Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gypsys & Goatmen I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

2009 was an unprecedented year for come-backs. Many of them were not so great; James Cameron's ego made the ridiculous Avatar and Peter Jackson showed everyone that he had lost his mind with The Lovely Bones. On the plus side Kathryn Bigelow got her dignity back with the excellent The Hurt Locker, John Woo returned to form and then some with Red Cliff, and Sam Raimi returned to kick the horror genre's ass with Drag Me To Hell. I had all but written him off to the netherworld of comic book adaptations and producing less-then-stellar audience-less horror fare like Boogeyman, The Messengers and 30 Days of Night. Sam made two of my all-time favorite films The Evil Dead and The Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn but after that went down-hill quick. Sam left behind the horror elements of his first two films in favor of the slapsticky streak that made his first films so brilliantly off-beat. What Sam did best was horror that jumped out at you, screamed and flailed then pissed off; once you calmed down, repeat. He shouldn't ever have left the horror genre; his forays into the superhero genre (Darkman, Spiderman and its sequels) and a few others (For Love of the Game, Crimewave, The Quick & The Dead) were far less successful. In fact his only successful films after Evil Dead 2 were two taut thrillers A Simple Plan and The Gift. Given the difference in tone between The Gift and Spider-Man 2, I guess it was only a matter of time before he finally merged them again for another successful outing - his problem wasn't that he had turned his back on his roots, but that he had made the real horror and bombastic comedic elements too disparate. Something clicked though last year and he figured out that he needed to merge them and he got back to the magic he used to create; Sam Raimi is nothing if not a magician of the macabre. His first trick: giving me the opportunity to approach a ticket window, look at the man behind the window and say: "Drag Me To Hell!"

Drag Me To Hell
by Sam Raimi
In a brilliant red herring of a prologue a mexican family brings their sick looking boy to a seer called Shaun San Dena. He stole a necklace from a gypsy then everything in his life went to hell - excruciating pun intended there, friends. Shaun knows he's being haunted by a Lamia and tries a speedy exorcism but alas, the great demon is too cunning and takes the boy to a fiery nether-region via a crack in the floor which seals up immediately afterward. Shaun stares through the immaculate floor to the horned creature below and vows revenge. And that is how you start a film. Jump ahead forty years. Feisty former farmgirl Christine Brown has a hopelessly average existence that leans towards nice. She works for a bank, has a coin-collecting professor boyfriend, Clay, a lovely home and a cat. She's up for a promotion but the shit-eating new guy has her beat in the ass-kissing department. If she wants that assistant-manager position she's gonna have to start making the tough decisions - that's bank speak for denying people loans and hope. Her chance comes when an elderly and frankly kind of gross old woman called Sylvia Ganush arrives asking for a third extension on a loan - the men with the moving trucks have shown up to cart all her earthly possessions away. Christine decides this is her one chance and puts her foot down for the first and what might be the last time in her young life.

Sylvia Ganush is a proud old dame and doesn't take kindly to women a third of her age shrugging her off. She stoops to begging on her knees for Christine to give her another extension - this backfires. Christine is so put off by the old woman's shameless display that she calls security - big mistake. That night Sylvia is waiting in the backseat of Christine's car and after a deliciously Raimi-esque struggle, steals a button from the young girl's coat and says something about sicking a Lamia on her. Needless to say Christine is more than a little spooked; you don't need to have seen the prologue to know how bad this looks. She makes Clay stop at a fortune teller called Rham Jas just to see if, maybe on the off chance that Mrs. Ganush wasn't just a kook, she's been cursed. Rham Jas puts on a big show of deflecting Clay's cynicism with his mystic shtick but he shuts down when he sees into Christine's immediate future - she doesn't have one, you see. He stops the session and offers to give her money back but he refuses to go any further with the operation. Clay tries his hardest to calm her down but Christine simply isn't listening to reason anymore - the nightmares she has about a gypsy in her bed and fly going in her mouth freak her out, and so does the noisy gust of wind that knocks over everything in her house, not to mention Christine herself. The final straw comes the next day at work when a projectile nosebleed covers her boss while he's in the middle of complimenting her on a loan she's completed and for telling that gypsy to go fuck herself.

