Monday, June 1, 2009

A Lifeless Drag


by James Hansen

Short on surprises, gags, and inspiration, Drag Me To Hell is shockingly half-hearted and surprisingly stale for the majority of its running time. How, oh how, does a movie that takes utter glee in multiple, if overly repetitive, shock gags seem so mundane? Although fault lies in many places (the vapid screenplay by Sam & Ivan Raimi, uninspired, lifeless performances by Alison Lohman and especially Justin Long, painfully lazy direction outside of the horror sequences), the main problem is that in nearly every facet of production Drag Me To Hell just isn’t committed to its own eccentricities and wild nature.


A long, flat opening is used to introduce Christine (Alison Lohman), a loan officer from a small farm town who is fighting her way towards a promotion, and her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), an upper class university professor whose mother, in an alarmingly hackneyed phone call, which (of course) is taken on speaker phone, disapproves of the farm girl. Things finally get going when Christine returns to work after said phone call where she is met by Mrs. Ganush, an old gypsy who begs for a third extension on her mortgage. Christine, battling for an assistant manager position with an aggressively smarmy new guy named Stu, decides to do what is best for the bank and deny the gypsy. Whoopsie. Christine leaves work and is promptly attacked in her car by Mrs. Ganush who calls upon the curse of the Lamia – a dreaded curse established in the film’s prelude in which invisible creatures torture the victim for three days before (whadda ya know!) dragging them to hell.

Solid as the crazy curse premise may be, there isn’t enough energy to sustain Drag Me To Hell through its own skeletal plot. Slightly reminiscent of the stylistic buzzkill the longest Are You Afraid Of The Dark? episode ever put on film – James Wan’s Dead SilenceDrag Me To Hell’s sensitive sound design gives away the frights before they even happen. Moreover, the should-be fun scenes where spirits drive Christine to madness quickly lose their charm by becoming so re-dundant. This is really a shame because, despite the insistence on fluids spurting from the mouth in every scene (there’s something I never thought I’d complain about), Raimi and Co. have clearly put ten times the thought into the horror sequences than the rest of the film. Whether it’s the battle with Mrs. Ganush in the car, the numerous scenes where Christine is flailed around different rooms, apartments, and houses like a rag doll, a dining room scene with a clear nod to Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, or the finale where the stars have aligned to banish the Lamia (a certain moment with a certain goat is without a doubt the only truly inspired moment in the entire film), Raimi may “return to form” but only sporadically. The quick editing around the gross-out moments, likely done to keep the film at PG-13, keep even the best scenes from being totally successful. Even as an audience member in my screening shouted “This movie is fuckin’ sick!”, all I could think was “Not sick enough.”


What’s most disappointing, especially considering it as Raimi’s return to campy horror, is that the production of Drag Me To Hell seems to have forgotten how the best horror works, campy or not. Although I did think “not sick enough,” that has less to do with specific scenes than with the whole product. Certainly, there is enough vomit, blood, and general craziness for plenty of people to flip their shit, as it were. But, unlike the best horror, Drag Me To Hell, perhaps signified by the egregious phone call from mother, feels totally phoned in. The performances, save Lohman in the last 20 minutes, are on autopilot, as is the majority of Raimi’s direction. What makes the holy trinity of purposefully campy horror (Evil Dead, Dead Alive, and Cabin Fever) so great is that each vaguely nuanced performance and every overblown effect is sold on the film – whether it’s burning a Book of the Dead, running a lawnmower over hundreds of zombies, or a kid doing karate in front of an old country store screaming “Pancakes!” Much as I hoped for (hell, expected) that kind of investment from Drag Me To Hell, all I got was a mostly lifeless, half-hearted venture. Drag Me To Hell isn’t dead exactly…it’s just sort of rotting.

16 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks, James.

After hearing every other critic hit the heights of ecstasy over this Drag, I thought I had lost my critical mojo.

Except for the great third act, I really wasn't into this movie, and it took forever to get to the good part. As I said in my own review, it simply seemed like I had outgrown Raimi's sensibility.

MovieMan0283 said...

James, you've been tagged:

http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2009/05/reading-movies.html

Brandon Colvin said...

James, when you post the thing for MovieMan, I want to be included.

James Hansen said...

Thank you, Tony. I saw your review shortly before I saw the film, but thought "Hey! I AM in the right mood for this!" Alas, no such luck. Not because I wasn't in the mood, but because it just wasn't convincing and didn't sell itself to me. I agree about taking forever...I was amazed by how bored I was by a movie about a crazy gypsy curse with frequent horror-ish scenes. I think the mainstream critical community is just thrilled to see something not "torture porn" and it has a name attached to it, so they want to dub things like "horror is back!" and "return to form!" Must not remember what the first form looked like, if you ask me.

MovieMan- Glad to see ya round these parts! Thanks for the tag. I'm on the case!

James Hansen said...

Brandon- No prob.

Sean said...

While I definitely don't think Raimi lived up to The Evil Dead, I do think that this movie was exquisite. It felt campy enough for me, it felt horror enough for me, it felt Raimi enough for me to enjoy it. Perhaps like you said, we have just gotten to used to torture porn type movies that when I finally see a horror film that goes back to that awesome campy feel of Jackson and Raimi, I am stoked and thoroughly happy. Personally, I would have given the movie a B...possibly a B+.

James Hansen said...

Sean- Thanks for the comment. I just didn't get the same "feel" in it as I get with the others I mentioned in the review. Where they go all the way, this seems half hearted to me. I also happen to like horror in any form (including "torture porn") so going back to one style over another isn't any nostalgiacly awesome thing for me, esp. since CABIN FEVER came around a few years ago and was so much better. All the same, I'm glad this is finding fans, as the more styles of horror that are around the better. It ensures people aren't forgetting all the different things horror can be.

