for losing his way with the franchise. After such a poorly received film (and again I’m a bit of a contrarian in thinking that the third entry really isn’t that bad), the director opted to make a movie reminiscent of those that brought him success and fame originally.

Drag Me to Hell stars Alison Lohman as Christine, a sweet and pretty bank employee who deals with mortgage loans. She is currently vying for a much higher position in her company, but must contend for the favour of her boss (David Paymer) with a newcomer to the bank, the slimy and devious Stu (Reggie Lee). Her boyfriend (Justin Long) is deeply in love with her, but his mother disapproves of the relationship. Things don’t get any better when Mrs. Ganush, a sickly old woman, shows up to Christine’s desk one morning asking for a third mortgage extension. Christine knows that to earn that new position she wants at her branch, she needs to make the ‘tough decisions.’ She refuses Mrs. Ganush the extension, even after the hideous old hag pleads before her and everyone else present. Later that day, as Christine walks to her car in the basement parking lot, she is viciously attacked by Mrs. Ganush, who clearly possesses some kind of superhuman abilities. Before Christine can get away, Mrs. Ganush puts a curse on her, only later to be revealed as a curse that will send poor, sweet Christine to hell to be burned for all eternity.

If this sounds silly, rest assured, that’s the point. Raimi wants to have fun and invites the audience to join along. Very, and I mean very few scenes are played straight. Not being very familiar with the director’s previous work, Spider-Man trilogy notwithstanding, I wasn’t sure what to expect exactly, but the buzz surrounding the film upon its release was resoundingly positive, mostly due to its light hearted elements, something unsuspecting people who only know the film from its trailer might not get (the trailer makes the movie look like a more traditional ‘scary’ horror movie). The buzz wasn’t wrong about the film not taking itself too seriously. I laughed far, far more than I expected to. At times the comedy came from a bit of dialogue while during other scenes it had more to do with the ridiculous setups and situations Christine would get herself in. What surprised me was the care that went into the writing of Chrstine. There are a lot of little details about her actions and behaviours that made her a pretty interesting character. She’s a sweet pie on the surface, but the film provides hints of some deeper insecurities that haunt her. The disapproval of her boyfriend’s mother is a cause for stress, as is her intentional efforts to let go of her past, when she lived on a farm, was a chubby little girl and ‘talked differently.’ There is a clever scene, very brief, near the beginning when Christine is heading to work and passes by a bakery. She looks through the window, gushing at the delicious pastries inside, only to suddenly turn sharply around, struggling her very best to avoid the temptation. It probably lasts less than a minute, but it’s funny and gives some insight into her character. There is even a payoff scene to this struggle later in the film, but I won’t give it away. Credit where credit is due, but Raimi can’t take all of it. It’s Alison Lohman who plays the character after all, and I have to say she handles herself really well. She has good comedic timing, can bring the ‘I’m gonna get some’ attitude when it’s required, and can play shit pants scared. As the predicament grows more and more dire, she goes through a transformation of sorts, becoming more desperate and more willing to go to greater, less honourable lengths to save her skin. This comes to the point, in a twist of irony, one cannot help but feel that maybe, just maybe, she might actually deserve to be dra…no, never! Lohman’s performance isn’t groundbreaking, but it does serve as a reminder of what the results can be when casting is done right in a horror film, as opposed to the usual tits and ass brainless casting which so often plagues horror movies these days (although it doesn’t hurt that Lohman is a very attractive woman). Justin Long, usually the main sourve of comedic value in whatever project he’s involved, plays the straight man for once. I’m not entirely sold on the idea of Long as a more serious actor, but I still thought he was alright here. He does have some decent banter with the fortune teller, played by Dileep Rao, who helps Christine with tips to combat the curse. Rao isn’t in the movie for very long, but he’s very, very good in his small role (the credit card joke got a good laugh out of me). Even Reggie Lee hits the right notes as the snotty rival at work. Great casting all around.

While I did like the character of Christine, the comedic elements and the performances all around, I wasn’t entirely sold on the supposedly scary scenes. Truth be told, I’m still not sure what was supposed to be scary or funny whenever Mrs. Ganush or some other creature would appear. I think the main reason for this is that I found most of those scenes boring. It just became a little bit too over the top for me, so whether it was vying for laughs or shrieks, I wasn’t giving either. Many of the visual effects don’t look that impressive, and bare with me, I know that was the point, but that never resonated with me. So many of the dialogue and character driven scenes are cleverly written and amusing, that when Raimi and his team were trying to get laughs out of mere hysterics and cheap visual effects, I was usually let down. I know there are those out there who loved specifically those hysterics and awkward visuals since they essentially reinforce the film’s self-deprecating nature, and that’s fine by me. I just felt that tonally, those two facets, the dialogue/character driven moments and the off-the-wall spooks made the movie uneven at times. There weren’t even a whole lot of people at my screening who laughed at the crazy moments either, so I can’t be alone on this. Ironically enough, there was this one woman who shrieked, I kid you not, at every single ‘spook’ moment, which I’m pretty sure was the opposite of what Raimi was going for given how silly they are, but whatever floated that woman’s boat is fine I imagine. I should mention that I did find the first crazy moment of the film, when Mrs. Ganush attacks Christine in her car at night, to be entertaining. I think that had more to do with the fact that it was just a good old fashioned brawl, complete with punches, kicks, vomiting and eye stapling. It was a fight and not a fright, which as a movie goer I simply find more thrilling. When the film reverted to insane horror moments, that’s when I was less entertained.

While I won’t jump on the bandwagon calling Drag Me to Hell one of the most entertaining films of the year, I won’t deny that I had a good time, even though it was for some very specific aspects, and not for a little bit of everything. The story is entertaining in its silliness, the cast is fantastic and the writing does a few interesting things with the main protagonist, a rarity in horror films of the early 21st century. Having said that, I got no laughs or shrieks out of the ‘scarier’ moments in the film, which is a shame because had I found those entertaining, this probably would be one of my favourite films of the year. As it stands, it has some really solid elements, and others that fell flat. Nonetheless, when considering what Hollywood has offered movie buffs so far this summer (Star Trek and Up notwithstanding), Drag Me to Hell is clearly better than a lot of the mainstream material playing now, and just as a funny movie is rather solid.

*To give you the most detailed example (minor spoilers ahead) I can of what I’m talking about, I really liked the dinner scene when Christine goes over to her have supper at the home her boyfriend’s parents and the first time Christine meets the fortune teller, but I thought the scene in the shed when Christine is getting her equipment really stupid.

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