Sam Raimi - Indepth: Drag Me To Hell

Martin Goodhead 03/06/2009

It begins with a promise of the old mischief; a Grand Guignol piece of exorcism in a marshy and ornate California mansion circa '67, ending with a young Hispanic moppet sucked through the marble floor into the Pit by virtue of some mysterious malediction-- and a flurry of wall-crashing special effects. Which are still more terrifying for the thought it might be another 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' after all the unnervingly parallel publicist rhetoric about both movies going 'old-school'; the suspension of disbelief not so much turned at the pretty seamless chandelier-hurling demonic spooks, as at an invested love—or at least expectation—in an age where hype swells and debunkings have become the industry's dark-twinned stock in trade of California itself. Then Sam R shows us the tarot cards, images from woodcarvings like 'The Book of the Dead' from his earlier fright-fest and the be-horned evil spirits and shrieking villagers, all overlaid on a distant California downtown city-scape and we cut to a San Diego, very much the modern day and a modern demi-monster as heroine.

Sam Raimi, you see has a dark secret. Director of none-more mainstream red-white-blue yee-haw Spiderman flicks and producer of those computer-generated re-makes so distasteful to Fangoria fan sensibilities, Raimi started life as a maker of semi-anarchic, morally dubious pieces of inventive splatter involving face-hugging crones, rapacious trees, insane zombifying psychotic Deadite spirits and lantern jawed gung-ho anti-heroes named Ash and always played by B-movie colossus Bruce Campbell. Now returning to the genre after 17 years of tamer fare, clay-footed almost before the first frame with that dreaded US PG-13 certificate from which few horrors have emerged with credit, could such a Raimi, whose 'Ghost House Studio' production line remade The Grudge with Buffy and Shutter with Pacey - adaptations of variable merit and conviction with A/B list TV stars, all linked by their near-humourless pallor and CGI-art saturation, really evoke the horror-skills of his halcyon cult days.

The question firing the message boards was- not just whether but what kind of 'aberration' would this be. Car-crash, antiseptic or the kind of aberration that has a Deadite face and wields a flamethrower-i.e the good kind , for non initiates. Would Drag Me To Hell be a reinvention in line with his new multiplex viewership, or would it be midnight movies, pop-culture tropes and plasticite gore and winks again. And all to compensate for Ash's continual non re-appearance.

(If you can't stand reading another 3K here's the condensed skinny ''this new horror flick has something from both—splattered with 'witch on a broomstick' references, bitter twisted comedy, and ambiguous politics (on which no mainstream critic has really commented, except variants on 'bankers get theirs, lolz') , all cackling through the painted veil of modern horror sensibilities aspects of this new 'Raimi''' and is all slightly poignant in a very twisted way.)

Alison Lohmann is Christine, a chirpy, but under that soft-bloused look, power-dressed and power-driven... loan officer, up for promotion at a Cali. Bank. Fittingly we meet her in an early morning traffic jam with self-help cd's for company; she's somewhere then between heaven and prose, embracing and brooking the system with a quick-noted soft-vegetarianism, liberal sympathies, cachet beau and the faint flames of a systematic careerism which sustain her even as she flinches occasionally deep inside. Later she will take in books on spells and spirit summoning ceremonies with an equal fervour of self-improvement parody. Christine's neither a burn-out nor a super-heroine but has the kind of vague familial dysfunction conveniently out of bounds for polite dinner party conversation. Like with her boyfriend's parents; the boyfriend, played by a reserved Justin Long, a young Psych professor descended from LA East-side Minor 'Old Money' blue-blood stock. Then—into her clean branch and clean life with its massaged moral dilemmas falls a macabre accident of fate with an withered visage and evil eye; one guilt-charged spot of equivocal management-calibre pragmatism later and she's cursed by a romany, caught between the devil and Pacific—with the former spoiling to get snares-rattles and pitchforks into her for eternity just like half the (not very) poor girl's clients. And that's the plot.

