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SXSW Review: Drag Me To Hell

March 18, 2009

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Alison Lohman stars in Drag Me to Hell. (Photo courtesy of SXSW)

Everyone knows you don’t mess with the gypsies.

Lucky for us, Sam Raimi has done just that in his directorial return to the genre we love him for with Drag Me To Hell. At a work-in-progress screening at South by Southwest Film Festival, Raimi introduced the film to an audience of 1,200 and one bat that chose to fly past the screen in a throwback to William Castle style (even if unintentional it did make the crowd roar with laughter).

And no, Bruce Campbell is not in it, so wait around until the future Evil Dead IV for that hope.

Instead we are greeted by Alison Lohman who plays Christine, a loan officer dreaming of an assistant manager position, whom chooses poorly when declining an old woman’s pleas for help and learns her lesson after being given the gift of an old gypsy curse. With only days to break it, she fights back with help from a psychic and her boyfriend, played by Justin Long. The tension is whether she will survive either by saving herself, redemption, or being saved by Long.

The film plays well as a Miltonesque allegory in light of the current financial crisis we find ourselves and the ongoing saga of banks clawing their way back up from near death.

Oh and there is a possessed goat.

Because doesn’t there need to be?

Since Evil Dead in 1981, Raimi has evolved into bigger budgets and the 2000’s have found him primarily caught up in a spider web. But upon his return to the genre of which he whet his teeth as a director, Raimi has claimed his formidable reign on the pinnacle of what shlocky, over-the-top horror means. Not that he has really been that far away from the genre what with producing films such as Grudge and Boogeyman 2. (which probably is not the highlights of anyone’ producing career)

Raimi is also careful to nod to genre fans with elements of his work and the obvious supernatural aspect of the gypsy culture that has been often shown before. The obvious comparison to films such as Thinner is acknowledged when the daughter of the old gypsy asks Lohman’s character if she used to be fat. (In fact the main character’s name also nods to Stephen King whether intended or not – both Thinner and Christine are classic King horror novels). And when the forces of hell begin to creep towards our title character, an obvious link to Ghost, another bank employee goes to hell kind of story, must be acknowledged due to a similar shadow effect.

Raimi always has a way with interesting shots (think motorcycle shot in Evil Dead) and Drag Me to Hell is no different. What captured my attention was the parallel imagery between one of the first scenes and the final shot when seer Shaun Se Dena (played by Adriana Barraza) and boyfriend Clay (Long) witness a very similar horror. Rather than cutting to the next scene we cut from the horror (let’s just say it has something to do with the title) to the face, with a heavy focus on the eyes of their two characters. The effect is jarring.

The two characters are called to witness in this film, which made me interested in what the connection is between them. What is in their characters that serves them as witnesses?

Long’s character has thrown off his elitist robes by embracing the less than glamorous life of a professor, falling for the former farmer girl despite his mother’s dislike of her, to the point of wanting to marry her. Barraza’s character we know little about other than she is selfless in attempting to help others and that she has special gifts that allow her to try to heal others when conflicted.

And then it dawns on you, the two are the witness that must carry on the torch, connect the tales of the gypsy curse – much like a certain book used to connect former Raimi spirits. Could we see a sequel with Long as the connecting link? Hmm… Despite initial misgivings about Long, his performance as the innocent witness is fairly subtle for a film full of playful over-the-top antics.

The title itself also plays with you. Drag me to Hell implies an implicit allowance to be taken down (hey what’s up drag me to hell anytime, or is it I will fight the hell out of you if you try to drag me to hell?) – an intermingling of fate and personal choice combining.  It is seemingly brilliant the way Raimi toys with the idea of choice and fate colliding into one.Was Lohman meant to be the one at the bank to help the gypsy and therefore is cursed by fate or is it completely because of her choice? Later scenes would indicate that she was chosen rather than doing the choosing. It reminds me of the old Choose Your Own Adventure tales where if you chose one path you usually ended up dead but if you were careful and made the right choice you would get to the end of the book.

Overall Drag Me to Hell is a delightful, funny, and yet somehow terrifying look at the paths our choices can lead us. A delightful play on old and new horror techniques, Raimi’s confident, playful style emerges supreme. Is it the best horror movie ever made? No. Is it one of the best Raimi films ever made? Eh, maybe one of the better.

Oh and check out the woodcuts in the opening sequence – some pretty great graphics that while they quickly flash by actually give a great nod to allegorical works.

Release date for now is set for May 29. The question now is whether the PG-13 or R rating will be what makes the final cut. From the WIP, the film appears pretty set as a likely PG-13 with some minor graphic and CGI work yet to be done.

Check out the trailer and tell me what you think:

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