Friday, March 5, 2010

In Brief: DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)

Once upon a time, Sam Raimi was going to direct a movie called Spider-Man 4. It only made sense, since he'd directed the first three, only there was a bit of a problem. The problem went back to the third film. The way I hear it, Raimi wanted to use the Vulture as a villain in that film. It made sense; the Vulture is a good old Spidey villain, one of the first. But there was the problem; the Vulture is an old villain, not because he dates back to 1963 but because the Vulture is an old man. At least that's how Steve Ditko and his successors drew him. The money men didn't like the idea of an old guy as a villain, even if Ben Kingsley was going to play him. Raimi capitulated and used a more recent, cooler villain instead alongside the Sandman. Apparently, Raimi tried again. This time, he was supposedly talking to John Malkovich about the role (and if you've seen Burn After Reading, and you've read the comics, you'd say, "yeah!"). But the studio people still weren't interested. I don't know if they thought an elderly villain would be offensive or just not cool. I don't know if they really felt strongly about this or were looking for an excuse to drive Raimi away and do the re-boot they're now planning. It's all over now, anyway, and it might be for the best as far as Raimi's career is concerned.

Another thing I don't know is how long Drag Me to Hell was germinating in the minds of Sam and his brother Ivan before they filmed it and released it last year. Regardless of the answer, I can't help but think that the finished film gives us at least an inkling of what Raimi was thinking when he wanted to use the Vulture in a Spider-Man film. While his latest movie is superficially about the struggles of a bank loan officer against a gypsy curse, Drag Me to Hell is essentially about a forced confrontation with old age and all the discomforts it imposes on other people. Instead of being pummelled and deformed like Bruce Campbell is in the Evil Dead films, Alison Lohman is defiled and soiled by the slop of age and death. A corpse vomits formaldehyde on her. In a nightmare, it vomits maggots on her. Later, she's nearly drowned in a flooded, muddy grave. And this is all because she won't show the proper respect to an elderly person. The curse of the Lamia is the revenge of age on youth.

While the story requires Lohman to figure out some way to deflect the curse by bestowing her accursed coat button on someone, the emotional message of the movie really requires her to apologize to Mrs. Ganush and admit responsibility for denying her an extension on her mortgage payments. The climactic graveyard scene in which Lohman makes a ritual of bestowing the button on the dead woman is also the furthest thing from an apology. If anything, Lohman is her most Ash-like in her furious determination and self-righteous sarcasm in this scene, and while Ash's attitude is always cool, it nearly always gets him in more trouble than he started with. When we consider that all Lohman's really doing is desecrating a grave, she's only added insult to injury, or insult to insult.

Her disgust over the messy embarrassments Mrs. Gunesh and the Lamia have imposed on her drives her to rage when repentance is what she should show. At the very least she could admit that it was her own decision to deny the old woman the extension, instead of blaming her boss or the pressures of office competition. As it is, she can only admit this to her boyfriend, not to the offended party, and only after the graveyard scene. It's as if her anger at her situation blinds her to what she owes to the wretched crone, not as a matter of business ethics but of human decency and respect for her elders.

So much for the preaching. Drag Me to Hell represents a partial return to Raimi's classic form, taking into account the differences in emphasis between the new film and the Evil Deads. There's one moment in which the old spirit indisputably returns, when a man possessed by the Lamia dances a hellish jig while levitating over a fire. That jig represents the demonic vitality, the exuberant, almost infantile evil of Raimi's monsters.

Meanwhile, one gets the impression that Raimi's been influeced by Asian horror of about a generation ago, when vomiting up all sorts of gross stuff was a big thing. It's still a novelty in America, as far as I know, and it helped give this film a fresh quality -- if that's really the right word in this context. The story could have been sharper and more subtle in spots -- I suspect that most people saw an important plot twist coming from miles away, for instance, and I thought that the Lohman character grew credulous too quickly when more comedy-horror might have been milked from a more stubborn refusal to acknowledge what was happening to her. But for a B horror film of our time, it wasn't even half bad.


Rev. Phantom said...

I think we see eye to eye on this one. While I was entertained by the film, it didn't blow me away. Which is what I wanted after waiting for Raimi to do horror again. It is what it is, and as you said, not even half bad.

Sarah from Scare Sarah said...

It was pretty good but I did laugh more than I felt scared.

Samuel Wilson said...

I don't think Raimi can ever again blow us away the way he did with Evil Dead 2. This time I think he wanted to shock more than scare, and when he shocks he'll take both laughter and fear. The problem is, I think he wanted us ultimately to feel horror, but his knockabout approach can't help but undermine the moment a little.