Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: "Drag Me To Hell"

Drag Me To Hell

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When Sam Raimi made "The Evil Dead" in 1981, he was fresh out of film school.  He brought to the zombie sub-genre a manic, frenetic, and over-the-top style that blended terrifying gore with ridiculous camp.  With an effervescent camera that spiraled, charged, and infiltrated the action from unpleasant tilts and feverish proximity, his was a bold and original style.

Now, in 2009, Raimi is nearly 30 years divorced from that work, having made two increasingly campy sequels and helmed another blockbuster trilogy (Spider-man).  His return to his roots, "Drag Me To Hell," is a fresh, original, and madly entertaining film that breathes phantasmic life into an ailing American horror genre, veritably resurrecting demon-possession/paranoia films from their ashes.

In Raimi's latest, Alison Lohman stars as Christine Brown, a loans officer willing to do anything to get an open assistant manager position - including turning down a mortgage extension to a creepy gypsy woman.  Shamed, the gypsy attacks Christine, placing a curse on her soul that will torment her for three days before dragging her, as you can probably guess, to Hell.  In the "Evil Dead" films, Bruce Campbell was a puppet for torture, subjected to physical woes and bloody lamentations.  As she becomes mentally unhinged, Christine is thrown about by shadows and gets covered in bugs, mud, and other assorted slime - but before the eyes roll with the disgust of "typical female torture," Raimi lets Christine become ferociously alive in the final act, fighting back against her curse with collective restrain mixed with a dash of spunk and badass-ery.  Raimi's direction of Lohman is surprisingly low-key; her reactions and movements are rarely over-the-top - when they are, it feels appropriate, lending itself to the camp and the horror.  When she pulls back, she lets her character become part of the tapestry of whirlwind effects.

Raimi's technical prowess is on full display, and he returns to the horror genre a seasoned professional, fully capable of knowing how to ratchet his suspense and mess with his visuals.  "Drag Me To Hell" is a loud, chaotic picture.  The camera does drastic tilts, shadows descend, bumps turn into booms, and right when you're terrified of what's about to happen, Raimi goes past of the point of plausibility - his tension becomes hysterical gross-out, the effects get extreme, and it's hard not to laugh at the severity of Christine's situation.

The film refuses to take itself seriously, and the better for it.  As it gains headlong momentum into its final act, successively building on its scares and shocks until it breaches its own dam and the floodgates let all Hell - literally speaking - break loose, Raimi doesn't let his trickery get the best of him.  "Drag Me To Hell" is indeed a return of true horror, of films that fascinate, draw you in, suck you dry, and still brim with a thorough intensity through their final seconds.  Raimi reclaims his position as a visionary maestro, and horror is the better for it.

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