Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 17, 2009 12:24 pm 
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Not so scary

Sam Raimi, of the Evil Dead movies, detoured into comic book heroism with Spider Man. Working with his older brother and sometime collaborator Ivan on the screenplay, in Drag Me to Hell Raimi returns to the horror genre but branches out into the supernatural with a tale of possession, curses, and exorcism. The result is a movie that has the potential of satisfying the general audience repelled by contemporary horror films so bloody and disgusting lately only adolescent males or their grown-up equivalent can stand them. Drag Me has more elaborate, faster, louder effects than were available in the Seventies, but it's intentionally old-fashioned. It even opens with a prologue set in 1969 and cast in a deliberately garish B-picture style. In what follows, the scares have more in common with William Friedkin's 1973 The Exorcist than with the 2000's Saw franchise, Cabin Fever or even Friday the Thirteenth. This is a vivid exercise in self-conscious but enthusiastic genre that for all its noise and yuckiness is is more enjoyable than unsettling.

The first thing you notice is that the main characters aren't the attractive but despicable (and therefore disposable) youths Fred Krueger comes for, but people you can actually like. At the heart of this movie is a nice young couple, the plucky, winning and pretty Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) and her sweet, faithful boyfriend Clay Dalton (Justin Long). Lindsay is a loan officer at a small bank. Appropriately enough in this time of the burst real estate bubble, Christine brings down a curse upon herself by refusing to delay a mortgage foreclosure.

Raimi plays with the situation and our emotions here. The sick old lady who begs for a third extension, Mrs. Gannush (Lorna Raver), elicits Christine's (and perhaps our) pity at first, though Christine's need to impress her boss and win the vacant Assistant Manger post for herself makes her refuse to grant that extension. But the yellowish slimy drool from Mrs. Gannush's mouth, her hideous sharp discolored nails and her snaggly pointed teeth -- which, absurdly, are false, and which she removes to suck on some candy from Christine's desk while she's talking to the manager -- quickly tip us off that in fact she is -- ridiculously, over-the-top-- evil, doubtless a witch, put on this earth, or on Sam Raimi's set, to make Christine's life a nightmare and give us a lively, slightly scary, slightly gross, ninety minutes in the theater. He avoids he whole issue of human sadism by focusing on an invading spirit, a "Lamia," that aims to torment and terrify, not torture or maim. Not for the first time, Raimi's sequences revel in their sheer absurdity, while skirting the edge between seriousness and play.*

Mrs. Gannush has a menacing hissy fit when Christine turns her down, and has to be removed by security officers. Then she is waiting in that classic scary place of movies, an underground parking lot, to confront Christine. and launch the curse, which hinges on a coat button. I felt a little embarrassed for Lora Raver. She's not so much an actress here as a most unflattering object upon which special effects are hung.

With all the whirring insects, dark winds, flying objects, and buckets of fake blood that follow, what anchors Raimi's movie and makes it watchable are the appealing human elements, which add a certain nuance uncommon in the genre. As Christine's boss Mr. Jacks, who controls her future, David Paymer isn't the bad guy we expect, but admirably fair. Her oily, devious competitor for the assistant manager position Stu (Reggie Lee) is greedy and devious, but also so pathetic you can't hate him. Similarly when former farm girl and nobody Christine goes to meet Clay's well-heeled parents (played by Chelcie Ross and Molly Cheek), their snobbism toward her surprises us by fading quickly, and they seem quite decent people -- till Christine's curse leads to behavior so appalling they're glad to see her to the door.

Something makes Christine want to have her fortune told. In stories like this you've got to have a spiritual advisor. The Raimis made an excellent decision in choosing that this should be a man from India, land of deep spiritual lore. As Rhan Jas, who helps Christine find ways of appeasing the evil Lamia that's after her, Dileep Rao is warm and appealing.

Finally Justin Long, whose online bio begins with the description, "a likable, boyish-looking actor with thick eyebrows and a friendly smile," is hard not to love.

It's with these human touches that Raimi constructs an essentially grim, nightmarish, and by implication deeply pessimistic movie that feels surprisingly cozy. This is because it also feels old fashioned, evoking bygone movie-going experiences more than any scary realities. It's funny that so many teams of special effects guys were involved, given that none of it seems real for a minute. Raimi plays the game to the hilt, but he never stops letting us know he's in on the joke.


*Kevin Lee's YouTube video discussion of Raimi's Evil Dead II sheds light on the director's outlook and methods. "If the Evil Dead movies have contributed one thing to our appreciation of film aesthetics," Lee begins, "it is to make us consider the boundary between what's funny and what's scary." A pretty thin one, it appears.

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