Monday, June 08, 2009

Film Review - DRAG ME TO HELL: An Absolute Spook-a-Blast!

After spending nine years in the arduous Spider-Man salt mines, it’s perfectly logical that Sam Raimi would feel the urge to exorcise some demons. After all, before the mega-lucrative days of web-slinging and wall-crawling, the director was better known and adored in geek circles for being the hammy huckster behind the Evil Dead (un)holy trilogy. Those films – arguably the finest contemporary horror series - were essential touchstones for a generation of fright enthusiasts, spawning the Cult of Bruce Campbell, countless brain cell-slaying college drinking games, an unstoppable epidemic of DVD re-releases and feverish dreams of Raimi’s return to the genre he o’ so puckishly perfected.

Well mainstream respectability be damned, because he’s back in fitfully ghoulish form with Drag Me to Hell, a screamingly uproarious joy-buzzer of a scary movie epic which manages to wring boundless laughter from a sinful sea of blood, maggots and phlegm. If that mental illustration sounds like enough to make you toss your cookies you may find yourself stunned at just how much innocent free-wheeling fun is in store for you. Unlike most modern horror-show masterminds, who aim to repulse and humiliate the audience with appalling atrocities, Raimi is an impish prankster who only wants to entertain you, whether through squeals of amusement or corny out-of-your-seat-launching shocks, before depositing you into the lobby with a dopey grin on your face. Does it help if I mention that an entire scene is built around a haunted handkerchief?

And did I point out that he has a really clever story about a sunny heroine to tell as well? Well, he does! Employing the willowy charms of Alison Lohman to full effect, Raimi’s script (co-written by his brother Ivan) follows the misadventures of Christine Brown, a doe-eyed loan officer with small-town dreams of big-city advancement, who makes the grave error of refusing a dead-eyed gypsy woman named Mrs. Ganush (an effectively campy/menacing Lorna Raver) a bank loan. Shamed and mightily pissed, Mrs. Ganush places the lamia curse on poor Christine, which calls for three days of supernatural torment followed by an eternity roasting on Beelzebub’s barbeque. Aided by her professor boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) and a local psychic (Dileep Rao), our protagonist must endure a ghastly parade of otherworldly terrors all the while searching for a means of ending the gypsy’s portentous soul-swiping spell.

The biggest joy of watching Drag Me to Hell is to witness the unbridled joy of a story-teller in full control of his environment. After the notoriously turbulent back-stage politics of Spidey 3, which neutered the director’s zany trademark style, Raimi seems nimble and sure-footed again, lovingly crafting a bizarro world not dissimilar to a Looney Tunes cartoon (a precariously situated anvil even makes an appearance!).The film often feels inspired by bravura crowd-pleasing sex comedies, where hilarity is squeezed from the dizzying extremes of rapidly intensifying set-pieces. One slow-burning scene, featuring a devious hand-rubbing fly, starts off small and icky before building up to a rambunctiously goofy-grotesque crescendo. Also unforgettable, among the film’s numerous classic scenes, is a lengthy over-the-top-and-down-the-other-side séance which begins with participants (devoid of irony) solemnly chanting “I welcome the dead into my soul.”, before being attacked by giggling ghosts and demonic live-stock.

Enough credit cannot be given to Alison Lohman who not only gets slimed and terrorized like a pro, but manages the Herculean task of remaining likable and relatable for Drag’s entire duration. The director sure doesn’t make it easy for her, either. Like previous Raimian reluctant heroes, Christine is often selfish and self-centred, as well as foolishly dismissive of the daunting powers of the paranormal. She also, in perhaps the film’s most shocking twist, breaks one of the cardinal rules in Movie-land for retaining audience sympathy. You’ll know it when you see it, but observe how Lohman and Raimi undercut the moment with sharp humour to alleviate potential outrage. It’s a scene that, in the hands of a less gifted director and actress, would sink the entire enterprise into the muck.

The vibe of Drag Me to Hell feels like everyone involved had a blast making the film and enthusiastically upped their individual game to match Raimi and Lohman’s unabashed gusto. The practical effects by KNB are distastefully top-notch and the score by Christopher Young – an astonishing concoction of bombastic gothic lunacy – is perhaps the composer’s most exciting work to date. Additionally, Peter Deming’s slanted, wobbly cinematography is like a satanic response to the 60’s Batman TV show.

I can’t stress enough how imperative it is to experience this film’s delirious mixture of chuckles, gasps and shrieks in a theatrical setting either. Playful cheesiness aside, Sam Raimi, cinema’s foremost cackling Crypt Keeper, has produced one of the most stylish and creatively dazzling rollercoaster chill ‘n thrill-rides of the year. Forget being dragged, this Hell deserves being sprinted to.

4 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: June 8th, 2009.