Published at: Jan. 28, 2009, 4:05 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I took a short detour from Santa Barbara down to LA this evening in order to be a sneaky bastard and infiltrate a test screening of Sam Raimi’s return to horror: DRAG ME TO HELL.
A little history before I jump into the review. When I originally heard Sam Raimi was writing a project with his brother, Ivan, called DRAG ME TO HELL, which was being set-up as a vehicle for Sam to direct, I got a horror-nerd boner. Anybody of my generation and my appreciation of horror worships Raimi and have been waiting through his (mostly) great super hero movies for him to return to the genre.
I was able to read the script and my hope deflated. It’s wasn’t a bad set-up, but it certainly wasn’t an EVIL DEAD 2-ish return to R-rated gore-comedy, or even a step into the serious horror arenas that I’d put THE GIFT and the original EVIL DEAD in to. It was essentially a redressed THINNER, but instead of an obnoxious doofus getting cursed to lose weight until he shrunk into nothingness it was a likable girl who made a bad decision and was then cursed with a horrible being called the Lamia who tortures its victims for 3 days before ultimately dragging their souls down to hell.
The script ultimately promised a watered down Sam Raimi horror movie, so my excitement dropped a bit. There was a fantastic scene I was looking forward to seeing realized as written, a séance scene that goes perfectly bug-fuck crazy and even read as being visually ripped out of his Evil Dead world.
So, that’s where I was walking into this movie. I wasn’t impressed with the script, but there was at least going to be one scene that I could walk away with.
And then the movie started, with the 1980s Universal logo, which got cheers from the audience, and I was proven very, very wrong in my misjudgment of Sam Raimi's ability to execute this story.
There was a whole new opening from what was originally scripted, where a Mexican family brings their young son to a seer. He stole a necklace from a gypsy’s cart and for three days has been haunted by an evil spirit. The seer tries to help the boy, but his time is up and an invisible force rushes into the room, knocking everybody to the floor, then chases the scared child out of the room and out onto a landing overlooking the hard marble floor some 15 feet below.
AND THEN THIS FORCE KNOCKS THE 12 YEAR OLD KID OVER THE RAILING!
But that’s not all. The psychic woman runs to look and sees the kid sprawled below. He wakes up and tries to regain his feet, but the floor cracks beneath him and hell opens up below him, dozens of arms grabbing at him, ultimately pulling him down to hell as the young seer watches in horror.
What’s great about this opening is it immediately evaporated my fears of Sam Raimi being held back by a PG-13 rating. PG-13 or not, this movie opens with a terrified 12 year old boy being forcefully dragged to hell.
Another huge plus for me was just how Raimi attacked the material. His famous dutch angles came into play during the scares and suspense.
When I was on the phone with Harry after the screening he asked me where would this movie fall in with the EVIL DEAD movies. I told him it was 70% Army of Darkness and 30% EVIL DEAD.
People forget it now, but the very first EVIL DEAD was really fucking creepy and atmospheric. It was a slow burn suspenseful movie that had some comedy, but definitely not as much as the sequels.
When young Alison Lohman is first haunted by the visage of the creepy old gypsy woman who lays the curse on her and then by the evil Lamia (a tall man-goat creature… don’t worry, we never really get a good look at it and the silhouette and glimpses we do get looks eerie as all hell) the scenes are genuinely tense. I had to cross my arms and tuck my hands under my arm pits for fear that I’d noticeably jump (and I did anyway).
So it has that aspect to Raimi’s work, but there is also the flat out fun of EVIL DEAD 2 and ARMY OF DARKNESS, especially in Lohman’s first fight with Lorna Raver, who plays the creepy old gypsy woman, Mrs. Ganush.
If you don’t know anything about the story, Lohman is desperately trying to fill a vacant assistant manager position at the bank where she works as a loan officer. Her boss (played by hello the great hello David Paymer hello) is considering both her and the slimy Reggie Lee for the seat, but Reggie has the edge because… well, he’s a dickhead and Lohman is too nice, always trying to help the customer instead of looking out for the bank’s best interests.
So, when creepy old Mrs. Ganush comes up looking for help because the bank is about to repossess her house Lohman decides to take a hard line, even when the old woman begs, down on her knees and everything. This shames the proud woman and Lohman should have known better than to cross a gypsy that has a fucked up white blind eye and raggedy yellow fingernails anyway.
