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Review: “Drag Me To Hell” (Raimi)

At what point does gleeful cynicism become so gleeful that it ceases to function as cynicism at all, and mutates into a blatant formalist trope of little emotional or intellectual resonance, but plenty of aesthetic...what's the word? Bliss? Is frisson somehow appropriate here? I guess it would all depend, largely, on how you feel about horror movies in the first place. But let's say you do. Like them, that is. In which case, a tricked-out number such as Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell, co-written by Raimi and his brother Ivan, will delight not just on the frenetic-fright level that Raimi set a certain bar for in his Evil Dead films of the '80s, but also for the ruthlessness with which it toys with viewer sympathies. To get into this a bit will require the use, alas, of some substantive spoilers. Which I will place, although perhaps not immediately, below the jump. Beware. Be warned.

Raimi's Evil Dead films, beginning in 1981 with the just regular Evil Dead, an ultra-low budget DIY landmark, conflated hysterical laughter with hysterical screaming by making explicit the always-present link between horror violence and slapstick. Raimi's most obvious antecedents/inspirations were, of course, the Three Stooges, whose eye-gouging, strangulating, head-smiting antics would have caused grave if not fatal injuries if performed in earnest and in real life. Raimi upped the ante with gore, even more pronounced creepy/funny sound effects than you found in an average Stooges short, and a hyper moving camera style. Not to mention cutting that screamed "Boo!" over and over again at breakneck speed. The pictures established him as a gonzo horror maestro, but on entering Hollywood proper he applied his style to a number of different genres—the superhero movie (Darkman), the "straight" thriller (A Simple Plan) and even a baseball picture (For Love of the Game). His work on the blockbuster Spider Man films mostly subsumed his innovative side, alas, and that's one reason Drag Me To Hell's got fans of his earlier work excited. As well they should be. Ultra-extreme vomiting and swallowing are among the shock effects Raimi's added to the Dead bag of tricks, and they shift the horror action slightly away from Stooges territory and into the realm of great animation gagmen Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, and Chuck Jones. Indeed, there's a bit involving an anvil hanging from the ceiling of a toolshed that could have come straight out of a Road Runner cartoon—and the bug-eyed reaction when the anvil drops is the live-action equivalent of one of the escaped-con-wolf's double takes upon finding he's still got Droopy on his tail in Northwest Hounded Police.

But while the Evil Dead pictures kind of prided themselves on their thoroughly one-dimensional characterizations—there was the stolid and rather somewhat stupid square-jawed hero Ash, surrounded by malevolent demons and not much else, at least until 1992's Army of Darkness, in which he teamed up with a bunch of medieval clods—here Raimi goes for...well, I wouldn't call it depth, exactly. But he and his sibling go to considerable clichéd length to elicit fellow-feeling for ill-fated lead character Christine Brown. Right at the beginning of the film, they show the lean, perky Brown (played by a very game Alison Lohman) passing by a window display of yummy pastries on her way to work. She looks at it longingly, then walks by. Angling for a promotion at her soulless bank job, she denies a loan extension for a decidedly sinister-looking gypsy woman who delivers her hell-condemning curse in a ridiculously slam-bang underground parking lot confrontation. Christine resists—she's got spunk, in very much the sense that Lou Grant meant it when he ascribed the same quality to Mary Richards—and she spends the rest of the film resisting. Interwoven with the various scares is the information that Christine's a farm girl making her way to the big city on her own; that she's a former fatty; that the mother of her psych professor boyfriend (Justin Long) is a social snob who doesn't approve of Christine, and so on.

The girl cannot catch a break, which makes you root for her even in the most objectionable of circumstances, one of which involves the cutest darn little kitten you've ever seen. Of course, one does not root for her in the way one might root for those prisoners in Grand Illusion or even, for that matter, The Great Escape; but still. Which is where the gleeful cynicism comes in. Not just in the bit with the cat (which, rest assured, is far less grisly and uncomfortable than the kittie business in Tarr's Satantango—it's more conceptually audacious than visually explicit), but in the denouement, which strikes one as both hilariously heartless and utterly apt—and kind of begs for a sequel, perhaps to be titled Drag Me Back From Hell. Though I don't know if that Long fellow is gonna be up to it, quite frankly.

