Friday, December 10, 2010

DRAG ME TO HELL (2009): No Absolution

The King James Version of the Bible states: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”  Every Protestant child, including myself, had the idea behind the verse, if not the verse itself, thwarted upon him or her throughout their early years.   And since everyone that experienced such an upbringing has at some point in their life been haunted by the thoughts of demons watching over them awaiting every opportunity to take advantage of every sin, however minor, it should surprise no one that a director like Sam Raimi would turn such an idea into a plot for a horror movie called Drag Me to Hell.

In Drag Me to Hell, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer at a bank, seemingly too soft hearted to ever receive recognition for a promotion.  Mr. Jacks (David Paymer), her boss, would like to see her succeed, but he favors her co-worker, Stu (Reggie Lee), who is much more ambitious and has turned bootlicking into an art form.  As Christine sees that coveted promotion to Assistant Manager begin slipping away from her, she takes her frustration out upon an old and seemingly decrepit woman with one bad eye by the name of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) that comes to the bank begging for an extension on her house payment.  Since Christine refuses to budge to this obviously eccentric customer and humiliates this person by calling in security to take the old woman away, Mrs. Ganush places upon Christine the mother of all curses.  A Lamia is summoned up to harass Christine for three straight days and, if not appeased, than drag her into hell.  Unfortunately, before Christine can beg Mrs. Ganush to call off the demon, Mrs. Ganush dies – probably as a result of being evicted from the home in which she had lived for some thirty years.

Now Christine has a boyfriend named Clay Dalton (Justin Long) who, despite having a deep rational streak and an overbearing mother with incredible wealth, is absolutely devoted to Christine and would do whatever it took to help her out.  Clay is not convinced that Christine is in anyway haunted, but he does know that something is bothering her and humors her when she decides to seek the aid of a spiritualist by the name of Rham Jas (Dileep Rao).  Though Rham has a tendency to be a bit greedy and originally seem to perceive Christine’s predicament as a welcome opportunity to supplement his income, he is also a real believer in the occult and becomes convinced that Christine’s curse is very real.  After giving Christine a few recommendations that fail to rid Christine of the curse and after a few harrowing incidents that convince Rham that this is no ordinary demon that they are dealing with, Rham summons Shaun San Dea (Adrianna Barraza), a world class shaman, to attempt to get rid of this curse once and for all.  Sadly, Shaun San Dea – who had previously seen a Lamia drag a young child off to hell after that child stole some precious silver – was only temporarily successful at shooing the demon away.  Instead, the exertion of the exorcism was so great that Shaun San Dea collapsed and died.  Christine’s one remaining option was to give the way a button for which the curse revolved around to another individual with the knowledge that whoever takes the gift would receive her curse.  She thought of Stu, but didn’t have the heart to do this to him.  Instead, in the middle of the night, she digs up Mrs. Ganush’s grave and deposits the envelope in which the button was supposed to have been placed inside of Mrs. Ganush’s mouth.  Only the next day, when she goes on her rendezvous to meet Clay at the train station where they are to go off on a vacation, does she discover that Clay had the envelope that contained the button.  Since Christine is thus not able to rid herself from the curse, the Lamia then arrives to drag her to eternal damnation.

Though Drag Me to Hell is a horror movie and commercial blockbuster as well, this is a fairly well-made movie.  To begin with, it’s only 99 minutes long which is a positive.  Lorna Raver is excellently cast as the mysterious Mrs. Ganush, and Alison Lohman comes off as surprisingly tough when she needs to be towards the end of the movie when digging up Mrs. Ganush’s grave.  With talking goats, an odd assortment of characters that for some reason or other reside in Los Angeles and a take on the lighter side of animal sacrifices, the film contains a good deal more fun than one is accustomed to in this sort of genre.  I was a bit taken aback by critics accusing Raimi of using “gross-out” tactics or “cheesiness” to pull movie-goers into the theatre.  I admit that the soundtrack was a bit overdone at times with the use of loud noises, but with a PG-13 rating the visual effects are certainly no more filled with gore than what the average child could see on network television almost every night.  This is a horror movie that was never intended to be taken seriously, and the movie certainly complies with the modern day formula for that genre.  It just happens to do that with nothing that resembles wholesale slaughter. (I guess because of the assets of Drag Me to Hell I can forgive Sam Raimi for directing the Spider Man movies, though I won’t go as far as the Boston Globe which states: “ ‘Spider Man’ restored a kind of joyful sincerity to his [Sam Raimi’s] work.”  I’m not quite sure what that means.) 

I probably should mention that five years from now, almost everyone that ever watched Drag Me to Hell will forget that it ever existed.  This is only a minor objection since the same thing is true of every blockbuster that has been shown during the last couple of years - save a handful of movies that received some additional hype.  There has been an overkill of horror movies so that even the best of this genre get confused with the many imitations.  If not for the fact that Hitchcock directed it, most moviegoers would forget that Psycho was the film every other horror film director since has attempted to duplicate as far as film technique goes.  If Psycho had been directed with or without an anonymous director in 1980 instead of 1960, it too would have been mostly forgotten.  The barrage of computer generated special effects and sound systems that can make a noise sound like it has been generated from almost any location in the theatre has made almost every horror film seem almost a copy of one another.  So Drag Me to Hell, better than many films labeled “Best Picture” material and certainly better than 95% of all horror flicks (though this in itself is nothing worth boasting about), will have practically no significance in cinematic history.

I like this movie because it has somewhat of a moral while not at the same time pretending to be any sort of “message” film.  It does not bother me that at least temporarily Drag Me to Hell will pick up more money at the box office than any of the five films featured at the Academy Awards.  To “reap what we sow” is a great storyline for any horror film, but it works especially well here because it is obvious that the bank clerk gave into the temptation of ambition for perhaps once and the only time in her life.  In other horror films, the only motive for the consequences seems to be a sexually frustrated loser that understandably cannot find himself a date.  I’d say that Drag Me to Hell brought back a sort of “joyful sincerity” to Sam Raimi’s work that was missing in the three prior Spider-Man movies.

June 10, 2010 
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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