Monday, June 1, 2009

Resident Film Critic on: Fire & Brimstone - Sam Raimi's return to horror in Drag Me to Hell

In the same decade that asked the question "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?" and birthed a top 20 hit that begged "Don't Phunk with My Heart", something very strange happened to the horror movie: It got cruel. Blood got darker, the separate organs that made up "guts" became more discernable and everything got louder. It was no longer appropriate to creep someone out or induce unthinkable perversity; you had to make them jump out of their seats by any means necessary. A viewer could no longer watch in terror as a killer slowly came up behind his victim; one had a cynical, methodical template of when said killer was to pounce, accompanied by an entire string section.

In his new film, Drag Me to Hell, the versatile Sam Raimi uses a similar template but something is different. First of all, there's very little blood and there are no guts whatsoever. There's plenty of saliva, vomit, bugs, rodents, worms, puss and mud but that's hardly cause for concern. He likes color, uses color and stages many of his set-pieces in the daylight. Films by contemporaries the likes of Eli Roth or Marcus Nispel would ascertain, quite literally, that one shouldn't trust women, foreigners, southern folk and most breeds of canine; they also seem to unfold in perpetual night. Mr. Raimi's blind distrust is far more precise and has been blatant fact since well before the director was born: Don't fuck with gypsies.

Such is the mistake made by loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) when she kindly dismisses and "shames" Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver, part hoot, entirely creepy), an elderly gypsy witch who is denied an extension for her mortgage. Ms. Brown, gunning for an assistant manager position under Mr. Jacks (David Paymer, playing scuzz like a pro), denies the extension in hopes of getting the edge over brown-nosed co-worker Stu (Reggie Lee) but ends up getting in one ugly cat fight with Ganush before the old lady lays the Curse of the Lamia on her.

What's the Lamia you ask? Oh, just a seven-foot goat-beast from the stomach-acid depths of Hell who commands a legion of doomed souls who, after three days of torture, embarrassment and personal desecration, drag you screaming and burning into the underworld to live in darkness and agony until the end of time.

Under a less adept hand, such things would be handled with gothic tiling and Exorcist-brand clich├ęs but Mr. Raimi has mastered a lightness of tone that punctuates Drag Me to Hell with a vital, often vile humor and a sense of (grab your crosses!) fun. At 22, Raimi directed The Evil Dead, the lively cult classic that single-handedly made Bruce Campbell an icon and made Raimi the harbinger for the new paradigm of midnight movies. Since then, the Michigan-born Coen bros. collaborator has directed two sequels to Dead and become a genre-meister, trying his hand at everything from neo-westerns (The Quick and the Dead) and classy thrillers (A Simple Plan) to nostalgic weepies (For Love of the Game) and blockbusters (the Spider-Man franchise). Only Plan and, at moments, the latter series have seemed to harness his plentiful talents into a similar redefining of genre conventions and tone.

Drag Me to Hell is less a return to form than a loving reconsideration of where he's come from, where his strike-zone is. Over 15 years after the last Evil Dead film, he now casts a similar gaze on economics and the people behind it but the tone here is not satirical but true-to-form oversaturated lunacy. Helped by a fortune-teller (Dileep Rao) and her skeptical but devoted philosophy professor boyfriend (Justin Long), Ms. Brown's attempts at satiating the beast include decapitating a possessed billygoat, sacrificing her kitten and two separate instances of defiling a corpse.

That Raimi enlists the same brutal sound design that most modern horror/thrillers use ad-nauseum feels like a choice made out of necessity. One of a handful of solid major-studio-backed horror films to be released in the last decade, Drag Me to Hell's design is one made for humor and shocks rather than legitimate fright but Raimi never indulges in the crypto-tragic archetypes that have become industry-standard in the 28 years since The Evil Dead. The graphics have improved but Raimi's fantastical scares are still all the better for being loony and unpredictable where his compatriots have sought to make horror into a matter of life and death.

- Chris Cabin

KCB note: Drag Me To Hell opened with 16.6 million to take 3rd place this past weekend. Also, The KCB enjoyed this film thoroughly as well. That is all.

1 comment:

Harrison Ford's Mid-Life Crisis said...

I think you missed the point of the sound design entirely. He's not doing it out of necessity because that's what horror movies do nowadays; it's actually used as a send-up of how current horror films shock and scare. The levels are way out of control for the laughs. It's Raimi saying, "Oh so sound scares are the trend, eh? Well I'll show you some fucking sound scares." The blasts of shrieking violins and drums are way too loud and out of control to be anything more than a joke and a criticism. Damn fine film, though; damn fine.