“I desire the soul of Christine Brown! We will feast upon it while she festers in the grave!”
Arriving on Blu-ray in time for Halloween comes a film that I have championed since its theatrical debut a few months ago. Hailed as a triumphant return to his boldly “in-yer-face” horror roots for cult director Sam Raimi, Universal's Drag Me To Hell, starring the terrific double-act of pixie-cute Alison Lohman and barking-mad crone Lorna Raver (living up to her name ... and then some!), told a very traditional tale of curses, vendettas, demons and EC-style moral comeuppance, but wrapped all of these elements up in the swirling camera, virtuoso choreography and inordinately “fun” style that have become hallmarks of the man who unleashed the Deadites upon an unsuspecting world. Released here with both its original theatrical and unrated cuts on the same disc, the film is also treated to a wonderful hi-def transfer that really serves Raimi's ultra-visual and sonic phantasmagoria like royalty.
Please note that both versions of the film run for 99 minutes, but the unrated cut has more gore courtesy of an extra second or two and the odd alternate shot. In my opinion, the unrated cut is the superior one.
Hoping to impress her boss at the bank with her astute decision-making skills and get that coveted Assistant Manager's job, loans clerk Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) makes a big mistake in refusing a poor old Romany called Mrs. Ganush (Raver) an extension on her house payments. When the haggard gypsy gets down on her knees and begs her to relent, Christine's actions shame the proud old woman into placing a curse upon her - and the young woman's once promising career-drive goes into a tailspin as a malicious demon, known as a Lamia, is sent forth from Hell to torment its unwitting victim for three days before, ahem, dragging her back with it for all eternity.
Such is the irrepressibly simple premise of a tale that Raimi and his brother, Ivan, knocked out between them for fun back at a time when their celebrated Evil Dead trilogy was still wowing an earlier generation on home video. Christine's battles with the Lamia over the course of a three-day tug-of-war with her soul form the backbone of the story, of course. Enlisting the help of a local mystic - that's handy, isn't it, having a shaman just around the corner? - when it becomes horribly evident that Mrs. Ganush is beyond negotiating with, she learns more about the frightening powers of this demonic spirit of vengeance and then, when events grow nastier and far more violent, she is forced to commit unspeakable acts in a vain attempt to appease the beast that has been invoked. Fun horror, this may be, but there is a palpable sense of genuine unease whenever the shadows begin to creep and a strange, Freddie-esque scratching emanates from somewhere unseen.
Raimi keeps the screws tightening, incidents not so much building to a crescendo after a slow start as slamming you in the guts from the get-go and then just jumping all over you for the next ninety minutes. Coherence is fable-like, mood is paramount. This is not one of the gazillion zombie movies out at the moment, nor is it a slasher-pic. Drag Me To Hell serenades a long-dormant sub-genre of diabolical suspense, one that truly focusses on the supernatural and, as such, has few rules that it must adhere to. Mind you, there are still frenzied nocturnal visitations, seances, hallucinations, dreams-within-dreams and a hellish showdown with something from beyond the grave. But this goes much deeper than the ten-a-penny teens-in-peril antics of far too many horror offerings. It actually taps into something uncanny and folkloric and then rattles the nerves with a steady barrage of primal imagery, the attacks juxtaposed with the bland normality of modern California - each violent encounter with the Lamia swift and brutal and inexplicable, the resulting calm after the storm meaning that another level of our accepted understanding of this “modern” world has been torn away.