Glenn, though I thought the film had one humdinger of a finale, I felt like I had to seriously adjust to the Raimi aesthetic to get into this movie. I was surprised because I am a fan of his since the Evil Dead days. But something about the movie made it feel like a throwback, and not in a good way. Reading other reviews like yours, I definitely seem to be in the minority. In a weird way, I’m disappointed with myself for not liking it. Especially after praising Terminator Salvation so heartily.
You’re dead on with the cartoon comparison. And “Drag Me Back From Hell” is one sequel I would be 100% on board with. My only complaint? Raimi missed the opportunity to kill off David Paymer in homage to “Night of the Creeps.” Or to otherwise involve Paymer (one of my favorite character actors) in any of the supernatural goings-on.
It interests me that nobody brings up the use of an old “gypsy” woman as the source of the curse as even remotely problematic in any of the reviews I have read of this film. For me, it made enjoying the film highly problematic. My guess is that if the Raimi’s had made the old woman a “Jewish mystic” or “a Voodon Priestess” or even “a Native American spiritual leader” he would have received well deserved political critiques of an inherent racism underlying the project. It seems that the Roma do not elicit the same kind of respect or critique. I think it would have been a much better film if it had actually tackled these issues in a more complex way. The scary “gypsy” funeral just seemed like a cheap racist stereotype. Had the old woman been contextualized as a representative descendant of Nazi genocide and European persecution then her response to being shamed by the white woman would have been seen more sympathetically by the audience. As it is we never really are allowed to have any real sympathy with her character.
I would have to disagree with the knee-jerk objection to the use of Romany in this film. Can’t a gypsy be evil? As much as a German a nazi? Or a gangbanger perhaps mislead in his or her thinking? After all, the woman chooses to, instead of moving in with her daughter, condemn a woman to hell. The film makes no case that it is because she is Roma that she will of course use her evil gypsy powers to send demons after this woman. It is her pride that has been hurt at having to beg this young woman for her home. She places the blame on her rather than herself and pride thus condemns poor Christine to hell, to suffer for a thousand lifetimes. There is also a Mexican shaman-ess in the film as well, thus playing off the stereotype of the good hearted Mexican shaman woman who will always come to the aid of yuppies. Can we relinquish our liberal guilt for just one movie and not make something out of nothing. Also, I didn’t find the funeral to be scary or intentionally trying to frighten, all I saw was a family gathered together in large number to mourn the passing of a relative. I mean, no one even put a double curse on her for knocking over the corpse which I think is rather kindhearted of those dirty, dirty thieving gypsies.
Isn’t the evil character Alison Lohman and not the gypsy? Now that’s flipping stereotypes on their heads!
Raimi has described the Lohman character as a good person who does a bad thing, so that seems to be how we’re meant to see her. The gypsy lady has reason to be upset but I think we can agree she goes a bit far. The racially dodgy stuff at the funeral is the fact that the granddaughter is no more sympathetic than the old lady, and the rest of the mourners are a bunch of fairly groteseque stereotypes — we have lots of gypsy characters onscreen but none of them is separated from the vengeful cursing harpy by any moral distance. I think Craig is right that this would be criticised if the characters were black.
Daniel, I wish the film had went that far and actually made the “who is really evil” aspect ambiguous. As it is we are meant to have very little sympathy for Mrs. Ganish or her family. I think David is correct that we are meant to see the Lohman character as a flawed heroine.
Oh I don’t know, I think you guys are jumping on this a bit too hard. If anything, the fact that Raimi reveals the gypsy’s house to not just be inhabited by her daughter but by a whole group of family and friends acknowledges a world outside of both Lohman’s character and the scope of the story. I was being a bit facetious about calling Lohman evil, but I do think that there is supposed to be some very pointed irony when Justin Long tells her, at the end, that she has a good heart, when in fact she acted against her heart, and was damned to hell for it.
I think that people are far to tetchy with the whole P.C. thing. She was a gypsy… Yes, so what. I enjoyed a lot of the stereotypes (such as the blind eye, the accent, and the sense of honor) and thought they added to the character. I don’t think that they really focused on negatively portraying gypsy culture (and actually, I think that they touched on some of the better aspects, such as family, honor, and their views on death). She was obviously a somewhat ridiculous character, but I must assume that this is because of the fact that she was MEANT TO BE A COMEDY CHARACTER. Wow, What a concept!!!! A COMEDY CHARACTER in a COMEDY horror. I assume that even if she was just some sort of generic mystic, they still would have stereotyped the hell out of her. If you disagree, you are welcome to your opinion, but if you want to critisize my opinion, then you can take your pc and shove it up your ass, where it can become fast friends with that stick you always keep there for no reason : )
And for the record, I felt quite sorry for the old woman. Maybe if any of you asses had ever actually been evicted, you could have felt more “depth of feeling” for her character. As before, kindly shove it : )

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