Modern Midnights: Drag Me to Hell

For this week’s Midnight Screenings, being that Halloween is upon us and all, here are reviews of three modern would-be Halloween films destined for years of “Midnight” Screenings all throughout the land.

What was that old saying? In order to review a film, you have to make a film. Thankfully for us, Sam Raimi wanted to review a genre, and he took that phrase to heart. Drag Me to Hell plays like a greatest hits of horror, a loving pastiche of horror film clichés played here with a wink more than scream. We get an old gypsy woman straight out of Universal, all kinds of goopy fluids out of ’80s schlock films (the kind Raimi built his career on), atmospherics on loan from ’70s films with an air for the fantastique like The Exorcist, and a talking goat out of … does it really matter? This isn’t a particularly inventive film, but it’s the kind of rejiggering of the past we don’t usually see done with this much skill today. Fittingly, it’s both timeless in its recreation of classic horror norms and decidedly timely: it’s got a sly sense of humor aimed squarely at 2009 America, a moral joy for the bailout crowd that delights in turning bankers on their head and just giving them a generally messy time. And that sort of moralist high-camp has always been at home in the horror genre. Fitting then that, after years of big-budget brawn, this was Raimi’s glorious home-coming.

Most of Raimi’s best films work with simple, broad stories upon which he can slather oodles upon oodles of personality and psychotic prowess. Here, Raimi’s narrative concoction on which to spread his grand feverish filmmaking is suitably simple and broad in its fable-like proportions. It’s not nearly as directly personal and elemental as The Evil Dead, but this story of banker Christine Brown, played by Alison Lohmann, hits with pizzaz and deliciously black-hearted force. When she turns down a gypsy woman’s loan, well, let’s just say the story is her, the banker, getting the short end of the stick in this deal, and Raimi enjoying every second of it.

Raimi’s self-reflexive filmmaking is the real star here though. His aural work recalls  The Haunting for its creepy and relentless bangs and thuds against doors designed to give you headaches-of-the-soul, like a ghost story where the ghosts want to get in on the action. It gives us that fantasy vision world I’ve always wanted where horror monsters and demons really are just around the corner, waiting for us to mess up so they have an opportunity not just to scare us, but to destroy us and to take joy in it. Raimi directs everything with all the tricks in his book, and he delightfully plays around with our expectations for buildup in this kind of film, waiting longer than we expect to give us the scares, or just throwing them at us with gleeful aplomb when we expect buildup, rereading horror to its bare essentials and playing around with editing (the unsung cornerstone of the genre) in the process.

Elsewhere, expect lots of knock-down drag-out fights played for equal parts laughs and scares, and all with a cruel, nerve-wrecking intensity and just enough of a realization that it’s a bit daft, reminiscent of Evil Dead II and almost as good. There’s a hilarious bit of suspense related to a seat-belt, a none-too-subtle mocker at how characters always take so long to start the car in movies like this (lame joke, brilliant execution). Plus, there’s a fight where Raimi very obviously understands that one of the combatants is for-all-intents-and-purposes an old lady. He plays it accordingly.

There’s also a brilliant scene, perfected played, where Lohman finds herself in an open grave filling with water and mud when the corpse within starts to float up to the top to greet her. Raimi directs it with such skill that we can’t tell whether it’s the work of some supernatural force, or just plain bad luck. Perhaps the two are intertwined. Either way, it’s supremely loopy, and it continues the director’s singularly elastic, rubber-handed ability to bring comedy-horror to new heights, not through enhancing the comedy or horror, but through walking an ultra-thin tightrope between them.

The Looney Tunes/slapstick connection long under-the-covers of Raimi’s work is more apparent than ever in this scene, and the implicit connection between the two is also more stimulating and well-understood here. After all, both horror and slapstick deal with boiling primal emotions down to their broadest, most base cores and playing them with pinpoint accuracy. They delight in human misfortune caused by the entrance of the uncanny into the mundane,  and in finding the mundane reacting in very specific ways according to their own world’s logic even as they are thrown into the  world of the uncanny. Both genres thrive on this uncanniness, the tension between exaggeration and the mundane (Looney Tunes galvanized this in their best tune, Duck Amuck, by making the world itself the oppressive, acidic figure acting out its chaos onto a character none-the-wiser). And both genres center the sheer joy of those uncanny figures making the everyday world their eternal victims as they pull-the-strings from behind the scenes, dragging mundane people into their uncanny world with the biggest smile on their face for their own entertainment. Our entertainment is merely acceptable casualties.

To this extent, more than anything, this is an elemental film because it uses the fundamental visual language of horror and comedy and explores what happens when we mash them up with a sort of proud lack of nuance. This is not horror comedy because it has horror and it has comedy; it’s a purer form, where the two are inseparable and exist for the same reason.  It’s a riot, plain and simple, and a delightful film hopped up on its own lurid, giddy, even insurrectionist energy. The laughs come from that special place, where we don’t know whether we’re supposed to laugh but the film is so merciless it doesn’t give us a choice. A true delight.

Score: 9/10

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