No Concessions: To “Hell” and Back with Sam Raimi

Written by Film, Film Reviews, No Concessions

Some horror film directors unnerve us with little ripples of tension that unexpectedly crescendo into waves of terror. Sam Raimi is not one of those horror film directors. Pauline Kael once said that Mel Brooks’ grab-you-by-the-lapels comedy wasn’t necessarily funny; it was the being grabbed by the lapels that made you laugh. So it goes with Raimi: His latest film in the genre, Drag Me to Hell, doesn’t have that much in the way of innovative shocks or surprises, but it’s always head-locking you and screaming “Boo!” in deafening Dolby Digital. “This is fucking stupid,” said the guy in back of me, at a raucous midweek showing. “But it’s kind of fun.”

The Brooks comparison is apt. Young Frankenstein (1974) is one of the very best horror comedies, not that it’s a terribly long list. Raimi doesn’t really make horror comedies, but outside of his killer debut, The Evil Dead (1983), he’s not a straight-up scaremeister, either. I remember the chill of anticipation when I went to see The Evil Dead; Stephen King loved it (back when I hung onto his every word), and it was released unrated, which in itself promised something subversive. I wasn’t disappointed. The infamous “tree rape” sequence was a bit much (his subsequent films have shied away almost entirely from sex—too grownup) but everything else was a satisfyingly scary part of a whole: The funhouse colors, the cranked soundtrack (I can still hear the creepy voices on the tape), and the basic style, a kind of retro-primitive. Plus Bruce Campbell, who came as part of the package (but is not in the new film, having gone from catch-as-catch-can cult star to a steady gig on Burn Notice.)

1987’s Evil Dead II upped the ante. The horror of the same trapped-in-the-cabin situation dissolves into a series of gross-out gags, most of them screamingly funny, as if the Three Stooges had gone to hell and were being prodded with white-hot pitchforks. Not for nothing did Raimi rehire the film’s inventive cinematographer, Peter Deming, for Drag Me to Hell; a lot of Evil Dead II’s mojo comes from its endlessly prowling, pouncing camerawork.

1990’s Darkman was an assured accommodation to the mainstream, a Phantom of the Opera/superhero mash-up that, warts and all, is my sentimental favorite of his films. Then came the bumpy patch: 1993’s all-Campbell, all-the-time Army of Darkness (I love the guy, but the evil dead have to fight the chinned wonder for screen time), and the starry Quick and the Dead (1995), a hyper-Western that’s not as bad as its reputation but suggests a long and frustrating drive round a creative cul-de-sac. He must have thought so, as he chucked the mannerisms and adapted, superbly, A Simple Plan (1998), a simply brilliant thriller, with a greater concern for actors and script than I thought possible. It was the great leap forward, no matter that the two followups, the inexplicable baseball romance For Love of the Game (1999) and the forced psychic thriller The Gift (2000) are footnotes on his resume. (The latter is more subtly atmospheric, not his bag.) He was warming up for the big time.

The three Spider-Man movies follow the same trajectory as the first three Batman pictures, circa 1989-1995. There’s the wildly successful, but wildly uneven, debut, with clear concessions to the suits (how else to explain Macy Gray’s concert performance?). Then the spectacular sequel, where Raimi is more Raimi; a perfect construct, one of those movies which, like Batman Returns, sucks me into it if I happen to catch a glimpse on cable. (When the DVD was being demoed at my neighborhood P.C. Richard & Son, I stood in front of the TV enraptured for close to an hour, movie love/psychosis in full swing.) Followed by the equally spectacular bellyflop of the third installment, a terminal case of rampant “villain-itis” that afflicts franchises that can’t think of anything else to do except pile on the digital destruction. It was if the gypsy curse of Drag Me to Hell had fallen on its director. Raimi has blamed its shortcomings on a case of too many competing agendas, a bad sign for the fourth, which he’s also attached to, along with an Evil Dead reboot.

My crystal ball is cloudy on these return trips. What I see before me is Drag Me to Hell, which has an actual crystal ball somewhere in its occultist set design, and is the cinematic equivalent of roots rock for its creator. With Deming on board, it’s back to basics, which means a lot of being whacked over the head. (The PG-13 rating precludes being whacked over the head with too many body parts, but some nasty dentures, a Niagara of nosebleed, and a stray appendage or two made the cut.) The plot is simple. The aforementioned curse is visited upon a mortgage loan officer, Christine (Alison Lohman), who might have forestalled the gypsy woman’s eviction, but chose not to, so as to clinch a promotion. Thrown into a whirlwind of humiliating supernatural occurrences, Christine has three days to reverse the curse, or be seized by a dreaded lamia and…well, you know the title, which slams onto the screen as Christopher Young’s score wails in anguish.

When other filmmakers purge themselves of a personal disappointment, they adapt Tolstoy, or attempt something spiritual. Sam Raimi makes Drag Me to Hell, which, to be fair, is values-oriented, and joins Steven Soderbergh’s quirky (and unsatisfying) Girlfriend Experience in the vanguard of recession hangover movies. The morality comes from E.C. Comics, and a graphic version of the screenplay could have fit snugly into an issue of Tales from the Crypt or The Vault of Horror. I’ve read reviews praising the film for restoring a sense of shame to the genre (and our floundering culture-at-large), as if most horror, from Poe to Saw, isn’t predicated on payback for giving into our worst impulses. I think even a life strategist like Dr. Phil would agree that Christine’s punishment, meted out by a gypsy so caricatured that Universal Studios should be grateful the caravans haven’t circled its lot in protest, doesn’t fit the crime.

But it fits a log flume ride of a horror movie, one that has some good plunges, notably a crackerjack séance sequence and an exciting gravesite tussle. These are also among the most straightforward sequences in the movie, which is otherwise a series of broad strokes. That’s OK for a paper-thin conceit like the Evil Dead pictures, where Campbell is tossed around like the G.I. Joe I had as a kid, but too manic for a story that takes place in something like the real world, with 9-to-5 jobs. The fourth or fifth time the gypsy’s haunted shawl dances about the screen, or the eighth or ninth time Deming’s camera flings an oral or olfactory sick joke, was I alone in wanting the curse to last just two days? This isn’t one of Raimi’s actor showcases, and Lohman, whose career stalled after the promising White Oleander and Matchstick Men, is left to her own uncertain devices when she isn’t being thrown against walls. She’s not bad, and you empathize with Christine’s trying to better herself, which goes hopelessly wrong—but you have to be Liam Neeson Darkman-good, or Tobey Maguire Spider-Man good, when this director’s muse is elsewhere.

It must have felt good for Raimi to throw off the “great power” of Spider-Man and be irresponsible again. But I bet he wishes he could turn back time, like the evil dead, and fill the theaters with gimmicks, like the buzzer seats and floating skeletons William Castle used to propel The Tingler (below) and House on Haunted Hill in 1959. The lapels- grabbing needs an extra push. 3D is wasted on something like Up, when it should be used on a fucking-stupid-but-kind-of-fun throwback like Drag Me to Hell.

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