Monday, December 7, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

After years of toiling away on blockbusters, Sam Raimi returns to his B-movie roots with this snappy little horror-comedy. I was a little cool to Drag Me to Hell at first, mostly because of Alison Lohman’s performance as Christine Brown, a loan agent who forecloses on a gypsy and as a result is cursed to eternal damnation (Justin Long, who is rarely interesting enough to sustain my interest for 30 seconds, let alone a whole film, hardly helps as her boyfriend). Compared to the walking cartoon that is Bruce Campbell, Lohman feels like a rather colourless protagonist—too passive, too doe-eyed, too generically pretty. Her good-girl looks tell us to like her, which somehow only makes her more unlikable, especially considering her generally dishonest, entitled behaviour throughout the film.

But that’s actually the point here, and one of the main pleasures of this film lies in how Raimi constantly tweaks our expectations of how we’re supposed to react. Shifts in tone leave us off balance, whether it be the dopey loud-music-sudden-crash shocks setting up more elegantly crafted jolts, or humourous scenes turning serious (and vice versa). A well-played, violent encounter between Christine and her shadowy demon tormentor gives way to an outrageous ritual sacrifice of her cat, complete with Norman Bates-style stabbing and buckets of blood splattering all over the place (I think the amount of fake blood used probably weighed more than the cat). The unstable mood builds to a bracingly acerbic conclusion that is at once unexpected and completely reasonable. After all, for all his love of slapstick silliness, Raimi is actually a very plain spoken and sensible director—qualities that shine through in this sardonic comment on status seeking and moral dishonesty.

Okay, so only a few scenes—such as a lively fight between Christine and a demon in a moving car, as well as the mud-soaked, grave-desecrating finale—reach the freewheeling heights of Raimi’s best work. And truthfully, you’ll probably laugh more just watching Army of Darkness for the umpteenth time. But where else can you go these days if you want to see a geriatric gypsy-demon gumming her victim because her dentures fell out? Raimi sees a need, and he fills it.

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