Sam Juliano said...

Well James, I must say "au contraire." This is one of the very few instances in the past ten years where a horror film has clicked on all cylinders. I have trashed one after the other, with the exception of the Australian film THE DESCENT. The spectacular reviews the film has received are well-earned methinks. Nonetheless, your review is superbly written and reasoned and at the end of the day that's what really counts the most.

Sam Juliano said...

And Alison Lohman's performasnce is far from lifeless, as even the film's few detractors have conceeded. You couldn't get or expect a more polished performance from a young actress in that kind of role. The film isn't remotely short on "inspiration" or "surprises" either. But I'll stop there as you James are a very good and efferevescent person and a respected film scholar. The last thing I want to do is overstay my welcome here.

James Hansen said...

Sam- Effervescent? Respected? I'm flattered! You'll never wear out your welcome saying stuff like that, but even more importantly you certainly won't for voicing a [nice, smart] dissenting opinion. I'll defend my own opinion, or clarify rather, but I don't really get defensive about disagreement, unless its an annoying anonymous commenter (guess I'm asking for it now).

Anyways, what was it that you found surprising and inspired about it? I'm interested to hear specifics as to what/when you saw that. For me, everything just fell short. After the first attack, all we got was more vomit and blood...knew when it was going to happen, how it was going to happen, and weren't surprised when it did. That is why the goat bit, I think, is the only really inspired moment. Shit was fresh. I wanted that feeling in the rest of the film and I didn't get it.

I think if I saw the film again I may retract the lifeless comment in regard to Lohman's performance. Remember, I did say I think she got it at the end. I just didn't see it before then, but that could have been because she was stuck right next to Long who was so god awful. I haven't minded him in other movies he has been in, but I really thought he was stale and just not into it at all. Really brought everything down for me.

So...yeah...thanks for the comments, Sam! Always welcome...dissenting or otherwise...or both in this case! :)

Jessica said...

I'm with you on this one, James. I was bored through the majority of the movie. The few shock moments were totally predictable. The characters were stale, as were the performances. And maybe when you're going for campy you like the cliched crazy gypsy woman curse idea, but I was not impressed. I think I'm leaning towards a 2-star rating on Netflix at this point.

Sam Juliano said...

Hey James! I stand by my effusive praise for you and your site, and I'm very happy to be part of it.

Well, I guess at the end of the day it's a matter of taste and perception with this one. As you are I'm sure well-aware, the professional critics went bonkers over this film and the numbers are frankly staggering, especially for a contemporary horror film, which usually isn't given the right time of daay. Excellent critics like the U.K.'s Phillip French, Time Out's David Fear, Stephanie Zaharek, David Edelstein and the back-up scribes at the NEW YORK TIMES and VILLAGE VOICE have lined up to issue effusive praise for Raimi and the film. A slew of 100's at MC, and a 94% rating at RT with the stunning composite of 144 to 11 with an 8.4 have made even people who dismiss these sites raise their eyebrows in amazement. In fact James, your site here is the only one I've come across after aggressive surfing the last few days where there are any negative comments.

Yet, at the end of the day what does that all mean? Nothing, absolutely nothing. I hated LOST IN TRANSLATION, but I was seemingly alone, and I faced the music from friends and bloggers. there are so many more instances where I parted company,(I disliked GOMORRAH this year for example) as you and your insightful commenters have here.

I bring it up to you only to point out that a vast majority of the people have seen much to revel in here. I am NOT a contemporary horror lover and I regularly trash and dismiss all entries in this time-worn formulaic genre. However I found this film vibrant, visceral, refresingly tongue-in-cheek, splendidly orchestrated and well acted. It was revolting, yet witty, uncompromising in its plot turns,and a real lot of fun. It's probably Raimi's best film, and it's deliriously and deliciously caustic and entertaining. All the right buttons are pushed.

But hey, what's one person's joy is another's misery. And who knows: I may like it less on second viewing, and you may like it more on your sophomore take. Nothing's certain, and everything's transient.

James Hansen said...

Sam- Thanks again for the comments. I know this isn't what you're trying to imply, but, for the record, I saw this film opening day unaware of the crazy critical praise. (Cross my heart, this isn't some contrarian review railing against the critical establishment! We don't play those games here. We'll leave that to Armond White). The only reviews I had read was Nathan Lee's positive (if slightly mixed) review for NPR, Mike D'Angelos very positive Twitter post, and Tony Dayoub's slightly negative review. Nathan is a friend who I almost always agree with, which honestly made me surprised by my own reaction. I then saw all the praise across the board for it which surprised me even more. No dissent on this? Come on! I'm glad, at the very least, to thrown my critical voice in the bag even if I'm in a very small minority who aren't buying this.

All the same, I'm glad people are supporting "horror" again, even if I think its a little redundant and not as sharp as everyone else thinks. Doesn't mean much at the end of the day, as you mention, but the more different voices out there the better. I'm glad to be one of them! Now bring on the vitriol!

:)

Sam Juliano said...

We don't play those games here. We'll leave that to Armond White).

LOL!!!!! Now THERE is a character James! A charletan down the line! Your explanation and sincerity are unquestioned by me and surely all who come to this thread. As I say, I judged this film on a single viewing, I may be less impressed on a second viewing. But as of the last week, the one I'm really tauting is Pixar's UP. I'd be most interested in reading your review.

Jeff McMahon said...

I don't understand what movie so many of you saw.

Sean said...

Jeff- I don't think I follow you. We have around 3 or four people here who disliked the film and then 2 or so of us here that rather enjoyed the film. Are you literally unaware of the movie or are you implying that some of us here are crazy because we didn't come to the same conclusion as you? You're opinion would have helped to clarify but you didn't leave one.