Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Trailer Tuesday: DRAG ME TO HELL!



DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)
Directed by: Sam Raimi.
Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi.
Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Ruth Livier, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Octavia Spencer.
Director Of Photography: Peter Deming.
Music: Christopher Young.

One of the best reviewed films of 2009 was a horror flick from Sam Raimi (no kidding, 92% on Rotten Tomatoes) and it was one of the best times I’ve had sitting in a cinema that year - a crazy funhouse ride at a disreputable carnival that has you laughing as much as screaming. Though I always stress the importance of having a unique idea, this film gives us horror plot #17 (the gypsy curse one, see THINNER and a few dozen other films) but shows us the importance of *execution*. A good script needs a great idea, well written. Here we just get some great writing and directing and it overcomes the tired concept. Oh, if you are wondering why SPIDER-MAN’s Sam Raimi directed  this film, the guy has a whole bunch of horror skeletons in his closet, including the EVIL DEAD movies. For more on the EVIL DEAD flicks, check out But The Third One Was Great blog, which features those films this week! 



In DRAG ME TO HELL, Alison Lohman plays a nice girl destined to always finish last. She used to be fat, has a white-trash Southern accent she’s desperately trying to lose, and is doing her damndest to move up a couple of rungs on the social ladder. She works as a loan officer at a bank, and covets the empty Vice President desk across from her - the name plate is empty as if to visually announce Your Name Here. Her boss is played by David Paymer, kind of the older male version of her... and to keep his job, the person he needs to promote to VP has to be someone strong and aggressive. That’s not Alison, but it is the new guy Reggie Lee who seems to have seen WALL STREET a few too many times and actually believes that Greed Is Good. Alison and Reggie quietly battle it out at the bank every day, each hoping to slide their name into that empty VP name plate.

When a really gross phlegm spewing one eyed old gypsy woman comes in, home in foreclosure, and begs for Alison to give her a third extension; she puts the promotion over compassion. The old woman begs... and Alison calls security on her and has her removed from the bank. This puts her at the top of the promotion list, and the top of the gypsy woman’s shit list.

On her lunch hour, Alison visits her boyfriend Justin Long at the University where he’s a first year professor, and I kept waiting for the “I’m A PC” guy to pop up behind him. Justin is arranging a meet-the-tight-assed-upper-class parents dinner, and Alison is afraid to go - she’s fat white trash. As she leaves his office, she overhears his half of a phone conversation with his mother... and knows his parents will hate her and maybe worries that Justin might be charity-dating her. One of the great things about this film is that it’s all about the characters... and still a horror film. There are so many little background thing on Alison’s character peppered through the film that we really get to know and care about her. Hey, she was in the 4H (or, that reasonable facsimile of the 4H the lawyers and E&O insurance folks signed off on). And the film is really about her character arc, from meek bank employee to bad ass demon fighter who will do things you and I wouldn’t dream of doing.



At the end of the work day she goes to the empty underground garage to grab her subcompact crapo car... and notices the old gypsie woman’s ancient rusted out 70s lemon in the garage. Now, you may not know this, but that car has probably been in more movies that David Paymer.  It was Uncle Ben’s car in SPIDER-MAN... and has been featured in every film Sam Raimi has directed. It falls from the sky in ARMY OF DARKNESS... It was Raimi’s personal car for years, and when he could afford better, he kept it and uses it in every film. Here it works wonderfully as the barely running gypsy’s car.

One of the great things about this funhouse ride of a film is that there are no shortage of jump moments. And great jump moments - not some silly cat (though, there are a couple of those) but real scares from unexpected sources. Be prepared to spend half of the movie about a foot above your seat. One great series of jump moments is in the spooky garage, when the gypsie shows up and puts her curse on Alison. This film manages to get us to jump over a handkerchief... and it’s the skill of Raimi that the handkerchief also manages to be creeps and suspenseful and build dread in other scenes. You are scared of a piece of cloth!

Once the curse is on Alison she will die within 3 days and be dragged to hell. But those three days will be hell on earth. And all kinds of sick fun.

One of my favorite scenes has Alison go to the gypsy’s daughter’s house to beg that the curse be removed. The daughter doesn’t live in some magical castle with dark windows - this is Los Angeles, she lives in a typical house in the city with no yard and an ally running down the back where the garbage dumpsters are. It’s plain. She goes there, wants to see the gypsy woman, the daughter says she has caused enough trouble - getting the woman kicked out of her house... but Alison barges in... and she’s in some stranger’s house. And this is uncomfortable. And Raimi finds ways to ramp up the feelings of discomfort, including having the entire gypsy family there for dinner. She’s completely out numbered, and all of these people hate her. This could be a scene from a drama... and it *is* a big dramatic scene... but this is also a horror film. Drama *and* horror. And after the drama scene, we get some horror. Sick, disgusting, and funny horror.

Raimi does a great job of building dread with some very simple things. When Alison comes home one night, she is alone in a dark, spooky... but completely normal house. There is these terrible noise - link fingers on a chalk board - that ends up being the wind blowing open a rusted metal gate. So many everyday things are turned into terror by Raimi that you worry about going home after the film. By creating terror and building dread with normal things you’d find in almost every house, he gets us where we live. This isn’t some alien world - this is a house just like the one you live in. Raimi did this in the EVIL DEAD movies with tree branches in the wind... which become something else entirely. He can make the raisins in a cake creepy and threatening.



By the way - one of the cool things about the film is how ex-fatty Alison seems to constantly be attacked by *food*.  It’s like the curse knows her weakness, knows what scares her on a more emotional level (that she’s going to gain the weight back, or maybe people still think of her as the fat girl) and finds ways to attack her using the things she *emotionally* fears most. Food becomes scary in this film... in that wacky funhouse way.