Some people have mentioned that it is fun to see the film's events as just figments of Christine's mind collapsing in the throes of personal paranoia and insatiable ambition, the curse just working on a purely psychological plane. But, just as was the case with Jacques Tourneur's superior 1954 classic of satanic hexing, Night Of The Demon - a film that Raimi's overtly tips its hat to - this is clearly not the case. With its prologue, just as that which opens Night, revealing the outcome of the curse to be exactly that which has been foretold, Drag Me To Hell completely eradicates any shred of doubt that we, as viewers, may have with regards to Christine's jeopardy. It is, in fact, true that in the case of Night Of The Demon, the opening and closing scenes depicting the infernal beast's destiny-bound atrocities were initially meant to have been implied and not shown, but history and the film, itself, have proved that “seeing” the demon meant that we became more afraid for the sceptical lead character and the risks his doubting opinion led him to take because we knew that the threat he faced was all-too real, even if he disputed it. Likewise, Christine's odyssey of fear and trauma would be foolishly diluted if Raimi played such tricks. The director may be a visual prankster, but he is not a cheat. He knows we want our demons to be real and the dilemma that we see unfolding should not come to a cop-out of an ending - and this conviction has always been the ace up his sleeve.
Aiding him in bringing this hokey old yarn to spine-trembling life are two wonderfully realised antagonists flung against one another from diametrically opposed extremes. As the misguidedly self-centred Christine, Alison Lohman, who stepped into the part after Juno's Ellen Page baulked at the extent of squirmy terror she would be expected to undergo (or, “officially”, met with scheduling difficulties), absolutely excels. Neither as outright gorgeous as many a contemporary horror starlet, nor as typically sympathetic, Lohman is both profoundly more talented and wonderfully offbeat. If the screenplay glosses over such things as police investigations, onlooker reactions to obviously weird goings-on and even hides a traditionally flamboyant funeral festival until our guilty heroine steps directly into it for nothing other than dramatic effect, she anchors the proceedings with a gutsy sass that never seems arch, contrived or stereotypical. A vicious tooth and claw battle with the shockingly aggressive gypsy down in the underground car-park elicits a credibly resilient side to her nature, and her somewhat forlorn ability to carry on with her day-job, despite the overt encroachments of the supernatural, a nefarious colleague and the most carnival-esque nosebleed in history, is acutely endearing. That Lohman has us understandably concerned for her safety whilst still not totally liking her is a distinct credit to desire to go against the grain. Only Melissa George in the new mystery-chiller, Triangle, as well as her turns in The Amityville Horror remake and 30 Days Of Night, projects a similar combination of strength and vulnerability, but Lohman, who is hardly a veteran of the genre, is a quick learner. She even nails the tricky kitty-sacrifice scene - much nastier in the unrated version, folks - without pandering too much to either its sick comedy value, or its quirky dramatics, instead walking a very fine line between the two. But, best of all, her subsequent response to enquiries as to the said feline are great examples of uncomfortable deflection and almost manically restrained guilt. Plus, despite only two obvious uses of a stunt-woman stand-in - a mighty heft from the car by her ankles and a calamitous crashing into a wardrobe - the actress performs practically all of the surprisingly physical action herself, really underpinning such glorious moments as the whirlwind spin the Lamia takes her on in her own bedroom, a rain-lashed graveyard excavation and the aforementioned car park tussle. It is certainly a memorable performance - and she looks terrific caked in mud!
And then there is her adversary. Whooa!
Ages before the film actually opened, a shot of Lorna Raver in her full demonic, witch-like fury cavorted around the net on a virtual broomstick, and it made an indelible impression. At first lowly, brow-beaten, hacking-up phlegm and simpering for charity, Raver's Mrs. Ganush is at once, noble and repellent. Afterwards, Raimi only wants her to lurch at us out of the shadows, shriek Eastern European obscenities and glare malevolently out of her milky eye - the other one having been gloriously stapled shut - and this Raver does with such spirited zeal that if she doesn't crop up in a nightmare or two, post-viewing, then you've clearly been hiding behind your hands all the way through. It may be nothing more than a mere bogeyman role, but Mrs. Ganush is the very epitome of blood-freezing eeee-villlll. Once you've crossed her, there is apparently no going back. “Soon,” she croons through rotted dentures to a frightened and now accursed Christine, “it will be you who comes begging to me!” Once that medieval line has been broken, then not even all the saints and angels in Heaven can step in to save you. Of course, given that she has this kind of power, you would have thought that Mrs. Ganush would have been able to sort something out, finance-wise, to get her out of this fix in the first place - and what kind of a gypsy lives in a house anyway? - but then this is not a film upon whose finer details you should ponder for too long. Impressively, even a picture of Mrs. Ganush has the ability to curdle the blood and , the first time you see it, I bet, just like I was, you are convinced that her eyes are moving!
