The current trend is to make horror films as graphic as possible. If someone isn't eviscerated every five minutes, the filmmaker seems to get restless and the audience doesn't seem to enjoy the experience as much. Personally, these new 'horror' films are merely excuses to show as much blood and guts as possible and they only make me ill, not scared. They aren't really horror films. Most aren't really films.
So I don't go to a lot of horror films these days.
But something about "Drag Me To Hell", the new film from director Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead", "Spiderman"), gave me hope. First, it is rated PG-13, so it can't be completely gory or filled with gross out moments.
From the moment the first frames rolled, I began to feel that perhaps I guessed right. "Drag Me To Hell" would be a horror film I could stomach. Why so early? Raimi chose to use the Universal logo from the 70s, with the word Universal slowly fading in over the rotating globe. Anytime a filmmaker uses an older studio logo, they are usually indicating either the era the story is set in or the period of time the film would probably have been made. Spielberg used the old Paramount logo for each of the Indiana Jones films, clueing us in to the homage he pays to the time period. By using the older studio logo, Raimi is indicating to us that this film will be a little older fashioned, the scares will probably be a bit more visceral, less gross, less gory.
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) seems to have everything a young girl could want; a promising career at a bank (she is vying for a promotion to Assistant Manager), a smart boyfriend, Clay Dalton (Justin Long), who happens to be a young psychology professor, and a house to call her own. But her boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer) tells her in no uncertain terms he is considering two people for the position, Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee), a new loan officer at the bank and her. What he wants in his new Assistant is someone who isn't afraid to make the hard decisions. Shortly after this talk, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an old woman with a glass eye and a wicked cough, enters the bank and asks Christine for some help. She needs an extension on her home loan, or she will lose her house of 31 years. When Christine presents the situation to her boss, he tells her his feelings but states that it is her decision. She needs to make the hard choices. Christine refuses Mrs. Ganush's request and the old woman soon places a curse on Christine. That evening, Christine starts to see and hear strange noises and feel a presence in her house. She manages to convince Clay that she isn't just imagining things and they go to a seer, Rham Jas (Dileep Rao). After a few moments, he quickly offers to refund their money (never a good thing in a horror film) but Christine soon returns to him and he reveals she has been cursed and helps her navigate how to have the curse removed before the spirit returns to claim her soul and take her to hell. Rather "Drag" her "To Hell". Eventually, he says she must have an exorcism and introduces her to Shaun San Dena (Adrianna Barraza), a woman who conducts séances and, many years ago, had a fight with the very same spirit who inhabits Christine's body. They move quickly to extract the spirit.
Co-written by Sam Raimi and his brother Ivan, "Drag Me" is a fun horror film. A lot of the scares cause you to laugh because they are so silly, so over the top. "Hell" is actually a fun film to watch.
One thing that immediately struck me was that the film was very, very loud. Usually, this happens when the theater has the sound adjusted for a full house, to compensate for all of the chatter, movement, change dropping out of pockets, etc. The screening I attended was not full, so the music and soundtrack seemed really loud. I discounted it to this. But I soon realized that I think Raimi is playing with the sound throughout the film, using that as an element to scare us. Much like in "The Haunting", he seems to use the sound to make bangs and crashes all the more noticeable, frightening us with quick jolts of percussion. It is an interesting technique and it works to provide some chills and some jolts.
Alison Lohman ("Beowulf", "Matchstick Men", "White Oleander") plays Christine and she initially appears to be your average career girl, working her way up the corporate ladder one step at a time. But Raimi pulls back the layers and shows us how complicated she is, using these other character traits against her as the scares mount. She isn't a bad person at all, so we feel for her when the old gypsy woman ultimately curses her, even though she could have prevented all of this by simply extending her loan. Everything we learn of Christine only makes her seem more human and because this is tied into the horror, her plight becomes more suspenseful.
Interestingly, Christine denies the woman an extension due to her own self interests and we still feel bad for her. The old woman is so over the top creepy and weird that it is difficult for us to care for her. And later, well, she doesn't do anything to make us feel empathy for her. But why do we feel for Christine when she is basically doing a selfish thing? Because Raimi has illustrated her environment for us. Her boss is extremely no-nonsense and Sam is clearly ready to stab her in the back and do whatever he has to do to get the promotion instead of her.
She and Clay have been seeing each other for some time and it quickly becomes apparent that Clay's well-to-do mother doesn't approve of his choice. An impending dinner with Clay's parents merely serves to boost Christine's anxiety and make everything else seem all the more pressing and urgent. As she believes she has cured herself, she urges Clay to take her to his parents as planned. And much to their surprise, the dinner seems to be going well. But then everything unravels and these old insecurities come back to haunt Christine.
Justin Long is good as Clay, the caring, devoted boyfriend who offers everything he can to Christine. It is a rare non-comedic turn for him and he makes it work.
Lorna Raver (lots of TV appearances, usually as Judges) does a very good job of convincing us she is an old gypsy woman. From the moment she first enters Christine's bank, with a heavy accent and wrapped in traditional gypsy clothing, Mrs. Ganush asks Christine for help and the young lady tries to be empathetic. As the woman sits at her desk, waiting, she takes out her fake teeth and begins to gum some candy sitting on the loan officer's desk. Later, as Christine leaves the bank, the old gypsy woman pops up to extract revenge from the woman she believes shamed her. They have a knock out fight that seems incredulous but given the woman's conviction, you simply laugh at the extremes of it.
Adrianna Barraza also is quite convincing as the spiritual guide. It is a small role, but memorable because she seems to take t so seriously, giving the film gravity it needs to make it a little scarier.
This isn't to say that Raimi doesn't try to inject a few gross out moments throughout the film. Ultimately, these are effective but so over the top you really can't do anything but laugh at them.
And there are moments when everything seems to be very over the top. Make no mistake, Raimi isn't afraid to go there, to go over the top, but when you realize it is done in good form, you can't do anything but smile.
And enjoy the ride.