Oh, and there’s some between the lines social message in this film. Alison is white trash who is social climbing and hopes to marry wealthy Justin. To do that, she must foreclose on the home of someone one rung beneath her in society... turn against someone similar to her, the same way she is turning against her accent and her 4H past and everything that made her who she used to be. Trash the poor so that she can become rich. Again - this is a horror movie, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be more going on in it... in fact, there should always be more than just the surface story.

DRAG ME TO HELL Is rated PG-13, and many horror fans have discounted it before even seeing it. How can you make a good horror movie that isn’t R rated? Well, Raimi knows how to do that. He substitutes gross for gore - and keeps the gross coming! If you’ve seen the trailer, you know there’s a scene where the gypsy woman vomits all kinds of bugs and worms and icky stuff on Alison Lohman’s face. In her eyes, in her mouth, up her nose, in her ears. This is worse that seeing a half gallon of blood spraying from someone’s neck. Your brain knows the blood geyser is fake, but these insects and worms in her mouth and nose? Um, they probably really did that. Yech! You won’t see severed limbs in this film, but you will see things that are worse. This film doesn’t wimp out at all - it just has a different kind of horror. It’s gross (in a fun way).



Which I think brings us to another thing those pimple faced horror fans have complained about on several of the message boards I frequent - that somehow this subgenre of horror is less valid than SAW and FRIDAY THE 13th. That funhouse horror movies are lesser films because they make you laugh. Hey! BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN! Plus a million other flicks, some starring Vincent Price, some starring the late great Bob Quarry (in one of my films, lived in my neighborhood, just passed away, miss that guy!), and of course the Raimi EVIL DEAD movies. If anything, the funhouse style horror films are *more* legit than torture porn and slasher films - they’ve been around longer. These films are crazy scary rides with all kinds of sick laughs.

And DRAG ME TO HELL is full of sick humor. “Here, kitty kitty...”

One of the cool things about this film is the Multicultural Curse. The film opens in the 1940s when a child has been cursed by a gypsy and the immigrant parents take him to a female Hispanic medium who tries to lift the curse... and fails. The boy is dragged to hell by all kinds of demons. That’s what Alison is in for. After she is cursed, she goes to an Indian store front psychic played by Dileep Rao. Dileep plays the role as if he always has one eyebrow raised quizzically. As if *he* doesn’t believe what is happening. He manages to be both the psychic *and* the skeptic at the same time. He also manages to be funny with the non-funny straight man lines. And he manages to play his store front psychic in such a way that we do not know if he’s for real or just a scam artist. This is like the Whoopi Goldberg role in GHOST - does this mean Dileep will be nominated for an Oscar?  Oh, wait, this is both a horror film *and* a comedy. When Dileep is overwhelmed by the curse, he knows right where to take Alison - to the female Hispanic woman from the opening scene, who is now an old woman.

And this is where we get the real star of the movie... a goat. It’s always funny when there is an animal in a long scene filled with special effects and crazy horror stuff, because the animal has no idea what is going on. There is a long seance scene with the goat tethered to the table, and it was funny to watch the goat’s reactions (when I was supposed to be watching Alison or Dileep). The goat was completely confused at all times.

Okay, now I don’t want to spoil the film if you haven't seen it (almost 10 years old!), but I want to talk about one of the great things in this film - the Twist On A Twist.  This is one of those great techniques that Raimi uses which elevates this film from your standard horror film to one hell of a great ride that you probably want to take again. There is a twist in the film that you see coming from a mile away. It is set up, it is confirmed, and you suddenly know exactly what is gong to happen. You figure out the twist... and want to yell at Alison that she is making a big mistake, because there’s this twist thing she hasn’t figured out but you have. Here’s the thing - Raimi *wants* you to figure out the twist. That creates audience superiority and creates suspense. You know what’s going to happen! You know the very very bad thing that Alison hasn’t figured out yet! But what you haven’t figured out is the twist on the twist - because what you think is going to happen is *half* right. But if you were really paying close attention, you would realize that the twist you think is going to happen isn’t going to happen... something even stranger is. And that’s the part you don’t see coming at all. The twist on the twist. So, Raimi sets it up so that you know *part* of what will happen, but still be shocked and surprised by the other part. Great technique!



One of the strange things about DRAG ME TO HELL is that it was one of the best reviewed films of 2009... but didn't do great box office. Broke even, but didn't break box office records. You would think a fun film with great reviews would have opened at #1 and done great business. So why didn't it tear up the box office? My guess is that the sophisticated audience member who would see any other film with this many great reviews is staying away because it’s a horror movie... The average audience member is also staying away because it’s a horror movie - those films are crap made for hard core horror fans. And the hard core horror fans stayed away... because it’s one of the best reviewed films of the year! Hey, that stamp of society’s approval means this can’t be a dark, edgy, nasty horror film... it’s probably some watered down safe movie!  The critics *great* reviews may have doomed this film! If you look at horror films the critics have loved in the past - SLITHER, BLACK SHEEP, etc - all of those films died at the box office. Good reviews scare away the horror audience. Yet films with *awful* reviews like FRIDAY THE 13th and BLOODY VALENTINE did great business in 2009... maybe even because of the bad reviews. If the critics hate this film, it’s gotta be good!

So DRAG ME TO HELL slipped between the cracks... only remembered by Trailer Tuesday and a bunch of fans.

- Bill

1 comment:

Rickard Jorgensen said...

Digging deeper you may agree that "drag me to hell" was inspired by a 1957 movie "Night (or Curse) of the Demon" :https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050766/ which itself is based upon a short story: "Casting the Runs" by M R James.

The original "Night of the Demon" was a scary, fascinating roller coaster which but the movie was "stolen" by the supporting role of Niall MacGinnis as the warlock.

Now that's a film!

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