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Nearly two decades since his last installment of Evil Dead flair (the cult classic Army of Darkness), Sam Raimi dropped his new comic book movie reputation to return to his roots. Drag Me To Hell is an homage to the past, but also a regeneration: proof that what this director does is unlike anything else being made, then or now.
Violent, Funny, Still Really Scary – The Raimi Signature
Is there any other filmmaker who can really manage whatever it is Sam Raimi is doing? One generally divides horror comedy and straight horror into two very separate areas. In Raimi’s case, beginning with Evil Dead, and cementing itself by Evil Dead II, the line blurs rapidly.
Raimi’s violence is an incredible mix of slapstick and hyper-realistic gore. His camera work sly enough to keep from revealing too much, yet unafraid to show the guts (literally) of a zombie, demon, or monster.
It’s on display in Drag Me to Hell countless times, but no better than Christine’s nose bleed in the bank. The sheer amount of blood and speed at which it rockets from her nasal cavity onto her unsuspecting boss should be hilarious (and it is). But it’s also revolting, disgusting, humiliating, and so overtly realistic it’s still frightening in context. After all, there’s a damn fly buzzing around in her stomach and a shadow demon lurking in the folds of her window treatments.
That’s the nature of any scary moment of this film and most of Raimi’s others (even Spiderman): fast action combined with strong effects work makes for an illusion of realism alongside the horror of too much.
Kill, Abduct, Spirit Away, Drag Me To Hell
This first week has certainly turned into a refresher on demons and monsters that deliver us… somewhere. Be it Michael Myers slaughtering teens, aliens threatening abduction, or that thing in the tunnel that drags people into the walls (you’ll have to read up on that). In Drag Me To Hell’s case, it’s the Lamia – a cloven hoofed demon that arrives to carry the soul of the cursed down to hell.
If Drag Me to Hell has a sense of humor about its violence, it has a very serious outlook on its heroine’s fate. The Lamia, seen only in shadow or book illustrations (and once in a goat, and a man who sprouts horns like a goat), is a classically subtle suspense mechanism that moves so fast you can hardly catch a glimpse. But slow enough you can just make out its horns, its hooves, and its long, spindly hands.
Where Absentia slowly dragged its souls into the abyss, Drag Me to Hell whips them against walls for the fun of it. In any other filmmakers version of this story, Christine’s torment by the demon might be plagued by visible CGI. Raimi recreates a scene from Army of Darkness – Ash in the pit, fighting a witch – with Christine in her bedroom. Her body flung to the ceiling and thrashed against furniture, the violence is unrealistic, the effects work immense, but nearly all practical. It’s as beautifully orchestrated as Tina’s death scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street – a bloody dance across the walls), but even crueler.
Speed and ferocity are the means with which the Lamia steals its souls. Raimi’s quasi-comedic/horrific style is the perfect match.
Scary Old Women
My favorite thing about Gypsy curse movies (besides their potential for political incorrectness*) is how heavily they rely on our fear of elderly women.
Before Sylvia Ganush becomes “otherworldly” she is simply aging. Deep set wrinkles, a cataract, slightly yellowed nails and the kind of knuckles earned by years of arthritis. Sure, she takes out her dentures in public, but at this point in the film, they’re still normal teeth. The weirder things get, the more decrepid Mrs. Ganush’s attributes become.
I’m reminded of the poorly conceived made-for-tv adaptation of Thinner (a really tight Stephen King novel), where an equally horrifying old woman curses a very fat man. He wastes away first to normality, and then to nothingness, and is driven to beg for her forgiveness; the ultimate pleasure of the “gypsy” curse that a man must get on his knees in front of a woman he would have paid no mind to in good health.
And Scary Feminism, too
Drag Me to Hell explores this is a much more interesting way – namely, Mrs. Ganush lays her curse on another woman. A woman who, by the very first scene in the bank, is established as overworked, overlooked, and asked to pick up sandwiches for the men of the office. Basically, a little woman power might pick Miss Christine up. A curse on competitor Stu Rubin (what. a. name.) or just-a-little-bit-sexist boss Mr. Jacks might actually serve Christine well. It certainly couldn’t hurt.
Instead, it’s her bad decision – a decision influenced directly by the “aggressive” men in the office (Jacks’ words, not mine) – that brings that cursed button upon her. An eye for an eye. And as Madeleine Albright infamously said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
*Raimi handles this rather deftly, I think, by making sure “Drag Me to Hell” is a multicultural affair. Psychic Rham Jas is Indian, Shaun San Dena hispanic, and even assistant Milos (the dancing goat man) Greek. If one researches the Lamia (Wikipedia, my friends) you’ll find it’s a myth that transcends several cultures and religious traditions. All in all – if you’re going to traverse in stereotypes, do so diversely, and with a heavy dose of self-awareness.
The Fun Stuff
Why does Clay’s Mom seem so hostile about that Harvest cake? It’s a damn coffee cake.
Nothing like a dead body spilling its embalming fluid into your own mouth whilst wrapping its toothless gums around your chin.
The voice on Christine’s book-on-tape in the opening scene is the same as the voice on the vinyl recordings in Evil Dead. Don’t know why that makes me happy, but it does.
A friend once described the handkerchief scene as one of the most effective shock sequences in all of horror. It’s mighty good work. Personally, I’m all about the stapler through the eye bit (WATCH IT ALREADY).
If You Like It, Watch:
Army of Darkness – You cannot truly know Sam Raimi until you know The Evil Dead movies. Army of Darkness, the third in the “trilogy” most accurately reflects everything that is marvelous and unusual about his style of horror filmmaking.
Identity (Click for trailer)