Raimi's hyper-kinetic visual licks are present and correct, though Drag Me To Hell isn't as wildly kaleidoscopic as, say, Evil Dead II or The Quick And The Dead. But Peter Deming's camera does some fine tilts that, altering our view of Christine slowly and deliberately to one angle, supplies us with that great, old fashioned frisson of an environment that we have no control over. Copious CG assails us throughout, and although it is often cartoonic - one head-splatting effect is pure homage to Tex Avery - it fits the giddy rush of the film well. The Lamia, in shadow-form, echoes Murnau's Nosferatu - a grasping, skeletal hand during the film's delightful animated title sequence even recalls that other notable palpitator, TV's infamous “Judderman” - and the sequence when its cloven hooves stretch out from under a locked door to become elongated talons is numbingly bravura.
Besides the two barnstorming leads, the casting is cute, but effective. Having Justin Long, as Christine's loyal boyfriend, Clay, play the typically female supporting role of useless romantic partner actually works very well. With his comedy reined-in and his self-awareness actually serving the situation rather than diluting its tension - he is not a dummy, but his inability to deal with the weird events plaguing his girlfriend convincingly manifests itself with a bemused and slightly disbelieving attitude - Long allows Clay to come across as nothing more than immensely likeable. When we consider just how pro-active Christine can be during times of stress, it is also debatable just how helpful he would actually seem, in a conventional boyfriend capacity, if he had to indulge in any typical heroics. In a film that is so in love with playing by old school genre rules, this is a refreshingly modern and vaguely subversive angle to exploit. Dileep Rao's mystic is less cliché-bucking. He offers sage advice, adds melancholy and fear when each successive tactic comes unstuck and hangs around for the full quest, becoming more of a friend than than an employee, as are common traits for nearly all genre psychics, but Rao adds something new to the pot in that he makes Rham Jas someone we actually like more than merely respect. Personally, I keep seeing Paddy McGuinness behind the fuzzy hair and beard, but that's just me -something about his eyes, I think. Yet Rao makes this all-too conventional role very sympathetic and agreeably dependable.
Christine's blood-sponge of a boss at the bank, Mr Jacks (“Did I get any in my mouth ...?”) is played in pure broad US TV comedy mode by David Paymer. He isn't credible in the least, but this hardly matters, does it? We only need him for the day-job familiarity of the bank and for setting up the rather hackneyed and quite incredible conflict between Christine and Reggie Lee's wily, ass-kissing snake-in-the-grass Stu Rubin. And whilst Long's strange-faced father (played by Chelcie Ross, who reminds me of Texas Chainsaw's grinning Old Man, Jim Siedow) has been seconded from basically the same TV stock as David Paymer, his mother, played by Molly Cheek, is much better value, swinging from aloof hostility to warm acceptance and then back to a calm, “I told you so” disdain in the space of two minutes. Bojana Novokovic, though, offers some finely sliced sarcasm as Mrs Ganush's hot-Goth Romany granddaughter, Ilenka, presiding over a very messy wake that Christine ill-advisedly blunders into.
With regards to us caring about Christine and her plight, it is worth mentioning that the sequence in which she is finally allowed to meet Clay's parents - a major deal for her in that she already knows that she is not approved of and must, therefore, work extra hard to make a good impression - is fraught with tension and uncomfortable anxiety even before the Lamia makes its loathsome presence felt at the dinner table. We really do worry about the outcome of this domestic situation and, considering that this sequence takes place smack-bang in the middle of a full-blown supernatural cavalcade, it is testament to Lohman's multi-dimensional characterisation and Raimi's surprisingly versatile direction that it doesn't get in the way of the film's momentum and actually manages to distract us for a moment or two.