Raimi's early works weren't intrinsically political— except for their censor bothering sensibilities, but as loads of professional cultural theorists and dissertation-factories have shown, horror is pretty ripe with subconscious 'state of-being/zeitgeist' tendencies, like Keat's Aeolian harp, or just because horror's about sex, violence and other primordial greeds- which are usually pretty nakedly manifest in any political or economic biosphere. Drag me to Hell on one level is a pure event movie of the same species as its predecessors, in both cases the scares …aesthetically profound as Michael Bay's explosions, the riffs on pop-culture references about as deconstructive as a Zucker-Zucker spoof. It's about the force of your laughter and the adrenalin coursing through your nerve reflexes, rather than a Haneke like puritan screed about what an accomplice to voyeurism one is for watching Sorority Bloodhouse Girls Six over a Peroni, or whatever. It's 'transcendent'- ie copies classical structures; upon the shape of everyday dramedy the Raimi brothers' irreverent but canny script imposes the magic numbers; three-. Three days- the number of classic storytelling and ritual numerological significance, three chances for Christine to supposedly 'redeem' herself etc. But after that, Drag Me To Hell's still also about omniscient systems taking over and crushing the life of a morally (near) blameless US bank employee, whose crime is to serve a debatable corporate ethos against a socially marginalised and yet potentially dangerous immigrant armed with a secret army of helpers( even if they happen to come from incantations rather than Afghanistan or a tin-pan Banana Republic) . This shtick is just charged with symbols.

In the context of working in a bank, the shadow looming over it, like that over Christine, is the instability of all markets, the bottomless pit it threatens to collapse into-of collective debt, and all the while the bank culture encourages her to pull one over on her co-workers, to send him literally spiralling down instead of herself. From free-lending munificence suddenly that third mortgage isn't forthcoming, leaving all the substrata of society-from gypsies in dilapidated old townhouses to loan advisors out on limbs and gnashing with metaphorical hook, claw (and staple) to save themselves from each other rather than fighting the omniscient power of economy. Omniscient like the horror-movie score; Christine suffers more than any blonde in a suspense thriller since Hitchcock and right from the beginning too Raimi has composer Christopher Young emulate Bernard Hermann's mid-period Hitch work, with stabbing self-conscious strings fading into creaking-corrugated iron gates and pans against claws which all sigh like those demonically funny and unsettling music cues.

Neither the jungle laws of marketplace nor magic reward loan officers for their virtues; everything here contravenes the 'Protestant work Ethic' masquerade sustaining the American dream; locates destiny in fate and contingency. Like indeed the accidents of breeding valued by Justin Long's character Dr's parents, with their tasteful white-brick palazzo, which threaten to banish Christine. As far as the movie goes, it cultivates this air of constant epistemic suspicion over effects; how will Chris-will she even?-, alleviate the curse. Then, who has undercutting her real-estate deal and her 80's still Working Girl hopes so cruelly, especially after she engineered it all through bible of capitalism the WSJ all by herself; this is how capitalism rewards her application? Rewarding ''Stu Rubins''- the slimeballs she's still too compassionate to jinx despite being guaranteed an eternity of roasting if she doesn't rather than arguing the case at judgement. Prostrated before monster or Mammon- attempts at the 'fully ethical' life go unheeded -whether it's giving up hours with impossibly sympathetic Professor Long, turning blind eyes to dubious customer hygiene on grounds of customs (and continued custom)... or sacrificing domestic pets.

It's fitting that the claw stretching spiky-haired shadow demon directing the chaos looks like a cross between a fairy-tale horror and a parody; menacing and a self-referential, faintly absurd although purely malevolent creature. It's true kooky viciousness gets revealed in the exorcism scenes but its foul and committed mischief making leaves traces on the celluloid enough to produce a coldhearted and brutally amusing pay-off in the face of sentimentality's heady temptation. Then there's Raimi's infamous camera; with its allusive speed cam whirl-pool dizzying motions, referring back to the crazed elastic logic of his earlier excursions into horror. Even to sensibilities numbed from modern quick editing techniques, it's assaulting- but with a dizzyingly bright surrealist use of blurred vision rather than the mechanics of slasher horrors which co-opted the technique to lesser gains.

The movie's either honest or fiendish. Airing her secrets like a disgraced city-banker gives no absolution in this wish-nightmare fulfilment funhouse. In lesser films her confessionals would prefigure a -slightly shaken-retreat back to precarious bliss with that -admittedly very understanding boyfriend, but confessing up the ghosts of the past like a CEO caught creaming off the fund won't-even in her relative innocence, -save Chris--or the good Prof. She won't out-trick the spirits with her ingenuity in business or the semantics of curses, by sob stories or warrior final-girl tight-vested androgynous role-play. Fulfilling every convention, the ground just shifts and cracks open under her feet to fulfil Raimi's own singular set of horror Kansas City shuffles. Neither by opening up graves and with a cathartic confrontation or a quotable bubble sardonic pay-off; by an appeal to her mother's dipsomania, which temporarily puts the upper-classes on her side in Sam and Ted's sly script, or her Long-infatuation, nothing will take her past three days—unless she can strip herself of every principle of logic and ethics going and be shameless enough to get a presidential-style pardon cheque. When the get-up spirit of Christine's self-help books and managerial aspirations is assailed by ghosts, sleazes and by the patrician forces of society into which she hasn't been raised it's a true American nightmare of what is and shouldn't be-- the two sides of the material universe, bodies and money consumption threaten her dreams even as they're the driving force.

