Monday, June 08, 2009

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)

The anatomical precision that recent torture-centered films like Eli Roth's Hostel (2005) or James Wan's Saw (2004) diligently indulges in has paved a way for a cinematic culture that equates realistic pain with commercial entertainment. Unlike the stylistic bodily inflictions that the crazed creative minds of renowned horror greats like Dario Argento, John Carpenter or David Cronenberg are known for, the present crop of torture porn flicks has none of the discipline, and none of the refreshing imaginative inflections that provide any semblance of dignity to the exercise in needless violence. With voyeurism and the subsequent delight of witnessing depravity inflicted on character-less human bodies as their primary concerns, the singularity of these films' reason for their existence gets redundant and obsolete.

Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, like Hostel and Saw, puts torture to the fore. The marked difference between Raimi's film and the indisputable junk that Hollywood has been and is still producing is that the recepient of the torture is a complete character with moral choices and suffers as repercussion of these choices, not the empty vessels of the recent torture flicks who only exist because of the available limbs that can be severed, blood that can be spilled, and eyeballs that can be gouched. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), the subject of a wronged gypsy's merciless curse, is a loan officer whose professional career hinges on two things: the pleasure of his boss (David Paymer), and the defeat of her her brash competitor (Reggie Lee). In an effort to please her boss and outdo her officemate, she harshly turns down the pleas of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an elderly gypsy who is asking for an extension to her loan to salvage her home from foreclosure. Her decision to override charity for her selfish ends has drastic results as she becomes the subject of the gypsy's curse that grants her three days of torment and anguish before being dragged into the fiery pits of hell.

Much of Raimi's film is concerned with the suffering Christine has to go through because of the gypsy's curse. Physical pain takes the backseat. The excrutiating pain of having one's limbs slowly mutilated is more imagined than real to most of us. Christine's suffering is much more recognizable: shame, embarrassment, discomfort, and being put in absurd situations where moral pillars are conveniently forgotten in the name of survival or gaining the upper hand. In a sense, Christine's fantastic scenario is hardly unrealistic at all. It partakes of a societal must in this capitalist world we find ourselves trapped in, where Darwin's theory is an inevitable law in a setting of inhumane rules and regulations overtaking the illogical considerations of human generosity and compassion. Yet, Raimi seems disinterested with these implications. Drag Me to Hell aims to only entertain, by pouring a bucketful of misfortunes on a beautiful but not entirely innocent woman of the world.

Drag Me to Hell succeeds because Raimi himself spares Christine not a single ounce of compassion. We root for her precisely because no one else does, and when she exposes a character defect, it doesn't make her less human and less rootable. She's alone and defenseless for the most part and while his ever-enamored boyfriend (Justin Long) provides a semblance of support in her battle against the fantastical and the unbelievable, his romance-fueled assistance proves to be inutile in the long run. Raimi cushions her torture with humor. Most of the violence here is cartoonic, with the physical abuses bearing more resemblance to the harmful escapades of Tom and Jerry rather than the one-sided exploitation of Roth or Wan's torture flicks. The psychological and mental anguish Christine carries for the most part is laced with outright silliness, as in the film's frivolous dinner scene where what Christine thought of as a perfect night turns into a nightmare with eyeballs appearing out of slices of cake and flies escaping out of coughing throats. In fact, Raimi seamlessly integrates humor with horror without sacrificing the efficacy of the well-staged shocks and scares.

Unburdened by the gargantuan task of committing the beloved Spider-man into celluloid, Raimi finally made a film that is reminiscent to the senseless yet hugely enjoyable romps (The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987), and Army of Darkness (1992)) he is most famous for, at least to those who have followed his career even before his involvement with the superhero flicks. Drag Me to Hell is simply loads of fun. It is guiltless in its portrayal of the extreme lengths a woman has to go through for sheer survival. The deliberate extinction of Christine's dignity (she spills blood, gets a healthy dose of formalin on her pretty mug, receives an old gypsy's fist on her mouth, and a whole lot more), the moral tests she both fails (pleading to the demon that her boss is to blame) and passes (where she chooses from the various customers of a local diner who deserve to be dragged into hell more than her), the sight gags, the unsubtle yet largely effective internal drama (Christine's successful battle with her weight), and a whole lot more, make for one of the most engrossing abberations of the year.

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