She tries to apologize to Sylvia, but the vindictive gypsy died just hours after the attack in the parking lot. Another trip to Rham Jas reveals that the Lamia takes three days to work its mojo before taking her soul. She's already lost one...two to go. Rham Jas thinks he might know who to talk to about the goat but he's gonna need money to convince her to come out retirement. But it shouldn't be too hard as she's been waiting for a rematch for forty odd years. In the meantime, who's for a bunch of classic Sam Raimi jolts and scares, not to mention one of the most awesome sound design jobs in history? I took some friends to see this movie after I saw it on opening night - yeah, that's right, I was there on opening night, I've been waiting for this movie since the fourth grade - and one of their responses was that it was not like a movie at all but literally like demons were coming to get him and I couldn't agree more. Sam really outdid himself with this one. In fact the only thing missing from this movie was the cut-throat tone of the first two Evil Dead movies. In those films you got the sense that everyone was fair game and nothing, no matter how depraved, was out of bounds. In Drag Me To Hell, a lot of truly terrifying and grim stuff happens, but it's hard not to picture Sam Raimi laughing just out of the frame. Which in a way makes the experience fun in a different kind of way because it gives the impression that he's enjoying being on just as much as we die-hards are enjoying the nods in our direction - the outline of the tools on the walls of the shed and the use of Sam's old Oldsmobile Delta 88 being just two. Now, all they needed was Bruce Campbell...
That sense of fun also extends to the performances. Alison Lohman gives it her all as Christine Brown and hits all the right notes at the right times - she oozes a kind of demented determination that is never not fun to watch. Whether she's lying her way through dinner or digging up the body of an old woman, she has a wonderful dead-pan delivery. What's especially great is the sincerity of the other actors she interacts with; everyone else is a type and they've all been turned to eleven, making Christine seem like the only sane one even as she's hallucinating eyeballs in her desert. Justin Long as Clay is hysterical because of the way he just cuts through all of the mysticism surrounding his girlfriend's problem. He's so utterly normal and a hilarious foil to the craziness that happens everytime he turns his back. Then there are his parents. Molly Cheek, who plays his mom, gets some of the best lines. She's a stereotype of the "when are you going to settle down" variety and a welcome one. Her insistence that Clay deserves better than Christine, who will always be a farm girl to the older woman, is a riot like the one-sided conversation Christine overhears between Clay and his mom. The brow-beating she gives him at every opportunity is hilariously over-wrought. Dileep Rao is great as a put-upon psychic who isn't prepared for his bullshit to be quite as real as it turns out to be. David Paymer as her boss (the hilariously named Jim Jacks) is wonderfully understated and Reggie Lee as Stu, the new guy who's angling for the same promotion as Christine is just awesome. His nit-picking and wordless "Fuck You's" are hilarious in an everyone-knows-this-guy kind of way. Lastly seasoned theatre actress Lorna Raver chews the scenery with aplomb as Sylvia Ganush; she's easily the best horror movie villain all year. And who doesn't love a goatman? Honestly. I even like the shitty ones from The Devil Rides Out and Vengeance of the Zombies so to see one carried off with this much panache was a real treat.

But of course the real kicker is that Drag Me To Hell is legitimately, awesomely, hilariously terrifying. See as many movies as me and you're likely to not find a good deal scary anymore, even stuff that used to do the trick. You wear yourself down a good portion of the time until all that's left are the memories of when you were scared. I saw Drag Me To Hell twice, both with theatre surround and a big screen, and I had just as much fun the second time as the first. Sam spends just the right amount of time on exposition (about fifteen minutes) and then we, like Christine, start our descent into the belly of the beast. I guess it should be said that he starts with an antique Universal Studios logo, which gets us into an Evil Dead state of mind. Really what Drag Me To Hell is about is loving classics; the story is fairly predictable, but I think that's sort of the point. Sam and his brother Ivan filled the script with a number of well-worn tropes and pretty loud character types but all the better to fuck with you, my dear. It makes sense in the context of a racist culture like ours to have a gypsy as the villain - it's a tradition as old as the Universal Horror films of old. Who were the harbingers of evil in The Wolf Man? Dracula? I also love having a laugh at the expense of this country's normal and rich and so to see a bank as the cause of all this trouble is not only timely but edifying. The film's message - Banks send you to hell - is one for the ages. The last bit of classic mischief Sam gets up to is in the film's conclusion. Obviously I won't spoil it but let's say it's just as tasty whether you know its coming or not and it fits the movie like a glove.
Drag Me To Hell is about as charming as horror films get - a rusty master gets back to doing what made his name and spares us no scare. The film drips with gooey special effects and joke vomit and I happily let it hit me in the face - this marks the first time that Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger's special effects haven't bothered me - and if for no other reason than that, Drag must be considered a success. Every line, every jolt is there to be devoured by those who appreciate this kind of thing. Sam and his cast and crew are so committed to the premise and to lulling you into sleep so they can jump out from under the bed that it's hard not to fall in love. I hear Sam's gearing up for another Evil Dead film. Though the ticket taker will hear me say "One for The Evil Dead" inside I'll be screaming "Drag Me To Hell!"

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