Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Drag Me to Hell: Horror Movie Heaven

What was the first project director Sam Raimi undertook after he finished the third mammoth Spider Man movie? Well, if yours truly's scribbling about it in October, you can bet it wasn't a quaint comedy of manners set in rural Edwardian England.

No, Raimi's labor of love--the movie he chose to make for pure fun after the rigors of an umpeen-hundred-million dollar superhero flick--was a horror film. And thank God for it.

Drag Me to Hell hit theaters last spring, and today it arrived in all its pus-projecting, roof-rattling glory on DVD and Blu-Ray. Those of little faith who'd assumed the mastermind behind the Evil Dead movies (which, incidentally, are playing locally at a revival theater near me--plug, plug) had forgotten his roots need look no further for rebuttal than this most joyous of spook shows.

Alison Lohman plays Christine, a loan officer struggling to hold her own against her co-workers at a cutthroat local bank. Desperate to show her boss that she's got the cajones to make tough decisions (and get promoted), she ignores her impulse to compassion, and denies a mortgage extension to Mrs. Ganush, a sickly and financially-strapped old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver). Bad move.

Christine turns away Mrs. Ganush, and unintentionally humiliates the old woman as she's begging for mercy to boot. Mrs. Ganush responds in a fashion apropos to any vengeful gypsy: She lays one bad mutha of a curse on poor Christine, and if it isn't lifted, well...see the title for a little hint.

That threadbare plot synopsis probably doesn't sound like much, but Raimi gives this little EC Comics-style opus his absolute all. Raimi and his co-scripting brother Ivan approach Drag Me to Hell like the best short-story or comic-book writers, enthusiastically sketching out a spooky backstory with minimal screen time and packing as much vomit, pus, and demonic insanity into it as they can (note to budding horror filmmakers: Want to push the envelope and still get a PG-13 rating? Try substituting blood and guts for mass quantities of vomit and human excretions).

This is no exploration of psychological complexity or ambiguity: It's an old-fashioned Scary Movie with a capital S, and every frame of it exudes Raimi's complete adoration for the genre. The movie's best setpieces demonstrate the director's untouchable mastery at referencing past horror flicks (including his own) while setting the genre's old standards on their collective ear. A seance scene's pretty much a given in a movie like this, but Raimi turns his into a giddy and terrifying funhouse ride, replete with dizzying camerawork and a talking goat. And although the ending's not a big surprise in retrospect, Raimi does such a great job of building to it (and diverting the audience's vantage up to that point) that it still packs a delicious wallop.

I suspect that Raimi's latest was only a modest profit-maker for Universal because it didn't pander to teen audiences by slathering on the blood and breasts (oh, and all of the protagonists are grown-ups: Imagine that). Their loss. Drag Me to Hell packs as many jumps in its 99 minutes as any ten lackluster slasher-film remakes, and it's made with something almost unheard of in this jaded age: Real, unbridled love.

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