Of course, the film's leanings in theme and style to Tourneur's seminal Night Of The Demon are worn pretty proudly upon its sleeve. Genre-fans will be able to tick off various other elements drafted-in from classic horror yarns, too. The fact that Hispanic medium San Dena (Adrianna Barraza) has actually encountered the Lamia before and has waited years for another fateful bash at defeating it, once and for all, echoes Max Von Sydow's beleaguered, yet equally as courageous Father Merrin doing battle with the child-possessing demon Pazuzzu in The Exorcist. But Raimi has always been one of the best filmmakers around who can take his influences so overtly, mix them up with his own unique skills and observations and come up with something that doesn't feel in the least bit derivative - yet is resolutely just that. It is nice to see that he is aping his own notorious back-catalogue, too, with not only the copious shots of unspeakable things ending up in unwitting orifices, but with the pure Evil Dead-style floating possessee clutching at the air and snarling during a deliciously visceral seance-bashing levitation. Raimi even allows Lohman to indulge in a wonderfully Grand Guignol grave-digging sequence that, to be honest, even tops those that Ash was reluctantly forced to indulge in. And, yes, even if Bruce Campbell doesn't get his epic chin in on the act, this time out, Raimi's other cameo-stalwart, his own Oldsmobile Delta, appears here as Mrs. Ganush's dusty, battered jalopy.
I've covered Christopher Young's terrific tour de force of a score already in a review dedicated to its CD release, but it is definitely worth mentioning again just how effective and downright creepy his music for the film really is. With only the likes of Marco Beltrami's “Knowing”, Debbie Wiseman's “Lesbian Vampire Killers” and Douglas Pipes' “Trick 'r' Treat” coming anywhere near to its character and atmosphere-led vigour and virtuosity this year, Young's score is energetic, baroque, infernal and downright creepy. And it balances expertly with the outrageous sound design that Raimi, typically, incorporates. The various manifestations hark back to Robert Wise's The Haunting, what with the emphasis placed, during a couple of them, upon the nerve-shredding violence of sound rather than actual vision. And again, this is something that he utilised to spectacular effect in The Evil Dead series, as well.
Although there have been some great throwback horrors this year (Dead Snow, The Orphanage, Dark Country and I Sell The Dead), as well as some terrific new ones, such as Let The Right One In, Pandorum and Martyrs - Drag Me To Hell sticks up a rotting middle finger to most of them by simply languishing in thick swathes of the purest atmosphere. Sure, it has its tongue wedged firmly in its cheek and the story does not hold up to scrutiny, but Raimi has delivered something that, if not exactly quintessential to his own notorious trendsetting debut, certainly adheres to his warped sense of grue 'n' guffaws, horror and hilarity to affect a tremendous of sense of that all-important dread that horror films so often, and lamentably, neglect. Drag Me To Hell took a long, long time to finally get to the screen, but it provides such giddy fun that the wait has been worthwhile. It may fit into the often ungainly niche of “cosy horror” as opposed to anything truly disturbing, and have an ending that will surprise nobody, but this is still a film that provides more genuine jump-out-of-your-seat moments and crowd-pleasing makeup effects, as well as a poetic narrative and an engagingly offbeat lead character. And it stands head and shoulders above the sprawling mess that was Spider-Man 3, reminding us that Raimi possibly works best with smaller casts and much less of a budget.
Drag Me To Hell may not be the “masterpiece” that the advertising blurb all-too-readily proclaimed it as, but it is surely one of the most enjoyable horror films of the last couple of years and a true sign that Sam Raimi, once demigod of the genre, has not lost the knack for scaring the bejezus out of us.
A very strong 8 out of 10 from me, folks, this one comes highly recommended.
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