So it's politics but mainly—it whispers in triumph-- because movies are politics, and you don't have to be Gramsci to figure it. Drag Me to Hell's about culpability, volition and fate- who's 'deserving' of theirs; fate in a movie's movie being preceded by archetypes evident everywhere from William Castle horrors to Grimm fairy-stories to slashers, all come back to haunt these aspirationally three-dimensional characters and say- there's no escape for you. Unsurprising then that one of the movie chief subplot targets is the faith in psychology; psychology can explain what and how as does Long's Professor Clay as boyfriend here, but really what does it change at a molecular or spiritual dimension. So too 'good' witchcraft, a dilettantish exercise when metaphysics is-quite honestly- a nasty joke like Kiedeggard on laughing gas; practitioners, played by Indian fortune tellers and Iberian mystics, can diagnose and temporarily inconvenience spirits but still the ending is pretty much according to the rules of the dark-side. A 1967 Exorcism symbolises California succumbing to the licentiousness of the occult—that time, which like that house, has a particular 'mystical' energy—and it doesn't just apply to the black magicians. Willing something exquisitely gory and apposite. A mysterious near-death mud-pit resurrection like the winking logic of the virtually invincible protagonists, until you think the twist must be given what just happened she's in the after-life or turned into a movie within a movie-all these are arch, conventional savvy games played by Raimi's touch.

Like any conscientious, body-moulding trainee exec, Christine watches her calories along with her enunciation. When the horror happens, it includes the threat of regression to her Miss Piggy phase- ice-cream gorge cheeked at puberty - which is the true face squirreled away in her recipe book only to be ripped on by Raimi's truth-telling surrogate tormentor. Gypsies, by contrast, are naturally starved,. Not that it absolves them of that traditional ambivalent movie role as interveners and intermediaries with the spirit world. But Raimi's really interested simply in the bitter humour of it all- pol. correctness and pol. corporation baiting alike- and what humour there is ranges between in-joke plays to those kind of typically Cal body-fixation anxieties suddenly erupting like a sick joke. Many sick jokes; DMTH does a line in the mordant, splatter caricature and a cola-black ghoulish pall alike. The Oldsmobile of the Evil Dead Trilogy is uncannily re-created by Mrs Garnush 'automobile' lurks like Stephen King's Christine in the abandoned employee car-park bathed in a noughties green-horror movie j-horror inflected light for a distinctly old-school set up in cranking tension and ghoulish teeth-rattling anarchy. There's the 'Sidney Prescott'-like suburban house she and Long own in the furthest reaches of LA like it's Pennsylvania. Or the ornate derangement of the Spanish mansion with its 'energies' in which the séance takes place, a rococo-baroque/stained glass fusion—camply excessive but also nerve jangling.

Shots of decomposing parts and re-animated spectres are set against optimistic California. Our heroine gets transformed from a soft-centre vegetarian into a figurative and literal killer. Those wickedly gleaming 'here kitty kitty' as the PETA sponsoring yuppie suddenly becomes--reflected against the wall- the demon of her own cat's dreams with a seductive malice, is incredibly metaphorical but also one of the pourri-pot pleasures -quotable with an arched eyebrow and a wheedling impersonation outside its scene. Raimi 's camera finds it delicious how secretly thrilling this awakening of the latent sinisterness to her perfectionist drive is infiltrated by the uncanny, the office is ripe for humour, after all, her employers and cohorts are the epitome of institutional blandness and euphemism behind which lies a fatalistic Beckettain humour of the apocalyptic. Apocalyptic because it's the end of humanity- the apogee of selfishness like a clinical exercise in self-mockery; Christine's' daytime projectile blood spurts have manager J. Jacks more worried about his tie than her haemorrhage scale bleeding. When staff members need life-or soul-saving loans, he gives them half days off-- reasonable rational language becomes pitched at a hysterical frequency as the world beyond the bank's walls reveals itself to be under the sway of forces money cant recognise. And then there's the matter of those rulers and staplers which end up decorating the face of a possessed gypsy crone as Christina turns the tools of white-collar white-slavery into primitive- but inventive combat; the worst customer in CR nightmares turned a mixture of horror and wish fulfilment; spiked like a stress-ball littered with the detritus of a paper-shuffling existence.

