Film Review | Sunday, 21 June 2009
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Keep it Simple, Stupid

In the list of ever-increasing film disillusionments, I find that horror is one of the first to succumb to cynicism. Cheap frights notwithstanding, age dulls cinematic fear as mercilessly as any monster or psychopath.
As it creeps up on you, you realise, much too late, that what kept you at the edge of your seat and gave you nightmares as a child now looks harmless, even corny. Because they don’t require the same amount of atmospheric immersion, good action and good comedy films tend to be more lasting. But once the ghost ride is unveiled - in the harsh light of day - for the set of creaky underground rails and papier-mâché mannequins that it is, there is very little left to savour. So where to go from there? The answer, as always, comes in the form of a familiar forking road: one can either take the path of gimmicky reinvention (Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield) that defamiliarises stock genre conventions, or succumb to the smug pleasures of self-conscious pastiche (Shaun of the Dead, House of 1000 Corpses). For decades, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy has enjoyed a monolithic status in the latter category. Made on a $375,000 budget, the first instalment - released in 1981- went on to gross $29,400,000. Shot under conditions not dissimilar to Blair Witch Project (in a remote location, and fuelled by a maverick - if amateur - spark) the film reached horror fans and beyond with its indulgent mix of B-movie conventions (abandoned cabin, demonic possession) laced with wry humour. It also boasted an unforgettably naff (in a good way) hero: Bruce Campbell, with his ludicrously-proportioned chin, seemed to step straight out a comic book, and in personifying Ash, he embodied the film’s ethos. While a healthy dose of self-deprecation was evident, there was no skimping on the schlocky gore front (his chainsaw arm saw to that).

The film spawned two sequels, and Raimi was thrown into the Hollywood machine, crafting a bunch of solid genre outings over the 90s: Darkman, The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan. He reached a mainstream breaking point with the Spider-Man trilogy. By the final instalment, his fatigue with the whole franchise was wholly apparent: the cluttered mess of characters (some of which he was strong-armed into including) made for a film which left very little room for his devilishly quirky creative hand to assert itself.

Drag Me to Hell, practically ten years in the making and co-scripted by his brother Ivan, is obviously an attempt at re-capturing the magic of Evil Dead, and it arrives as a welcome comeback for Raimi: after Spider Man 3, it doesn’t feel like a regressive move towards tried-and-tested-to-death, comfortable ground (ala Tim Burton), but a well-deserved return to form for a master of the horror genre, unshackled from the constraints of family-friendly Hollywood fare.

It tells the story of Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a loan officer with ambitions towards the recently-vacated post of Assistant Manager at the bank in which she works. Her aggressive, go-getting colleague Stu (Reggie Lee) stands in her way, however, and goes to great lengths to prove that he’s the better choice with their boss, Mr Jacks (David Paymer). When Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver), a haggard gypsy woman, shows up at her desk asking for a third extension on her mortgage, Christine seizes the opportunity to prove that she can in fact make a “tough decision.” Ganush resorts to begging, at which point Christine calls security to escort the distressed and distressing woman out of the premises. While Mr Jacks congratulates her on how she handled the situation, the move proves to be hardly worth the career advancement as, following an unsettling encounter in the car park, Ganush curses her, condemning her to be hounded by the demonic lamia until she is finally dragged into hell.

Juxtaposed amid the mundane surroundings of the bank, you’d expect Ganush’s threat to look ridiculous. But this is Raimi at his old-school best, and the horror is very literal. What ensues is a healthy (or is that unhealthy?) dose of gory, gross-out scares and - particularly in the first half - there is no room for boredom, since we know that any pause in the narrative simply translates into tension-building for the next attack by either the lamia or the old gypsy woman. The film declares its inspirations early on, with and 80s Universal logo and medieval manuscript-themed credit sequence. This isn’t an exemplar of the post-Se7en ‘psychological’ horror school, with its pretentious cabal of pontificating psychopaths, but a good ol’ fashioned brand of the blood, fire and brimstone films that, while being gory and scary by default, operate with the same innocence of a heart-pounding ride at the fun fair and are marinated in an unshakeable air of Christian baroque that is miles away from the secular, metallic atmosphere of the Saws and Hostels of this world.

However, seeing how this is supposed to be the film that inaugurates Raimi’s return to the genre, the excessive reliance on the gimmicky, jolting scares is a bit disheartening. Granted, it never tries to be anything other than it is, but it’s in the film’s latter half - which reintroduces us to the medium from the film’s prologue- that some welcome generic texture seeps in, and we can enjoy some stock schlock imagery to go along with the urban terrorising. Lohman also proves to be another minor setback. Christine was originally going to be played by Ellen Page, but the Juno star was forced to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. One can’t help but think that, had she stayed on, she would have been able to compromise with Raimi on a character that is, in Juno’s words, a little edgier. Lohman, with
her petite, ‘perpetual-Lolita’ look, has great potential as a scream queen, and creates a perfectly serviceable victim, but considering that she’s in practically every shot, one would be grateful for a character who is more than just a cipher.

In any other film, these quibbles would leave a gaping hole in the experience, but here they are more than compensated for by another Raimi trait: black comedy. Like the Evil Dead series, Drag Me to Hell has an in-built sense of humour which doesn’t split the film into a staccato experience (funny bit/scary bit), neither does plunge everything into self-parody, but simply lets you have the cake and eat it, and coheres with the cruel logic of Raimi’s universe. You will gasp, you will scream, you will wince, you will laugh. Just when you thought they don’t make them like that anymore…


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