Saturday, May 30, 2009

DRAG ME TO HELL

Drag Me to Hell drops in on our movie culture at the most important moment. First off, it almost single-handedly erases the depressing memory that was modern American horror during the Y2 aughts. (I challenge you to find a substantial foreign film market that made worse horror films, this decade, than Hollywood.) Secondarily, Sam Raimi's new masterwork now proves the once kicked-around theory of "acceptable mediocrity", that current tendency of film critics (in print and on blogs) to keep the ratings bar high while the general quality of films slid low.

Take Star Trek, for example. The movie is below-average at best, some mild entertainment for a day when your sports team is inactive and/or your mental faculties are as well. Yet not even the critics who rated the film the highest-of-the-high could muster enough convincing passionate prose in favor of it. Star Trek's raves rallied around the admittedly impressive abilities of media man JJ Abrams and the way he successfully revived and refashioned a movie franchise that was already crap to begin with; critics confused a good business sense with quality artistry. Star Trek lacked any movie magic.

But here struts in Drag Me to Hell, a film rim-full of wide lens wit, punctuated humor, rhythmic stunts, special effects wisdom, and a sound design that'll blow your ears back. All of this slaps up against the screen between two large title cards that'll close you in and then lock you out after 99 minutes. Raimi's visual ideas hose onto the audience as if he's been pinching them back for 14 years now (and some would say that that's very much been the case). The man is clearly having fun again. After wasting a near decade on three Spiderman films and a Katie Holmes nipple slip, I don't blame the guy.

Overshadowed by the G-rated Grand Guignol (that's a compliment) up on screen is Alison Lohman in the role of Christine Brown, an ambitious loan officer with eyes on an assistant manager position. Lohman's adorable lisp and behind-the-ear blond bangs suit the role of Christine perfectly as she rides the emotional fence of fighting for a promotion and, er, escaping the hooves of the Hades dwelling Lamia that seemingly wants to "swallow her soul". Lohman's presence is comfortable, physically understanding the sight gags and frights that Raimi lines up for her. From hunching over a half-gallon of chocolate ice cream to standing rain wet and chest strong in the grave of the woman who cursed her, Lohman is a non-stop joy to watch.

Of significant special mention should be the implementation of effects by Raimi. Using both CG and the authentic kind, Raimi's heady mix exhibits a lost art understanding of when the use of one or the other is appropriate. There is a tactile cinematic exuberance in seeing real-time goop and gadgets in real light, especially when the scene calls for the aggressively absurd. Seeing a gypsy arm in a prosthetic Alison Lohman head, a toothless gypsy mouth slurp on the chin of a real Alison Lohman head, or a wax-figure gypsy corpse flop on top of a real Alison Lohman body is as important as the most wizardly wicked camera shot.

The final test now lies in how American audiences end up responding to this film. Will Drag Me to Hell, as my wife predicts, be a slow-build box office success and a bleed over DVD smash, or will it simply satisfy geeks for a weekend and fizzle away. Critics responded correctly by almost universally acknowledging the greatness of Drag Me to Hell, but they undercut its arrival onto the scene by also universally laying down for something like Star Trek (as of now, both films are separated by only one point in their Metascores). Drag Me to Hell is an open-window opportunity for bloggers to grab those reins and correct the mistakes their grandpappy print counterparts keep making. Draw those lines!

15 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

I should begin this comment by saying that horror isn't my genre. But at least once I year I try to overlook that and see something outside my comfort zone. Sometimes I'm tremendously entertained (The Descent). Other times I'm reminded that horror isn't my genre. This film provided a reaction somewhere in the middle. (Aside: If the above ends up getting cleaned up and turned into the lead of a review, forgive me.)

I agree with you that Lohman is terrific, and the sound design is fantastic! The movie is funny, likeable, and I was never bored...except when I was bored.

Part of my problem with the horror genre is that, like disco, the beats are so much the same. There are only so many times I can watch someone back away from a door and wait to be attacked in the silence ... and that must happen at least six times just in this movie. Some of the gross-out gags are equally repetitive. Still, it was nice to see a horror flick that didn't involve bra-less chicks camping. (Not that I'm against bra-less chicks!)

Fox said...

Jason-

I hear ya, but I rarely get scared anymore in movies, so repetive fright tactics don't really bother me if they are still photographed and exectuted with expert aplomb. I simply loved watching Raimi work his ideas in this film.

Even something as simple as cutting from the gypsy's mouth to her eye as she breathes a curse onto Lohman's button showed, I think, a really inventive rhythm that Raimi showcased regularly in his films up to The Quick and The Dead, but seemed to put them aside post-that film.

I know I part ways with friends on what I'm about to say, but I do tend to lean more in the direction of horror-comedy than straight horror, whether it be Raimi, Peter Jackson, or Asian films like Exte, or Tokyo Gore Police. I think those type of horror films allow for more visual experimentation because their absurd storylines open up the boundaries of what's acceptable.

Meaning, Raimi's Looney Toons-type eyeball play works in a Drag Me to Hell, but it would get "pffts" in a horror film with a more serious tone.

bill r. said...

I'll be seeing this, and I'm actually kind of amped, based on the the near-unanimous praise. We'll see.

I liked Star Trek, though.

Fox said...

Bill-

You should see it. And when you do, bring your amp along and plug it into the speakers and rock out pre-show for the audience!

bill r. said...

Why in the world would I do such a thing??

Fahrenheit 16:9 said...

Bill-

Because it's the loudest movie ever and the audience needs a warm up of some sorts.

bill r. said...

Huh. This is the first I've heard about the film's volume. Although I tend to skim reviews of movies I want to see, but haven't yet, so maybe everyone's talking about it.

Fox said...

Bill-

Farenheit is right. It's is LOUD. It's part of the excellent sound design. It's quite jarring.

There is one scene in particular that made me cover my ears with the actors on screen, but maybe I was just losing myself in the movie. Also, the theater I was end has very very good sound.

If you go to a Ghettoplex, well, I don't if the quality will be equal.

Sam Juliano said...

Although I am a lost cause when it comes to STAR TREK, as I grew up with the original series and am bias, I simply can't refrain from letting you know what a superb essay you have written here on DRAG ME TO HELL.

I also do love this film, and found it the most terrifying since the low-budget THE DESCENT several years back. Your wording here, summing up it's essence is magnificent:

"But here struts in Drag Me to Hell, a film rim-full of wide lens wit, punctuated humor, rhythmic stunts, special effects wisdom, and a sound design that'll blow your ears back."

Great stuff!

Fox said...

Thanks Sam.

I can only hope that more people go see Drag Me to Hell in the next few weeks. It deserves it.

Sam Juliano said...

Amen to that Fox. Thank You.

Reel Whore said...

From hunching over a half-gallon of chocolate ice cream to standing rain wet and chest strong in the grave of the woman who cursed her, Lohman is a non-stop joy to watch.

Beautiful description. Lohman really did take everything Raimi threw at her in appropriate stride.

Raimi's direction and effects choices made a great impact. A CGI goat head would not have cut it and he knows that.

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