There’s a big fight in the parking lot (the old woman is driving “The Classic” by the way, so for the beginning of the parking garage sequence her presence is represented solely by the great Raimi hero car) that goes crazy over-the-top, but it’s a gradual evolution. It’s all sound design and slow suspense when Lohman first walks in, then the jumps happen when the old hag is revealed and then it gets crazy. Stapler to the face, dentures busted out and a great KNB puppet that opens its mouth incredibly wide and dribbles snot and spit all over Lohman’s face and into her mouth. There's actually a whole lot of that kind of thing in this movie, which is a great way to keep the gross-out factor and keep the lower rating.
This scene ends with the curse being laid upon Lohman and then the rest of the movie is a rush to find out just what the curse is and figure out how to get rid of it.
I mentioned KNB’s effects work with the gypsy head, but I have to really congratulate their work here. Especially the final effect… I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it and go “HOLY SWEET BABY JESUS!” It’s that cool and well done.
Lohman famously inherited this role from Ellen Page who dropped out right after JUNO hit it super big. I think it would be fascinating to see what Page would have done with the role, but what Lohman brings to it is a sweet innocence that Page isn’t exactly known for. Lohman becomes stronger as the movie progresses, but even when she takes a stand later in the movie she’s still a very vulnerable character. There’s nothing stony or smart-ass about her, which makes you want to see her succeed all the more.
Justin Long plays her devoted boyfriend. His character read really kind of dickish and unrealistically supportive later in the movie. His dickish character was mostly in the “I don’t believe in this shit” stance he has to take for the first half of the movie, but the way Long played him he was always sympathetic. Long can be incredibly likable and he turns it up here, without crossing over into annoying territory. He has a moment… I won’t say when, but he has a moment… where he says everything there is to say about his character in a shot held on his face. He might not get much recognition as an actor, but a lesser performer would not have sold that moment.
Basically, all I can tell you guys is that the movie isn’t flawless… the story’s been told before, etc… but goddamn it’s done in a really fun way by one of the genre's best filmmakers. The seance scene, without a doubt, will be held up with some of the best scenes of Raimi's previous movies.
The biggest compliment I can lay on this movie actually comes from my buddy Kraken who was with me at the movie. There’s a moment where a psychic (Dileep Rao) tells Lohman that there is someone who can help her, but this person won’t come cheap. In the film it’s the seer from the beginning, which leads to the best scene in the script (and in the final movie): the séance. But what Kraken said was that this could just as easily have blown all our minds and had Lohman show up at the door of one Ashley J. Williams.
Now, again, that doesn’t happen, but this world felt like it belonged in the world of the Deadites. The highest compliment I could pay this film is that it made me hunger for Raimi to really get going on EVIL DEAD 4. He still has it, clearly. He’s crafted a film that is incredibly fun, tensely suspenseful and sometimes gut-laughingly funny. And that ending… absolutely perfect. It’s not exactly hard to see coming, but in this era of horror filmmaking it’s always a surprise to see a movie end on such a dark note, especially when it’s executed so well.
Raimi himself sat in the audience, not in the roped off section. In fact, he sat next to a guy wearing an Army of Darkness T-shit whose mind must have been blown… then he talked energetically with everybody around him, even sharing his popcorn with his fans sitting around him.
He was only a couple rows in front of me, so I was worried that my cover was going to be blown. I doubt he’d know who I was, but I did interview him at last year’s Comic-Con, so there was a chance he'd recognize me.
In fact, after the movie I was out in the lobby waiting for Kraken to finish filling out his post-movie questionnaire and Raimi walked out right in front of me, looking a tad anxious I must say. He looked up at me as he walked past and slight recognition crossed his features… he kept looking as he walked on by and I just looked around like I didn’t know who the hell he was.
I don’t have any illusions that he knew who I was, but I think he must have had one of those “I’ve seen that guy before…” moments. At that point, I wasn’t too concerned… hell, I’d already seen the movie, but I was still worried I’d get busted.
So, yeah. I’m headed back up to Santa Barbara and will continue my coverage up there, but now you guys know that DRAG ME TO HELL worked not only for me or the people I knew in the audience, but for the whole audience itself, which was clapping and cheering throughout. Even in this rough form, projected off of what looked like a low-res internet video source (blocky pixels in many of the shots) and with very temp CG work for some of the blood and hell opening up shots. Even with all that the movie works.
Welcome back home, Sam. We missed ya’. Don’t wait so long before coming back again, hear?