What the film casually mocks as petty PETA- qualms and Christine's scenes with her prospective in-laws Molly and Ross are reminiscent of the uproarious madness always subtextual to the human in Bunel, where the message is 'you'd be surprised at how crazy everything you believe is'. In both cases ancient institutions choke themselves through protocol over fears of some un-stated prescription hanging up like the imp on the wall; just that in this film's case the metaphor becomes quite clearly realised. Which is worse psychologically- the Lamia monster's (almost) de-corporeal boo-jolts, or the sleek supercilious mind-effs of Prof. Clay's patrician mother as she peels agonizingly through the skin-layers of Christine's middle-class aspiration.

Raimi references his own myth with the DIY monster-disposal methods and appliance animation in Drag Me To Hell's set-piece toolshed arrays of garden implements, then the cutlery and pots with wind chimes always a-clang in this movie. Christine's trickster -victim ingenuity isn't on Bruce Campbell's geek-cool level but two scenes--in the car, and in the garage-stand out. In the latter, the Ganush/Demon stretches her jaws like Chris Cunningham's 'come to Daddy' with her Aphex creation-toothless goblins gums like African plate swallowers around our heroine's head, and in return Christine takes on Raimi's role for one and sets off some outrageous impromptu contraption of string and anvil to crunch the phantasmagoric shadow-beast with poor manners. On her face, those fruitful seconds after, the truth of the film, a mixture of the petrified and triumphant akin to Ash. Likewise later ,a 'keep bringing the coffee' line so absurdly hardboiled it could almost be a weary Bruce Campbell in 'Evil Dead Part X' after another chainsaw demon slating.

It's quite some set of pieces. Mostly concerned with the mouth- Raimi's ghoulish close-up corporeal horrors with a grim pseudo-moreality evoke a Jacobean tragedian. It's the small details; the incipient baroque yuckiness when the one eyed and falling apart Mrs Garnush, opens up her lips and has those gunky rotten dentures with which she plays, dribbling on sweets- and a hock -filled handkerchief which ends up haunting Christine like a menacing magic carpet. And when they later constantly bear down over Christine's own mouth as if about to ravish her face in those night-time visitations, the film is remorselessly and excitedly, effectively packdog as a slavering rottweiller; the trans-corporeal crone-beast vs Alison's toothy self-conscious bodiliness.

Then there's the—awesomeness-- foul-mouthed goat, like the mounted animal heads from Evil Dead 2. And the Irish-jig break-dancing levitated Mexican with false wolf teeth. Or the embalming fluid spurting gypsy witch corpse rigor mortis wrestling with our heroine in the middle of a wrecked wake. A corpse she gets to revisit in the film's penultimate set piece in a blaze of studio-light cymbal-like thunder and Amicus horror lightning like a female Ash Williams, splattered and half-deranged in a quagmire grave, howling at the moon. A corpse she only has eyes for which gives her the eyes back--straight down her throat to join the flies and gunk and whatever else actress Alison Lohman had to suffer( a lot).

There's a set-up-sadly never accomplished due to the unfortunate impediment of a demon attack-- of Christine and the Dr's blissful plans for a “weekend in some rural log-cabin”-ala Raimi's original 1981 opus. Eyeballs pop out with a Tex Avery elasticity; CGI simulated, they echo the modern horror film's techniques being appropriated from within to resemble the equivalent of Raimi's previous gloop. Those spinning steadicams, not disjointed like video editing but a whirlpool carnival like Ash's witch-fighting scenes in Evil Dead 2. As occasionally do her pay-off lines. But there's some tricky foreshadowing with a certain artefact which ends up in the movie's own envelope switch magic trick-- the darkest joke of all ala 'Tales from the Crypt' or 'Twilight Zone' irony. In this more cynical universe of phenomenal consequentialism, homeland security and savings busts, you cant't just oldsmobile your way out of hell or internally punch-out an interloping evil spirit, like your boss, with pure grooviness. Regardless of the games and self-referential throw-backs with which the movie operates, that ending is unbelievably-biting, callous, its writers 'of the devil's party' and don't they know it. It could be penned by the Lamia itself; haunts you with an authentic conviction which the cartoon frolics and satisfaction of seeing Raimi back in his first love, don't lessen. Despite everything though Drag Me still feels 'quality vintage', high retro-psychedelia, , not made with the same innocent ingenuity as Raimi's earlier work, a touch of the inevitably sour and jaded, but with an underlying crazed joy like Christine and Ash wrestling with witches and their triumphant b-movie heroic smiles.

'Drag Me To Hell' Out in Cinemas now