Friday, June 12, 2009

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)

Devil take the hindmost

You can imagine Sam Raimi on the set of his Spider-man films, viewing the various installments of the Hostel and Saw franchise and thinking: "I can do that; I can do better than that. Give me a chance, and I can show them how it's really done."

With Drag Me to Hell (2009) Raimi gets his chance, and how. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) hopes to impress her boss Jack (David Paymer), so she turns down a request for extension on a house payment from a Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), a decrepit, milky-eyed old Romany woman with a set of slimy dentures. Things go horribly wrong, and Christine finds herself on the receiving end of a particularly nasty curse: for three days she will be tormented by the Lamia, a demon with the head and hooves of a goat (originally, she's the daughter of Poseidon and Lybie, becomes a mistress of Zeus, and is turned into a half-woman, half-snake creature that eats small children), then dragged through cracks in the ground to the Infernal Pit, to suffer Eternal Damnation.

Bummer. Actually the whole thing is simply an excuse for Raimi, who has struggled with the Spider-man franchise for some six years, to relax and cut loose. The camera doesn't pan so much as whip from side-to-side; it doesn't truck so much as careen into an actor's face at bruising velocities (one hopes the performer has his or her health insurance premiums all paid up). Raimi enlists shadows, flames, flies, staplers (have to see this to believe it), creaks, whispers, embalming fluid, anything and everything under the sun (and a number of which are buried or hidden otherwise, under a full moon) to his cause, whirling them around poor Christine in a non-stop devil's twister of a comic-book ride.

I said "comic-book," not that more pretentious term "graphic novel." Raimi is no Zack Snyder, making a bid for artistic seriousness with an overproduced, thuddingly literal adaptation of a literary title. He evokes the term "comic book" in its old-fashioned sense, that is, a story told through a series of images with dialogue, full of graphic energy and inventiveness and wit (Raimi can teach Star Trek director J.J. Abrams a thing or two about coherent action sequences). Along the way we have belly laughs and in-your-face horror a-plenty, sometimes both at the same time, but we also sense a surprisingly subtle eye at work: in the film's rip-roaring opening, when a victim is dragged to his intended place, the camera rises from the floor up to the second floor terrace to move in on spiritual medium Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza); the shadow of the victim's outstretched hand falls on her face, summarizing the situation and what's at stake (and what will happen to Christine if San Dena doesn't do something) in a single image. Later Christine, desperate to fob off the curse on someone else, looks around at the people in a twenty-four hour diner in a funny yet graceful dumb-show parody of a morality play (Who to give it to--her work rival and backstabber Stu (Reggie Lee)? The annoying waitress who keeps hinting she should order something or leave her booth? The old man with the oxygen tank who obviously doesn't have long to live?).

Raimi knows as any genre master will that to instill a sense of true horror in the audience you don't just assail them with intestines and decapitated limbs and instruments of torture. You build the story, you tease them, you distract them with sympathetic characters and brief bursts of visual beauty (Christine in a sunny yellow dress) and oddball touches (Mrs. Garush sucking on sweets from a dish on Christine's desk with repulsive relish), you soften them up and leave them vulnerable to attack from all and any direction, at any time.

The film is a homage to classics both under and over-rated (Raimi like Quentin Tarantino has collected a pack-rat's worth of influences; unlike Tarantino he has the visual and aural chops to fuse these influences into a distinct look), from William Friedkin's The Exorcist (grudge match between demon and demon fighter) to Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (desperate victim attempts to get rid of cursed talisman). It's an encyclopedia of Raimi-isms, from the floating ghouls and popping eyeballs of Evil Dead 2 to the stop-motion animation of Army of Darkness to the hauntingly beautiful transition from face in dismay to face in mourning hours (or days) later in Darkman. But the movie isn't some mere patchwork sum of its parts; the various appendages aren't sewn clumsily together, nor do they work clunkily against each other--Raimi has thoughtfully (That word! Applied to this movie!) laid each effect in its proper place, and the overall impression is of a smoothly rising swell. Well, not too smooth--Raimi has left in rough edges, has not completely finessed the handmade quality out of the special effects, has not made your standard-issue Hollywood horror flick, proper and essentially polite.

Are Saw and Hostel polite? Why--yes. They promise torture porn, they deliver. They don't renege on expectations aroused by their trailers; they don't surprise you, or unsettle you, or make you squirm in ways you don't expect (Watching these pictures is about as stimulating as a business transaction). Drag Me To Hell cleverly plays on our preconceptions of who is the heroine, who the villainess--pretty (but nevertheless morally weak) Caucasian girl from the banking industry (Raimi claims the relevance of her job to the present economic crisis is coincidental, but who is he kidding?), or aging Romany woman with a nasty propensity for casting curses? It delivers a cornucopia of surreal jokes, expertly timed "boo!" moments, fluids in a rainbow of colors (from bright red to chemical green) and textures (from arterial spray to chunky sewer sludge) squirted out of a variety of orifices into a variety of other orifices. More, a movie with a séance scene involving a nanny goat cannot be, by definition, bad.

Raimi has survived the worse that Tinseltown has to offer, the helming of not just one but three major movie productions, one of the more successful comic-book franchises in Hollywood, and made it out more or less whole, his voice, his distinct storytelling sensibility still intact. Is he an artist? Possibly not; he doesn't seem to have anything more substantial to say to us than "Hey! Look at this!" But he's a wonderful stylist, and a great entertainer, and he's back in a big, big way.

First published in Businessworld, 6.5.09


Ivan6655321 said...

I agree with you 100%, Raimi is indeed back in a big, big way!

Noel Vera said...

About time. With all the Eli Roths, MIchael Bays (why is he still around?), McGs and Tony Scotts running around, it's a relief to watch the work of a real filmmaker, at least in the cineplex.